To all the “awkward” people out there:
They don’t know. Those people around you have no idea. They’ve never known what it’s like to spend your entire life being uncomfortable. They will never understand. You will try to bend yourself and break yourself and mold yourself into something that makes sense to them, because to them a person like you does not make sense. You will try to fit into what they think you should be and how they think you should behave. But they will still never understand. Because even at your best level of pretense, you cannot be good enough for them. Something is still wrong with you. There is something you are still not doing “right”.
The worst part is that you will not even know. You will not know the hold they have over you, you will not know how much they affect you, you will not realize that the reason you are trying to morph into something you do not understand is because they got into your head. You see, they do it so well. It will take you years to realize that the problem is not with you but with them. You will spend your energy and time confused about who you are and frustrated about life and think you really do have a problem. Why are you different from them? Why don’t you think the way they think and act the way they act? You will struggle and toil and sweat.
But there is good news. One day you will realize that the world is a beautiful place because of one thing: variety. You will learn that everyone is different, you will learn that you are unique, you will learn that the way you are is beautiful and wonderful and the world needs you in your true form. You will learn that there are many things you can do better that those who feel like only people like them should exist, and the day you learn that will be a day of explosions of colour in your mind because you will understand that your peculiar passions have their own important place and purpose. You will one day begin to discover yourself more, you will one day learn to build your confidence in yourself and be secure in the knowledge of who you are: a unique soul made to be itself and not anyone else.
Some days it will be easy. On those days your passions might give you so much fire you begin to seem great and important and everything seems bright and amazing. On other days it be hard, because a “flaw” of yours will constantly be pointed out and it will be like a thorn repeatedly pricking your flesh in the same place ten thousand times. They will say it should be easy for you to speak in front of a crowd or to play a certain sport or to approach someone you’ve been secretly wanting to talk to, because for them, it is. The way they are makes it not a big deal. For you, it will take staggering amounts of courage and they might mock you when you panic and embarrass yourself because they can never know and will never understand what you went through just to try. Many times your personality will feel like a defect. Why are you like this? Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you like this? They will think that the way you live your life is a mistake because it is not like theirs.
Worse still will be that sometimes even not-so-good things will become something for them to be proud of. The fact that you are the kind who keeps a low profile and never gets into trouble or does anything outrageous will become a burden. Yes, there will be a point where they will think you are really unfortunate and quite stupid and will feel sorry for you for not being more of an experimenter, or for refusing to get caught up in what everyone else loves, sometimes even for having your own set of principles. It will confuse you so much you will want to lock yourself in a room and hide.
I have one thing to tell you: do not be afraid. They are strong, but you are strong too. You do not have to apologize or compromise. Be you, but also allow for growth. You will never be fully comfortable – “awkward” people were never meant to be – but you will come to a point where you can stop just living and start to thrive.
I never realised how easy it is to assume things until I caught myself doing it sometime back. I got into a taxi to head back home, and the taxi got full and started to move without a conductor. I thought, well, this must be one of those awkward situations where the driver does the conductor’s work too and when getting out a passenger has to stretch their arm like “omujiini” to pass the money over to the driver himself. I accepted this sad situation and began to work on a way of easing life by getting out the exact money required so that the driver wouldn’t have to search for change. I was feeling quite happy with myself, what with being well-prepared, until my neighbour asked me to do her a favour by giving her my 1500 so that she’d pay for the two of us at once with her 10000 note in order to do the same thing I had wanted to do: to ease the change situation. I gave it to her and then from nowhere began to feel bad. I had done my part not to make the driver suffer and now it was reversed because of Madam Neighbour. Then I became angry: why doesn’t this ki taxi have a conductor anyway???
And then lo and behold, I see someone handing money to the woman seated where the conductor would normally sit. I see her give the person back his change. I see her pulling a bunch of notes out of one of those waist strap bags. I see her ask other passengers for money. My God. We have a conductor all along. A conductress.
I am, in this particular order, shocked, glad, confused, elated and then perturbed. How could my brain have so automatically refuted the possibility of her being the conductor? I mean, I had seen her sit there in the conductor’s place, and no other conductor had come in. How hadn’t it occured to me?
A thought became clear in my mind that had been swimming there for a while, blurry and formless: there’s a reason for stereotypes. There is a reason why it is a little difficult for my mind to wrap around the fact that this woman was the conductor. And why is this? Because not many women, actually barely any even do this job at all. So when one is shocked by it they don’t mean that a woman can’t be a conductor, they just mean it’s not common and they are not used to it.
