Thursday, September 30, 2010

2, 3 Shaves

I’m usually in a hurry, wherever I’m going, almost always whatever I’m doing. But I’m never careless. Except for today, when I jumped on a boda boda, without all due precautions first. Too late I realised this rider had been drinking, perhaps a few minutes before, and here we were careening infront of speeding car ‘must guards’ on Kampala road near City Square, then it was up that NSSF building road, sharply swerving, and was he nodding off...? Friends, readers, those who don’t give a shit, I’m lucky to be alive.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rare Incident of Kindness in Kampala

I walk the streets of Kampala, for a living and because it is a pleasure. I even have the shoes for it-faithful grey moccasins, that already had quite a bit of mileage on them when I got them and I have added much more. The things I could tell you that I have seen, walking in Kampala! They are quite many, some astonishing, some heartbreaking, some just plain weird with more than a twang of bizarre. 

Downtown Kampala, my area code!
Have you ever been waiting to board a taxi at a stage and a man came up to you and began pouring out to you his life story? Literally kept you rooted to that spot as he, in Lug-English, ‘rapped’ out his troubles, until your own ‘problems’ seemed inconsequential. 

From time to time, you still find yourself wondering, ‘What did he do? Did that girlfriend ever discover that he knew the child had not been his, and the child’s real father had spirited the daughter away but she could not bring herself to tell him? Does the girlfriend still risk and lie in the same bed with this man, thinking she has him fooled forever? Will I one day, scanning the Luganda newspapers as I stride up town, be shocked by a headline, YAMUTTEMYE, and see grisly photographs of him and her dead in their Kitende muzigo because I listened and gave no advice?’ Or was it all a con? 

I have so many of those. Almost everyday, I’m ‘gifted’ or happen to be passing by, when sun-crazed passions spill out. But it is not about those that I want to tell you. But about a gentler Kampala with rare incidents of kindness that prove to me again and again, a humanity still lurks in Kampala residents. Despite all their troubles. 

Like a few days ago, trying to dodge the morning traffic, our taxi from Entebbe into Kampala, tried the Katwe-Namirembe road route. We ended up more ensnared, in frustration, we got out and joined the walking masses that look like pilgrims walking up a hell to a shrine. Well, I was glad later, for that misfortune. For I saw a man and woman in that walking, heaving, living crowd, being made way for, because they were each carrying a baby-their twins. Frowns of people passing them turning into the sweetest smiles. 

Then not one, not two, quite a number, greeting them, congratulating them, and the men stuffing one thousand shillings, sometimes two thousand shillings into the father’s busy palm. You can endure any day, when you have seen such kindness. But I was ‘gifted’ again an intimation into the female mind, too early to an office for an appointment waiting and reading my Autobiography of Malcolm X. I had found the office administrator sweeping and tidying up for the coming day. I was so quiet, unobtrusive, they soon forgot I was there, and started talking, chattering, women among women, with her friends who passed through. 

One friend of that office assistant said something that caught my ear and reminded me of the greater significance of what I had seen, not more than an hour earlier. Standing in the doorway, the two of them looking out on Bombo road, I only caught the last bit of her statement. She was saying, “You don’t know what it means to a woman to see her man carrying their baby. It feels so good.” You cannot have a bad day after that, even if you were merely a witness, an on scene reporter.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Jaw dropping moments in The Autobiography of Malcolm X

I have been reading like crazy these last few weeks. Sniffing my way up and down the limited shelves of the Entebbe Public Library, seeing nuggets, getting gems, keeping an eye on the ones I want next. Beady eyed reading through most evenings, the TV off, or in another room when it has to be on, taxi views outside my window fleeting past unseen. There’s a lot in that library I must get through! The prospect has me keyed up, walking on air, because there are some books in there I used to hear of but had never been able to read for myself-like Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, My Life; Langston Hughes memoirs...there’s a certain section where I have found figures who have been lost to me because of the hagiography around them, speaking, changing my thinking of them. Like Malcolm X, ‘the angriest man in America.’ 

This is part one, just a sampling. I knew Malcolm X was once a pimp, a hustler, before he became a Nation of Islam, but obviously I had no idea how dramatic his life had been. What a blessing Malcolm X and Alex Haley run into each other, connected, and started taking down notes on the life X had lived up to that time. Reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, I cannot help but wonder, mourn too, that so many of our history movers, makers, have not got their Alex Haley-imagine an unexpurgated rendition of the NRA bush war years (how I have wished and wished for the opportunity!)...

