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Why do we only want to look good for others?

When I was a boy, my mother had a particular dinner set of crockery and cutlery that was “for guests only.” This expensive set would only be brought out when special guests were invited home for dinner. Our regular set was a much more ordinary affair. And every other household I knew had exactly this dual system.

Once I even encountered an entire sitting room that was kept spick-and-span and used exclusively for guests, while the family generally hung out in a shabby TV room.

I was reminded of this when I saw the preparations Dar es Salaam was making last week for the visit of US president Barack Obama. The city embarked on a massive cleanup exercise: the streets were washed; roads were closed off; hawkers were chased out of the central business district; buildings and roads were painted.

Other neighbouring cities do the same whenever some bigwig visits. And I was left wondering whether the real cost of Obama not visiting his Kenyan fatherland was that Nairobi missed out on massive road repairs and sprucing up of the capital.

Why do we do this? The Dar that the big visitor saw was not the true Dar at all. Everyday Dar is a place of hustle and bustle, of colourful hawkers, huge traffic jams, noise and commotion. And yes, it is dirty. So what is gained by showing visitors an illusion, an artificial world of special effects?

Why can’t we actually save the best for ourselves, as well as our visitors? The obvious answer is: because that stuff is expensive. We’re not rich enough to use the best bone china in our homes every day and to maintain orderly cities all the time. So we save it all for the visitors.

This is a value system gone awry, where the image is more important than the substance. If we are poor and disorderly, so be it: let everyone know that. Let us display our true face to the world, not our made-up one. Then, we will be forced to change ourselves for the better.

What the artifice does is prevent us from working to better ourselves. If we can get away with clean streets and orderly traffic for just a few days at a time, why bother to do the hard work of keeping things neat and shipshape all the time? Let’s just show people a movie with fake scenes and actors when they come visiting.

Consider Nairobi: if we could have cleaned up the city in just a few days flat if Obama was coming, what stops us from doing the same if he isn’t? What is the point of living for the approval of others? We should value our own sanitation and comfort, not wait for the applause of others. What does it say about our leaders when they can find the money and the effort to do what’s needed for outsiders, but not for their own people?

This duality is everywhere. People save their best outfits for when other people might be looking at them, but live in shabby grunge at home. They sing hymns in church with their families for public consumption on Sundays, while engaging in frauds and philandering the rest of the week. The world expects you to put up a show, and so you do.

A question: do you think the people you are trying to impress don’t see through you? Does Obama not know what the real Africa is like? And would Washington DC be tarted up for a visit from an African head of state?

It keep us hopeless, this emphasis on image over substance. It keeps us engaged in shop-windows and showmanship, rather than facing facts and rolling up our sleeves. Whatever is worth doing for the world is also worth doing for ourselves.

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