Thursday, March 24, 2016

Grateful for K

I am grateful for Kampala. I was born there, and that fact taught me a lot about preconceptions, judgement, belonging, wandering, colonialism, love, subservience, race, heat, memory, and dogs.

Preconceptions are sometimes funny. When my son says his mother was born in Uganda, they look at him in a funny way, and the cartoon balloon springing from peoples' heads reads: "you don't look very dark".  Also, people have thought that my parents were missionaries. That's a laugh too, especially if you knew my parents!

Judgement is one of those things we all do. I have my prejudices, although I'm not going to air my dirty laundry here, I know that I am judged for many facets of my existence. Being born in Kampala gave me an early insight into people's prejudice and knee-jerk need to pigeonhole.

Belonging, ah! belonging! A thing I've never felt. I spent my first three years in a paradise that was, as most paradises are, a touch unreal. From there I was swept off to Calgary, the land of snow, cowboys and Dallas gas men. I felt like the only girl in the whole town with crooked teeth and frizzy hair, and a dad who thought "puck" was a swear word.

Colonialism, that bugbear of the 20th century. I have though long and deep for much of my life about how colonialism has transformed our world. Of course, every generation always thinks theirs is the first to experience big events. I know that colonialism is an ancient practice that springs from one human's need to dominate another.

Love.

Subservience. In Malawi, when I was a skinny traveller eating mangoes, an older woman called me "memsahib". That was sad, and struck me down.

Race. Another place we can hang our coats of distrust, hatred, otherness, prejudice.

Heat! I love feeling the air at 37 degrees, or blood temperature. I love feeling sweat on my face, I love the sun, I love a rainstorm at 4pm, I love never having to wear a jacket.

Memory: When I finally returned to Kampala when I was 23, twenty years after I had left, I emerged from the plane and smelled a smell that felt like home. Fruit, sweat, woodsmoke, an unidentifiable perfume that the tropics emit. I went to the market in the center of Kampala - that was after Idi Amin but before the Ruandan genocide and before Kampala grew into the huge city it is now. I remembered the market. Nothing else remains in my conscious memory.

Dogs: When my mother was pregnant with me, her neighbor had two German Shepherds that were trained to kill anyone who entered the grounds of his house unnanounced (read black Africans looking for work or begging). One grabbed her arm with his large teeth and wouldn't let go. My lesson learned was that dogs are very loyal, obedient, and can be killers. Ditto people.

Wandering - the opposite of belonging. Cavafy speaks better than I do on this one:

Ithaka
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley


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