The national birthday is still on. We are still drunk on the festivities. It is a party fit for kings of old. Dramatic accolades of the mostest bestest beloved generational leader of the Chwezi dynasty and youthful warrior of the social media hype generals continue unabated.
The adage, heavy is in the head that wears the crown, is as a smile flavored with menace, suggests for all the glittering magnificence of the crown, being at helm of a people is exacting work.
The Bible describes King Solomon as the wisest king that ever lived. In 1 Kings 12-13, after the death of Solomon, his 41-year-old son, Rehoboam, succeeds him. No hassle with pseudo elections, cajoling, bribing, intimidating the masses into voting, save for that in-house bloodbath to eliminate rivals.
Rehoboam, possibly flying high, enjoying the dividends from the longevity of his father’s rule, had arrived at the helm of a powerful and rich kingdom. The new king soon received some visitors, subjects from the northern part of the kingdom. These northerners beseeched him to be different from his father who had treated them harshly. They assured the new king of their unwavering loyalty if he treated them better than his father had.
Commonsense must be clapped in glee at this win-win solution. To his credit, Rehoboam consults about the northerners’ request. He turns to the old men who had advised his father. The old men advise Rehoboam to answer the northerners favourably and win their loyalty. We are not told why but Rehoboam who was probably in the prime of his royal manhood - maybe even sporting a full head of thick wavy hair, a luxuriously groomed beard, ignored the words the old men.
Rehoboam instead sought the counsel of his friends - those who had grown up with him and now served as his advisers. His echo chamber. These were the friends whom if Rehoboam wanted his birthday celebrated across the kingdom, they would constitute the birthday committee. He could count on these friends, full of vigour and youth, to drum up fervent support for him.
Confident of their turn to ‘eat’ the people, his friends advised thus: “This is what you should tell them: ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist...My father placed heavy burdens on you; I will make them even heavier. He beat you with a whip; I’ll flog you with a horsewhip!’”
Discarding the wisdom of the elders, Rehoboam took his friends’ advice, a fatal blunder from which the kingdom was not to recover. When the people saw that the new king would not listen to them, they rebelled against him, splitting the large kingdom into two. Skunked, Rehoboam remained with the smallest slice of the kingdom. Rehoboam’s debacle offers us a few choice lessons - transitions as an opportunity for peace and the wisdom of the elders versus the folly of youth.
His story warns us of the dangers of surrounding ourselves with only voices similar to ours. An online education platform, GCFGlobal.org, defines an echo chamber “as an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own. Echo chambers can create misinformation and distort a person’s perspective so they have difficulty considering opposing viewpoints and discussing complicated topics.”
Having just ascended to the throne, Rehoboam was pregnant already – with swellheadedness. Saturated with the power and authority of the throne, he listened to his echo chamber who puffed him up, feted him as a king, even greater than wise Solomon who had ruled for 40 years. The old men told Rehoboam to go easy on the people than his father had. It seems these old men had their aging ears to the ground and could feel the rumbling resentment beneath the surface.
Why did the old men advise Rehoboam so? Maybe they saw an opportunity for peace, a sustainable peace. With Solomon dead, the people hoped the new king would treat them favourably. Like the old men, it appears the people also saw this transition as an opportunity for peace. Today, we reflect on Rehoboam as the new king who squandered stability and peace.
Rehoboam, the new king who woke up and chose violence marching to the meme, ‘I don’t want peace, I want problems.’ We like the sound of our voices, escorted by the adoring choruses of those in agreement with us, our committees. It is said only the truly confident can look at the world without the need to look for instances that please one’s ego.
In countering our echo chambers, the famous words of Richard Feynman (1918-1988), a renowned genius, scientist and physicist, are opportune. His unconventional approach to knowledge started with “What can I know for sure and how can I come to know it?”
In Feynman’s words, “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
The writer is a tired muzzukulu.