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Love is the loser on Valentine’s Day

So, did you have a good Valentine’s Day? Did your loved one deliver the goods? Were the roses red enough, and was the candlelight soft enough? Did the presents bestowed on you show taste and discernment (and an acceptably hefty price tag)? And oh, before we forget – did you feel the love?

But we’ll come to the love part later. First, let’s focus on the most important part of Valentine’s Day – the commerce. Marketers would now regard Kenya (or at least Nairobi) as a fast-maturing Valentine market. Which means that the pump has been primed sufficiently, and the golden coins are now coming pouring out. This year was certainly a bonanza in Valentine terms: all the canny operators in the market made a killing. In fact Valentine’s Day is a boom time of year for many, many merchants – more than you might think. Flower sellers, chocolate vendors, card and gift shops, restaurants – of course. But don’t forget newspapers and radio stations, who milk all the advertising; mobile-phone companies, who deliver all the SMS messages; cinemas, whose mushy romantic reruns play to packed houses; and women’s boutiques, who do a roaring trade in slinky gowns and frilly lingerie.

Kenyan flower firms all enjoy a ‘needle peak’ in their annual sales graphs on February 14 – not because of the thin-walleted Kenyan customer, who only warrants the export ‘seconds’ – but because of the fact that demand in the Valentine-mad UK and European market goes through the roof. And it isn’t just sales volumes that are so wonderful; in the words of a wit in India’s Outlook magazine, goods sold as part of Valentine madness often command profit margins once available only to organised crime! If you looked at the prices of roses or chocolates on February 14, you will have seen that this phenomenon is widespread in Nairobi, too.

And so, now that we are a Valentine-ready society, we can look forward to a mid-February fillip for the economy every year. What’s wrong with that? Just capitalism at its very best, is it not? Surely only a cynical curmudgeon like me would begrudge an economic ‘boomlet’ fuelled by the passionate fires of love? No losers, only winners?

The loser, actually, is love itself. If I believed that Valentine’s Day is merely a spontaneous expression of young and fervent love, I would be all for it. But it is not. It is one of the most vivid examples of spending created not by a genuine human emotion, but by extremely powerful brainwashing. Who does this indoctrination? There is no conspiracy afoot, no committee of marketing master brains who sit down and plot the whole thing. No, the Valentine global marketing machine is made up of disparate little components, manufacturers, retailers, and advertisers all united in a common purpose: to part the fool from his money.

The pressure on the young (and increasingly, the middle-aged who ought to know better) is intense. Pulsing hormones are expertly manipulated by the market to produce a resounding bell at the cash register. Your loved one, who has absorbed all the advertising and heard what everyone else has planned, expects and expects big! And the pressure only mounts over time. Every year, the anxiety is to outdo the excesses of last year, to outshine the spectacular stories told by friends, to deliver a truly ‘out-of-the-box’ Valentine’s Day to your lover.

And so you will see young men and women sitting down and planning a special day that will outdo all previous ones. You will see them stretch their budgets with every new marketing message received. You will see the ugly flash of envy in their eyes when they hear of what their friends received. And you will see the disappointment cloud their faces when their roses were not long-stemmed, the chocolates were not Belgian, and the restaurant was not five-star. Artificial wants lead to artificial inadequacies.

This is love commodified. It is love reduced to trinkets and baubles. It is love abridged to a single peak experience. It is ‘me-too’ love. This cheapening of love is the most worrying part of the Valentine Day phenomenon. The thing called love does not deserve to be traded in tawdry bazaars. For love is part of our very being, our very essence. Benjamin Disraeli, a visionary British Prime Minister of the 19th century, put it thus: “We are all born for love. It is the principle of existence, and its only end.”

If we think deeply about our lives, we know this to be true. Press the fast-forward button, and go to the end of your life. When you are lying on your deathbed, and looking back on an eventful life, what are the things you will remember? Will it be the great O-level results, the job promotions, the big business deals, the money entering the bank account? No. Will it even be the ‘big days’: the wedding, the birth of your children? Perhaps. More likely it will be the little memories: the moments of tenderness, the days in which you forgave someone a transgression, the acts of kindness done to you by strangers. It will be the things that you did and that were done to you, in the true spirit of love, which will stand out. They will be the true milestones of a life well lived.

Valentine’s Day is a non-event in this unfolding lifetime of love. For Rilke, the Austrian poet and mystic, love was the most important undertaking of our lives: “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

By focusing our energies (and wallets) on a single day in the year, we undermine this task. We tell ourselves that we have demonstrated love, for all to see. But love is a quiet kindness stretched out over a lifetime. It is the ability to care for someone endlessly, not sporadically. It is a habit, not an event.

In Kenya, the development of Valentine’s Day as an economic event has a different poignancy. Every day, we rail in righteous anger at the profligacy of our leaders, the thoughtless way in which they burn money on frivolous activities. The greatest outcry came when the government announced last year that it was going to spend Sh 100 million in celebrating our 40th Jamhuri Day. Pomp and pageantry in a country of entrenched poverty? How foolish. How unacceptable. How typical of our leaders.

Hmm. Here’s a quick piece of arithmetic. If only 100,000 Kenyans spent just Sh 1,000 each on Valentine’s Day last week, we will have matched that Sh 100 million figure, and we will have spent it on chocolates, flowers and trifles. Had the government done this, our outrage would have been unprecedented. But because on Valentine’s Day we spend our own money, and do so in the name of love, well, that’s just fine then!

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