The Roseto Effect and African Societies

If you’ve read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, then you probably know about the Roseto effect, which according to our lovely wikipedia, is defined as “the phenomenon by which a close-knit community experiences a reduced rate of heart disease”.

Our society in Mombasa is quite close-knit. It’s so close-knit that it’s quite normal to wake up to the screaming woman next door as she wakes her children up using words that make one want to wash their ears. But sociologists need not conduct a study to see if the Roseto effect applies here because it probably doesn’t. So why is that?

It’s not the food. Our cuisine is surely unhealthy, but people in Roseto ate an unhealthy diet too so that doesn’t factor in. The main idea behind the Roseto effect is this; the presence of your extended family buffers you from the stresses of the outer world. However what happens if your ‘buffer’ becomes your main source of stress?

The system breaks down. Naturally.

I’m not going to give specific examples but I’ve spoken to people from the Indian Subcontinent through the Gulf region to Africa, and stories of family feuds, sibling rivalry, inheritance wars, and our biggest green-eyed enemy Mr. Jealousy are so similar, you might think they’re the same if it weren’t for the different names. So I’m not going to tell you stories because I don’t need to. What we need to discuss today is how to deal with all the toxicity.

Recognize the toxicity

If you can’t recognize if a conversation is toxic then all you’ve got to do is gauge how you feel after you’ve had it. If you’re feeling angry/frustrated/depressed/agitated then you’ve just experienced a toxic session. Toxic sessions are like broken records on endless loops.  And how do you fix a broken record on an endless loop? You STOP it.

No seriously.


Stop what? Stop talking. Stop listening. Stop caring what people will think about you. Oh, you know about that line,

“What will people say?”

It comes in many languages and different forms.

Loog kya kahenge

Ilnas shu bedha te7ki 3anna

Watu watasema nini?

The number of dreams killed as a result of that statement is staggering and yet we all get influenced by it. But the amazing correlation one might notice is how the people who care the most about what people will say about them are the same ones who do most of the talking themselves. They see how judgmental they are towards others and so they project themselves onto others.

But here’s the truth; people don’t care about you as much as you think they do. And that’s a liberating idea.

Get yourself out of it and lead a separate life

Focus on yourself. Trust me. When that phone is ringing, and that baby is crying, and that road to work is blocked, and that dish is burning, and that presentation just won’t load, you don’t find yourself on facebook, wondering what so-and-so is doing with their life now.  When you have enough problems in your life, it’s very hard to focus on what’s happening out there. But you don’t have to have problems to actually get yourself out of the toxicity. Just focus on yourself; who you are, what you want to do, yada, yada, yada. If you have a small family, focus on that family. Just don’t go too far beyond the limits of your tiny world.

Understand your limitations

Brain power is limited. Willpower is limited. Everything is limited. The first lesson we learned in Physics is the law of conservation of energy. It takes too much energy to surround yourself with toxicity. And toxicity ferments from having too much information about others.

So if you come from one of our societies, you’re probably aware of the 411-archive-updating the older women love to get into. You call your aunt to ask how she is and she gives you the updates on the whole society- whether you know those people or not. I used to think that our generation would be different because we’re more open to the outer world, but I realize how social media augments old habits and exacerbates them. So once I called someone and they told me some relative was getting married or getting engaged or (I didn’t care enough to pay attention). I hung up the phone and sat thinking to myself; how on Earth was that piece of information useful to me?

It reminds me of the Sherlock quote where he pointed to his head and said: 

"This is my hard-drive, and it only makes sense to put things in there that are useful. Really useful. Ordinary people fill their heads with all kinds of rubbish, and that makes it hard to get at the stuff that matters"

Fluff it out

What if you’re meeting relatives who are usually judgmental and toxic and you want to avoid their toxicity? Talk about fluff; the weather, the price of potatoes, the news, add a few jokes. Steer conversations away from your personal life – and their personal life.

Last but not least, maybe we need to learn a thing or two about relationships and bonding with others from elephant families. According to this website,

“Members of an (elephant) family show extraordinary teamwork and are highly cooperative in group defense, resource acquisition, offspring care, and decision-making. Members of a family greet one another with a special ‘Greeting Ceremony.'”

Now I wonder if they have their own form of vigelegele.

Finally, recognize you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution, so where do you stand?

This article first appeared on author's personal website

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