Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Failure: An Open Letter to My Yet Unborn Son - Choose To Be Worthy

Failure is a way of life for a lot of people. But it is a path that we all like to deny, even though we all take it. I was telling some friends a couple of weeks ago that as an African man you are born with so many disadvantages against the guy born in Europe, Asia, south America or even north Africa that often you have to work twice as hard to even get at par.
I am serious. The American kid has a strong education culture and a functional education system should he so choose to ever attend or focus on that. The opportunities to excel in sport abound, the remuneration of which is staggering.
The girl from Asia might not have these abundant privileges, but she does have a culture, an ethic, a family support structure that allows her to work harder, want more and, be assisted to achieve higher than other people she competes with. Her culture’s history is written and dated for the last 8 centuries, in china its 30 centuries! She is grounded on where she is from and is not confused about who she is.
The same boy from Schengen will have arguably some of the best and free education on the planet. With resources and amenities that allow him to travel abroad on summer immersions and the drive to expand global influence through aid, he will probably work for his government, oppose his government or simply live on unemployment benefits and still be fine.
Now let me talk about the boy from Uganda or sub-Saharan Africa. He is born as a statistic where 1 child dies every 4 seconds. If he makes it to the first year, he will have survived being among the other 10% who don’t make it out. If he make sit out of the age 5 category, he will have almost have escaped the infant mortality. Then he will struggle with the education process, rote memorization, and the possibility of never making it beyond primary school, because if he does, he will again be part of a statistic that climbed one more rung up the ladder (with 121 million children out of education). His ascent into secondary school will be plagued by the glaring absence of critical thinking technique, the presence of biology teachers who failed to become doctors or physics teachers who did not make it into engineering.
As he climbs higher into A level or tertiary education, he becomes parts of the thin air constituted by the small numbers where spots are few; the funds even fewer. With no scholarships, he will likely go into vocational school, or go into a teacher training college or hopefully make it into a university where he will study a Bachelor of Arts degree in Arts or in Sciences or Social Sciences.
With no infrastructure for him to get gainfully employed, he moves from his rural home to the city, when he lives in a slum. With drainage, water, sanitation, hygiene, resource, ventilation, rule of law and societal challenges, the hope of making it out wanes.
His girlfriend mothers his first son before he can plan to properly take care of them both. He has to do a side job to make ends meet. Take a bribe. ”Do a deal”. Cheat a little here and there.
Why?
So he can give Martin his son the chances he never got. Get him the toys he never had. Pay the bribe for martin to go to the school his father never had the ability to do. Pay for the university course that Martin wants so he can really excel. So Martin can take care of him. So that Martin can live the dream.
He will make some money in his middle years as he gets the hang of things. Eat red meat every day. Drink a beer with his friends. Drive everywhere goes. Drink full cream milk every day.
At 45, he will have ulcers, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, gout, chronic back ache, visual impairment, loss of hearing, or all these. He will probably die at 60 of these or related ailments.
This is unfortunately the story for a lot of our generation. Has the boy from sub Saharan Africa failed? Could he have done better?
He might have done better. He could have worked harder and slept less in school and gotten better grades. And then a become doctor or lawyer, an engineer. He would then have migrated from this profession into politics and then maybe he wouldn’t have had to toil tirelessly to give Martin a fighting chance.
I am not this man. But I have failed. I was looking at my life and I thought about all the things I could have done better and why I might see my life as Martin’s father.  The chance to make a difference lost to expedience and the practicalities of survival in the African environment.
I have failed so much in my life that when this recent failure came, it did not come as a surprise. It just hit me so hard that I couldn’t imagine that everything I had lost in my life had come down to and could be surmised up into this one rejection. Below are 20 colossal failures that I want to share:
1.       I thought about the shoes I lost in P.1 – which I never forgot because my father talked about them until I was 20!
2.       I thought about that incident in P.5 when I betrayed my best friend to a girl we both liked. We both never got the girl. He was never my friend again. And what that taught about loyalty.
3.       I thought about everything that happened when my family left me alone in a new school with no friends and left the country. And how that affected my take on education, authority, and being the new person.
