Not My Worst Day: A personal journey through violence in the Great Lakes Region of Africa
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Instead, Alex tells her the tales of his own rural upbringing and makes up his own based on his cattle herding experiences. His parents, now elderly, still live in the traditional way in the DRC. Because of the continuing unrest, Alex has been unable to visit his homeland for 15 years, though has twice arranged for his parents to travel to Rwanda. He has not seen them in two years, and has no way of keeping in touch. One of his younger brothers is still a cattle herder, but many of his close family members have now moved abroad to safety.
Alex truly belongs to two very different worlds; the old and the new. I have to remind myself that Alex is not an old man reflecting on many decades of life lived, but someone less than 40 years of age, who has been on a journey of a magnitude that most would not experience in an entire lifetime. His is an inspirational story and one that begs the question: what can we in the West do to help?
He is of the view that policy makers should take the time to listen to the real issues before responding, instead of reducing Africa to a primitive land of warring tribes. Especially when you are bringing those in conflict together. The official launch is on April 16 at the University of Brighton in Hastings Havelock Road campus, in the lecture theatre at 4. As years went by, I had a faint idea that Central African states were in a state of conflict, but I was oblivious to the extent of the brutality until much later in life.
When I began studying issues in the African continent, the sheer violence of it all took me my surprise. Reading your book was one of the most difficult things I have done in a long time. Usually when I get a read-worthy book in my hands, I power through the pages and finish it in a matter of days.
I could not bring myself to read more than a few pages at a time.
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I found myself closing the book while battling a wide range of emotions. My mind was swimming with questions and things I did not understand. How unjust it all was, how was this allowed to happen? And then of course the understanding that the challenges I have been through in my life, seemed pale in contrast to yours — and the guilt that came with. This is similar to when you describe your first interactions with children at the orphanage and listening to their stories, you exclaim that you realised that your problems seemed easy compared to the violence they had witnessed.
This was followed by more productive thoughts such as — What can I do? How can I contribute? You could help me figure this out. Once I got back to Mumbai and resumed my doctoral studies and my research work, I took it along with me on the local trains, college and I rationed the pages everyday so as to not be overwhelmed. Thank You for writing such an honest book. I cannot even begin to fathom the courage it would have taken to reopen those painful memories.
Your success story, if I may call it that, is nothing short of an inspiration. I will not even try to explain the impact it has had on my world view — just know that it is significant. If there is any way that I can contribute to the activities of your organization, do let me know. It is hard to say exactly how this was conveyed: something implacable in the set of the lips, something farseeing seeing what? I did not know then what it was that I was reacting to; I put it to myself that they were letting themselves go.
In the same way that the girls were destined to gain as much weight as their mothers, the boys, it was clear, would rise no higher than their fathers.
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My father wanted me to do the same. I refused, even though I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handymen. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted.
Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it.
And others, like me, fled into the church.
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It was a summer of dreadful speculations and discoveries, of which these were not the worst. Crime became real, for example—for the first time—not as a possibility but as the possibility. One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear.
It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else—housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers—would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities. Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was and is good enough.
White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed. People more advantageously placed than we in Harlem were, and are, will no doubt find the psychology and the view of human nature sketched above dismal and shocking in the extreme.
His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards.
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Negro servants have been smuggling odds and ends out of white homes for generations, and white people have been delighted to have them do it, because it has assuaged a dim guilt and testified to the intrinsic superiority of white people. Even the most doltish and servile Negro could scarcely fail to be impressed by the disparity between his situation and that of the people for whom he worked; Negroes who were neither doltish nor servile did not feel that they were doing anything wrong when they robbed white people.
In spite of the Puritan-Yankee equation of virtue with well-being, Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any very striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians. In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand.
They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law—in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection. It turned out, then, that summer, that the moral barriers that I had supposed to exist between me and the dangers of a criminal career were so tenuous as to be nearly nonexistent. I certainly could not discover any principled reason for not becoming a criminal, and it is not my poor, God-fearing parents who are to be indicted for the lack but this society.
I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and polish me off that way. And yet, of course, at the same time, I was being spat on and defined and described and limited, and could have been polished off with no effort whatever.
And it does not matter what the gimmick is. It was this last realization that terrified me and—since it revealed that the door opened on so many dangers—helped to hurl me into the church. And, by an unforeseeable paradox, it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick. For when I tried to assess my capabilities, I realized that I had almost none. In order to achieve the life I wanted, I had been dealt, it seemed to me, the worst possible hand.
I could not become a prizefighter—many of us tried but very few succeeded. I could not sing. I could not dance. I had been well conditioned by the world in which I grew up, so I did not yet dare take the idea of becoming a writer seriously. The only other possibility seemed to involve my becoming one of the sordid people on the Avenue, who were not really as sordid as I then imagined but who frightened me terribly, both because I did not want to live that life and because of what they made me feel.
Everything inflamed me, and that was bad enough, but I myself had also become a source of fire and temptation. I had been far too well raised, alas, to suppose that any of the extremely explicit overtures made to me that summer, sometimes by boys and girls but also, more alarmingly, by older men and women, had anything to do with my attractiveness. On the contrary, since the Harlem idea of seduction is, to put it mildly, blunt, whatever these people saw in me merely confirmed my sense of my depravity.
Negroes in this country—and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other—are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means that they are superior to blacks intrinsically, that is: God decreed it so , and the world has innumerable ways of making this difference known and felt and feared.
Long before the Negro child perceives this difference, and even longer before he understands it, he has begun to react to it, he has begun to be controlled by it.
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He does not know what the boundary is, and he can get no explanation of it, which is frightening enough, but the fear he hears in the voices of his elders is more frightening still. A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other.