Malcolm take it away... 

‘It was just about time for me to go and pick up Jean Parks, to go downtown to see Billie at the Onyx Club. So much was swirling in my head. I thought about telephoning her and calling it off, making some excuse. But I knew that running now was the worst thing I could do. So I went on and picked up Jean at her place. We took a taxi on down to 52nd Street. ‘Billie Holiday’ and those big photo blow-ups of her were under the lights outside. Inside, the tables were jammed against the wall, tables about big enough to get two drinks and four elbows on; the Onyx was one of those very little places. 

Billie, at the microphone, had just finished a number when she saw Jean and me. Her white gown glittered under the spotlight, her face had that coppery, Indianish look, and her hair was in that trademark ponytail. For her next number she did the one she knew I always liked so: ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’- ‘Until you face each dawn with sleepless eyes...until you’ve lost a love you hate to lose-‘ 

When her set was done, Billie came over to our table. She and Jean, who hadn’t seen each other in a long time, hugged each other. Billie sensed something wrong with me. She knew that I was always high, but she knew me well enough to see that something else was wrong, and she asked in her customary profane language what was the matter with me. And in my own foul vocabulary of those days, I pretended to be without a care, so she let it drop. 

We had a picture taken by the club photographer that night. The three of us were sitting close together. That was the last time I ever saw Lady Day. She’s dead; dope and heartbreak stopped that heart as big as a barn and that sound and style that no one successfully copies. Lady Day sang with the soul of Negroes from the centuries of sorrow and oppression. What a shame that proud, fine, black woman never lived where the true greatness of the black race was appreciated! 

In the Onyx Club’s men’s room, I sniffed the little packet of cocaine I had gotten from Sammy. Jean and I, riding back up to Harlem in a cab, decided to have another drink. She had no idea what was happening when she suggested one of my main hang-outs, the bar of the La Marr-Cheri on the corner of 147th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. I had my gun, and the cocaine courage, and I said I okay. And by the time we’d had the drink, I was so high that I asked Jean to take a cab home, and she did. I never have seen Jean again, either.
Like a fool, I didn’t leave the bar. I stayed there, sitting like a bigger fool, with my back to the door, thinking about West Indian Archie. Since that day, I never sat with my back to a door-and I never will again. But it’s a good thing I was then. I’m positive if I had seen West Indian Archie come in, I’d have shot to kill. 

The next thing I knew West Indian Archie was standing before me, cursing me, loud, his gun on me. he was really making his public point, floor showing for the people. He called me foul names, threatened me.
Everyone, bartenders and customers sat or stood as though carved, drinks in mid air. The juke box, in the rear, was going. I had never seen West Indian Archie high before. Not a whiskey high, I could tell it was something else. I knew the hustler’s characteristic of keying up on dope to do a job. 

I was thinking, ‘I’m going to kill Archie...I’m just going to wait until he turns around-and get the drop on him.’ I could feel my own .32 resting against my ribs where it was tucked under my belt, beneath my coat.
West Indian Archie, seeming to read my mind, quit cursing. And his words jarred me. 

‘You’re thinking you’re going to kill me first, Red. But I’m an old man. I’ve been to Sing Sing. My life is over. You’re a young man. Kill me, you’re lost anyway. All you can do is go to prison.’ 

I’ve since thought that West Indian Archie may have been trying to scare me into running, to save both his face and his life. It may be that’s why he was high. No one knew that I hadn’t killed anyone, but no one who knew me, including myself, would doubt that I’d kill. 

I can’t guess what might have happened. But under the code, if West Indian Archie had gone out the door, after having humiliated me as he had, I’d have to follow him out. We’d have shot it out in the street. 

But some friends of West Indian Archie moved up alongside him, quietly calling his name, ‘Archie...Archie.’ 

And he let them put their hands on him-and they drew him aside. I watched them move him past where I was sitting, glaring at me. They were working him back toward the rear. 

Then taking my time, I got down off the stool. I dropped a bill on the bar for the bartender. Without looking back, I went out. 