4.       I thought about losing the vote for assistant head boy by 3 votes to a guy who today is a senior network engineer with a telecom company. Maybe that would now be me.
5.       I thought about failing my primary exams and how for the next 6 years I dealt with my father nagging and nailing it home. It was a 6 for Chrissakes! Not a 12!!  And why my definition of success is my own.
6.       I thought about my first day in secondary school and listening to a young man who would later become a pastor (albeit disgraced) at a church I would try to attend. Reading the schedule, and life at the great college, talking about tradition, and self reliance. I remember him picking me out and saying I was the paragon of what a “St. Mary’s boy” wasn’t. Him pointing to my shorts and saying they were what not to wear. And what that did to my opinions on appearance and presentation before people.
7.       I thought about my first pair of glasses that didn’t work and why for the first two terms I couldn’t see what was taught in the great lecture halls at the college, or the messed up sleep schedule I kept which meant I literally slept throughout my whole first year. And why I was not surprised when I was asked to repeat a class with an average of 58.7% with a 60% pass mark. And the lesson of exacting standards which followed.
8.       I thought about coming back to school the next year, when my parents thought it was too much work to bring me to school, so they sent me off with my foster parents to report because they couldn’t be ashamed. And what that informed me on shame and togetherness.
9.       I thought about where I was standing when the van of buns was robbed. I remember 2 boys who would later become lawyers whispering the plan and the flurry of activity as the van was raided. I remember the punishment and the “superman” in the school compound. And how I learnt that no matter where you are, you will stand alone, you must always be responsible for your actions.
10.   I thought about an acronym that I carry seared into my left wrist. Burnt in there by a young, nice man who would die in our fourth year of school after an accident because the ambulance couldn’t pick him up. Because he had no insurance. He would bleed to death on the tarmac. The acronym reads CAT. The first two are my given names. The third a name I took from a young man who would go on to join law school and a fantastic practitioner with enormous peer reverence. Back then when I took his name he had saved my life – as in literally carried me off the edge of death thrice. He didn’t know me. He knew nothing about me. He was simply being friendly to a guy who looked like he needed someone to talk to. He would never know I took his name and owned it to forever remind me that no matter how tough it got, life would always prevail – and because of him I would never give up. The name means “we are beloved”. And whether I had failed him in giving up along the way.
11.   I thought about the day I walked out of school and knew I would never come back as a student. With an indefinite suspension and no knowledge of where to turn. The bleakness of the future and how the resilience of the human spirit is amazing.
12.   I thought about the Adventist school where nothing was what it seemed. The teachers who married their students, the drug and alcohol abuse that abounded, and how I was not able to resist the peer pressure. And when, as I walked out of the school, I thought about short appearances, life choices and why I would choose differently next time.
13.   The thought process then led me the conversation I had when I was being told that I would not be going to school anymore. I was being shipped off to the village to stay with my grandmother. My failure to resist and beg for another chance, my inability to see that education was the key to being successful – at least back then. I remember what this taught me about humility and courage.
14.   I thought about the two weeks I stayed on the streets. The prostitute who fed me, the boy who shared his cardboard box with me even though I had invaded his street. I thought about working in Owino in the day and coming sleeping at the foot of the independence monument at night. And the irony of that situation, and life in general.
15.   I thought about how ironic it was to be a new student in school in the village. From wearing blazers with emblazoned “Duc in Altum” to wearing pale fifty-count thread-bare black cotton shorts in a little known school as the last bastion of learning for me. The lessons, the courage it took to show up for my classmates. Often in bare feet. Not slippers or sandals; just their feet. I remembered the energy, passion, effort we all, as a class, put into our classes. It didn’t matter where we were from, where we were headed. It was a class of 96. 40 of us were offering physics and chemistry at O’ level. Our science lab had only 15 pipettes and burettes with a little fewer than 50 test tubes. I remember the look in our faces as we learnt something new. The rancour in my gut when I thought another boy in another school had electricity and a backup generator where I had a pressure lamp that sometimes didn’t have kerosene. Selling bananas to eke a living, to get by, pay dues. I have an underdog mentality. It stays with me everywhere, allows me to challenge establishments, to go against the grain, to want it more than the next guy, to will things I want into existence. And why I think revenge, in any form should be slow in coming. Very slow.
