I keep my capacity for disgust

Fri, 18 Mar 2016 Source: Elizabeth Ohene

I still remember the first time I went into a refugee camp. I recall that I was an emotional wreck and I remember that I was reduced to tears. A few years later, and many refugee camps around the African continent later, I had learnt how to walk through the most depressing camps and keep my emotions firmly in control.

The lesson I learnt then was that nothing was too gruesome for the human mind to get used to. When you have reported on a few bomb sites and seen bits of human flesh scattered across the most incongruous areas, the lesson is brought home even more keenly that the most shocking thing can become normal after a while.

You only need to experience it a few times. After a while you would have to be very careful to make a deliberate effort not to lose your sensibilities. Otherwise before you know it, you discover that you are getting used to things, you shouldn’t get used to. Before you know it, you lose your capacity for disgust.

And it is not only gory and bloody practical things that you shouldn’t get used to. I notice that people now tend to yawn when there is a new report by the Auditor General. People’s eyes glaze over when the catalogue of financial malpractices is made public.

So what is new, I hear people ask, it is the same things that happen year in, year out. You get shocked the first time you hear about an official putting public money into his personal account. You are scandalised the first time you hear about officials inflating the cost of contracts.

After the third or fourth time, I notice that when a new scandal hits the headlines, the public’s attention span devoted to the story is reduced dramatically. Indeed, it appears what people find shocking is not the thievery in itself, it is the amount.

We have reached the stage where the amount has to be in the millions of Ghana cedis or millions of dollars to get anybody’s attention. And so we have arguments about whether the cost of a particular contract has been inflated by $71 million or by $141 million or by GH¢7 million. People have allowed themselves to become so desensitised to the stealing of public funds that it has to be a spectacular figure to get their attention.

In much the same way, people seem to think that it is only when the rubbish hasn’t been collected for weeks that we should be outraged. I operate on the basis of the one broken window police theory. In other words, I am outraged by one plastic bag thrown on my lawn and I do not wait for it to become a rubbish tip before I get agitated.


I am not quite sure if it is simply because people have lost the capacity to be disgusted and have got used to things they shouldn’t get used to, but it is curious the range of excuses that we find for everything. A favourite excuse that is wheeled out these days to cover any and everything is “To err is human”.

Someone inflates the cost of a contract from $3 million to $9 million and his explanation is “to err is human”; and that is it, end of story; someone produces a brochure full of gibberish for our Independence anniversary celebrations, and we are told to accept it because, “to err is human”.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with erring, and indeed it is human to err, but if you lose the capacity to be outraged and to be disgusted, you will go on erring and you would soon consider the erring as the normal. Before long, you might not even think of the mistake as something wrong because your senses have been dulled and you have lost your capacity for disgust.

The refugee camp no longer shocks you; you begin to think it is normal for human beings to be stripped of all dignity.

If you suggest that what appeared in the Independence anniversary brochure was what we call in the trade, “printer’s devil”, you want to dull your senses and get used to things you shouldn’t get used to.

I was willing to accept that H.E. Uhuru Kenyatta coming in the brochure as the President of Ghana was the result of some shoddy “cut and paste” gone wrong, but when the fourth item on the programme is the “Arrival of His Excellence the former president John Dramani Mahama (with traditional ensemble)”, then it has nothing to do with “cut and paste” gone wrong.

I am minded to think that those who say the brochure disaster was a deliberate attempt at sabotage probably know something the rest of us don’t. By the way the name of former President John Agyekum Kufuor was spelt wrongly in the brochure.

Errors and more errors

Once such things are tolerated in official documents, it becomes like an epidemic and people no longer see the need to be careful with what they put out. I have seen on social media screen photos of chocolate wrappers made with photos of the First Lady, where her name is spelt wrongly as “Lordina Mahaha”.

I have seen photos of posters advertising President John Mahama with his name John spelt wrongly as JOHH. It is when we are ready to accept such sloppiness under the guise of “to err is human” that we open the gates for the big and dramatic “mistakes”. That is how $3million becomes $9million.

Maybe a current story from Bangladesh is worth noting here. Hackers got into the computers of the Central Bank and were transferring money into fake NGO accounts they had set up. The alarm was raised and the fraud detected when someone at Deutsche Bank noticed that the word Foundation was spelt FANDATION in the request for the transfer. That stopped the transaction; a spelling mistake. The group was able to steal $81 million dollars, but Bangladesh was saved the transfer of a further $851 million dollars because of a spelling mistake.

Spelling mistakes matter

Those who think spelling mistakes are not a big deal, might want to think again.

It is probably worth pointing out that the quote “to err is human”, is part of a sentence from Alexander Pope’s famous essay on criticism and the full sentence reads, “to err is human, to forgive divine”. I doubt the first part of this saying was intended to cover all human failings and deliberate mistakes.

Maybe I might point out that in the same poem, there is the couplet: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep or taste not from the Pierian spring”.

If we tolerate one plastic bag on the lawn in front of the Flagstaff House, we shall soon have a rubbish tip there and nobody will be shocked. As for me, I want it known that it does not matter how many scandals are thrown at us, I refuse to become used to things I shouldn’t get used to. I intend to keep intact my capacity for disgust at disgusting things.

Columnist: Elizabeth Ohene