Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mzungu Purgatories

I remember a friend, commenting on one of the middle seasons of Lost, remarking that it was so far removed from the basic elemental survival of the first season that he had forgotten how he had gotten to this point – that he never would have believed it could wind up in the space in which it now resided. I feel the same way about Mukono, Uganda. The logistics of my journey from Addis Ababa to Mukono were sensible, but not from an emotional or spiritual perspective. I don’t know this place and I don’t know how I got here.

Mukono is electrifying and frightful. It is a place where the men I can trust are the ones who greet me with truculence, where the sociable ones are best avoided. Where I am not supposed to walk the streets past eight at night, but the greatest danger I face is riding moto-motos in the sunshine. Where the clubs blare deafening, ghastly beats over the city till four in the morning on weeknights, where Christian pastors tell me the Koran was written by Satan.

I have been flirting with Christianity ever since I got to Africa, but I am stalled in Purgatory. There is so much about this religion that makes sense to me, but there seem to be irreconcilable differences between the God I believe in and the one the Christians do. How can their way be the only path to Heaven? How can it be that people were wrong for thousands and thousands of years, thinking they were right all that time, and now suddenly they’ve figured it out? How can Man be so specifically right about any thing? How can it be that animals evolved for billions of years, and now suddenly Man superseded them? How can someone born in Saudi Arabia be wrong about God, simply because she was born in Saudi Arabia? How can any people that believes the others are wrong – the majority of people on this Earth – be right?

There is little about Mukono that I understand. But of course there was little about Addis Ababa I understood the first few weeks I was there. It was foolish to think I might be able to do any good in Uganda in ten days time, not alone, not without a curriculum. From the perspective of the pleasure-seeker and the altruist, my time would have been better spent at some bed and breakfast on the Nile.

My timing was not well calculated either. I am learning another new culture, almost as different from Addis Ababa as Addis was from Boulder. But I don’t have the verve to learn a new culture now, not after learning Addis for three months, not in this brief window before returning home. I am just waiting in Purgatory between Ethiopia and America.

Mukono is a strange place, perhaps the strangest I have ever been. But Mukono is not a strange place in Africa. My understanding is that Mukono, Uganda is to Africa as Toledo, Ohio is to North America. Mzungus do not usually travel to regular places like Mukono, they go to anomalies like Jinja or Zanzibar. Or large cities like Addis where they can more closely replicate the lives they know.

Yet I am grateful for this unadulterated taste of conventional African life. I wake up every morning and feel a little more Ugandan. I feel the same timid but inexorable churning in the back of my skull, the re-firing of recycled synapses coming to resurrection. In this way it is as if I was back in Addis for those first ten days – recalibrating to a new world as well as a new panorama of its approaching shores. And in just a few days I will be recalibrating again, inspired to make that familiar place as fresh, dynamic, and invigorating as Africa has been for me.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Not Perfect

First thing every morning at school, Asrat would ask me how I was feeling. In Ethiopia I never fell seriously ill, but often battled various minor colds and other ailments. I generally answered Asrat with “I am okay” or “tinish (a little) sick.” Not perfect. While grading the students’ coursework, I would write Perfect! to any 10/10 submissions. A joke developed between us: a partly cloudy day, a made basket that clanged rather than swished through the rim, an English word with a capital letter in the middle, a lunch bowl with two spoons in it, a bleeding pen, a class with one absent student was “not perfect.”

I came to Ethiopia in search of answers, hoping to “figure it out.” I learned a ton. But I don’t think I “figured it out.” I don’t think I ever will. You learn early in life you aren’t perfect, that you will never be the best at anything, to ground your fantasies in reality. You have to create new definitions for personal perfection. From time to time things in my life start to convalesce, and I feel like I am approaching that more grounded perfection.

Inevitably though, life veers off course. Something goes wrong, and suddenly it’s back to square one. I tend to fixate on what is going wrong rather relentlessly, to the point where the fixation becomes a crippling shortcoming in its own. Identifying problems in life and throwing all mental energy at their solutions is an unhealthy, destructive way to live. Even if I fix one problem, the boat is bound to spring another leak. There are always going to be blemishes, failures, difficulties I never anticipate – and not just solvable hardships, but permanent troubles that will never go away. Eventually, I guess you learn that your more modest, adjusted definitions of perfection will never be realized either.

