Something in the sky spoke to me today.
I apologize if you were deceived by the title of this blog and are expecting shocking revelations that your Converse are fuelling war and corruption in Africa.
But wait! There’s a link.
We also need a new economics of fractured societies. Accepted economic theories work well enough in western societies; these theories are usually painted on one large canvas. But when the canvas is rent into pieces, as it is in many African states, the theories fail or work strangely.
I made these two wonderfully different purhases in Juba on Saturday last week.
That’s right. All SRAGs.
What does srag even mean?!!
Without really looking at the shoes, I gasped in wonder when a vendor at Juba City (Customs) Market told me I could get a brand new pair of All Stars at SSP35 ($7). I believed him and bought them.
Yes, I am that stupid.
Juba feels much like Kampala, but with networks and norms far more complex than anything I have experienced in an eastern African city. Everything is acceptable, but little is permissible. So bring in your fake Chinese shoes, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and chocolate. Import everything, anything, you can gather from the streets of Kampala and Nairobi (South Sudan has no real industry), but be ready to pay. On time. In full. To pay not the tax man, not the government. To pay to a system so obscure, so illegal, but so open and acceptable.
Import everything! Sell everything! But books …
Here lies Arthur Delmar Combe: prolific mineralogist, volcanologist and petrologist.
You are excused if you have never heard of A. D. After all, who was he but the man for whom the mineral ‘combeite’ was named? So what if the discovery combeite in 1957 has led to important medical developments in biocompatible bone restorations as well as numerous orthopedic and dental innovations?
The sinking, stinking Entebbe European Cemetery is the final resting place for this former Assistant Director at the Uganda Geological Survey who had a heart for the ageless stories of stones. The beautiful black block of Ankole granite used to fashion his headstone was a loving tribute to his pioneering work in mapping the crater lakes of southwestern Uganda and his discovery of potash-rich deposits in Toro.
Now, like much of Uganda’s inglorious past, Arthur Delmar Combe lies forgotten … and we wake to a grey dawn.
“Cut down too soon.”
It isn’t death that mystifies me, but the reality that I will never, ever understand it.
I know why we die, of course. Learned that when I was five. All animate objects are born, grow, feed, breed and die. I will die. I’m prepared for that inevitability.
It is the shock at the death of others that baffles me. If my end is a reality, why am I surprised by the fate of others? Why am I hurt by death? Why am I grieved? After all it’s the deal we make when we are born. The Mortality Contract; and nothing is hidden in fine print.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
1Corinthians 15: 54-55
At our lowest points we go to the basics. We seek comfort in what we were taught by those we trusted. For me: my family and my church and the lesson of a death that leads to a greater life. The lesson on Jesus Christ’s victory over sin, death and the grave.
I was taught and I believe, but faith is irrational. I grieve. I am shocked and the certainty of death mystifies me.
When I was 17 years old my high school sweetheart told me why he wanted to have children:
“To give life to someone whose my I can influence for good and whose life I can mould to change the world.”
I thought it was extremely romantic because:
- He said he wanted those children to come from me
- He had a deep throaty voice and a worldly air
- I was high on lust and rebellion and stupidity
- I was 17 years old
This weekend I had the pleasure of taking my nephews, Jo and Jeff, on their first camping trip. My reasons were as selfish as they were kind. I needed to run away from Kampala and I thought I’d share with them the passion for the wild outdoors that I inherited from my father.
I planned the trip meticulously.
Sure, I forgot to pack underwear, towels, insecticide, tent pegs and food, but I remembered everything else.
One of things that struck a chord for me was Chimamanda’s revelation that for the first years of her life she thought about the world through the prism of Europe and America because of the books she read. For a while all her short stories were about British people and an unhealthy obsession with ginger beer.
Until I was about 9, I didn’t know it was okay to write about people like me.
I have a friend who is writing a book set in Eastern Europe with eastern European characters. He’s a Ugandan man who until a few years ago lived no where else but here. Oh, and he’s never been to Eastern Europe.
While I may be completely wrong in relating his work to what Chimamanda said, it reminded me of stuff. Like how many books by African writers must have a white man or woman in order to ‘make sense’ to the rest of the world. Like how descriptions of ourselves are not informed by what we know about our villages, our countries or our continent, but what the rest of the world thinks of us.
I am one to talk.
Looking around my house as I write this, I see that I am no different. I’ve tried to make my house as ‘African’ as possible – tribal masks from Congo and Rwanda, Masaai sculptures, Kiganda baskets, Ghanaian printed reed chairs, cow skin pouf, large picture of African setting sun … These are things I have been told by interior design magazines are elements of ‘colonial’ design and ‘safari’ living. I would never decorate my home the way my grandmother did. That’s too rural for me.
Yeah, I’m a hypocrite.
Chimamanda said what I already knew, but hearing it again, a loud brought it home.
The power of literature … stories inform how you see yourself and what you think of yourself. I often ask my friends, ‘What are your kids reading?’ It’s important to have children see that their stories are worthy of literature. It’s okay for them to read Enid Blyton, but have them read Nigerian literature as well.
I couldn’t agree more.
I have Jo and Jeff for the weekend. The first item on the program is to look for good children’s books by Ugandan writers that tell Ugandan stories.
Wish me luck.
My son is a year older today.
Well he’s not technically my son … godson is more like it, but who’s taking notes?
Hearing him talk about his day and his friends, his brother and his ‘philosophy’ on turning seven in a funny Kenyan accent did things to my heart. And I realized that I know nothing of love.
Temperance: the virtue within my reach, yet so far away.
To have all I want but to keep only what I require. To shun decadence and to embrace necessity. To recognize my cravings, cupidity and concupiscence and to regain control of my life.
I live in the age of the now. Money, now! Happiness, now! Desire, now! Hunger, now! Anger, now! Never later. Never sometimes. Never enough.
The definition of enough has changed. The boundaries have shifted to serve my lust for flesh, for food and for fame. What is sufficient for me is no longer adequate; what is adequate no longer satisfies. My enough is not enough. Greed is applauded and rapaciousness is the norm.
Why should I go budget when I can have full? Why opt for mini when large is within my means? What is one drink when I can have ten? What is one man when I can have men?
To pleasure my senses within the bounds of reason, that is the challenge. To desist without abstaining, holding the shield of continence in one hand and the sword of restraint in the other.
To embrace temperance, that is my goal. To embody it, that is my cause.