Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Thing About Our Brokenness

I never got their names. It's enough that they inspired this blog.
This past weekend, I sat opposite three people who were waiting to be picked up after a conference on disability and rehabilitation. They were all blind, some with a double handicap. The small guy in a wheelchair – yeah, that one with a blind cane towering above him – had just won a major award at the closing ceremony. Everyone passing by was congratulating him. I sat across the table from him and sunk into my observer-mode comfort zone. I went click-click with my phone camera, missing all the moments when they flooded the space with laughter.

This winner-guy’s joie-de-vivre was a thing of an alien wonder. The wheelchair swallowed his tiny frame, his lifeless legs dissolved into the folds of his pants, his eyes a decorative reminder of what light once flooded therein. But as he spoke, his personality towered above all that brokenness. His storytelling voice boomed. His laughter leaped in gales that rushed to the shore and retreated with the debris of my hidden shards.

I watched as he raised his right hand every so often in a confident preparedness for a congratulatory handshake from well-wishers. Some, passing by quickly, didn’t notice the outstretched hand. They were mostly conference staff clearing up the venue, their sighted eyes and moving limbs carrying them on autopilot towards a forgettable destination. Winner-guy took no offense as he withdrew his unshaken hand time and again. His stage presence rose undiminished.

As I listened, I realized that he rose not only because it was his moment, it was who he was. Somewhere in the stretch of his young life, he had mastered the art of conquering brokenness. Now he was cracking a joke, about the phone call he had just made to a friend:

“Yeah, so I bragged about getting the big award and he asks me, for real? I say, yeah, for real! He said, ya’ right! Did anyone see you get the award? I said, no.” Without missing a beat, the three laughed out so loud I found myself laughing along.

“Have you always been on a wheelchair?” The lady asks Winner-guy.

“Pretty much. Since I was four months old. Then when I was 23 I had a brain swelling that led to my blindness. I used to drive, do everything normal.” I wondered what “normal” meant for someone who had been wheelchair-bound all his life.

“Oh, my. It must be difficult for you now,” said the lady.

“Well, I was taught never to indulge in self-pity. I use my disability as a reason to achieve.” He went on to tell of things he’s achieved, including an interest in pastoral work. This solicited an interesting response.

“Churches can make you feel very guilty sometimes,” said the lady. I perked up my ears harder and waited for the rest of her thoughts. “They tell you it’s God’s will that you’re blind, or that it’s the devil’s work. It all leaves you feeling guilty that you’re being punished for something.” It’s at this point that I struggled to fight back my tears.

Her words had penetrated a well-guarded and mostly forgotten fortress of anger within me, and I wanted to cry it out. I have a loved one who’s been blind 35 years. Across my mind flashed images of desperate supplication at the altar of miracle peddlers who told her that she’s not getting healed because she lacks enough faith; anointing oils poured on her head to chase demons of blindness she had apparently invited; whispers of being an inheritor of curses for bizarre sins committed by some unknown relative in lifetimes past; multiple hands of barking prayer wolves shaking her head violently through hours of tortured ritual, causing her to spend the night with a splitting headache.

I could sue them, I could sue them all, I could sue them all to blistering hell. They took her brokenness for a playground to test out their power, their beliefs, their unquestioned trade. This lady understood. But unlike me, she laughed about it. She stood triumphantly above the cracks where religion had caused her inner brokenness. I had sunk defeated through those cracks and therein hid my anger. The tears welled up at the plunge-pool of my eyes with a fermented burning. I released them with a blink. I was now free to laugh about it all.

The suit guy is a listener. He doesn’t say much. He listens with his whole body, his head tucked deep into his chest, moving to stand very close to whoever is talking. He has no concept of personal space. That’s an invention of sighted folk in civilizations that have decided that the energy field of another human being causes discomfort. Standing too close to a stranger is an infringement of an unspoken right, mostly perceived as foul and primitive. In the villages blind to individualism, the six inches of personal space is a non-existent concept. 