This is where you might expect me to say that Ethiopians face genuine problems like poverty and disease, yet don’t complain about their lot in life. But Ethiopians constantly complain, probably because they are really poor. I suppose that’s what people do – take a look at their lives, identify their problems, and work to overcome them. The foolish part is actually thinking you might ever eliminate them.

At the Kechene school I spent many hours working out math problems with a girl named Freyiwot.

I assumed Freyiwot was a genius the first two months; it wasn’t until the third one that I found out she was actually a third-grader who wound up in KG2 because of a clerical problem. I constantly fed her bigger and harder math problems, but she was insatiable. When she solved 20 X 571 on my last day of school, she just immediately asked for another. Like Freyiwot, we should always strive to be better. But we should never strive to be perfect.

I suppose I might be able to learn to live a life that harbors no hope of anything resembling perfection. It’s usually imperfections that make us laugh, after all. And in Ethiopia, there was a lot to laugh about.

Unfortunately I’m not allowed to show you what was causing this laughter, but trust me, it was pretty funny.

I came to Ethiopia broken and battered. I left Ethiopia broken and battered. I now know I will always be broken, always a bleeding pen. But I am better than I was three months ago. Thirty-two kindergarteners are a little better. Ethiopia is, in some infinitesimal way, better. I have been blessed to be a part of that.

“What we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. I do not agree with the big way of doing things.” - Mother Teresa

Sunday, April 15, 2012


At long last I am alone in Africa, and all my fantasies of solitary travel deeper into this marvelous continent are playing out in technicolor.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


I never realized how poor Ethiopia was until I got to Kenya.

Friday, April 06, 2012

African Subjugation Part Four: The Worst Place in the World

Whether you're looking at the Failed States Index, the Corruption Perceptions Index, or the Global Peace Index, it's pretty clear that Somalia is the most abominable country on Earth. Of course, it didn't just get that way by itself - it took American adulteration and European defecation to get it there.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

March Top 15

15. Bob Dylan - 'Til I Fell In Love With You
14. Kid Cudi feat. MGMT & Ratatat - Pursuit of Happiness
13. The Black Keys - Stop Stop
12. Echo and the Bunnymen - The Killing Moon
11. Adele - Someone Like You

10. The Black Keys - Nova Baby
9. Bob Dylan - Not Dark Yet
8. The Avett Brothers - Laundry Room
7. Oasis - Don't Look Back in Anger
6. The Black Keys - Little Black Submarines

5. Crowded House - Don't Dream It's Over
4. Bob Dylan - Love Sick
3. The Black Keys - Gold on the Ceiling
2. Bob Dylan - Highlands

Song of the Month: Haile Roots - Bado Neber

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Day The Rains Came

Frequent readers of this blog know I like to reference “that week in April” eleven months ago as if it were the year 0 A.D., with everything that happened before and after in my life divided into two different eras. After “that week in April” I descended into a sluggish, self-loathing mist as the rainiest May in recent memory besieged the Front Range. I sat around the house, wrote a crappy book, watched a lot of basketball, and listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac. I imagined my ex obsessively repeating “Silver Springs” without understanding the depravity of that vision, stared at the clouds listening to “Storms”, and fixated on the song “Dreams” and its enigmatic lyric “When the rain washes you clean, you will know.” I felt dirty and worthless, but visualized a day in the future when the rain finally washed me clean.

In Las Vegas last summer an astounding deluge ripped loose from the heavens one evening while I was out driving.

I didn’t feel any cleaner after it abated.

A mercurial rainstorm struck us just as we crested a pass on a backpacking trip later that summer. Five minutes later the sun was drying our packs off, and I felt no cleaner.

I went running in a chilly downpour one morning last October in a cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, came home and took a hot shower, and emerged as dirty as ever.

When the rain washes you clean, you will know.

In Ethiopia there are two main seasons. There is the dry season in which it never rains and the rainy season in which it does every day. In between there might be a “mini-rainy season” which could feature a few moderate rains, but nothing comparable to the legit rainy season set to arrive in May or June. I arrived in the height of the dry season. Most days there were no clouds. One night we were startled to find it sprinkling, but that lasted just a few minutes and it wouldn’t come close again for months. Everyone said it would remain dry until May or June, so I decided I’d try to do some good, get dumped on in Uganda or Rwanda or Colorado afterwards, and get clean.