I stood outside, in full view of the bar, with my hand in my pocket, for perhaps five minutes. When West Indian Archie didn’t come out, I left.’

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A New World Naked

I’m currently reading A New World Naked, the Paul Mariani biography of the 20th century American poet William Carlos Williams. At the same time, dealing with a lot of life changing stuff-like hey, photography just might be transformed from a mere hobby, a pass time, to something more serious. Because I’m meeting people who actually go out of their way to ask me, ‘So what did you shoot today? Can I see? Please?’ (This is why I was so tentative about starting photography! I’ll soon be taking myself far too seriously, and before long, I will be lost down another rabbit hole of trying to be really, really good at another art form, when I still have the writing to grapple with!)

Anyway, so someone tried to pick up this biography I had laid on a table, to check out the book I was reading, thinking it must be a photography book and nearly sprained his wrist. It is that heavy! Naturally, he asked me (yes, I hate stereotypes, but it was a Ugandan and I was not in the least surprised that he asked), “Why are you reading that? I could never read that.” 

There was a time when such a comment from such a ‘cool’ person would have me hiding such a book away, to make it a guilty pleasure I could only revel in in stolen moments. Not anymore. I know what I like (one of the perks of growing older) and I have discovered that if you are in a taxi traffic jam and you pull out your tome to read, pretty soon, other people around you start pulling out all sorts of things from their handbags and backpacks and whatever to start reading too. So I was not in the least offended by his comment and said, “I have a week to finish that book. I’m reading it whenever I can.” 

Quipped he, “You’ll need to do nothing but read that book to finish it in a week!” 

How so right he was. Without even knowing it. I don’t know if it is just the books I have been reading of late, or that the way I read has changed again. But I have not felt this absorbed, this taken in by the books I have read this year in so many years. When I read a book nowadays, I find myself having mental arguments with the author, reaching for sticky notes to jot down page numbers so I can go back and copy out passages or simply to reread them and write out my own experience of an event described or disagree with a point of view. Lord knows, some books are even beginning to make me question how things are exactly. This is not how I used to read. Okay, maybe not since I was around 17 years old and took reading and writing seriously.
Something happens to you, going through the Ugandan education system (at least it did to me), something crushing and disillusioning. The Ugandan education system and life sometimes team together and when you are through their grinder, many instinctive joys are lost and you may never recover them. I think I have stumbled anew, afresh, upon the joy of reading, of believing in reading, of taking it seriously again. It’s got me wondering about the experience of reading and how do others read. I’m sure reading is an experience and everyone’s experience of reading is so different.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

when u buy coffee, a tinfull, you don't expect it to be like this...

Star Coffee Uganda are cheats!

I’ve been wanting again...