I find myself wanting my space too. Yet I wonder, have we diminished our humanity in the course of building walls to protect individual comforts? I watch Suit guy as he inches his whole self right up to the lady’s knees when she starts talking, just to stand and listen. I've seen this with a lot of blind people; this listening with your entire being. I’m filled with the warm wonder of rediscovered innocence. I know he’s not hard of hearing, because another lady, perhaps his wife, calls out softly from the doorway and he turns around, tap-tapping purposefully towards a known destination.

We live in a world where able-bodied people scratch at the scabies of their smallness for reasons to explain their purposelessness, their lack of accomplishment. Brokenness that can be overcome with choices and attitude adjustment is often qualified as “disease” that places one on the line for benefits and entitlements. There’s always someone or something else to blame, never a mea culpa. The art of petulant high-nosed victimhood is wearisome and detestable. I was getting an attitude re-adjustment myself just listening to these three.

But it’s when Winner-guy mentioned his wife, casually and endearingly, that I caught the stench of my own assumed superiority as a limbed and sighted being. How conceited of me to have been surprised that someone has loved him into spousehood, completely, publicly, without shame. Life’s most awesome experience, the experience of another’s unconditional embrace, is best savored when we do not hide our brokenness in shame or lay it out as a trap to catch another’s pity. Winner-guy seemed unpretentiously happy, content, alive. He was someone’s knight in shining armor.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Flipping the Mask of Absurdity

Some 20 years ago, I was in the cast of Samuel Beckett's one-acts, directed by a visiting French company, Theatre du Shaman. The thing is, we struggled to see the humor the director insisted was in Beckett. We just couldn't see it.

How on earth could the doom-and-gloom of Beckett's absurd theatre be funny? We refused to laugh, we refused to learn, we refused to consider another experience. His drama was etched in the ink of existentialism, a world where human existence had all together forced the birth of a philosophy of meaningless.

As a society in communal Africa, no matter our hardships, we had not reached a point where the idea of life as a stretch of futility had built up into a shared philosophy of meaningless absurdity. We couldn't recognize it, therefore couldn't laugh at it. African societies have collectively gone through terrible soul-searing experiences, but I'd argue that the philosophy of "utu" (the one as the whole and the whole as the one), disallowed for the emergence of philosophies that were embedded in individualism. European individualism separated the one from the whole and allowed for the emergence of the absurdity of life as a philosophy.

Not surprisingly, the reviews in the Kenyan papers were about the "soulless" production showing at Alliance Francaise. The reviewer saw the characters and their situation as empty, devoid of human heart. I was playing one of Beckett's characters, and I felt like a plank of dark wood moving mechanically through eerie space. I failed to appreciate the European bloody backdrop of war and loss, bombs and cold slaughter, that informed Beckett's personal experience and his works.

The director failed to inform us of this background and how it shaped intensely alienated characters. We might perhaps have understood Beckett's struggle to laugh at it all, to scoff at a phantom god who had no effect on human choices and suffering, to boldly question dogma and follow our natural instinct as free thinkers.

It wasn't until over a decade later, having lived through the intense alienation of one misplaced, one waiting for Godot, that Beckett's world became real to me, and I laughed my tears into dry salty streams at the absurdities of life.

Meaninglessness had come home to me, and I realized, with a desolate shudder, that giving my life meaning was my responsibility. Questioning was my responsibility. Tearing down institutional thought that shackled our freedom to believe our experiences was my responsibility.

Why does Beckett come to mind now? I think the doom-and-gloom of a war-weary soul is once again fast becoming my daily companion.

If I'm not waking up to news of wars fought with irrational claims to divine privilege, from Zionist god-gave-me-this-land to Islamist 72-virgins-await-me-in-heaven; mindless jihadists blowing up innocent passengers and worshipers in Kenya; congressional brutishness baying for blood and war profiteering in someone else's country, then I'm constantly shocked by the absurd binge of materialism that leaves half the world decaying in destitution.

