Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Thoughts on the Arab World: Part 1: A Tribute to #MyLibya

The Libya I lived in was one under Gaddaffi. So it may seem strange that I am writing this. But I think I should, for the only way we know it is dark is when the light shines. Libya gave me much that I will ever be grateful for. It gave me my first real chance to experience the deep intertwining of Arab-Muslim life. I say intertwining because it is a bit tricky to separate one from the other. I was able to experience the practice of Islam in a Muslim majority country, to feel the practice of the religion first hand, free from all the media stereotyping and misguided notions regarding the Islamic faith. I had genuinely Muslim friends, people who really wanted to be their best and had their struggles.

It is where I learned that really God will make all our differences clear to us when He returns on Judgement Day. It is where I was able to enjoy the delight of dried dates and milk, a combination that is both devastatingly simple and wonderful; date syrup (to this day I still think it tastes better than honey :)), and couscous with camel meat. I also remember striving hard in my Arabic so that I could be able to read the multiple signs (they were actually billboards to be honest) of Gadaffi that were pretty much everywhere.
Signs that read 'Dawn of Freedom' were the most common and simplest to read for me, as I could memorize the few words on it and go look them up in the dictionary. Others I translated as well, but after getting the general idea behind the words, I would forget. It is also where I learned about the cause of the Palestinian people and since then, Israel is one of the countries I have no intentions of visiting. I'm visiting Palestine first, period.

A lot of us looking at Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, may think that the Arab Spring has withered. I disagree. Summer temperatures for the region are quite hot. So if indeed we have seen the Arab Spring, isn't it only natural that summer would follow? And I'm not talking about an idyllic summer. I'm talking about a real summer. When you turn on the air conditioning and it isn't enough to drown the heat. When you wish you could move around in a tank of cold water or a bubble containing cool air, so that the heat would not affect you. This is the summer that the revolutions of the Arab Spring are going through. And just as the summer days, with their heat and lengthened days, never seem likely to end, so do the troubles the revolutions are going through right now. Do not give up looking for Autumn. It is coming. The hopes of the Arab Spring have not withered. It is up to us to keep them alive.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Reflections: The Power Of Faith

Have faith...I think if you keep looking, keep desiring, earnestly, never wavering, always with a pure heart and mind, freeing yourself from all impurities that threaten to distract you, derail you and get you off track, you'll find what you're looking for and just how you should apply it.

                                                                                   -- Memoirs Of A Secular Nun, Vol.1

Friday, 8 August 2014

Reflections: Regarding Dreams

'Why did she feel this disquietude in her heart? Why did she feel so unsure?? When she envisions it, it seems real, perfectly plausible, pragmatic and practical. When she brings her dreams to life however, they have this odd distorted quality about them. It's like they've lost their shine. They are no longer as bright and brilliant as when they lay in the noonday sun of her imagination. They hang limp, immobile, seemingly devoid of life except when she pokes at them to be sure. It's like inside her is the heaven where dreams come true, and the world outside the place where hope is ground to dust, where dreams flicker then fade, and joy is but a brief cloud's shade from the burning sun of despair. She wants so much to go back inside, to retreat into the heaven that lies within. But she can't let herself sleep, not yet...'

We all feel like that sometimes, or actually, a lot of the time. If we do not retreat, then we choose to give into the humiliation of surrender. Slowly but surely mellowing, modifying, and changing our hopes and dreams for what everybody else tells us is right. For the narrative society has laid out for us. For what the statistics point to as the logical conclusion. It is no longer uncommon to hear our once valued ambitions comfortably brought out into the light after some good food and drink, when everyone is happy, satisfied and relaxed, to be made fun of. To be reminded of what we used to say when we were children. When we didn't know any better. And we shall hang our heads in shame or smile in acceptance. 

