The Greeks, it is said, never wrote obituaries, so when a man died, they only asked one question: ‘Did he have passion?’
I have to admit, I found this fitting epigraph in a cheesy Hollywood film, and not in some large ugly volume written by Sophocles or Heroditus, or some long winded, dead Greek historian, as one would expect. Let us not get into why I was watching a corny tearjerker in the first place. I am guilty and I’m not going to let myself off the hook on this one, I’m bearing the price of public self-introspection. Anyway the corny tearjerker is a film called Serendipity, directed by Peter Chelsom, starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, about a couple that reunites years after they first met, fell in love and separated, but yet convinced that one day they would end up together. Typical Hollywood claptrap.
But this is not a story about the crap Hollywood has been constantly shoving down our throats. No, this is a story about passion. Even though Cusack’s character, a rather silly jerk, is only passionate about finding the girl he fell in love with several years before, the film got me thinking about the whole subject of passion and what it means to be passionate, or not to be passionate. How important is such a soliloquy in our lives? Is it important at all, to begin with? This question has been weighing on my mind for as long as I can remember, and so it was only fitting that I write about it as my first post.
Here’s the thing, I would like to think I’m a rather low-key guy. I rarely lose my cool; I can barely remember the last time I lost my temper. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a James Dean reincarnate, in fact my “chilled out” surfer boy attitude is slightly worrying. I tend to be languid and flippant even in the most serious of situations.For the most part, however, being low-key is a great thing. Being placid is worldly. It also means you’d be spared of anger management classes, meditation or your best friend’s ‘Breathe in, out, in, out’ solution to every problem in the world.
However, as De Niro would say, there’s a flip-side to that coin. Being self-possessed means very few things get you worked up. Very few things bring out the animal in you, that visceral primal beast. It simply dozes, oblivious, waiting to be jolted awake, like the proverbial dragon. Then it takes one unexpected surge, to jolt that dragon to life. Something to get your blood rushing with that delightful rush of adrenaline. You find something that burns so hot inside you, so incandescent in your soul that you would not be deterred by anything to accomplish it. Then you would never want to stop.
The curious thing is that no one blames you for not being passionate about something, which is wrong. So many things wrong with this world- the Donald (America, this was hysterical at first, now we are starting to be scared!); the Kardashians; folks having sex in elevators- this is just wrong on so many levels by the way; or Drake’s dance moves. Signs of the apocalypse. Anyone?
It seems the Greeks were perhaps more apt at this than we are. The question should not so much be about whether one has passion than whether there is a thing, or a cause worthy being passionate about. The two should be mutually exclusive.
Forgive me in stating the obvious, but the realities of our society play a major role in how we turn out to be. I am of the school of thought that it’s more nurture than nature.
I’ll give you a little context. Bear with me. I was born and bred in Garissa town, in what was hitherto known as the Northern Frontier, a far flung corner in this far flung corner of the world, cast away to the far corner of the map, as if by a wizard’s spell, into a region chocked by the caustic push and shove of two warring nations, never truly at home with either. Garissa—(to borrow from Karan Mahajan’s words, in his spectacular description of Delhi, in his novel “The Association of Small Bombs,”) “flat, burning, mixed-up, smashed together from pieces of tin and tarpaulin, spreading on the arid plains of the North—offered no respite from itself. [Garissa] never ended. The houses along the road were like that too: jammed together …cramped with boxes, brooms, pots, clotheslines, buckets, the city minutely re-creating itself down to the smallest cell. Fuck. I love it too.”
I know you are not particularly charmed by its stories about large artless semi-deserts and weathered nomads.I mean why would you? The State, in playing towards your self preservation instincts, takes every opportunity to ‘advise’ you to avoid it for security reasons, it’s ‘the other Kenya’ and you happen to love yourself. But I,freaking love it. I love everything about it. I mean everything including the oppressive heat, the bad roads or lack thereof and the aggressively persistent mosquitoes.
Usually, when someone asks me where I am from, the conversation is always characterized by shock and disbelief, peppered with not so subtle hints of empathy:
Where are you from Aress? That’s a curious name by the way.
I’m from Garissa.
It’s a small town, mostly arid, just below the top right corner of the Kenyan map. You should Wikipedia it.
