Standing up to be counted

I woke up later than usual that day. Sleeping in the darkest hours of the night can take a toll on your mind and body. I knew I’d miss the first lecture. It really tore me up, because I knew that small actions like missing one class here and there would snowball into a big, messy affair on examination day. I chose the type of clothes you’d wear if you knew that nothing out of the ordinary was going to happen that day. My feet snuggled into my old, brown shoes that have been with me through thick and thin. Little did we know that we’d go through in a few hours.

I walk to and from school. Every day. My roommates and I estimate it to be a distance of about three to four kilometres, meaning that I rack up at least 6 kms of walking exercise every day. I have become lean as a result. The only complaint I have is that my shoes usually end up gathering a lot of dust, and the one thing I absolutely detest is walking around in dusty shoes. I carry a brush in my bag, knowing full well how that reeks of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). But I won’t have it. No dust on my shoes please!

I found campus leaders and fifth year medical schools addressing our class, exhorting us to join their cause and march to Afya house in a peaceful demonstration to claim ‘our rights’. The speakers had fiery rhetoric that quickly heightened emotions in our lecture theater, though the words did not strike a chord in my heart. I am a seasoned, old dog and know almost all the tricks in the book. In my mind, I was stripping all the emotion and sorting through the facts, and calculating the risks involved.

Their argument made a lot of sense. If we allowed a precedence to be set now, then we were the ones to suffer when our turn came to work as interns. The only question that was left unanswered in my mind was whether I was willing to absorb the risks involved. It was to be a peaceful demonstration, but you never know what might happen. Some would call it cowardice to shy away from fighting for your rights. However, it takes a disdain for life itself to go flirting around with men and women brandishing guns and batons. There were simply too many variables involved. The whole thing smelled to the high heavens. I could already picture bullets piercing my chest, and years of training painted a nasty picture of the bullet disrupting tissue, puncturing my lungs and heart before lodging itself in bone. It didn’t help that most movies and series have the most vivid descriptions of death I have ever witnessed (and that is saying something).

However, that was the worst case scenario and I couldn’t let that cloud my judgment. This was important, and running away to hide in the library or going back home would only serve to haunt my conscience for a long time to come. And this was a ‘mob’ of intellectual people, who would definitely follow the dictates of their own conscience. It would not serve all of us any good to run away and hide when an injustice was being done to all of us. We had to stick together and refuse to be treated as doormats. It has always irked me that there are some who want to free riders, enjoying the fruits that have been won through the hard work and sacrifice of others, simply because they did not want to put themselves in harm’s way. The excuses they will give are many, ranging from “it’s not in my nature” to “it’s not my problem”. We see it all the time, even in society as a whole. Especially in the middle class. We are happy to sit at home and watch the “others” fight for our rights to freedom, life, security and information. I did not want to belong to that group, as appealing as the thought of going home and catching up on sleep sounded.

So with my heart near my mouth, I joined my friends and people I’ve never met before. We marched down a busy road, halting traffic, shouting (or rather attempting to shout) and waving placards in the air. When the media showed up, a few ‘disappeared’, not wanting to be seen by their folks back home, or their future employers. Since the whole country is in a media blackout, I didn’t think that to be very likely. People accustomed to reading books for hours on end do not make for very good demonstrators. I had the crazy thought of suggesting to the leaders to hand out psychedelic agents next time, but I hid that thought deep in the recesses of my brain!

I got jittery and scared when I saw police cars and land rovers surrounding us. I almost ran away when one of the guards at the gate leading to Afya House (The ministry of health office headquarters) hit one of the leaders on the head with a baton. Things were about to run out of control, but luckily common sense prevailed. We did not take the bait (violence on our part would give them the license to strike us down without mercy) and were able to keep calm. I left a few minutes later, after someone high in the food chain at the ministry came down to address us. I had started showing signs of paranoia, and I really did not want to end up in a police cell, with no credit on my phone to call someone to bail me out. I shouldn’t have caved in to my fear. Nothing untoward happened. I later heard that all our demands were met. We had averted a disaster.

The next time the call is sounded, I will analyse the options first (as usual), and if there is any merit in what is being proposed, I shall stand up again and be counted. I’m glad I stood up this time, even if I didn’t last till the end. Don’t hide behind your screen. Don’t hide in the library. Don’t be a free rider. We’ll all suffer if you do. Stand up to be counted!