Seeking asylum from the past

Silence settled; I held hushed fear. Fear of sins returning to haunt. You changed, rearranged, but like heaven and hell, your mark remains in that gruesome book. No forgiveness or recognition, because they never saw your deconstruction and the reconstruction that followed.

I saw the reflection of myself in characters passing by; exploitative, consumptive bodies, self-constructed images dwelling in pools of the commonest stereotypes. Dancing in the sweat of created images, consumed. Gasping for air, I died, drowning in the reality of the foul lies I puddled around me.

My silence and fear. Hidden behind masks, disguised as a character unknown, I grasp at anonymity, watching ­–admiring– guests and relatives new. Fear of those whispers; telegram awaiting; please read out the African tongue. ‘Anyone but me, please.’ I changed, never pleaded forgiveness, though sorry I was, for I turned my back and denied that past. And yet you never understood; my deconstruction and reconstruction. Here you remind me of what I preferred be forgotten, like God on judgement day reminding me of every sin I made, though I regretted it long ago. To you the speech of that African tongue was not a single thing; but to me like awaiting God’s final call. Unrepented sins returning to the mind, your sorrow, your regret, ignored. Just like that, you changed, turned away from your blinded past, but no one can see now. All the same stereotypes; the same offensive view.

A generous brother’s wedding reception, the speeches halfway through. In Afro-Caribbean company, sister-in-law and all, the message from the African state gets pushed across the room. To you, only a happy sign, a message of goodwill, but to me, shaped like a nightmare, ready to curse me for my greed. Read the African tongue; I whisper, ‘What’s the need?’ You hear the message, but I only reflect on the image of my soul. Like softest soul; those stereotypes; purity, goodness, gold. The ist in me, not with hate, but in stereotyping empathy. I wished it lost, and perhaps it is, but in me I felt those who know, see. Old me, same construction, no de or re.

I read the words, pronounced the sounds, but all I held was anger. Memories of other times; sell myself, prove a point, display my selfish greed. Reggae played unnaturally loud in Caribbean company; right on displayed, but actually tastelessly off. Suggesting messages of freedom and equality in ear shot of the passing Nigerian. Telling the South African associate, quite indirectly, that not all your friends are white. ‘Ethnic’ names dropped into conversations, always passively of course. And look around, what do you know? A poster of Martin Luther King stuck upon the wall.

Past times I hoped to bury, immaturity I hoped to burn. Skin used to fight me with words aimed, but I would just deny. ‘That’s not me.’ My fight with Skunk Anansie, but sadly it was me. No guilt of hate, of name calling, or bullying, but guilt of stereotyping empathy. Pages filled with poetry, arguing, justifying; satisfying myself of my very existence; all denial that she had mouthed the truth.

Yet consciousness of colour was not ingrained naturally in me. The saddest irony of all; my ism became from a workshop on the problem of those ists. Through the South African who suggested that white people were generally racist, an innocence of unconsciousness quickly drained away. Now I had something to prove. From an unconscious wanderer, a constructed ist became. But as an ist, I never realised, until I saw the reflection of myself in characters passing by. An exploitative, consumptive body, a self-constructed image dwelling in pools of the commonest stereotypes, I immersed myself to drown. Emerged to be myself, changed and re-invented, but my face was still the same, so you thought I was still the same and, ignorant of my dishonest past, the way it troubled me so, you watched me stand reluctantly and I spoke your words at last.

The Polished Floor

Have you ever read the polished floor?
I read it every day
When I see you.
Is admiration wrong?
Because I admire,
But it is nothing more.
There are words on the polished floor,
Invisible to your eye,
But I read them.
Beyond a hidden world,
There’s something there.
And I wish I could share it,
But the words on the floor say, ‘No.’
I say, ‘It’s not fair.’
The floor says, ‘Life’s not fair.’
I say, ‘Well I don’t care.’
The floor says, ‘You’re reading me,
Of course you care.’
Is the longing for friendship wrong?
Because I long,
Though I know it’s an empty want.
Words on the polished floor:
‘Your isolation is your due,
Beyond this space, less of you,
Care and admire even more,
But the polished floor, never ignore.’

The E-Mail, the phonecall and the hydroelectric dam

When the thunder clattered and the rain lashed the ground, the power went off and SOAS library’s computer network ceased to function. There was no rain in Tanzania, the power went off, but it was more than the computers that suffered.

Michael Franti of Spearhead fame, the hiphopster on a mission of musical literation, would like this one. Africa Online and Food for the Masses. If this makes no sense, then here’s the summary: Franti’s latest album was the Chocolate Supa Highway and he questioned what the leaps of technology meant to the African continent. Was the internet relevant? His scepticism of our hi-tech, material, civilised world. And now the connection: E-Mail messages from Tanzania until they turned the power off in the middle of October.

Kiswahili conversations between a father and his daughter; the father somewhere in England, the daughter in Dodoma, Tanzania’s administrative capital city. On Thursday 9 October, his mailbox revealed that Dodoma was facing the beginning of a famine. The rains had not come and now there was a shortage of water. Food prices were rising and there was little information beyond their region to say that that was happening. At the time, according to the E-Mail, there were only eighteen inches of water in the dam above the turbines. Those were the turbines that were supposed to generate the majority of Tanzania’s electricity. And if there was no rain in November, the E-Mail said, the country would slowly begin to shut down.

By Saturday, the electricity was off. The father received an early morning telephone call from his daughter in Dodoma. Time winding handles, hoping for a connection, Vodaphone may be whispering from Sri Lanka, but not here; the electricity is dead. Saturday 11 October, the electricity had now been turned off because there was not enough water in the hydroelectric dam. The effects would be felt all over the country and in the major towns, including that far coastal city of Dar Es Salaam. Now the fading voice on the telephone said there will be delays in the distribution of food and relief. No electricity, no power to the mills that ground the maize. Tanzania off-line, need food for the masses.