I know. I know. Ofcourse I’ve heard of it. You’re serious?
As a testicular cancer.
Hmmm..(pats me on the arm. Translation: It’s alright, you are here now, poor thing). You don’t look like you are from there.
Why the hell not?
Well.. You just don’t.
‘You just don’t.’
Folks, that’s a euphemism for: you wear skinny jeans (I know, I’ve totally lost my man card on this one! Don’t even ask how I got myself in this tight state of affairs.); you have a punk rock haircut, you don’t have that guttural tone to your speech; and you don’t have that characteristic irascible temper, usually accompanied by flaunting insolence and you obviously don’t pronounce your p’s as b’s as though everyone else’s got it wrong. Human beings, myself included, again in stating the obvious, are disposed to fall for the stereotype.
It’s crazy how people expect you,because you are Somali, to wear a macawiis(that incredibly comfortable sarong-like garment we wear around our waist) or a large shuka, and not to forget to flaunt a colorful turban around your head or wear the koofiyad, (embroidered rounded skullcap), and complete your look with a very nice pair of fashionable sandals (flip flops for my American friends) with a miswak (traditional natural toothbrush) hanging nonchalantly from the corner of your mouth (cue James Dean comparisons.)
Sad to say, stereotypes have a way of getting the better of us. For some reason, perhaps becasue of simply being human, I instinctively expect my regal Maasai friends to walk around barefooted wrapped in a red shuka with beaded jewelry donned around the neck and arms, as the wind whistled through their pierced earlobes, chanting warrior songs every chance they get! The same way I instinctively expect my friends from Western Kenya to accompany every verb with the suffix ‘..ko.’
‘You just don’t.’
This statement makes me question my ‘Somaliness.’ I’ve actually sat down and contemplated asking my folks where I actually originated from, so as to ‘find my roots,’ as I called it. But after a while I decided to abort my root finding mission and instead decided to walk around in my macawiis and sandals just to feel like a true Somali. I occasionally stood under any available acacia trees and whistled while leaning on a staff for sport. And when my childhood friend invited me to his nuptials, it was the perfect opportunity to make sure everyone noticed how my diisoow (Somali wedding dance) moves were on fleek! The fact that I have two useless left feet was a non-issue!
But, we digress.
Anyway, as I was saying, I grew up in Garissa. Hold on to your seats now, I was lucky to have gone to school. It didn’t have the word ‘academy’ in its name though, which happens to be the national suffix denoting excellence. And as you can imagine, passion wasn’t something that was on my Hooyo’s (means ‘mom’ in Somali) mind when she dragged my stubborn little ass to Tetu Primary School (no academy here). I suspect she did that, not because I was good material but because she was getting rid of me for always shovelling down all the sugar and drinking the guests’ tea. But in my defence, the tea was made with camel milk and the guilt of letting it ‘go to waste’ would have haunted my little brain. I had that trademark rebelliousness that my people generally have ingrained in their DNA, and I did not particularly fancy taking orders from anyone. I had, at that age, perfected the art of disobedience down to a T. I have since gone easy on the sugar and the tea (they don’t make it with camel milk anymore.) So it worked out.
At the time there were only a handful schools for the whole town and its environs. But I was luckier than most kids. I’m sure it’s not because I was promising or anything, but perhaps because I was a little tyrant who had too much time on my hands. The learning experience was definitely not top class. Everyone was busy trying to beat the heat. You can only learn so much when you’ve had so much ugali for lunch, the sun is blistering hot and for some reason Mrs. I Forgot Her Name expects you to absorb everything about damned pollen grains.
To make matters worse, we were too stubborn to learn any other language, be it English or Swahili, and chose to only use Somali even in class. Let’s just say even the teachers efforts to make us refrain from using the mother tongue while in school failed because it was simply a fight against nature, and as you rightly guessed, it was a failure of theatrical proportions. In the circumstances, most of us found ourselves in Class Eight and it suddenly dawned on us that we weren’t able to construct a meaningful sentence in English! Swahili was a different story altogether. We talked in Somali, dreamed in Somali, yawned in Somali and I suspect even farted in Somali. Go figure!
