Feb 23, 2018

Black Panther Written with Ugandan-American Son in Mind

“Baba tell me a story”
“Which one?”
“The story of home”
Ryan Coogler’s script had me at “Baba”.

An adventure story loomed in the air, framed not by a fire place but cinema surround sound. Like magic I escaped the building and travelled on a journey far far away from Washington D.C to Teso and Kigezi via Kampala. First off, I’m not familiar with anything “Marvel” – Justice League, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy – clueless! I endured the winding line of excited theater goers determined to break the box office because of hype. The Black Panther movie had just been released. The 40 minutes I stood in line eased on like a breeze thanks to Zadie Smith’s novel “White Teeth”. What was this #WakandaForever business? I had to find out.

Now, back to the story. T’Challa’s (Black Panther) eager pre-teen voice makes a request – simple yet profound and multifaceted – “The Story of home”. It took me back in time to an evening two years ago when seated at the family dining table in an obscure corner of Maryland my 12-year-old son asked “Daddy, where did we come from?” My quick, short answer would have been “Uganda!” but my son in his wisdom knew the source of satisfactory answers, answers that quenched his thirst for belonging, for identity – his father. As he is wont to do, his father with undivided attention begun at the beginning – the Luo migration into East Africa. The journey of Nilotic ethnic groups along the Nile river from lower Egypt, Sudan, Congo to the places they settled in East Africa. While he explained his linage up to his father and mother who originated from Tororo and Kisoro respectively, I spoke of my parent’s linage from Usuk and Kumi finally settling in Serere. My son listened with eager attention, he sat up and pushed his chest forward. The building blocks for this discussion rested on our faith. His father explained that more than people and places his identity should be rooted in Jesus Christ. Our personal relationship under the Lordship of Jesus informs our value systems.

Black Panther alludes to historic events; the bronze artifacts looted in 1897 from the kingdom of Benin (now southern Nigeria) exhibited in a London museum and current issues; the Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. But at its core the movie settles around personal identity, family and exile, politics and power struggles. Personal identity – the purpose of one’s existence in relation to their surroundings. An issue my father handled with deliberate effort; the dusty road trips up to Usuk and Agaria, visiting home after home, the chicken slaughtered, the millet bread mingled, now make sense. While the elders sat around a pot of ajono, we were left to stare at children who were introduced as relatives. The barriers of discomfort soon melted and we became life-long friends. Now, tracing actual bloodlines is like splitting hairs – we are siblings to all intents and purposes and we have a sense of belonging.

Growing up in the American culture my son’s concerns are complex. As his parents, born and bred in Uganda, our reference points differ and he struggles to understand our views. His dark skin connects him with a racial history with which he doesn’t necessarily identify. As teenagers on a quest for self, a discussion brewed among friends at school – where was he from if he wasn’t Black American? There were so many layers. As a result, their growing minds begun to question the differences and similarities between black with American roots and black with African roots. He needed to curve out his niche with the knowledge that one thread run deep – he was a young black male in America.

As memories of his experience in Uganda and his life in America were juxtaposed: feeding goats in grandpa’s back yard, being chased by a rooster in Serere’s afternoon sun. His numerous uncles and aunts who send him birthday wishes every year. Playing video games, attending school with friends who look as different as they come, the claustrophobic space he occupies with his sister and Ugandan parents, an awareness of his skin color – all inform his identity. As he grows up in a different time and place he is reminded that all these experiences shape his unique but centered definition of self.

The question at the end of the Black Panther movie is “WHO ARE YOU?” I should hope my son will embrace and define his unique identity as a Christian, born in Uganda and bred in America. When asked his favorite character in Black Panther he said the villain – Killmonger. A partial reflection of himself perhaps?

Good movie – thought provoking. #WakandaForever

Feb 13, 2018

Valentine's Day And It's Troubles

The clock struck midnight! She sat up in bed, “Era if he doesn’t come!”.
By 12:10 am she was frantic. A few roommates surrounded her bed to provide reassurance. There she sat like a queen surrounded by her subjects.

“He should be at the door anytime now” she said. We all turned towards the still wooden frame. No knock, no twist of the handle – just a door held under the gaze of twelve eyes.
What had brought on our roomies distress? Was it her birthday? “It’s valentine’s day!” I was told. She awaited red roses and chocolates from her boyfriend at the stroke of midnight.

My bunk mate and I exchanged glances, what did we know about such matters?

“I swear!! If he doesn’t show up, he is going to see!!” She threatened.

I imagined the poor soul traipsing all over Wandegeya in search of red roses, his legs suddenly quickening up Makerere hill with each telepathic threat. Or was he twiddling his fingers waiting for her to send him a message of her love?

It was late. We turned off the lights. She was left to contemplate her boyfriend’s mysterious absence in a pre-cellphone era. Did this mean he loved her any less?

As the sun came up, I hoped her bed would be cushioned with roses so high she’d be lost in their midst. Alas there she lay fast asleep – her legs in the “get-set” position. Anxiety spread like the flu as the girls stirred, each one secretly hoping their boyfriends had received the memo. They surrendered to curiosity occasionally peeking out the window.

