African culture is endowed with many positive qualities that one hopes will survive the powerful influence of American culture as it steadily conquers the world.

African social interactions, especially our love of neighbour and our respect for the elders, are but a few of these humanistic cultures that we must protect and promote on the continent and throughout the global community of Africans.

On the other hand there are a number of African cultures that are a curse. One curse is the culture of envy that, in my view, is a major obstacle to progress.

We are so envious of other people’s success that we are willing to undermine something that might have otherwise benefited us all. The working Mantra is “Ffena Tufilwe” (better that we all lose.)

We place great stock in dignifying mediocrity and vilifying success and individual progress.

Of course wealth obtained through corruption must be condemned and retrieved from the thieves. However, the assumption that all wealth comes from thievery undermines the efforts of many African entrepreneurs and those with frugal discipline in managing their finances.

Our love of mediocrity compels us to censure hardworking people who appear to be better off than us and to commiserate with those who fail to seize opportunity when she presents herself.

Better that we all remain in the economic and social wilderness than see some of our compatriots graduate into the ranks of the affluent and successful.

When a person builds a dream home in the upscale neighbourhoods of our cities, our reflex reaction is to declare him a thief. If we cannot pin a charge of corruption on him, then he must have received favours from the rich and powerful.

If all these explanations fail, we pound our fists into the ground and say earnest prayers for his downfall.

We are so resolute in our guard against anyone else getting ahead or, worse still, enjoying the fruits of her success that we must find reasons to bring her down.

We are a society of perpetual sibling rivalry, unable to see good in other people’s achievements, and forever searching for that one sliver of hope that disaster will soon strike those whose good fortune –real or imagined – is a source of our sleeplessness.

And how we rejoice when adversity hits those we deem to have been favoured by fate! When we hear news of a marriage breakdown, the collapse of a business enterprise or the academic misfortune of so-and-so’s child, we transmit the news to all and sundry with barely disguised glee.

“Man, have you heard?” we begin the gossip with a solemn face whose faint smile betrays the joy bubbling in our hearts.

What follows is an exchange of gossip that gains tempo as the five seconds of sympathy mutates into a prolonged orgy of slanderous “explanations” why the mighty subject of our gossip has fallen down to where we always wanted her.

To be sure this culture where human nature finds shameful comfort and joy in reducing the mighty to ordinary size is a universal condition. The English call it the Tall Poppy Syndrome, a condition where one nurtures the plant until it grows higher than the others, and then lops off its head.
However, we Africans seem to have a particularly severe case of the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Why, we are not even satisfied once the mighty have fallen to where we want them.

We proceed to taunt them as failures, perhaps the whole sordid business providing us with a means of assuaging our feelings of inadequacy.

Indeed ours may be the Midget Poppy Syndrome, where we do everything we can to ensure that the poppy does not bloom at all, not even so that we can lop off its head! To us envy is a virtue. Success is a sin.

One suspects that this is rooted in our slave and colonial culture, where the enslaved workers on the plantations resented fellow slaves who worked as domestic servants.

Chroniclers of life on the Southern plantations of the United States tell us that few slaves ever rejoiced at the sight of one of them being freed from their chains and shackles.

So from slave to modern African, we seem to abhor a fellow African’s success and good fortune.

Try it out among company one of these days. Express your admiration for a successful fellow countryman. More often than not, the knives will come out to cut him down to size.

I generalize of course. There are many who do not suffer from this syndrome. However, there are enough people afflicted that we need to confront them and help them transcend this retrogressive culture that favours mediocrity, abhors success and is suspicious of progress.

It is a culture that has deprived many of the necessary drive and ambition that has propelled individuals and societies elsewhere towards economic and professional success .
It is a culture that encourages us to accept our changeable station in life and to surrender ourselves to fate.

The attitude of “Ruhanga eky’arakunde!” (Whatever God wills,) forces many of us to fail to rise to the challenges of the Mount Kilimanjaros that lie in the path of professional and economic fulfillment.

One hopes we can learn from societies whose culture abhors the Tall Poppy Syndrome. For example, the financial success of the international Jewish community is, to a large extent, a by-product of their culture of cooperation and support for one another.
Similarly, many non-African immigrant communities in North America are thriving partly because their members pull each other up, literally bending over backwards to ensure the success of their kith and kin.

My message to the African youth of today is that they must refuse to give in to a culture that dignifies mediocrity. They must never shy away from celebrating achievement and progress of humanity – especially of fellow Africans.


One Response to “The African and the Tall Poppy Syndrome”

  1. Lilly B

    I come from Arua and thought these kind of things only happened in my neck of wood. But it’s actually everywhere in UG. Even with those of us who live in the diaspora. When I was going out with my husband, the Ugandans here were like” the bazungu like dark skinned girls. she’s not pretty, she’s bewitched him or it will all end in tears”. Its 17 yrs now and 2 kids and they are still waiting. Why do we delight in the downfall of others even when we have not made any contributions to their well-being? I do despair.
    Your article is brilliant and to the point. I wish this mindset could be changed.


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