By Fatima Aly Jaffer – (Nairobi, Kenya)
“The provision is little, the way is long, the journey is far, and the goal is hard to reach.”
Imam Ali (a) (Nahjul Balagha, Saying 77)
There is a strong desire amongst youth worldwide not just to say something, but to say it differently. Enter slang – a language usually comprehensible only to those who speak it. Slang ideally creates a sense of belonging, effectively separating those who know it and those who don’t.
Kenyan youth are no different and our attempt at lexicon logy has resulted in the ever-volatile sheng. The vocabulary of sheng is never static. Each year, graduates into the Phase of Youth filter out stale, un-cool words. New words simultaneously reflect the current environment and alienate the ‘oldies’ by keeping them out of the loop.
Each version of sheng moves on with its own creators and like software, the older versions soon become obsolete except amongst their loyal inventors. As the maturing generation loses contact of updates, they are filtered into adulthood. It is the perfect system of quality preservation. The ancients had in breeding, we have sheng.
Despite the slight tangent, this article isn’t about linguistics. It’s about one particular phrase. Kenyan sheng boasts the term ‘panya route’ (panya is Kiswahili for mouse). It refers to an unofficial route, often illegal, used to get from Point A to Point B.
Cute as it is, (well, at least to us locals) I’ve begun wondering if this tendency to migrate across borders via unknown paths cut through dangerous terrain hasn’t – like so many things in life – taken on a symbolic dimension.
Whether you call them shortcuts, back roads or panya routes, we all enjoy taking the easy way out whenever the chance presents itself. Our enthusiasm for the long and narrow is only sincere where a shortcut actually interferes with the pleasure of the activity (think trekking, cross-country marathons and the like).
When it comes to success and money however, the sound made by pouring coins is far sweeter than that of trickling ones. We want the package labelled: “Big Stuff: No Labour Involved”.
Which is dangerous when we start talking about the Really Big Stuff – the hereafter and our investment in it. Ask yourself how many times you’ve heard people talk about the challenges of being a good Muslim. Now compare that to the number of times you’ve seen them rise to those challenges with action.
Familiar phrases are repeated like memorized mantras: “Of course I sin, I’m not ma’soom, you know”, “I commit enough sins anyway, one more won’t make a difference” or “I’m a sinner, but God’s forgiveness is great” and its sister suffix “…but to give up on His Mercy is a sin”.
Each one defines the panya route being taken. The subconscious whispers endlessly: “I can take a detour from the Straight Path and still end up at the same place; I love the Ahlulbayt (a) – I’m signed up for Life-membership in Heaven; I weep for Imam Husayn (a) so I can bend the rules now and again; If I snap a few laws along the way, I never meant to push them that far and since every action depends on its niyyat, I’m safe…
But how safe are we really? How safe can anyone be if all they do is put their feet up, watch the world go back and make half-hearted attempts at maintaining their investments? What makes us think that we can reach the same threshold as the other Mo’mineen without breaking a sweat on the brow of our souls?
If Heaven had a shortcut, why would anyone (except a masochist) willingly suffer the long path? And more importantly, wouldn’t the wise have discovered it before the rest of us? To assume we know better than the urafa is pure egocentricity. If anyone believed for a nanosecond that there was a short way to Paradise, the ‘New Truth’ bestseller would have sold a zillion copies by now.
We all know the path is a hard one, to walk firmly on it requires rigorous control over our desires and a constant struggle for balance. A panya route on the other hand is a confused, frantic journey, fraught with fear and insecurity. Anyone who has used such a shortcut – literally or symbolically – knows that guarantees are illusions on this path. Survival is a matter of chance, and success…well, it is usually well-flavoured with guilt.
Walking on the dotted line is the only way to be sure that you will reach the goal you seek. Which makes us pretty lucky, since we’ve got the Perfect Map-Maker anyone could ever want. Who else has bothered not only to lay a step-by-step guide to Himself, but also placed guides at strategic points to help out when way gets muddled?
The stubborn may argue that shortcuts do sometimes lead to success in this world. True, but only because the authorities in this dimension are bound by human restrictions. In the Aakhirah, there is only One Authority and He has No Restrictions. That’s something to think about, eh?