Our experiences have become more global, less particular. We now share the dank blanket of meaningless terror, thanks to its manufacturers.

I think it's in finally waking up to the humor in the absurd that we begin to find our way out of it. The realization of what we're capable of as human beings is both shocking and absurdly funny.

I'm ready to laugh.


Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Seduction of Inadequacy

These words come from one, Lupita Nyong’o’s speech about beauty, given at the Essence Awards. The seduction of inadequacy. It refers to the alluring power of clinging on to pitiful definitions of ourselves; definitions that have taken root over generations of mental slavery, so powerfully and effectively injected into our African psyche that inadequacy has become a mental scourge we inherit and spread like a virus. Dr. Kenneth Clark’s Doll experiment of 1939 still rings true to date.

It’s December of 2013. I’m at Sarit Centre’s The Baby Shop in Nairobi, having already visited a number of children’s stores.

“I’m looking for a black doll,” I say to the attendant, still holding out hope that some Kenyan will surprise me.

“Sorry, we have none,” comes the matter-of-fact answer.

“Why? Why don’t you have black dolls?” I try to keep my cool. “I’ve been all over Nairobi and I can’t find a black doll anywhere. You know, 20 years ago I trekked all across this city looking for a black doll for a friend’s baby, and I found a hand-made one thrown at the back with broken merchandize. I dusted it up and bought it, felt as if I’d found gold. You must be the change we need.” I pause.

She says, “Sorry, no one will buy, that’s why we don’t stock them.”

“Do they buy these ones?” I point to the row of white dolls with blond hair.

“Yes.” She says, and continues defiantly, “But there’s nothing wrong with white dolls.” O, was she accusing me of racism?  

“No, there isn’t,” I agree. I'm too tired to argue with her that it’s not the choice of white dolls that is disturbing; it’s the lack of the alternative, which suggested a loathe of that which looks like us. I have also seen birthday cakes for little girls in Nairobi decked with white princesses in flowing blond hair. I suppose the image of a little black warrior princess with short hair, a Mekatilili of sorts, standing atop a birthday cake, would make the poor African girl weep her eyes out with horror. This horror has a deep-seated history

Enter Alek Wek, Djimon Hounsou, Lupita, and all the directors and producers who dared to bet on black. Wait- before they enter, please note, Africans come in all variety of shades, from the darkest cotton soil hues to the milkiest river-sand shades. The majority are “black”. White Africans whose ancestors settled in Africa from Europe do not suffer the same fate of inherited inadequacy as black Africans, but they are our fellow Africans all the same. See, Charlize Theron was the first African to win an Oscar but that does not mean she’s in the same position on the socio-racial totem pole as Lupita Nyong’o. It is the difficult task of our dark-hued African heroes to stand on that international stage upon which they have been thrust and dismantle the biased standards that place us at the bottom.

When an African comes to America, whether they end up as teachers, managers or Oscar winners, they are at first mercifully shielded by an ignorance of their positioning at the bottom of this socio-racial totem pole. They do not know that in the minds of those who have set up the hierarchy, they scrape the ground for scraps of dignity. My Kenyan friends bought a house in a Harford County neighborhood that had whites only. The neighborhood kids came by and wrote all manner of racist words on their shed. My friends treated it as a case of naughty kids and moved on. Privately, they were awakened to a new reality.

Naivety makes us Africans slow in applying our knowledge of history to the reality we find ourselves in. You hear a lot of Africans say, “I was not aware I was an African until I came to the US.” We just thought we were Kenyan, or Zambian, or Nigerian… “African” brings in the race identity, a concept Africans are oblivious to while in Africa. Africa is also a massive geographical entity with 53 countries. There's no singularity in the "African" identity; there are thousands of African cultures, religions, histories, all with distinct languages and norms. Africans identify themselves either by their countries or ethnicity, which is meaningless to Americans.