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in that grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
-- Theodore Roosevelt
The first time I read this quote, I did not understand it. When I tried to, I usually thought that Theodore Roosevelt was referring to cowards. People who, in my mind, had opted for the easy, predictable life. That in itself is one possible interpretation of this statement. However, I have since found that what he was really talking about were people, who when they have a dream, opt to go on sleeping in order to return to it, rather than strive to accomplish it in waking life. The sad hypocrites who pledge their undying love to their dreams, then go off and marry a life of mediocrity and subservience to society's demands. I say sad hypocrites because it is a sad life indeed to believe one thing and do another. A sad thing that you have courage enough to think, but fear enough to stop you from acting on what you think. Maybe for the person in question, the melancholy associated with the sell-out ceases once they've accepted their choice. For me who is watching, I see what could have been, and thus I can never stop weeping.  

There is a beautiful quote of Oscar Wilde that captures the essence of dreams. He says:
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
It is truly a punishment to see what no one sees. To feel what no one else can detect with their own senses. You run the risk of being termed mad, crazy as well as being the force of other subtle slanderings both by others and the part of you that is 'rational'. Of course, I like to look at punishment in this context as 'painful responsibility'. There is responsibility that is fashionable. It comes with perks, such as a good image or respect from your close friends and family. However painful responsibility is a lot less fun. If you find the courage to take it on, it means you'll do things that are unfashionable and unpopular. Things that make you stand out from the crowd in ways you'd rather not. A heartfelt calling can sometimes be such a thing. Even when you are doing what you love, what you enjoy, there'll always be a time where you'll have to go against the grain in order to take the practice of your calling to a higher level.

Reality can be very cruel. It can form such a deterrent to dreams that you may wonder from where it is that you got the strength, even the audacity, to dream. Reality's jagged edges, crooked lines, and distorted shapes exist to provide a different kind of hope. That is if you have the courage to look for it. It can show you the consequences of you failing to fulfill even one quarter of your dreams. It can show you how great the difference you can make. If you choose to see reality that way.

Remember that the statistics are made by people like you. Society, when it comes down to it, is made up of individuals. You too are an individual. You have the power to determine what next the statistics will show when you accomplish that impossible dream. Do not give it up because things look gloomy. Fight and make life a bit more colourful, as your contribution through the fulfillment of your own dreams.   

Friday, 25 July 2014

Perfection is a trap

Yes, that's what hit me. It is a trap. A solid, well planned, well designed trap. We all fall for it. Not because we are stupid, but because it is subtle. It is clever, and just when you think you've escaped, it comes at you in a new way.

No, I am not talking about the perfectionists, although there's something in this for them. What I'm talking about are the prodigies. You know, the people who we point to as being very smart, very responsible; the kind of kids/adults we all want to have been and who our kids should be like. I'm talking about the ones who hold it together when people think they're going to fall apart. When no one's looking, they fall apart freely, for good and they carry on. Even when people keep staring and pointing.

We usually ask ourselves why. They were good. They had a great life, and great future. Why throw it away? You're asking. I'm answering. Simply put, they are lonely and they are alone. The two separate concepts combine to deadly effect.

Lonely and alone. Let's split them up and look at them.

Alone. In this case, the person is getting resources. Being well supplied is not difficult because they are seen as trustworthy, honourable, the picture you envision when you hear the word 'good'. But they lack people. In abundance. Everyone stays away because they clearly have it all together. They can operate with minimal supervision. No need to watch over them.

Lonely. In the cases where the great future goes to waste, the loneliness is a result of the alone-ness described above. They have nobody to confide in because the few people that come to them, come with hopes held high. Few of these tragic heroes can bring themselves to crush that hope. So they tuck in their imperfections and play along with the script. Right until they find the friends that give them the solace they've been craving, and they fall apart.

These are the results of falling into the trap of perfection. How do you fall? Very simple. Never admit failure. Never say what's wrong. Create an image and maintain it.

There maybe people who really enjoy doing their best for its own sake. Because it makes them happy because they have given it their all. On the other hand, they don't want to get sucked into being a role model. A poster child for doing well, no room for failure.

My advice would be this:

Get over the fear of success and the resulting isolation. There is no way around that, no matter how hard you try. Being alone or lonely is a matter of perspective. Do look at what you have. But remember one thing: volunteer to be vulnerable. Share what's wrong. What's not working out. Avoid living a life of quiet desperation; a life where you are drowning in your own silence because you keep waiting to be asked to speak. The price and responsibility of genius is to speak first, and to speak last. As a successful person, do not let yourself get trapped into being termed 'perfect'. Once you're in, it will be a bloody struggle to get out.