So as you can imagine, I didn’t go asking my folks that I was not “feeling” school because I wanted to pursue my dreams, my passion. The hell I didn’t. I mean I couldn’t even speak English. Either way they’d have calmly told me that they’d be ready to talk once I had awoken from my dream. I’d have been told this with a smile.I kept dreaming though.
I should point out at this point that I have used passion and dreaming interchangeably because in my opinion, they are bed fellows. You dream about what you are passionate about and if you are not passionate about your dreams, you might as well be a wax doll. Life-like, Lifeless.
Passion, fortunately however, is not particularly frowned upon within the Somali community; making out and talking about sex are, oh and condoms too. So that means you can still allow you to be passionate about certain things – having multiple wives; breeding a zillion babies; dyeing your grey hair orange to look ‘dope’ (it’s a thing Somali old timers do so that young girls consider them attractive; no one in their right mind would want to marry a silver-haired geezer unless of course you are Anderson Cooper); rearing the best and healthiest breed of camels et cetera.
I can vividly imagine how the conversation would have gone if I actually had the kahunas to raise it. First, I’d pick an appropriate time, preferably a day of festivities, like Eid, when folks are all merry. Then I’d approach them cautiously, making sure I sit my sorry ass close to the exit. You’ve got to have a good exit strategy! I’d be tempted to prepare them psychologically by saying something like: “Hooyo, Aabo (Dad), I want to ask something but I’m not sure how to phrase it.” I know, this sounds like a coming-out-of-the-closet kind of statement! Now I know how gay folks feel when they are trying to come out of the closet. Pretty tight situation, no? Anyway, after careful consideration, I’d opt for the more calculated and pragmatic approach of going to straight to the point. Somali folks never did like beating about the bush. One can only attribute this to the unfortunately passive ‘patience gene’ in the our DNA or perhaps the fact that our people have historically settled in arid plains deprived of bushes, and as such had no bushes to beat around in the first place; I’d put my money on the latter.
They’d of course be sitting outside, under the shade, sipping tea and generally being quintessentially Somali. They’d listen with a lot of interest, but not in a manner connoting empathy. Your gut would tell you zero fucks will be given, so to speak.
Anyway, what would follow would be a series of events mostly involving ass beating culminating in me being handed over to the authorities (read madrasa teacher) to ‘do the final touches.’ There is a lovely concept called ‘fara kabax’ (make sure the letter ‘x’ comes deep from the gut),which literally means ‘out of the fingers,’ and is endearingly referred to folks who are out of control! Lovely language, isn’t it? I can’t wait to use it on my kids. So when Hooyo said you are ‘out of the fingers,’ it meant only one thing: stop or you will be stopped. Because if you didn’t change your ‘errant’ ways, the neighbours were likely to point at your house whispering but they’d make sure you hear the key phrases ‘evil spirits’ and ‘disturbed boy’ followed by inaudible murmurs but you catch the words ‘needs proper cleansing’ right before sending up a prayer for your indigent soul. So you walk away, with fiery indignation, as your world comes apart in a dizzying flock of shards.
I digress, again.
As the American love to say, I’ll cut to the chase. I’ve always had a few passions of my own, despite the attending circumstances of the time. Dreams, we all have them, don’t we? After all, what’s a man without dreams and ambition? Mine was writing. Writing’s got some enduring charm about it. It’s seductive in an old-fashioned kind of way. It always draws you in, if you have a thing for it, if the feeling is mutual. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, to be able to make words dance in gorgeous lilt. I’m an artistic soul, and anything less than artistic never got me any meaningful gratification, never woke the dragon, as it were.
But the nemesis, or the Godzilla to my passion for writing has always been laziness. It has been my folly, my Achilles’ heel. Admittedly, I’m one of the laziest folks unabashedly roaming the earth, if not actually the laziest.So, for a very long time, I’ve been a consumer of great literature, and not the creator of any. I remained a writer only in the deep labyrinth of my brain.