The conductress has began to make sense to me in lots of things. There is a reason why many non-Africans think Africa is only populated by hungry, begging, war-ravaged people and why many Africans think all white people are rich. There is a reason why some groups of people are seen as thieves and others as cheats. Not because everyone of them is. But because, many of them, too many, exhibit this very same behaviour, and because over time, this is the part of them they show most to others, despite not being entirely like that. There is a reason for stereotypes. I realised that nobody wakes up in the morning and creates a stereotype just because, but that it instead comes from something people notice over time and begin to get used to. Of course some stereotypes are exaggerated or over-used or plainly ridiculous. But most come from something at least close to reality in one way or another. I have realised now that much as societies and peoples and tribes and genders need to learn not to view each other through stereotypical lenses, it is also the responsibility of the group of people being stereotyped in a way they don’t like to change this stereotype, because others will never change how they see you until enough of you are different enough to break the mold. Some will say it doesn’t matter what other people think of you, but I don’t think it’s entirely true. Simple things like these affect so many aspects of life, even in ways we do not notice. They might affect if you get a certain job or not, if you get awarded a contract, if you are given the position of treasurer at your local church, or a million other things.
The conductress broke a stereotype for me. I never thought I’d see a woman do that. Frankly, I’m inspired. Not that I’m about to become a conductress any time soon, but I feel like I should open up to many more opportunities that I would have previously ignored because of the stereotypes I harbour about my own self.
A toast to you, Madam Conductress.
Could someone just rewind this week back to Monday so that the Writivism 2016 festival would be just beginning again? Or better still, could someone just fast forward to next year so it’d be Writivism festival again?
Because I’m not done. I don’t feel done. I am unable to deal with the fact that it has come to an end. But like all good things….
I could say I’ve learnt a lot at this festival but I’d be lying, because a lot is too little. From Monday all the way to Sunday it did not relent. The book launches – I never thought this possible – were so much fun; the readings had me going broke, scrambling for copies of these wonderful books (especially a certain amazing author whose name is Chuma Nwokolo, he just finished all my money. You people must buy How to Spell Naija in 100 stories and enjoy with me, I don’t want to be selfish with my joy). I met and got into interesting conversations with so many people, from readers to aspiring writers to writers to bloggers to authors to publishers to Greek gods and goddesses. This thing brings together so many beautiful minds and souls.
Also, this year, our Francophone brothers and sisters have been fully included in everything, from submissions to judging and the events themselves, which has made Writivism more wholesomely African by reaching out to more African nations. This particularly gives me so much joy as a lover and speaker of the French language.
The biggest lesson Writivism 2016 has taught me, however, is not one you’d quite expect: that partying is not a stage. You read that right. You might wonder how on earth partying came in, but yeah it did. Let me explain.
Have you ever had that friend (or are you yourself the kind of person) who doesn’t really go out clubbing, partying or drinking and generally doesn’t do any interesting stuff by Ugandan standards? People always say such a person is missing a stage and will one day wake up in their forties or fifties and crave the party life they didn’t live in their youth and begin hitting the clubs mixing with people half their age to kind of pay back a debt to the gods of youth. Well, I disagree. Partying is not a stage. What the stage is is that time of your youth when you enjoy your passions and explore your interests. Being at the Writivism festival this week has had me feeling some type of way, the way I imagine many of my agemates might feel after a good party or after great night out on the town. I am actually in a state of hangover; I didn’t think I would make it to the office today. I get my high off things like these. I feel like I need a few days of to digest all the Writivism bubbling around inside my brain.
And to crown it all: Acan Innocent Immaculate, who is a friend of mine (yes I must show off), won the fourth Writivism short story prize. Glory! Talk about friends who inspire! Talk about a great end to a great week!
The people that told me of life
It skipped their wise minds
When they sat me down
When they took my hand
To give me their insight about this earthly life
The self-help books forgot: they talked of high tides and waves
Of moments of joy and tremendous gain
Of determination and of strength
Of not giving up through the stormy gale
Also, of life’s hard times and pain
Of traps: “Beware of life’s many traps!” they said
That life is one great crazy jungle
In which the hunters set traps, and watch, and wait.
I could set my own.
The hunter can hunt themselves
The hunter can be me
Don’t warn me of the outside thief
Of the kidnapper that prowls dark streets
Don’t warn me of lions with bared teeth
Or of cheetahs that run at a million miles speed
Of snakes that aim and bite for the kill:
Because those, I can see
Those, we have learnt to spot
Warn me instead of the most lethal being
Warn me of
Warn me that some days I will be the tsunami
That some days I will quake and bring down buildings
Warn me that I will steal from myself
Warn me that I will hit myself
That I will sit down,
Design the trap
Carefully set it
And carefully fall in it
And it will bite into my own ankles
And it will hurt
And the pain will be my lesson
And I will burn with emotion
And my cries for help will be mere curses
Teach me how to get through that.
Today the ground shook for me
It stood up and roared for me
But not just that!
It danced for me
The world did a little jump for me
And all I can imagine now
Is how much it must have jumped
For my mother
The day I decided I’d jump out.
Her world must have exploded into madness
She must have been filled with so much sadness
Thinking she’d lose me
Never get to see me
And grow and play and be pretty.