Do not let yourself be airbrushed into being perfect. Leave the cracks open to remind yourself (and everybody else) you're human. Perfection may or may not be your aim, but progress should be your goal. Progress is human, perfection is God. And you are not God. Get over it.

Monday, 14 July 2014


'...a deeper truth: that unless more men become feminists, the battle for gender equality will always be one-sided. No matter how many laws we make. A man cannot (and should not) wait until he has a daughter before he realizes how limiting society is in its expectations of what a woman can and cannot do. He must not wait until he is forced to tell his daughter to curtail her dreams and ambitions if she wants to stand a serious chance of getting married.

I hope those shackles don't grip you. I hope you have already realized that the price of being an independent, free woman means being smart enough to plan for your own future so that no one usurps it from you on the premise:
'You are still too young to know what you want'.
                                                                                                                - Leni Kadali Mutungi
                                                                                                                Excerpts From a Letter


Generosity; it is hard to receive.
When you know its exact quantity,
The cost the giver incurs.
I hesitate to stretch out my hand
in acceptance.

Generosity; I do not think I would take
as much as I do,
if I knew the price for it to flow
from one to another.
We leave accountability out of the question
and let hope into the picture.

Hope, that this complex thing
which carries neither guarantee of reward
nor assurance of profit...
for the giver at least.
But let not that end your willingness
or cease your participation,
In generosity's cycle
From giver to receiver
And (hopefully) back again.


Sometimes we need to hear words of wisdom our hearts have already spoken, words our ears heard, or thoughts that pressed themselves on our mind insistently. It is not always that we do not know what to do; in most cases the opposite is true. It is simply that the courage to act lies buried within us, like the sugar at the bottom of a cup, waiting to be stirred so that it may bring sweetness to the life within. The words heard anew, the thoughts echoed across the mind once more, and the wisdom of the heart repeated strive to move us to action. When a chance passes you once, say it is chance and move on. When a chance passes you twice, know it is opportunity come to visit. Seize it, and let it take you where you know you should be.

                                                        -- The Memoirs of a Secular Nun, Vol.1

The Song Of Bugema University

When the morning comes,
It is not for the song of birds that I listen
Nor for the blood-red, orange sunrise that I look.
It is for the street lights' glow as the natural light
given by our Lord, begins to outshine them.
Then I know that night has truly faded
And the day has began.

It is for the crackle of stones, the feel of sand under my feet
that I listen
As I head out to begin yet another day;
as we all head to class or the cafeteria one by one.
Or together, walking with a companion or a group.

The symphony I hear is one where
The sound of greetings, the sound of cars,
bicycles and motorcycles gradually entering the university,
as the day begins.

The choir of students and lecturers is heard
from classroom to classroom.
Their voices mingle, the chorus of one class
And the relative silence of another;
The mix of subjects being tackled.

I hear harmony in their voices;
The theme of education flowing
In the song of Bugema University.

The Taxi (Matatu), the Conductor, and Me (the Passenger)

Hi all,

This is a poem I wrote regarding my experience using taxis (or matatus, as our Kenyan friends call them). In it, I look at the entire scenario from the perspective of the passenger. I tried to observe and capture how we (a lot of the time) treat our conductors (and drivers). Thus the title. I do talk about the taxi, but the main focus is the passenger and their thoughts on the conductor. In this scenario, the passenger realizes that their thoughts on the conductor are out of line with what they are expected to think of him. So the poem deals with the two views at work: the one that asks the passenger to think of this conductor as a human, the other to suppress all thinking, and continue with their established way of life. The refrain 'Refuse. Play Cold. Play Dead.' refers to the passenger's response that the passenger creates, to avoid asking questions. This poem can apply to many of those who seem (or are) less well off than we are. Enjoy the read!

The Taxi (Matatu), the Conductor, and Me (the Passenger)

I watch you as you call in passengers.
It hurts to see your taxi empty;
I do so long to help you fill it up.
But I must be prudent;
If I get in now, it means I will wait
And I'm already in a hurry you know nothing of.