Across the hall, another student lay in bed, she’d been carried in two days earlier. Something about heavy bleeding or was it a miscarriage? It was complicated.
Red roses, red…

I picked my books for the day, I would not be back for a while. Well I had ... lectures.
“Dear God, please let someone bring me a valentine’s card.”

The day had to end, I had to return. A girl handed me a red envelop. “Huh?! For me?” I asked. “Is this your name?” She asked, probably wondering why I feigned surprise. From whence did the card come? What did he look like? I interrogated. “He asked if I was a first-year student and if I knew someone by your name. I said I did. He gave me this card”. Off she went.

“Signed David.” David who? I mentally lined up all the David’s I knew.
David 1: No! That’s so and so’s boyfriend.
David 2: Nah!
David 3: Not in touch.
David 4: Still a kiddo.
I cancelled all the David’s out and I still had this beautiful card in my hands. Perhaps that was the idea behind the day.

My dramatic roomie had calmed down, her bedside bamboo rack bright with flowers. A beautiful valentines card stood paper-arms wide proclaiming her boyfriend’s unending love.

He took her out to dinner that night. All our other roommates had dinner dates too, that left just me and my bunk mate. I tucked the card into my suitcase, we made ourselves dinner and talked late into the night.
Perhaps some February 14th we would be taken out to dinner too.

 “Love, a word that comes and goes, but few people really know what it means to really love somebody” Kirk Franklin – God’s Property

Feb 4, 2018

Mowzey Radio and Marvin Gaye: Singers Cut From the Same Cloth

“Marvin Gaye is Shot and Killed; Pop Singer’s Father Faces Charges”: The New York Times April 1, 1984.
“Uganda's Mowzey Radio dies after 'pub brawl'”: BBC Africa February 1, 2018

Two music icons, two news headlines 34 years apart.

When I read the news of Mowzey Radio’s death, my mind was quickened to the death of Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye was a black American soul singer and song writer of the 60’s and 70’s. He helped shape the sound of Motown music. He wrote songs like “Let’s Get It On”, “Midnight Love” and the famous “Sexual Healing”.

Marvin Gaye’s death shocked the world. He was shot dead by his father. They had a quarrel, Marvin fought and beat up his 70-year-old father. His father, wounded and humiliated by his son shot him dead a day before Marvin’s 44th birthday. Marvin struggled with substance abuse and depression.
Mowzey Radio’s death continues to shake his family and fans like an endless earthquake. He got into a bar fight when “a man came out of nowhere” lifted him up and threw him to the ground. He sustained a head injury, lost consciousness and within six days he breathed his last. A few short days after his 34th birthday. It is said he struggled with alcohol abuse and a shot temper.

Jan 30, 2018

Like the British, Unlike the British - The African

How much like the British we are.

Like children fostered for centuries we lost ourselves and embraced the values and lifestyles of our foster parents. The style of dress, the attitudes of our minds - British children in deed. 
But modernity washes over generations and things begin to change. Slowly we look less alike. Subsequent generations in the angst of puberty rebel and cast off likeness in search for individual identity. For styles and tastes that parents abhor. 
We undo the ties, sever the cords and metamorphose into new beings with hints of the old.

Still, ghosts of the past haunt with unrelenting persistence. The English language chained, secured and strengthened without recourse. Schools and homes committed to the course. The age-old fight between America and Britain continues - the “s” and the “z”, the trouser and the pants, the boot and the trunk - on and on with the trifles and majors.

But slowly as clouds darken and thunder strikes, the sweet smell of wet African soil rises as drops of rain sink into thirsty soils. The natives hunger for a down pour. 
To wash their cloths - the Dashiki and the Leso, the Gomesi and the Kikoi, the Kanzu and the Kente. To wash their eyes, ears, hands and feet. 
To rinse their mouths of bitter after tastes. As they bath their reflections stare back in the lakes, rivers and ponds - strange and uncomfortable - this frame of scarred beauty. They hide in forests and under trees.

Beads are dried, granaries refilled. The calabashes and pots brim with local brew. As they gather to celebrate, to knit the community bond, they laugh. Even in their struggles they laugh. Its good! Good muscle - migugu’s carried for miles but never without a friend. It’s good minds, good color, good teeth, good skin and good skills. When they dance, the rhythm infiltrates their bones, pacing their hearts to a unified da-dum for no one taps the drum with a better melody. It’s in their core, inside, diamonds nestled at the center.

As the sun shine’s may we rise to the day, to the hour, to the sound, and to the reflection of African excellence.

Jan 19, 2018

A Chess Piece in the Masters Hand.

A knight or maybe a pawn positioned in a corner of life’s game board to observe and tell the story.

John Allen Saunders said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” This quote resonated today.

Events unfolded like a skit - the actors right on cue.

I was seated in the train stressing about life - about things not adding up. I wondered how to solve the equation when suddenly a lady let out a deafening shriek “Are you ok?!”
Derailed from my train of thought I assumed she’d lost “it”. I mean we all have issues but to scream in public? No! Well, at least not yet.