But cut me some slack here. I blame my laziness on a lot of things: the unforgiving scorching-hot Garissa sun; my mortal fear of not being good enough exacerbated by my obsessive perfectionism; the riot of campus and of course teenage angst, the latter which bred my equally formidable powers of procrastination. As a teenager, you spend your time walking around with a tyrannical impudence tied around your neck, flouting, thinking you are the man, but in reality you are confused, still grappling with the question of whether you are an ass man or you like boobs! Don’t ask me if have finally cracked that weighty matter but we shall get to the bottom of that in another sitting. Fair warning: these puns should not be any way taken to be an indication of my preference in that regard; they are just there to sit pretty. *Slaps knee* *Slaps self*.
These are mere excuses, I know. I however, overcame my laziness recently. It’s never too late to start doing the things you love, is it? Fuck you, procrastination.
But despite the incredible passion I bear the art,writing is not easy. It’s not a piece of cake, or should I say, a piece of anjeera. You have to be willing to bleed your heart out, and to possess the tricky quality of imaginative promiscuity, otherwise you moght as well be speaking to a wall, you won’t move anyone. Most days you doubt whether you actually have the gravitas or the knack for it, especially when you are a mere novice. Most writers stare at the blank screen, with ascetic devotion for a whole night, in bleak loneliness, a feeling of trepidation and anxiety brooding over, trying to figure out the perfect word, a gorgeous turn of phrase. You take erotic pleasure in your choice of words. The night yawns like a foul wind, mocking you.
Then it dawns on you.
You get a glimpse of a lovely thought, but it refuses to come out; such remarkable elusiveness. You are still defiant, herding your thoughts as an Australian Shepherd dog herds sheep.The words and thoughts refuse to cooperate, and you feel mentally, emotionally constipated. But you still soldier on with an effervescent zeal.
Suddenly the words come rushing down, like a torrent: strong, effortless, beautiful and majestic.You grin with maniacal joy and sigh with appreciable relief. You sit there, the bright morning sunbeams flashing on the face of things like sudden smilings of divine delight, hungry with satisfaction.You bathe in the morning sunlight, literally illuminating you. The right word, the perfect phrase can be so powerful as to move the heart. And trying to make them dance in magnificent cadence and gorgeous splendor is no mean task. But when you manage to make something beautiful and artistic out of random chaotic words and phrases, you forget all the nights spent sitting, with bad posture, killing your back, staring at a blank Word document. This is because it is your passion. It’s not a chore. It’s not a day job.It’s ‘orgasmic.’ It is art. Such is the ambivalence of writing.
I thought of what passion means for us. As Africans, we don’t have the luxury of chasing abstract things. We survive. We make money, we put food on the table, we make babies and we make ends meet. We have too many problems to deal with. At least that is how the majority of us think anyway.
It got me thinking about African societies and whether poverty, lack of education and the bad luck of obscurity get in the way of a fulfilling life- a life of satisfaction doing the things you love.
Susan, who is British doesn’t seem to agree.
‘Can I marry you?’’ I interject, cutting her short. She laughs; I stare dead into her eyes; as I ponder over what she said, whatever I managed to hear anyway.
I suppose pursuing the things you love usually comes easier when you’re not struggling to put food on the table. Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ comes into play. The higher up the hierarchy you are, the easier it is for you to focus on things that give you ‘self-actualization.’ But at the same time if your passion is what matters to you the most, then nothing can stop you from achieving them, even if you are a resident of the lowest stratum of the pyramid; you will still go ahead and flip the middle finger to Maslow and his theory reminding him, as he turns in his grave, that it is not more than what it is; just a theory.
Folks, do not forget to remember this cliché: for you to achieve anything, you have to put your heart to it. Where can I register this as a proverb? Anyone? Every side of our lives should reveal passion, be it work, relationships and even the mundane aspects of life.
So what is your passion? What is your dream? What is it that burns red hot inside you that refuses to go out? And I’m not talking about careers and dreary day jobs that you have to do to pay the bills. I’m talking about what you love doing, that gives you a thrill or a rush when you do it that thing that gets you high as though you’re on something banned.
Find that thing inside you and start doing it. Maybe you are a closet poet, a fashion designer or a jazz maestro. Don’t deny the world your gift. You’ll never regret pursuing your passion. Start writing your own obituary today, like the Greeks used to, through your passion, or someone else will write it for you. I hope you’re feeling inspired. I know I am.
This is where I sign off. You’ll excuse me because I’m having a ravenous craving for camel milk.