If I could speak I would have told her
Hush, Mummy, I’ll get to grow older
There’s a higher power, don’t you worry
It’s Him who brought me here two months early
And He’s going to be there
And I’m going to be well
And we’re going to be happy.
Now that I’m away
In my own little version of
making mummy proud
We don’t get to be together
On a day like……today……
And you know what happens?
The world shakes.
Many things in our traditions may die out but this thing with death just won’t die. Not now. We may be phasing out various practices in the way we cook our food or greet our elders, we may be wearing bitenge and calling it African print and cleverly letting it replace our true Ugandan cultural wear or speaking our languages less and less or whatever else that comes with modernization and globalization. But when someone dies the whole clan is going to gather and travel to the village and wail in a truly African fashion. A million little rituals are carried out. The deceased’s family ends up the hosts of a mammoth crowd. People show up. Your enemies. Your friends. Close relatives you like. Distant relatives you don’t really remember. Phony relatives you hate. Everyone. And they’ll be there, they’ll stay the night (or three nights), they’ll contribute condolence money for the funeral and somehow, one of them will cook nice thick porridge to keep everyone warm and satisfied as they sob. Because there’s a lot of crying. Some other relative will even make chai and katogo so everyone won’t miss their lunch and supper for the day (or three days).
We still bury at our ancestral homes. Over a month ago I lost a relative and there was a decision to make about where to bury them, due to some complications in the deceased’s ancestry. Someone then asked why we haven’t yet adopted the graveyard thing (or is the proper name ‘cemetery’?), like more developed countries instead of always having to sort out family land issues at burial time.
I almost jumped out of my seat. Suddenly I’m all like Nooo. No. No. Don’t do this to me. This is the one part of our culture we still uphold the most and yes I used to hate all the family stuff but now I’m begging it please don’t die. We need this. This sort of family unity and expression of culture that comes with death, we need it. Somehow, when there’s so many people each trying to help out somewhere, even if it’s only help with the crying and eating, the pain is easier borne. You can lose yourself in the crowd and mourn as one, you can look around and let the support strengthen you. The force of family and tradition keeps you going. I know the day will come when the demands on land won’t let us bury the way we do anymore; when people will no longer abandon their busy schedules and jobs to travel so far into villages and mourn together; when we will need to designate places for the dead while no longer bothered about their particular ancestries. Yes it will, we already see the signs. But please, not yet. Not now.
Sometime back I happened, within the space of a few days from each other, to eat at a “kafunda” and then at a classy restaurant. It’s not like I’d never been to any of those two kinds of places, but for the first time I noticed the stark contrast between them. It’s amazing the things we don’t notice, or that we notice everyday but gradually close our eyes, ears and hearts to. I was left confused anew by how different life is for people on different sides of this Kampala city of ours.
We went to the kafunda as a large group and there was barely anywhere to sit. We ended up having to pile up on two benches so tiny and shaky I was afraid they’d fall apart before we got a chance to get something into our stomachs. The carpenter who’d made the table we were to eat at must have had zero training; the thing looked resigned. And the food…..oh the food! It was dug out of grimy saucepans right in front of our eyes with hands that kept touching everything from stained kitenge wrappers to sweaty foreheads and leaky noses. I don’t even want to start on the cutlery. You should be able to picture its state from what you’ve read so far. And yet I’ve never enjoyed a meal so much in my life. One of these days I’m going to start believing that filthy conditions are a necessary ingredient for delicious food. Never mind how ridiculously cheap it all was.
Now on the EXTREME other hand, the classy restaurant. Dear Lord. The waiters warmly greeted us (only two this time; you don’t really go to cool restaurants in large numbers) with the warmest words and smiles, and a bow. Yes. They did a little curtsy for us! The person I was with had a big laptop and was checking emails, so the waiters felt the need to carry another table over to us so that we’d dine together and I’d still have enough space to eat comfortably without the laptop all up in my face. Before that I’d been amused by the sheer excess of serviettes they gave us, plus pretty little bottles of salad oils that looked like bottles of expensive perfume. But an extra table? Just for me? That left me nodding in amused approval! I asked for a sandwich and guess what; sandwiches come with an entire (huge!) plate of free fries (if they’re really free at all, considering the price of the meal). The sandwich was large, too. And superb! Not to mention the cinnamon flavored tea that I guzzled down with no mercy. Everything was on point.
Be not fooled though, people, we paid for all this luxury. A small fortune. And an arm and a leg. As we left I was almost saddened by how much we’d had to spend on a meal we could have gotten for a quarter of the price. Almost saddened. Because you can’t really be sad when a hot waiter in a hot outfit is smiling at you as he escorts you out of the restaurant, heartily thanking you and sweetly talking you into coming back again. Well, I guess we paid for that too. Such a charming side-smile can’t just be handed for free…… Oh, plus those luxurious serviettes. And the salad dressing that we didn’t even use.