So I refuse. Play cold. Play dead. Walk away. Quickly. 
I don't want to see the humanity in your eyes.

The taxi is full (I got another one you see).
You are now dispensing rewards to the faithful,
albeit reluctantly, with much haggling over coins.
The faithful. The ones who cajoled, pleaded and called 
with anonymous voices, our unknown faces 
Into the taxi.
I notice that some of you are young, fresh on this streets
Relatively. I can hear it in your voices as they hover
On the edge of tears, begging, remonstrating, scuffling desperately
To get the few coins that are your due.
Refuse. Play cold. Play dead. Walk away. Quickly. 
I can't let my heart grieve over what I can't change.

The only accounts to go by are those within memory
And those are a contentious guide.
Might is right they say, and I see it at play here;
Whoever is more insistent, more forceful
Will receive their due.
I watch the gentle scuffle quickly build up into something more...
Danger. But the taxi rides away, the conductor's blood safe
For just another day. 

As I looked, I wondered. Where did you come from?
Why are you here, in this cesspool, this cycle
That keeps you where you are and me where I am.
Some of your hair is graying, your face weary already.
Have you come so far in your pilgrimage?
Or are these the scars of living a hard life?
I return to my cold, dead state. I plug my ears. I shut my mind.
I might find myself running out of this taxi; giving you the fare freely.
Nightmare, no, absolute nonsense. I can't think such things.

Tenderness within me rises
When I begin to ask if you have loved ones;
Are there people out there that need you,
that depend on you to come back with something
That will make life seem bright again?
I ask if maybe, just maybe, the outer casing
Hides a human being just like myself.
Maybe you are not just a muyaye like they tell me.
Maybe that's what I'd be, if I were in your shoes.

Your roughness with your comrades,
the vulgar language that you use,
the old scuffles with the coins.
They pull me back to reality.
You must have cheated someone, somewhere
To get where you are.
Or somebody cheated you. How can I tell?
You're no longer innocent. And I must harden my heart.

I'm within the taxi. Sometimes its got well-worn seats.
Not new, but relatively comfy.
Sometimes its only the grace of God holding broken things together.
Without which it would probably fall apart.
On occasion, you get an almost-new one.
I enjoy the ride. I smile thinking what the ravages of time
will do to this one. 

Thankfully there's a working window nearby.
I let the rushing air flow over me. 
I ignore my neighbour's discomfort. I remind myself
that fresh air is a privilege, not a right, in public transport.
I ignore the air. It frightens me to think of the speed we're going at.
I try not to realize that the door marked 'Emergency Exit' is behind my seat
And that should we crash, we'll be like fish in a can.

Every day I say a prayer for my safety, 
as well as that of my fellow passengers.
How will I survive if they don't? 
Selective miracles are things I can't really believe in.
I shout out my stop. Its not a stop really. No bus sign, for one.
But there's a silent agreement somewhere, that this is where we stop.
The taxi never gets you to your destination.
But it gets as close it can, given you're not in your own car.
And for that, I'm grateful.

I carefully count out my fare in advance.
I make sure I have coins so that he doesn't cheat me.
My heart's hard now; it has to be.
It doesn't matter that he's supporting somebody or nobody.
All I know is that I need to pay as little as I can for as long as I can.
He usually wants more money, small distances. 
That's how he makes ends meet. Makes a profit.
Why do I do this? 

Tenderness holds out willing hands to be lifted.
I refuse. I play cold. I play dead. Hard stare. Maybe.
Sometimes I dump the carefully counted coins in his hand.
And walk away. Quickly. 
Before I see his pleading eyes, his angry face. 
Its hard to argue with a retreating back I've found. 
Too few come hankering after you for more,
Unless its on a bad day.

Why are we trapped in this, you and I?
Must I fall for you to rise.
Sometimes these questions rear their head
When I pass you; calling again. 
Leaves me thinking.
'How much does a few coins do...really?'
Dangerous questions my mind tells me.
Don't think. Refuse. Play cold. Play dead. Walk away.