Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Heritage and Sickness: A Letter to My Man Nic


I checked your blog about the Song of Lawino and I am really happy that you read it. I never really completed my own text about the effect that this book had on me when I read it in Uganda. Probably because that time was so depressing for me that I have been reluctant to share it or put it into words that carry the significance. But your writing about the book woke me up a bit, so I want to address your experience with my own.

Yeah, so I got sick in Uganda. Silly sick. Doctors could not quite diagnose the style and there is some speculation that medical tests inadvertently caused my ailment to intensify. It sucked. I spent a lot of time in bed, as I was unable to stand or walk for long periods. There was a while that I couldn’t even read, as I was plagued with massive headaches. From beneath the bug net, my mind was in a permanent state of replay.

I thought of Sister Rosemary, who jokingly asked me one day what I thought about my skin color. I guess nuns can read minds, since I had been soaking the thought that I am comparatively light-skinned when measured against the Gulu populace. I told her that I wished I was darker, which is strange, since I usually endorse the plurality of colors. Me and my family are all different shades and it is this diversity of hue that I thought I held dear. What was happening to make me think such a thing? “Your color is perfect,” she said. Why wasn’t that my answer? I now thought to myself in bed as I waited for the codeine to affect my style.

I thought of my name. Most of the cats that I introduced myself to here had trouble pronouncing it. This was, of course, East Africa. My name is from West Africa, which is other tribes, other languages, other worlds. Still, I felt some underlying surprise along with the disappointment that everyone I met had a European name. It was my first glimpse into the nature of my own unacknowledged expectations about being on the Continent, expectations that ran against what I knew to be true. I knew better. But my knowledge could not overpower my experience, or my desire for particular experiences. I was hopeful for something. But hope is a sin.

And, of course, I thought of religion. There was a moment when I and a friend were sitting with a nun who spoke with great reverence for the indigenous religious practices of the Acholi. But she did not know exactly what these practices were. She only had echoes of the tradition and a desire to investigate. While in Atiak, I asked a man about old school practices. He said that he didn’t know much about them, as “the missionaries who came thought our culture was Satanic.” The leader of the rebel group that plunged Northern Uganda into war claims that he wants to build a society based on the Ten Commandments. At night, the victims of the war who reside at the school danced and sang songs to Jesus. They were the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. And yet the images of Jesus in Gulu offended me. This is the image of the man who will save them, the man to whom they pray. The white man who is also God.

I say that I was thinking about these things. They were really just indistinct formations that ran across my pained mind like poorly mixed watercolor. Drugs do that. Eventually, the haze lifted enough for me to think clearly. Kind of. So I picked up Lawino.

What I read in those pages were the tragic renderings of a perspective that had already been faded by history. To me, it wasn’t a song or even a poem. It was a death knell. It was the echo that, for some reason, I was listening for in the people of the town that this book is supposed to be about. So yeah, it was a punch in the face and a kick in the stomach. Reading that book in Gulu, my emotions and secret desires finally aligned with my knowledge: I would never observe this idillic style for which I hoped. I should not have been trying to see it in the first place, for it was not ideal at all. It was just free of the West. And how could I have expected to be free of Europe? It is where I am from. In fact, my desire to see it, my hope for a glimpse of the original, for the untouched, for culture, was a vulgar European construction in the first place. My own personal Safari. Finally and fortunately, my hope was extinguished. Lawino’s song saved me, kind of, even as it made me feel hopeless.

Many miles away, you went through something similar, it seems. You felt the force of the text as I did. But it seems that we drew different conclusions. You said that you felt pretty bad after reading the text, until finally you were able to cast it aside as an attack on your identity. I wonder if I could persuade you to continue feeling bad.

You have said a couple times on your blog that you worry about enforcing your perspective on people. I had much the same worry when I rolled up to Uganda. I am the West. In Africa, I represent affluence and influence. People ask me for money and guidance knowing nothing about me other than that I am from America. And I am not even a missionary. The temptation is great, I learned, to want to just tell people what they should be doing, or take the lead in developing a project. A project that I have the luxury of leaving at any time, since my being here is optional.

I met a lot of cats here who were all about helping. The place was, after all, in dire need of help. Infant mortality was ridiculous. Unemployment sucked because the economy sucked, nobody has money for school or health care. The situation is straight bollocks. But you know what else is bollocks? People’s ideas of what it means to help.

The history of Europe and Africa reflects badly on everybody involved. On governments and religions. On men, women and children. On missionaries and anthropologists. But most of all, these historical spectacles and horrors set up a pattern of interaction between the empowered and the powerless. It is a pattern that we, the helpers are all to excited to continue: My knowledge is superior to yours. I will come and transform your culture, your nation. And when I leave you will be more like me than any african drummer in a church could ever deny. So yeah, keep practicing my religion, because it is more true than anything you have ever known. And please practice medicine and government like I do, because your old school styles are senseless according to my standards, which are, of course, the only real standards. I don’t care that the Savior doesn’t look like you. Because he looks like me, which is fitting, because it is in his Name that I save you. And you will thank me for it just as hard as you fought my ancestors to leave you alone.

My homegirl says that most of the cats who roll up to Africa to try to help are much more focused on themselves than they would ever admit. The missionary tour or the peace corps campaign is more about their “white identity development” than it is about helping cats, she says. Perhaps this is why so many people have asked me about how my trip to Uganda changed me personally instead of asking me what Uganda was like. Like my going to Uganda is some badge of honor that solidifies my good will and humanity. I know of straight up racists who have gone to “minister to all nations”, I think to myself. How can we arise from this milieu and conclude with certainty that we have helped anything at all?

And my answer to this question, after looking at the pure bullshit that went down with so-called helpers in Uganda, is that we can’t. We need a new way to go about this, if we are going to go about it at all. And casting off serious criticisms as works of fiction that dissuade one from the unconditionally good task of “helping” is not that way. That is the old way.

I hope that you feel the sense in my words instead of just their anger. Lawino is a serious glimpse, not into old school Acholi style, but into our assumptions about the perspectives we manifest when we invade other spots with our plans for action. In Uganda, I worked with some people who not only did not want to repeat the colonial cycle, but may have found a good way not to. I think that you can do the same thing. But I don’t think you’re in the clear yet. And I certainly haven’t worked out my own troubles.

1 comment:

Nic Nice said...

My response is now posted, sorry I took so long to get back to this.