Monday, March 2, 2009

The Gift of Hard Reality

The other night I went to a birthday party. The birthday girl, an impressive person, an Acholi, a survivor of the atrocities of the north, a university educated accountant, turning 23, is an employee of the UJV. This party was different, or rather I was; the only white person in the room, the oldest person ("you're 40 and not married, how is this so?"), the only non-Christian, the one shooting snaps with the big camera. (I also ended up making the cake, my first since I was a kid, an acceptable success).
I must admit that I was impressed with the people. The girls were all incredibly gorgeous, and all the guests were clean cut, stylish, and well dressed. All were university educated and ambitious, they talked, danced, and sang exhuberantly. I was struck by how many truly exceptional people were present.

Much as I like the 'social-circle' acquaintances that I meet, and I'm not talking about my close friends here, I am rarely stunned by them. They might be 'hot', 'nice', or 'cool', but I rarely if ever think them 'great'. These people, on the other hand, seemed all exceptional.

At points, conversation was moderated, 'church group' style, with a leader designating a speaker. Some toasted the birthday girl, others just eloquently spilled their guts. A lanky man, let's call him 'Alex', obviously well educated, talked about the recent death of his older sister, whom he clearly loved and admired greatly, to a sudden, arbitrary, and seemingly harmless infection. It had prompted a strong desire in him to have children, lest some quick death rob him of the chance. The group chimed in with their own multitudinal losses, hardly a soul in the room, myself aside, had not lost brothers and sisters and parents and relatives and old friends and co-workers and mentors and neighbours and fellow survivors.... the room felt thick with ghosts and death sat in the corner.

You and I, we might think we have lost, our grandmas and occasional parents or friends. But if we had truly lost, we would not gather and drink and talk about real estate, or careers, or what we had just bought, or our blogs or bands, or the economy, or new music. We'd, at least for a quiet second, hold each other and honour the dead. The ghosts. The ones who weren't there. The few, comparitively, that we have.

It seemed to me, in that room, that the pervasive presence of death brings something out in the character of a person, like a hard threshing that separates the husk from a person, a cold wind that fills your sails. Maybe it's just that much more appreciation for life. We in Canada, with our low mortality rates and incredible health care system and reliable sanitation systems and plentiful food supply, are robbed of that and I fear that it dulls us.

Alex and his friend Ken drove me home in a lovely, new-model 4WD station wagon, an Audi or Volvo, listening to contemporary African- American soul along the way. When we got to Kitunzi, where I live, they were shocked.... "You live here, in this neighborhood? It's dangerous! You're not scared?"

Nah, it's Fine. Thanks very much for the ride, and the good music. I'll be ok.


  1. We are all like wheat before the scythe. Are we then seed for sowing? How many of us are grist unto the mill or are destined to become, briefly, a polished grain?

  2. Lovely, Thomas!

    This is a thoughtful and sobering post. It also makes me, once again, supremely thankful.

    I shall love everyone extra hard today.