By Richard Chirombo
They were people of the 3rd Century, when the world was very much a loosely meshed network, and great pockets of territory remained untouchable and untouched.
But it can be said that the two Roman martyrs- who happened to have fallen on the incidental luck of having five things in common: the name Valentine; 3rd Century as the time canvas on which they left their legacy; Roman ancestry; staunch Christian believes; and shared a vulnerability to those ‘human weaknesses’ now elevated to strengths called passion, charity and compassion- were men of no specific world.
Like their legacy, they could have lived in any era and country because of the universality of that heart-attacking weevil christened love.
The Two Valentines, after which Valentine’s Day is aptly named and remembered every February 14, might not have seen it coming; that their humble efforts could one day touch and influence the world. But their acts of love, compassion, passion and charity left an indelible mark in their ancient world, an impression that has gently holed through the long ages and now stays with us, if not within.
Today, people across the world treat February 14 every year as a special day to celebrate love and affection to either loved ones, friends or even strangers as a measure of how much they care for them. Some even go a step further than the usual sending of Valentine’s cards by donating to charity or passing candy gifts along.
Mutual exchange of love notes and messages has also become part of the norm that the heart-shaped outline, the figure of the winged Cupid, fresh flowers and, in other countries, dove-shaped curios have come to symbolize modern love.
Love, as they say, is the round heart around which the human soul flourishes. The result has been that the story of man cannot be separated from love or hate. This is one of the reasons early Greek and Roman philosophers never ceased to be intrigued by it, and dedicated whole life times, or at least part of them, trying to break its parts into bits and chunks of sense. For the Greeks, a philosopher was not worth his salt without adding a tree on this half-explored desert, one that dresses up through up through continued studies, opinions, experiments and varied conclusions.
But reputable Greek writers such as Hesiod and Homer, and other reputable voices in the names of Anaximander, Anaximenes, Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Melissus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras and Protagoras came to one conclusion: love may be inseparable to man and the history of human existence, yes, but it (love) lives longer than the human being (life span).
It is dynamic, too. Look at Valentine’s Day, for instance. It merely started with acts of charity, but has now come to be associated with romantic, even erotic, love- thanks to changing trends in the High Middle Ages, when the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, who so loved, as many of the people in that era, courtly love that they mixed the two recipes of pour charity and courtly love to set up a concoction of more outward expression.
At first, people could feel it in the heart and embark on charitable causes without showing it outside (pour charity), now they could show it (affection) and cerebrate it openly. This was unlike the real cerebrations associated with February 14, a month replete with one or two sorts of historical cerebrations throughout the ages.
Roman history, for example-of which the two Valentines are part- sheds more light into the fact that February was a month of cerebrations. The feast of Lupercalis (which used to fall on February 15) comes to mind. Historians have come to agree that this festival later came to be associated with cerebrations of the two Valentines’ lives.
St. Valentine is largely regarded as the patron of lovers, a development that has become part of the historical background of St. Valentine’s Day in such countries as Rome and, now, other countries including Malawi .
As the days go by, and some original aspects of the day get diluted in the name of present freedoms, changing times and dynamism, one thing is bound to stand the test of time. At least that is the impression one gets after wandering through the writings of Gorgias, that Greek philosopher who may be dead and soil now, yes, but still lives in ink and paper.
Gorgias made his impressions of love and the changing times clear, and said while some aspects of love, including the way people express it were bound to change with the changing times, the word of mouth, recorded messages (as in letters, memory cards and other forms of written communication) and physical presence (being there for those we love and care about) would remain a powerful means of putting one’s emotions, impressions and ideas across.
Of the word of mouth, for instance, he said: “Words are tremendously powerful and produce the most godly like effects in smallest, most obscure bodies; for words can put an end to fear, assuage grief, effect joy, love, affection, and increase pity. The same argument applies to the power of words with respect to the soul’s disposition as to the disposition of drugs with respect to the body’s nature.