           To start travelling. Not Entebbe-Kampala distances (though that still has its thrills too), but travelling buttock numbing, squished aching knee joints, bladder full praying for the next stop to be really soon long distance travel again. I definitely would be a much better traveller now than when I first travelled by bus from Kampala to Juba, I think. I certainly know now how I should be prepared before I even get on that bus, that train, that plane.
I know you need your music. A bunch of musicians CDs that have piled up in the corner you have been meaning to listen to since the year began. Fantastic companions for the landscape unfolding going on outside your window, sometimes heart stopping discoveries amidst the clutter. Like Arcade Fire. I don’t know what’s worse-hearing Arcade Fire for the first time in a taxi, in a public place, heart stopping, delighted scream inducing music pouring in on your like musical notes rain through your earphones, making you sweetly smile at the rude conductor and thank him with a webale nnyo Ssebo when he does return your change, leaving him a little open mouthed. Or hearing Arcade Fire in private right before you go in to meet your boss, complaining that you deserve a pay rise, but the blissful nirvana Arcade Fire has transported you to making it hard for your bosses to believe really you are miserable, really you are not with no children.
           Read again. Not camera manual read, how to install the late Windows 7 updates follow-but read, stretches, days, weeks on one book-monogamous in your browsing interest. Dedicated only to that book because right now, right in this month of September, as the year enders rush upon you like a Kalita bus with no brakes down Namirembe road, this book will steady you. Hold you. Have something, like bushera at the bottom of my grandmother’s gourd, that will headily introduce you to the New Year, new spheres of thought.
Like when you become a card carrying member of Entebbe’s Public Library, discover oh my God! There is a biography on the life of William Carlos Williams. A New World Naked by Paul Mariani. Yes, it was first published in 1981, which seems like a lifetime ago, until you realise you are older than the book-and you have yet to figure out your life, what makes you think a book published in 1981 about a Physician-Poet would not have something you did not know? Have been trying to explain to yourself since you uncovered your intense love of writing, then photography-how to live the artistic life while earning a living in the everyday world-do the two ever cross paths, reconcile with each other, like bitter siblings do around the deathbed of their father? William Carlos Williams found a way to be both a doctor and a poet, very good at both. Well, in one, a genius, in the other a beloved town strolling figure who knew what happens behind the facades of respectability.
        Start arguing about politics, take part in political debates, but get active. Banish this folded arms approach to life I have had for so long that I had not realised you cannot feign indifference for long before it infects all your life. Before your capacity to care deeply is blunted, because you are mask wearing so much of the time, all the time nearly, you become uprooted from what you truly care about. Realising that I love this city, I love all her towns I have been privileged to be in (a night or several), I love this country and I love the people like I love my family-with the all complexities that come with such love that springs before it is bidden, makes demands that seem outrageous, infuriate you with their stubborn refusal to acknowledge some of your own wishes because the wishes of the whole must come first. 
What do these guys do? tangent- I would love to have an opportunity, the time, the calm, to tell you of the magic I have discovered in little town centres by the roadsides as I travel in my night ventures-the midnight playing checkers I used to stumble into playing under a solitary ‘security’ light, the giggling baby girl who had a whole back section of the taxi in tittering merriment-jacket playing with her father, Abayita Ababiri Market on Fridays, the hope and dread of Stanbic ATMs past 1am when the taxi has broken down and you have to a boda boda ride all the rest of the way, Kitubulu Lake Victoria heaving in the dusk like a sulky lover turning in bed (Was that a lip escaped sigh?)...there was a house in Zana...and I don’t know how to explain what took place in that house-Aug 2. Is life always this complicated?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

There is always this-the music and the writing

On The Road
© Jack Kerouac

Lester Young's Hat by Herman Leonard
Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety—leaning to it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world. Then had come to Charlie Parker, a kid in his mother’s woodshed in Kansas City, blowing his taped up alto among the logs, practicing on rainy days, coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and Benny Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest-Charlie Parker leaving home and coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonious Monk and madder Gillespie-Charlie Parker in a circle while playing. Somewhat younger than Lester Young, also from KC, that gloomy, saintly goof in whom the history of jazz was wrapped; for when he held his horn high and horizontal from his mouth he blew the greatest; and as his hair grew longer and he got lazier and stretched out, his horn came down halfway; till it finally fell all the way and today as he wears his thick soled shoes so that he can’t feel the sidewalks of life his horn is held weakly against his chest, and he blows cool and easy getout phrases. Here were the children of the American bop night.
Stranger flowers yet-for as the Negro alto mused over everyone’s head with dignity, the young, tall, slender, blond kid from the Curtis Street, Denver, jeans and studded belt, sucked on his mouthpiece and it was a soft, sweet, fairy-tale solo on an alto. Lonely as America, a throatpierced sound in the night...
.....Suddenly Dean stared into the darkness of a corner beyond the bandstand and said, “Sal, God has arrived.”
I looked. George Shearing. And as always he leaned his blind head on his pale hand, all ears opened like the ears of an elephant, listening to the American sounds and mastering them for his own English summer’s-night wise. Then they urged  to get up and play. He did. He played innumerable choruses with amazing chords that mounted higher and higher till the sweat splashed all over the piano and everybody listened in awe and fright. They led him off the stand after an hour. He went back to his dark corner, old God Shearing, and the boys said, “There ain’t nothing left after that.
Something would come out of it yet. There’s always more, a little further-it never ends. They sought to find new phrases after Shearing’s explorations; they tried hard. They writhed and twisted and blew. Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men’s souls to joy. They found it, they lost it, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned-and Dean sweated at the table and told them to go, go, go. At nine O’ Clock in the morning, everybody-musicians, girls in slacks, bartenders, and the one little skinny, unhappy trombonist- staggered out of the club into the great roar of Chicago day to sleep until the wild bop night again.