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Archive for February, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Ugali

October 2006, Lilongwe, Malawi.

Sitting at Malawi’s Kamuzu international airport in this year’s already singeing summer has me bored, constipated and wishing I was somewhere else. I’ve been dropped off an hour and half early and am finding it difficult to breathe. This has nothing to do with my premature arrival, but with a rather wild weekend in Nairobi a few days prior that will remain a story for another day. I’m on my way back home though, which is good.

The reason I’ve whipped my laptop out is really a mixture of envy, nostalgia and arrogance.

I’ve just been watching someone whom I think to be a Malawian on his way out of his country for the very first time.

He is roughly in his mid thirties and is wearing a green disheveled suit that he will not be remembered for. He has clearly been wearing it a long time. A couple of days I would think.

His shoes though, are an entirely different matter. They look brand new and have no trace of wear save for the shallow line of dust along the bottom half of the sole. They are what cause me to notice this otherwise quite ordinary fellow. They stick out like how a rhinoceros would in…well, just like how a rhino sticks out wherever it is.

The shoes are also quite bright yellow as if in defiance to his dull green suit. Were it not for those shoes, my encounter with this man might have gone otherwise unreported. Quite arrogantly I think that those shoes are that man’s sole and only claim to fame.

He is accompanied by an equally nondescript man in his sixties and a younger fellow grunting under the weight of a humongous suitcase. The “tote-wallah” deposits the case on the scales at the check-in counter and the numbers spin. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Shoes is seven kilos above permitted weight and an animated discussion with the uninterested Air Malawi girl ensues. The end result is that he comes back to the queue with his entourage and they open up the case to see if they can trim some of the extra weight off.

Tote-wallah is exceedingly resilient for a man of his slight stature and executes the procedure with deceptive ease. Soon, the excision is ended and a five kilo bag of Iwisa maize-meal flour has been removed and indifferently sits on the floor beside the queue just ahead of me.

If you’re not African, then you might not know that maize-meal is used to make ugali (or pap, nshima or sadza depending on which part of the continent you come from) and forms the cornerstone of the typical sub-Saharan diet. It is a great injustice to separate a man from his ugali and I can almost swear I saw Shoes wipe away a tear

The check-in procedure is however then flawlessly concluded and the man disappears from my view and on to the rest of his life leaving his family to deal with the surrendered excess.

He and his yellow shoes, however, linger in my mind.

Having completed profiling him, I step past the huddle around the maize-meal and check myself in to then find a quiet place to muse on what I’d just seen.

I conclude that this man had been accompanied by his father and a relative to the airport in Lilongwe from some far and unpronounceable section of Malawi and was on his way for the first time into Johannesburg to seek his fortune.

The suit gave away the fact that he had traveled in it for a few days and it being high summer, the fact that he was from the breed of African who still maintained that one could only be truly dressed when one was in a suit.

This genus of African tends to occur more in the rural areas but can be seen in many urban settings displaying distinct characteristics that enable you to spot him from a distance. What had happened here was typical of a man who had left his village and yet somehow managed to take the village along with him.

I used to be like him when younger and always had a bag of beans from my mother’s little farm packed snugly in my suitcase.  I check myself as I realise that, in judgment, I have stumbled across what I have actually become; a man who is increasingly separated from his roots and this is bad.

I actually now envy his simplicity and wish I could be more like him again.

Maybe I should get a pair of yellow shoes.

2006-10-04

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I wrote this story many years ago while living in Botswana. The events described here actually happened and very little dramatic license is employed. Enjoy.

RG

There’s no such thing as a free lunch

On Friday the week past, a friend of mine invited me to attend the official Microsoft Channel-Partner launch for Windows Vista, Office and Exchange 2007 here in Gaborone.

Having been to many of these shindigs, I prepared myself for a day of schmoozing by Bill’s boys and the promise of a good lunch. The lunch was always key in these things as it usually ensured fanatic attendance.

The day began quite expectedly with the usual gathering of people outside the conference facility exchanging pleasantries. The ICT community in Gaborone is so small that we’d all gotten to know each other and were even beginning to form seating alliances for the midday meal. No longer was the seating random, but preset according to the number of these things you’ve gone for and where in the feeding order (pun regretted) you were perceived to be.

After a few cursory nods to the gathering at the door I hastened into the centre and secured seating for myself and a friend, whom I knew was not far behind. The ubiquitous conference pen in my pocket, I sat and waited for everyone to enter.

It was at this point that I noticed that this might not be your typical presentation. The first deviations from the norm were the colorful spotlights/laser thingies crisscrossing the room at random; similar to the sort of thing you’d see in a night club. This was the background to which a video clip asked if we were ready for the next revolution in office automation in a continuous loop and in many subtitled languages.

The smoke machines on stage slowly oozed steam, lending more drama to an as yet unoccupied podium.

It was to this backdrop that the opening speaker bounded onto stage and asked “ARE YOU READY!!??.”  (pause) “ARE YOU REEAAADYYY!!??.” , he asked again pacing from one end of the dais to the other in step to “The Power” by Snap.