To the average American, "Africa" is a small village-country somewhere with a primitive tribe black as coal, running around shooting each other, dying of Aids, or going wooga-wooga with a bone in their nose. Surely, how can they have the same place of social belonging as whites? As we slowly learn our designated place as "Africans" while in America, we play the ignorant card and proceed to buying our way into the wrong nice neighborhoods, apply our way into companies that employ very few blacks, secure fellowships that seem exclusive, apply for PhDs because that’s what the village sent us off to get, and get an Oscar because why not.

In the privacy of our own knowing, we nurse the wounds we have suffered from countless collisions with attempts to put us in our place. Then we discover a certain beauty in this country; that the opportunities to rise and prove ourselves, no matter the obstacles, are right at our feet. It is the courage to conquer enslaving institutionalized standards of belonging and acceptance that frees us. When we choose not to be courageous, we fall back into the comforts of our inadequacy. We settle into the ugly cushions of mediocrity.

Only we can demand from ourselves an image of Africans that deserves to be celebrated. Yes, we deserve to occupy spaces of elegance, we deserve the spotlight that reveals our eloquence, we deserve the seats that elevate our smarts, and we deserve the second chances that prove our ability to rise from failure to heroism. But all this is hard work, a revolution of the beautiful.  We must give up the comfortable mediocrity that we now maintain at a heavy, heavy cost.

We maintain an image dross with politics of greed that has brought us civil strife; unstable economies that have brought us shocking squalor; gullibility that has made us fools for twisted religiosities and unquestioning servitude; apathy that has spawned a new philosophy of Utado? (what can you do?). The voices of change that seek our beauty where ugliness reigns are fought off by the ruling elite and ignored by the rising middle-class.  

There’s a lot of psychological damage to overcome in the fight against Africa’s real and imagined ugliness. We’ve been scarred since the early 20th Century when scientists falsely published as proven fact that the African brain is inherently inferior and ape-like, giving license to gross abuse of the African race and justification for colonization. And now the fear of our own beauty paralyses us. At the same time we're terrified that our Africanness falls far too short of anything admirable. Inward journeying into the discovery of the Imago Dei in us is an imperative.

Astonishing in itself, our beauty lies hidden beneath the planks of a thrust stage upon which stands a chorus of Africans too timid to raise their voices. There must be a trap door somewhere on this stage, a trap door that releases the fury of new courage so the audience may gasp in awe, a spectacle all at once overwhelming and consuming. 

Then the furious courage of a young lady rises from stage left, raising an eloquent voice, a schooled mind and a forbidden image that seems carved out of African Blackwood, until the gasp of an Oscar climax is heard around the world. Once again, Africans are startlingly, wholesomely beautiful.

Yet we must not pompously stagger under the weight of our own greatness when we become the instruments of its manifestation. We carry it with grace, like our mothers taught us, dancing to the seduction of our own adequacy.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

I Made a Promise

I made a promise this morning. I told my husband that I’ll meet him for a big special lunch today. It’s Valentine’s day. It’s a day off teaching for me, thanks to yesterday’s snow storm. He goes out to clear the snow, but my car is buried too deep. He has to leave for work. He's dejected. No big special lunch after all since I can't leave the house now. No wife to interrupt his daily routine. Lunch is very important to this man, especially one you’ve planted in his head in anticipation. A man leaving the house with a head hung low is painful to watch.

After he leaves, I call my mind together for a big think. I made a promise, and I intend to keep it. So me and my sore shoulder started digging out the car buried under two feet of snow, exhuming it after two hours. I call and tell him I'm on my way, we’re having a big lunch after all! Really??- He asks. Yeah, really- I say. I punch in the destination and head out in a hurry. Meanwhile, I can hear my husband thinking, “She found someone and paid him to shovel the snow.” That’s actually what I’d have done, but I had no time to find such services. I had a promise to keep.