I turned to see a beautiful young lady with ruby red lipstick and a gray fashionable jacket. Her almond shaped eyes were wide with shock as she paced the floor. Passengers located in various pockets of our cart shot side glances then refocused on individual matters.
“Call 911” She screamed.
That’s when my eyes were guided to the floor. A man lay spasming in the corner. His limp hand making a poor attempt to control the shaking in his leg. His head tucked under the seat.

A passenger rushed to his side.
“Sir, are you ok?”
“Are you diabetic?”
“You are having a seizure!”.
No response.

A lady in the far corner pressed the emergency button.
A minute later the guy got up and sat down like he’d just awoken from a brief nap.
Security arrived. For a second they couldn’t identify who was in trouble till we pointed him out. 

Metro security: “Sir, are you ok?”
Guy: “Yeah! I’m fine.”
Metro Security: “Sir, you just had a seizure.”
Guy: (Stared into the distance)
Metro Security: “Where are you going?”
Guy: (Checked his watch then looked up at the guard. He didn’t say a word.)
What did they want him to say? 
It was 5:30pm, he was probably heading home.

The Metro Security guard made an announcement like it was the weather focused “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a medical emergency, the train will be holding here momentarily.”
Security backup arrived and escorted the neatly dressed gentleman off the train.
It was over within 10 minutes.

I was jittery. My heart pounded in my ears.
My tear buds begged for release. 

I had witnessed a Partial-onset seizure (POS). It’s caused by a problem in the electrical signaling of the brain. “Groups of neurons suddenly begin firing excessively, leading to involuntary responses, including strange sensations, emotions, behaviors or convulsions, muscle spasms, and possibly loss of consciousness.” 

Imagine the drama that would ensue if this happened in a Ug taxi - people screaming and jumping around like grasshoppers. Ah ah!
Here are some tips: Keep calm, don’t crowd, stay with the person, loosen clothing around the neck, don’t restrict the person’s movements unless they are in danger of hurting themselves. Call for help.

I returned to my seat, fully alert. And my issues? I think God was saying “Iwe!! There are more important things.”

The Master knows His pieces and will move them on the game board at will.

Dec 30, 2017

The Uber Vietnam Veteran: Surprises on the road

I meet different people on my commutes – some funny, some intense, some honest and some plain – I like those the best. The conversation begins with a simple question and escalates to a deep human connection, an appreciation for the different journeys we walk.

I watched the Uber driver circle the cul de sac and then leave. Did that just happen? He just turned around and left? I stood out in the cold, checked the app, it was the right number plate. I tucked my hands into the jacket and hoped the car would circle back. It did. He stopped, helped put my luggage in the trunk/boot and apologized. He said he got a little confused with the directions. Well, nothing to add. He was on the older side probably in his mid-fifties. He looked like he’d been in an accident that altered his face a little. It didn’t help that his car was not all that but hey! I trusted it would get us to the destination.
Music whispered through his car speakers – country rock-ish – not really my taste. It streamed in and out of my mind as I looked out the window and pondered the journey ahead, the cars whizzing swiftly by, the highways and the thought that winter was upon us as the temperatures dropped and the cold winds blew.
We drove quietly, for close to an hour engrossed in two separate worlds. Suddenly the silence was cracked.
Uber Driver: (In the most respectful tone) If you don’t mind me asking, do you live here or in China?
Me: I live here. I’m traveling for work. China is a layover on the way to my destination.
UD: That sounds exciting!... Twelve days after graduating college I was drafted into the army to fight the Vietnam war.

You!!! I sat up. Fully attentive. Now I wanted to know everything. What was his experience? How long was he there? Does he have a family?... But his thoughts were swift, darting here and there. He said only that which he wished.

UD: It wasn’t great, it was ok.  But I’ve also been to Japan. I travelled with my father, he was a naval officer, that’s how I got interested in the army. It took us twelve days to get there. We traveled by sea.
I wanted to know his experience on the ship, did he get sea sick? How old was he? What does he remember of the trip?
We run out of time. Before I knew it, I was at the gate. I encouraged him to write a book, he gave me a bored look. Perhaps I should have said – “Let’s keep in touch. Tell me the stories and I will chronicle them.” What was his name again?

Lost opportunity!

I got a glimpse – a bird’s eye view into an aspect of his life. I repented for making assumptions about him based on the first few minutes of our interaction.
I thought about him again today as I listened to Richard Flanagan discuss his book: Narrow Road to the Deep North. He said “What happens in war is that good people are made to commit crimes for which in any other sphere of life you’d be locked up or executed. And then we expect these people, after the war to come back and live as normal human beings. But they are not normal human beings because they carry great sins on their soul for which in the end they are not responsible.”

This now informs my view of veterans but I’m also reminded to embrace humanity in its entirety, to make a conscious effort not to place people in boxes based on external factors.

May God be our constant guide in 2018.

Nov 21, 2017

Saxophonist at the Farragut North Station

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