The well presented and bespectacled fellow that was screaming this had been standing with the Microsoft team welcoming people at the entrance. He was the meekest looking of the lot and this introductory roar from him had me worried about what else was to come.

I imagine most people in the crowd were caught as flat-footed and slack-jawed as I was because the Product Evangelist (a title which he later denied) kept shouting out this question until he got a few confused answers confirming a reluctant readiness. Like the Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, this fellow was oozing with enthusiasm and had already started sweating. In all fairness, however, this was Botswana. It was difficult to do anything enthusiastically without incurring the wrath of the Kalahari summer.

“I’m going to help you feel what we at Microsoft are feeling about all our new products!” he shouted on.

Some murmurings in the crowd.

“We need you to feel as great and as energized as we do if you’re going to sell these wonderful products successfully!” he added.

More mutterings.

“To help you get to the place where we are at, we’re offering an Xbox 360 to the single most enthusiastic person today!”

Rising cheers start to be heard from some corners.

“We’ve obtained permission from the management of this facility for you to stand on your chairs and show us just how excited you are!” he bellowed at us.

A girl at the front stood up on her seat and cheered even louder than everyone else, no doubt already making plans for the gaming console.

“ARE YOU READY!” he shouted again, and this time everyone including myself screamed a resounding yes. I hadn’t been that ready in a while.

The next speaker dramatically appeared on stage introduced by Mandoza’s prolific “Nkalakatha” and dancing for all he was worth while demanding that everyone rise to their feet and dance with him to this tune in true hip hop style. The deep baseline of this kwaito song reverberated across the Gaborone Sun Conference Centre and to someone passing outside it might have sounded like the sound-check session for a concert that evening. I do not remember exactly what this guy was presenting. But I do remember being very surprised at the delivery while also dancing my heart out in defiance to the stifling heat.

The morning went on with increasingly dramatic presentations with even a stern-faced no-nonsense and probably ex-military guy lecturing on the evils of non-licensed Microsoft products and offering a lifeline to those who’d crossed over to the dark side through yet another one of those cleverly acronymed migration programs.

I was incredulous. What had happened to the calm, traditional PowerPoint led offerings that I was so used to? Had I made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at some parody of a Microsoft launch? Was there a hidden camera somewhere watching us as we jumped up and down on our seats hoping for an Xbox for Christmas? When was this madness going to end and the slide show beginning?

I only realized that they were serious when the concert ended and the promised lunch actually happened. No one forked out one hundred five-star meals on a whim, and they had certainly made sure that we earned it by sitting through that morning.

Microsoft had successfully merged a product launch with a circus and gotten us to play the clowns.

Gaborone – 2006-12-04

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Taste shoe leather!

A while ago, the Marvel Comics Group decided to retire Peter Parker as the alter ego of the Amazing Spiderman and replaced him with a new, improved and quite black, Miles Morales. This, I gather, was in an attempt to widen the appeal of the web-slinger across to a new demographic.  Miles was received by the comic book fraternity with mixed feelings and the debates about the black Spiderman still rage on.

This got me thinking about why it is that most, if not all, superheroes come from and live in the western world. Do we in Africa not need spandex-clad men of wonder streaking through our skies and saving us from the ever looming catastrophes of that make-believe world? Are Africans incapable of spontaneous combustion and feats of superhuman strength when subjected to cosmic rays or irradiated spiders?

But then I remembered. Buried deep in my subliminals were very faded images of just such African men of power. I had not read, seen or heard tell of them for over 30 years and hence the scant recollection. Where are they today? Have they been retired like Peter Parker? Have they been replaced with new ones who’ve escaped my notice? It is my sincere hope that this is the case and invite anyone who reads this to point me to where I can get news of our new caped wonders. Until then, let me tell you a bit of the ones that I do remember.

My earliest memory of an African superhero dwells around an erstwhile 1970’s photo comic book icon called “The Son of Sam”. A super-strong do-gooder imbued with gravity defying powers and bullet stopping gloves that helped him along as he battled the ever present powers of evil.  An extended google search for this renaissance superman of colour yielded nothing. Absolutely nothing! Neither did a search for his compatriots the Tarzan-like “Fearless Fang” and the super agent “Big Ben of London” produce any hits. Only a search for the smooth sleuth “Lance Spearman” (in picture) yielded a result; a result so meager that it is not even worth mentioning.

No trace remains of these men of grit that filled the newsstands of my youth as I’m sure many children of the sixties and seventies will affirm. Whatever happened to these giants of men? Have they been committed to the doom of living out the rest of their lives beneath the dusty Nairobi coffee tables that sometimes spit out the prehistoric copies of Drum and the African Film Magazine that have recently started appearing on Facebook nostalgia pages? Do they not even rate a measly google hit?

It is time we got some new superheroes then is it not? If you happen to know a graphic novelist or are one yourself, let me share a possible plot with you. This superhero was birthed by a friend of mine and I while sharing a beer and he remains very dear to me and perhaps one day he will get the expression he deserves.