After 15 minutes on the road, I notice – and here I go into a massive panic – that I'll be going through Harbor Tunnel in a few seconds. I swerve. I SWERVE. I S-W-E-R-V-E. I’m shouting so you understand the gravity of this situation here. I don't do tunnels, I don't do bridges. Something called gephyrophobia. Very bad. It doesn’t kill you dead, but you will die a thousand deaths while hyperventilating, spiraling into hell in an attack of extreme vertigo, tongue stuck on the roof of your mouth, bowels threatening to let loose as you slow down to a mile/hr and scream at the top of your lungs, all this before you miraculously come out alive at the other end of the tunnel or bridge.

A brief history. Gephyrophobia came to me suddenly on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, without cause, after many years of stellar and fearless driving. I’m the one that used to speed across the Delaware Bridge like a Nascar driver. Life will always throw you a curveball. One day, I shall overcome, I promise. But today I have another promise to keep.

Before you think me a wimp, I’ll have you know that Mzee Kenyatta had a phobia for planes and elevators. On one flight, he’s said to have cursed all the way to JKA, made sure a fitting insult was delivered to the pilot, and that was his last flight ever. He lived many years after that, getting around in cars and taking only stairs. George Washington lived in constant fear of being buried before he's really dead, to the extent that he put it in his will to be left uninterred two days after he’s declared dead. Nixon had a phobia for hospitals, thought if he ever went in there he’d never come out alive. So there, I'm in the company of presidents when it comes to phobias.

I park and catch my breath after that close shave with the offending tunnel. Then I realize I'm trapped. When I swerved, I took a nowhere exit into some space under the I-95 overpass. I have to go back on the highway or else I become a story- “Once upon a time, a woman lived under an overpass...” Of course I won't go back on that highway. You don’t know my resolve. I’m not moving. So I sit and wait for God. I call my husband and explain the situation. He thinks it funny. It’s a relief one of us can laugh about it. I tell him I can’t make the big lunch after all since I don’t know what time God will show up.

While I sit through this perfect convergence of storms and phobias that have conspired to make me a fraudulent promisor, it strikes me that relationships of all kinds are contractual. They consist of promises made here on earth between two parties. In marriage, “made in heaven” is exactly what it sounds like; fairy tale. Neither of you have been to heaven to sign any contract. You signed up to an institution made right here on earth, governed by laws and parameters decided by imperfect humans. The seal of authority on your marriage certificate is a government seal, even if it's His Holiness Rev. Dr. Ogbuefi Adegbayo of the Holy Fire of Christ Church who married you.

It is here on earth that you work things out, change the laws that don’t work for you, until the institution provides you with the best structures that allow you to keep the promises you made to each other. Of course you can make all manner of wonderful promises without a man-made institution like marriage; they are still binding moral contracts upon which your integrity stands. Word is bond.

Yet how easily we discard those lovely promises we make to one another in the face of storms and fears. Storms that stagnate us, burying us in feet of ice-cold uncommunicativeness, wondering who will be the first to shovel the gunk of unpleasantness; fears that freeze our progress and cause us to flee, abandoning the dreams we dreamt together. Every promise you make and break nonchalantly is a few inches of snow slowly burying your relationships. In a work contract the resolve is simple; you get fired.

At the deathly precipice of crisis when we’re certain there’s no hope and we’re about to shatter irretrievably into a trillion pieces, the deus ex machina lies within. Call it inspiration, Spirit, God… Take a moment, calm your fears, look around your place of entrapment and in good time the solution begins to show up. Your way out will become clearer. Keeping the promises you made will become the sweetest challenge that fuels you to create simple joys. It is for the ability to create simple joys in life that we build institutions, go to the ballot, choose presidents, mobilize and organize.

And so in the silence of regrouping my thoughts, I looked around and sure enough, I found a way to maneuver out of the nowhere-place beneath the overpass. I punched in the directions, making sure to check the no-highways option. The GPS spat out a long-winding road to Timbuktu. I let my husband know I’ll see him in an hour (would have taken me six minutes through the tunnel). I can hear his thoughts reading my thoughts, and he’s thinking, “She’s abandoned the car on the highway and called a taxi and now I’ll have to go and drive it through the tunnel…” I let him entertain this imaginary thought that I’m thinking he’s thinking.