I came here thinking I was a pretty skilled haggler. I have, after all, played hundreds of games of Settlers of Catan and spent ten days in Morocco learning the ropes on cross-linguistic bartering. I honed my skills rapidly in Ethiopia. I lean heavily on “the walkaway” – refusing a price to the point of pretending to walk away in disgust and look for another vendor. The walkaway always works.

An amazing coincidence occurred when a housemate showed up with the exact same pair of sunglasses I’d bought a week earlier in Piazza. He had paid 80 birr for his. I paid 100 for mine.

I met this guy Mesfin in Piazza who helps us haggle for stuff in unspoken exchange for a meal after we hang out. After watching me haggle for a few minutes one afternoon, Mesfin was disgusted with my performance. I thought I got a good price on a watch but Mesfin said I could have paid half. I had used everything in my bag of tricks – the underbid opening, the appalled expression at the overbid counter, the walkaway. But Mesfin said it was obvious that I wanted the watch. You can’t go in with the expectation that you’re gonna walk away with something, he said. The merchants sell all day everyday. They can smell your craving from a mile away. The merchant knows how bad you want it, better than you know yourself. You can’t fake indifference. You actually have to be indifferent.

I did a lot of good things in Ethiopia, for myself and for others. Friends here and home told me how proud they were of what I was doing and how far I had come. I felt better and better about the person I was and the direction things were heading. I bought into the hype.

Clouds rolled in last week. Innocent white puffs led the charge, but were soon followed by lingering, dark-bottomed clouds. Thursday night it finally rained – a brief but foreboding spray accompanied by a few lightning strikes.

Friday morning I got my wings clipped for the first time in a long time. After three months on the mend, my ego took a bruising blow. The day was cold, black, and menacing. It wasn’t the Addis Ababa I knew. That afternoon, in an attempt to mend my damaged self-esteem, I sought the counsel of a friend via online chat. I promptly made a comment that was so sickeningly narcissistic it instantly repulsed her to the point of terminating the conversation. While I will spare the details for the sake of privacy and embarrassment, I essentially said that I was deserving of something special. I knew right away what I said was arrogant, but it was another half hour before it really dawned on me.

My life is a lie.

There’s a reason I’m always following an optimistic post with a depressing one on this blog. I keep rebuilding a house of cards on top of a broken base. Time and again I hit a low and then set about rebuilding the house under the assumption that I need to build it bigger and better this time. No matter how well I stack the cards, they always come crashing down because the foundation is rotten. That foundation, for as long as I can remember, has been based on the premise that I am special. Things that happen to me are more important than things that happen to other people. People care more about me than others. God does too. If I work hard enough, if I try to live a righteous life, I am deserving of extraordinary rewards. If I do things better than my colleagues, I am better.

The more I think about it, the more I realize the poison of Pride seeps through everything I do. You can see it in my writing. From “My Life in Addis” February 12: "...I will be deserving of the sort of companion I have long envisioned." From my last post a week ago: "I don’t want to go to firenje parties. I want to be the firenje." Being a firenje here makes me feel special. While there’s no shame in keeping a self-absorbed blog, my book is a piece of shit because it assumes my life is noteworthy, that my everyday interactions are more momentous than yours. Poker could never satiate me because I believed I was predestined for greatness. Meanwhile, I habitually underestimate my opponents. Relationships rarely get off the ground because discerning people – the kind of people I want to associate with – can see through the bullshit pretenses I project over my intrinsic insecurities. They know the difference between confidence and pride, better than I do. They know I want that watch. Every single thing I do, every action, every conversation, every moment of every day is accompanied by the expectation that I will walk away with something for my troubles.

Just as this psychological bag of bricks landed on my head, a raindrop followed suit. The blackened skies began pouring rain, the first real rain to hit Addis Ababa in six months. A stunning psychological breakthrough arrived mere seconds before the heavens opened up and spilled their first rains of the year. Coincidence?

Of course it was a fucking coincidence. God doesn’t plan the weather around Thomas Fuller. Fleetwood Mac doesn’t write songs for Thomas Fuller.

I walked home in the torrent, simultaneously soaking in shame and rain. But when I got home, I felt as dirty as ever.