“I awakened from a nightmare…where the world used up all its words like natural resources…” Of Sadness by E. Stanley Richardson

Words, like art, are filled with multiple meanings – impacting, influencing even inciting…. On February 13th the Ethiopian Parliament approved a bill on hate speech causing quite a stir here and abroad. The new law is said to ‘prohibit the dissemination of fake news on electronic, print or social media using text, image, audio and video that incite violence, promote hatred and discrimination against a person or a group.’ As a jurist and writer I am prone to pause and reflect on the old adage, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ But what does one do when words are indeed the source and vehicle of division of hate and of harm to ones’ life and livelihood? Is it really the words or is it who and how the words are used? Such simple and even elementary questions will be deliberated when such cases appear in Ethiopian courts in the near future. After all if ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ then the need to protect the population from harmful use of words is clearly the inspiration. I am sure we would all agree to this sentiment. We even teach our children about appropriate words from the day they began to speak.
The new law, like everything else in Ethiopia and Africa for that matter, well… we’ll figure it out. We must figure it out. My concern is less about the law and more about the wordsmiths/authors and the responsibility and relationship we have with words. I have poet laureate, African American E. Stanley Richardson to thank for the topic today. Richardson is the State of Florida, Alachua County’s first poet laureate; an honor meant to educate the community about writing amidst addressing social issues. His poem “Of Sadness”, made me think deeper about words which he likens to natural resources.

Of Sadness
by E. Stanley Richardson
Moments ago
I awakened from
A nightmare of
A dream
Where the world
Used up all its
natural resources
the people
no longer
I think of the voiceless whose words will never be heard if not for authors or artists expressing on their behalf, unbeknownst to them. I think of the words or images that provoke a brother to burn his neighbors’ business and home. I think of the words that need to be said though painful as the “truth may be an offence but not a sin.” I think of the words, like natural resources that should be used wisely and with a clear sense of responsibility and foreseeability. Most of all I think of the wordsmiths who should never be limited but always responsible and ready to pay the price for the precious right to express oneself freely, as in some countries that is just not the case.
Words are precious and for those who subscribe to the scriptures, we are taught the very world exists because of the word, eg. ‘the Most High SAID, let there be light and there was light…’ I love words and the ability to write and read. I do realize that words are not a natural resource and are indeed unlimited, powerful and poignant. However, like natural resources we have a responsibility to care for our words and the way in which we use them. This does not mean limiting ones words on a particular matter. Instead it means that we have a duty to use words responsibly, all things considered, just as we must be accountable for our role and impact on our natural resources. Consciousness and consideration are key and hopefully we will find a way to use our words to reconcile and build as we provoke thought and dialogue, ousting the need for legislation that leads to slippery slopes.

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.