16.   I thought about our very first physics practical exam. As the leading student, the onus was on me to hold it down. The other students would be watching me for guidance, for fortitude. I remember Didas looking at me from across the room. Without the shoulders or the mental strength to bear, the levees burst. And the consternation in Didas’ eyes as he saw the invigilators bring a basin for me to stand in and finish the exam. Walking out of the exam, knowing I had nailed it but failed to hold my piss and making a promise to myself. And what I learnt about presence of mind, mental fortitude, and excellence.
17.   I thought about the first time I kissed a girl. The awkwardness, the trauma, the clashing of teeth. The strange nervousness after and the shiftiness that had enveloped that affair since. And how I never know when it’s time to let go.
18.   I thought about Namilyango days and the bogus literature teacher who had tried to hoodwink the class. Telling her to never step into our class again. Being the rebel, the inciter, the instigator. And what that taught me about peer leadership.
19.   I thought about university. How far I had come to get here, where I had had to dig myself out of. Every day. Every fight. Every scrape. Standing at the university grounds on graduation day two years late because of lascivious exchanges that didn’t happen and as a result, stuck in a placement that neither allowed growth, rewarded excellence nor recognized effort. Two jobs later, that paid a little over 100 dollars a month for the first and a job that would turn me into a work addict, 7 days a week for the second, I walked away from it all. And what that taught me about pain and loss.
20.   I thought about one night when as I walked with my best friend on the university campus the university security patrol truck swung around the corner. We ducked for cover because we had been on the back of that truck before. I remember muffled sounds as the guard shouted, I remember kneeling and shouting “We are students! Please don’t shoot.” My arms raised in the air. I can still hear the bullet whizzing past my head and sharp crack as it exploded through my friend’s leg, with a shattered femur. I remember calling the one friend we both had in common. I can still hear the cackling laughter as he switched off thinking we were joking. I remember holding my friend in my arms, taking off a new t-shirt I had and tearing it to wrap around his bleeding leg. I will never forget Vincent, the cab driver who picked me up. And at the sight of the blood started crying immediately. I would never use another cab driver if I could for the rest of my life. Entering the casualty ward, no attention, shouting voice. “Can I get some help!!? Where the F** are the doctors in this hospital?!!!” I still feel the cold stainless steel table on which they lay him. Me holding his hand as they dressed the wound and as they stitched the 5 inch scar in my skull. And the long wait between 3:20am and 8:00am when families started arriving. The wait, without a bed sheet. Without a blanket. No shirt for me. No trousers for him. Delirium at 6:00am as the biting Katanga breeze rushed into ward 3C. I remember someone saying “it was your fault” and I remember saying “but the guy who shot at us appeared in court and you didn’t even turn up!” “It’s none of my business” And why there are things that should never be forgiven. Ever.
Why do I tell you all this?
Because no matter how much you think you have lost, you never get used to it. No matter how much you think you know failure, you don’t.
I tell you this because my failings are not even half of this list. The things that make me insecure, afraid, and terrified, smile, laugh, stress, bounce or even just stay still. Because for the first time I was faced with a loss that I felt I totally had no control over and no matter what I said, I was just giving an excuse, which wasn’t enough. In a moment of darkness, I reached out to a friend, who incidentally is called Angella, and when I thought I had failed again, extended her hand.
The loss will be a story for another day.
For today my story is that I have failed too often, come from too far, and beat such incredible odds, that on any continent I have done my dues to deserve to be at par with any one man my age. I am the African boy who has the same dreams as the girl in Asia, or the man in the Americas. I am not Martin’s father. I refused that lot a long time ago. I have demanded for more soup. I will have a bigger piece of the cake, not because I am entitled to it, but rather there will be no one to give it to. I stand among the ranks of those who have failed enough and are not ashamed of it.  Today I stand before you, all failed out.
I am worthy.


Orbis non Sufficit