I get there in an hour and oh, the big-big smile on his face that greets me. And what a glorious lunch! In these simple joys, my life finds meaning. I kept my promise. 


Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Breaking Through the Clouds

Sunny Savannah is behind us. The month of December 2013 must now stay content with becoming a memory, a welcome escape from America’s winter. But not for too long. We land in Detroit, and as we prepare to board our final hour-long flight, it starts snowing, slowly, then with a teasing fury.

Waiting to board a Delta flight, Detroit to BWI
We board. The plane begins to circle around, as if contemplating the implications of a real take-off. The Captain announces that they are going through a de-icing process. I’m seated right behind the right wing, and I can see the caking of ice begin to melt on it. The clouds above are a forbidding gray (I’m learning to spell “gray” the American way – I don’t know why I have to; ah, the "grey" fog of twice-colonized minds… but that’s a blog for another day.)

The snow is not letting up, and I’m worried that we may not take off. 18 hours from Kenya is enough butt-time sitting in planes and airports. Buttitis; that’s the word we coined for that protest moment when the posterior has taken enough abuse and turns against you, refusing to be sat on any longer. One must not sit too long through any situation. Your butt will always give you a cue. You must then get up and move, do that which scares the daylights out of you.

I have seen this many times. People just sitting there. Sometimes praying flamboyantly in public squares. With vicious desperation. Africans tend to do that a lot. I’m not averse to praying, which I personally do; I’m saying don’t do an idle thing so long thinking you’re changing things while in essence, you’re too scared, lazy or full of excuses to admit that you need to actively do something to de-ice a situation and allow you to take off from stagnation.

De-icing the plane, the gloomy and treacherous outdoors daring us to take off

After almost an hour, the plane lines up its nose against the runway, ready for take-off. It still didn’t look good. Outside, the falling snow thwarted my visibility, taunting my vision of where I wanted to go in the coming year, what I wanted to achieve, how I wanted to get there, making me falter in my new year’s belief that I will get “there” this time around. The blurry look of things momentarily scared me, made me think we really shouldn’t take off.

Then a sour bile of memories rushed forth and filled my gut; memories of a year strewn with false starts, aborted take-offs, and heavily invested de-icing processes that thawed the situation yet left me stuck on the ground for fear of taking flight. What happened to your plans for this-and-that, friends ask, and you mumble some silly explanation where someone or something else is to blame for your not taking off.

It’s utterly ridiculous, how sometimes, in cautious wisdom (or so we convince ourselves), we wait for the clouds to clear, the snow to stop falling, the rain to abate, and when the sun actually shines through, we still sit there, all the obstacles gone, yet stupidly satiated in the new warmth, our desires to take off to new heights all forgotten. A year comes to an end, and we are still stuck on the runways of our dreams.

The plane started moving, the engine sounded wrong, the take-off was too bumpy, and the vessel was thrown about as it struggled to break through the falling snow, the unrelenting freeze, the brick wall of grey clouds solidly looming above. My husband reached out and held my hand, his face squinting worrisomely as the engine got strangely louder, as if something was about to snap. He knows something about planes, I’d worry if he worried, and I worried.

The pilot pushed the vessel up to meet the gray wall with steely determination, the thick clouds swirling about in suffocating waves as we rocked in turbulence. Nothing was visible. I said a prayer, in thanksgiving for the wonders of life and love so far experienced, trying to forget that sometimes take-offs can be the end as we know it. I held my breath. Whatever may come—and suddenly, whoosh! We broke through. The sun shone above us with a fierce burst of life, and below us, a fluffy bed of clouds showed off a deceptive calm.

Thing is, you can never get to your destination without take-off. May you break through in 2014.

I took this picture immediately after we broke through the clouds.
Any attempt to describe the feeling is cliche