“Just as different drugs draw off different humours from the body and some put an end to an illness, others to life, so it is with words- some cause pain, some pleasure, some fear, some courage, and some drug and enchant the soul with evil persuasion. It is possible to see that the power of the word of mouth (as in trying to convince someone you really care), though it may lack the appearance of compulsion, has the same strength,” said Gorgias.
Gorgias adds that love and the word of mouth form a powerful combination, one that will naturally produce in many men and women great love, desire or hatred. As for recorded messages, he says a carefully worded communication will produce the same desire as the word of mouth.
Then, there is the question of being there (physically present) for someone (or sending images) and how that fans the fire of love. His take: the sculpting of statutes and production of images affords the eyes divine delight, and will increase love and desire for physical closeness.
“If, therefore, the eye is entranced by the body and (say) a woman delivers up her soul to an eager contest of love, what is so strange in that? If love, being divine, has divine power from the gods, how can the weaker reject or fight against it?
Today, as if following Gorgias’ bidding, the effect of a Valentine- a card that one sends, usually without putting the actual name on it, to a loved one or somebody they care about- has not dissipated’ nor has the word of mouth ceased to carry seeds of persuasion and effectiveness. What has changed, if anything, is the technology.
People can now communicate through various means, other than the traditional card-sending gesture. And Mike Mangani, Managing Director for Salima-based ‘Get a Card’ shop, sellers of memory cards in infuriated.
“The business of selling cards (greeting, well-wishes, love, among other card types) was hot just five years ago. Now, with the proliferation of internet communication, mobile phone text messages and others, we are taking to the back stage. In fact, I had six employees three years ago; now, I only have two because there is no money coming. The good thing, though, is that people are still communicating,” said Mangani.
For Chawezi Tembo, a Diploma student at the Malawi Institute of Journalism, there is no reason for memory card sellers to complain. The proliferation of new technologies has just made communication easy, and increased the infectious rate of love.
“As people get increased access to channels of communication, it is the whole country that stands to benefit from, say, stable relationships and marriages. When there is stability in these set ups, we may one day work up to discover that with simple acts of communicating one’s affection and love on Valentine’s Day, we have come over some of the biggest challenges in this millennium: HIV and AIDS, promiscuity, and HIV and AIDS,” said Tembo.
But this, too, will not be strange. Pierson Ntata, Director for Chancellor College-based Centre for Social Research, says people are always in the process of shaping and re-shaping, adapting and re-adapting, themselves to the environment they live in.
Always, some things are bound to change, and others not- as human beings react to circumstances around them.
But some things never change entirely, he says, only small moderations are made to accommodate new trends.
That could be one of the reasons Malawians have reacted differently to the challenge of HIV and AIDS. Others have warmly embraced Western cultures and others have not.
Traditional Authority Karonga of Karonga (district) agrees. Malawians were not known for expressing their love in public, and on a specific day as happens on Valentine’s Day. It (love) more or less lived in the heart, a family secret analogous to a one-month-old fetus.
You do not go about advertising it; you, sort of, keep it in the heart, yet it is a treasured thing.
“But now things have changed. It is becoming common for old people to show their affection in public on February 14. That is change, and we cannot object to it wholesome. But we must remember, also, to keep our culture intact. Lest we lose both our love and culture, a disaster of catastrophic proportions because we will have nothing to call our own,” said Karonga.
The traditional leader, in summing up, says while people may not fight against love per se (because love will never change and is eternal), they can change some aspects of it- the way people express it, for example.
“Respectable people cannot kiss and cuddle in a shopping mall just because of February 14. That is against our culture. But people can send each other cards, though this was not part of our culture. In adapting to the environment, you single out the positives, add them to what you have been practicing all along, and a nation will never adopt corrupted morals.”
Whatever the case, the truth remains that, at first, Valentine letters were sent anonymously. But, with new technologies such as cell phones (and their famed text messages), e-mail addresses, newspaper messages, among other things that make it equally difficult to be anonymous, it may be a matter of time before one of the aspects associated with Valentine’s Day (the sending of anonymous messages) may go with the winds.
But love and affection, outstanding survivors through out the long ages, will be there on February 14 next year.