Scene: a dark and stormy night somewhere in rural Kenya. A man walks out of his hut and staggers to the nearby outhouse looking to relieve his full bladder. As he shuts the door behind him, a clap of thunder hides the sound of the creaking floorboards. He pauses to laugh about something he remembers and the storm outside rages on. As he gets on with his business, a sudden calm surrounds the shack as the eye of the storm arrives and leaves only the sound of his steady stream splashing after the long drop into the pit.

This calm is shattered by a loud crack! Outside, the storm has not resumed, but inside another resounding crack sees the floor of the outhouse completely cave in and fall into the yawning abyss and with it taking the screaming man.

The storm resumes and the thunder rolls as the man desperately struggles against the putrid morass that is hungrily sucking him in. His screams go unheard as the wind outside howls its fury and he continues his descent into that terrible pungent sludge.

His head finally goes under and he can no longer scream, but he clings to a desperate hope and continues to reach upwards through the muck.

A final clap of thunder is heard and a simultaneous lightning bolt licks its way down from the heavens and cleaves through the flimsy shack and into the pit where our man’s hand is all that remains above the surface…

The next morning, the remaining rubble stirs and from beneath the smoking embers emerges a new being of great power…

Several names have been suggested for this new man of might, including Captain Bog and The Stinkster but my favourite remains, The Shizzle.

Is there anyone out there who would care to illustrate and bring The Shizzle to life?

2012-02-16

Update

He sleeps with a pillow under his gun.

I’ve just been reminded by a friend about an African hero whose name it is dangerous to omit. In fact, it would probably be said he is the only actual superhero on this planet.

It is with great pleasure and fear that I present the veritable superhero of superheroes, Makmende. My apologies for not properly recognising this great bastion of justice.

Hiss?

I have also been sent this hilarious picture that no doubt had to be dusted off before it was digitised to give a forgotten African heroine one more day in the sun.

I must admit that I know nothing of the Cobra save for the obvious fact that this magazine was printed in Rhodesia.  Does anyone have more details on this serpentine heroine?

The cover still has me smiling.

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Bits of song and broken drums were all he could recall”. Very poignant words crooned by the ageless Johnny Clegg and the ever-supportive Savuka in a hit song that cleverly chronicles the path through which the British led their colonies to what are today termed to be modern and independent civilisations.

Third world child, the title of the song and album, catapulted Mr. Clegg into international renown in the late eighties as he accompanied it with the more familiar tune “Scatterlings of Africa” in painting an altogether bleak picture of the plight of this Dark Continent.

In the same song, the third world child is encouraged to walk in the dreams of the foreigner and quite melodiously to learn to speak some English and his soul will be saved.

I salute Mr. Clegg for this wonderful tune, and it is as it echoes in my head that I take this moment to reflect on what I perceive to be at the root purpose of all our existence; the pursuit of happiness. Yes, even as a third world child like myself went to school and learnt to speak that little bit of English, the underlying hope was that it would be constituent in bringing me happiness. The fate of the third world child in this pursuit of happiness would appear to have been worsened by the dreams of the foreigner and I find myself thinking about what happiness really is.

I will not delve into the relativity of happiness but will say this: happiness is a much debated and discussed condition going through history in infinite states of description but maintaining one universally agreed upon characteristic. It is said to be elusive.

Mankind’s existence is therefore clichéd in the much flogged phrase “the pursuit of happiness” because of its penchant for retreat.

We all get up in the morning or at whatever time our schedules dictate to engage in activity that will gain us health, wealth, wisdom, etc. with a reliability whose purpose is to bring us that much closer to catching up with a happiness that ironically becomes increasingly ephemeral. When does it all end, this hopeless race!?

At this stage I want to apologise for that rather long-winded introduction and will, without further waste, go straight on to what I wanted to say.

It is my position that generally, the goal of pursuit is capture. If we share this stance, then you will also agree that after capture, pursuit immediately ends and it is replaced by measures for containment, exploitation, consumption, etc. A near endless variety of transitive verbs can be used to describe what one would do with happiness in this scenario, save one; release. Release should never, ever be an option.

Why then, are we forever in this pursuit of happiness? Could it be that we have never attained it?

Speaking for myself, I have been happy innumerable times and in many instances continue to be so. I, sadly, am also very often unhappy too. I think that it is the condition of life that we require some sadness to really appreciate happiness in the same vein as a high point is only high with reference to a low one. The trick, in my opinion, is to retain the balance in favour of the high points.

Very easily said I hear you say, and I understand if you are thinking that you might have just wasted valuable time reading this blurb up to here only to find that I’m only saying you should strive to be happier than sadder and not telling you how. Quite honestly, I can’t tell you how.

I’m simply saying that I do not believe that happiness is a thing we eternally pursue, but something that we quite often attain but due to our natures, it again and again escapes us as we turn our gaze from what we already have to what bigger and better version might be lurking beyond our reach.

Recognise your life for what it is and not what you hope for it to be and embrace that which makes you happy now.

There is much more to the little things in life than I ever knew and so I dedicate this blog to those littler things and hope to share them with you from time to time as my method of embracing them.

I, after all, am a third world child and I recall a whole lot more than bits of song and broken drums.

2012-02-15

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