Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Hurts Like Brand New Shoes

Brand new shoes don’t immediately come to mind when one reflects upon the plight of a Somali woman. And yet, it seems to make sense to me in Sade’s Pearls.

I recently wrote to a number of my friends that there exists no frame of reference, no analogous experience by which to compare the reality of the Congo. The very essence of that difficulty seems to be captured in Sade’s song. Of all the heartbreaking adversities she could have chosen by way of comparability, she chose to analogize the pain of a Somali woman to that of brand-new shoes.

This analogy is both revealing and uncanny in its humor. Whatever her intent, I do not believe that the closest most individuals will ever come to understanding the life of someone in Africa is the pain of brand new shoes. And while other universal experiences of more comparable (or even greater) degrees of pain exist, I do not believe that any such comparison can be made without seeming facetious and/or foolish.

Drawing comparisons is a common and natural human predisposition. It makes it that much easier to articulate emotions and establish connections with whomever one happens to be sharing their experience. But my experience in Lubumbashi opened my eyes to a world that I could not have prepared myself to adapt to prior to my departure.

By this world, I don’t speak of a world of poverty and the absence of infrastructure. These aspects of the Congo were shocking to me but in many ways, I had prepared myself to encounter them. What I wasn’t prepared for were the effects of not having a companion with whom I could share the experiences. And so I found myself struggling to acclimate in an environment where I felt the psychological toll of dogmatism and the manner in which it impeded progress; where corruption seemed to permeate every level of economic and even social interaction; where the hypocrisy of government and big business could be seen in plain view; and where the belief in witchcraft lead people to do irrational and evil things.

And it isn’t enough to simply visit the Congo to empathize with what I have written. Experiencing these things requires immersion into the culture, which in turn requires one to speak sparingly and listen attentively even when fundamental disagreement inclines you to do otherwise.

So you might be able to understand the mental gymnastics that I undergo when I try to respond to someone’s question about what the Congo was like. It’s not so much that it is difficult to describe what I experienced, but that describing the complexity of the trip requires me to contextualize it by describing my own story. And the breadth of an endeavor of this capacity has frustrated me to the point of reticence.

I can write a blog post about everything from the deteriorated roads, the man-made bridges, to the chronic power outages. And though these may appear to be an appropriate point of reference from which to begin writing about my experience, to me they seem to provide more entertainment than substance. And therein lies the rub because I simply can’t bring myself to entertain my friends with tales of what I witnessed when I believe my efforts can be directed at more productive measures to ameliorate the conditions I saw in the Congo.

In a sense, it calls for a responsible approach. There will come a time, however, when I will have to relinquish my desire to place this experience in a perfect frame of reference; one which gives justice to all the beauty and ugliness, the comedy and tragedy, the possibilities and the futilities. But until then, I’ll keep rewriting and re-editing so that when people finally do read it, it won’t have to hurt like brand-new shoes.

1 comment:

Brother Spotless said...

I often wonder what it would be like to visit the place we both fondly and dreadfully refer to as the "Motherland."

The life-changing effect it has on folks, while they may be better for it, is seemingly a most uncomfortable transformation.