Finger on the Pulse—August/Sept 2018

The past two months have teemed with blatant contradictions. While the days have felt like the busiest ever, they have in fact been some of the lightest in my year. While I have traversed several nations on two continents, I have frequently felt like I was shutting the world within. While I have made plenty of new acquaintances, I have retracted more to myself and felt a lot lonelier. I have seen and experienced more and more, yet written less and less. And nothing scares me more than not writing. I listened to a TED podcast the other day where Australian singer, Megan Washington, talks about how she overcame her stammering through singing. She says that it was only through singing that she could say exactly what she wanted to say, the only time she could feel fluent. I feel the same about writing. Through my writing, I can explore and explain what I feel and think, fluently, fluidly. I can process my experiences and share stories that if kept inside make me feel a little crazier than everybody around me. I can provide context for why I think the way I think and feel the way I feel. For me, speaking rarely assures the same outcomes, especially not in larger groups. So when I do not write, even just for myself, I feel invisible, silenced, misunderstood. No wonder the tagline for my blog, borrowed from a morbid Franz Kafka quote, is “because a non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”

August found me outside the house I had lived in for the past eighteen months. The initial plan had been to leave Kenya for the European Forum Alpbach in South Western Austria on the 12th of August and so I didn’t find it wise to pay rent for the whole month. I stayed with a close friend as I figured my immigration stuff out. Now, “figuring my immigration stuff out” sounds easy but it’s probably the most frustrating experience I’ve had lately. People treat you like a bag of fecal matter just because they have some control—especially little control—over your goals. To be honest, when I see people use different paths to get into other countries, the so-called ‘illegals’, I sympathise with them. I sometimes wonder if ‘must not have a heart or at least be willing to leave it at the door when they start working here’ is one of the core requirements that people working in immigrations must have. You know, tucked neatly in between “must know very little” and “must see the worst in people” on their job descriptions. In my last reflective post, I talked about how difficult it was to renew my Kenyan passport. I sighed with relief when I received it, only to realize that that was merely a single battle in a long war.

***

The woman at the Austrian counter in the visa application office in Nairobi flipped through my documents wearing a bizarre scowl on her face. It seemed my mere presence offended her. Never mind that I had never seen her my whole life. She looked, pedantically, for errors: this passport image doesn’t have the correct ratio, it shouldn’t have this kind of background, write your complete physical address (even if the form only had space for two words for that question), this signature…it felt like being in a bank and being forced to sign a document over and over because your signature does not match their records yet the very fact of having to re-sign the document in a fucking bank makes it ten times harder to breathe leave alone get your signature right.

“Which airline did you book your flights on?” she asked, sure that she was nailing my coffin with this one.

I had barely looked at my flight bookings as they had only come in an hour earlier. I looked at my booking for my flight from Austria to the UK and said “Austrian Airways.” She said, with the confidence of an American frat boy discussing a novel he had only read on SparkNotes, “there is nothing like Austrian Airways! I see here that you booked on Qatar Airways and as you can see on the poster in front of you, the embassy will not be accepting bookings made on Qatar Airlines until further notice.” I wanted to argue and say this information made little sense, to tell her that in fact there was an Austrian Airlines and that she should know that if she took in applications for the Austrian Embassy. But I forced myself to inhale deeply. The sign on the wall reading, “Our staff will treat you with respect and we expect you to do the same” now bore passive aggressive undertones. You must treat us with respect but you’d be goddamn kidding to expect the same from us, loser.

Nonetheless, I eventually got my visas and on a chilly, Nairobian, mid-August Sunday morning, I was on a Qatar Airways flight en route to Doha. Unlike when I went for my undergrad in the US when a pared down version of my village had seen me off and prayed for me at the airport, this time, only one special person saw me off. I would spend the next two and a half weeks in a mountainous and picturesque village in Austria called Alpbach learning and discussing grand ideas in a variety of disciplines such as the future of work, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency and the blockchain, European Union expansion, new forms of energy, changing concepts of gender, the role of art in citizenship, et cetera (or as I recently learnt some Nigerians put it, anco, to mean ‘and company’). After the Forum ended at the end of August, I packed my two massive suitcases and took to Edinburgh to start my Masters, stopping for a day in Vienna to explore the “City of Music.”

Alright, enough of the intro—to actual reflection questions now.

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I am learning: the art of photography. As an artist and a storyteller who primarily uses letters to tell stories, I am consciously choosing photography as my next artistic frontier. To this end, I have invested in a low-end DSLR camera (okay, that makes it sound cheap but it isn’t, trust me, that’s how the world of cameras works) and spent sizable chunks of time studying and practicing photography in recent months. I am seeing my learning from three major angles: 1) getting better at noticing interesting subjects and patterns in the world (or seeking the interesting in the ordinary by looking at it differently or by simply paying attention), 2) the mechanics of using a camera to take great photographs and 3) the post-production process of editing photographs to achieve certain desired (and dope-ass!) effects. To notice things, you must slow down and be mindful of the world around you—a daunting challenge for people like me who spend most of their days with constant chatter in their heads, hurrying towards something or looking into a screen. I am learning to look out into the world more, to really look, to be present. When it comes to the process and mechanics of capturing moments through lenses, I have a lot to learn: from exposure theory to compositional tools to making good use of different light and shadow conditions to utilising different lenses. Yeah, the very basics. Luckily, I have free access to hundreds of premium courses on Lynda.com through my uni and my experienced photographer friends have recommended great resources to me. (Moreover, I am joining the Edinburgh University Photography Society!) With the post-production bit, I subscribed to the Adobe Creative Cloud and I am learning how to use Lightroom and Photoshop to organize and play around with my photos.    

When it comes to practicing the art, I already have over 30GB of raw images—thousands of shots from the last three months. Certainly, very few of these are killer shots, but I am comfortable with that. Most of them are learning material at pretty low cost. Spending the recent months in new spaces and meeting new people has made noticing interesting things easier. I am like a two-year-old learning to talk: everything seems interesting and confusing at the same time. That’s what traveling will do for you.  

Funny thing is: when I share my photographs with people, they think they are great, or at least that is what they say. Someone even called me a genius the other day! That scared me a bit because I don’t want to start thinking that my work, a beginner, is good enough to stop trying harder. Which is also why I have a complicated relationship with photo-sharing sites like Instagram. To be clear, I like compliments—I actually love them, duh, I am human—but I fear mediocrity; so I judge myself on a tougher scale than I judge others and doubt myself more often than I doubt others. (Perhaps I should be more lenient with myself, show myself more self-compassion as I am learning from Sheryl Sandberg’s and Adam Grant’s Plan B.)

Yet, I realized that if one is not careful, it’s easy to take the beaten path. Like always shooting in auto mode because it’s so easy and it often takes okay photos. But beyond the three major areas mentioned above, photography will also demand that the photographer develops other skills within and without herself: like managing people in a shot or being courageous and diligent to go beyond where the ordinary person with a camera—pretty much everybody in the 21st century? —will go. Like with writing, if you pursue growth and excellence in the art, it will push you to discover your own style and voice, amorphous but critical elements of our art that makes it uniquely ours in a world teeming with conformity and imitation.

I am hoping: to write more, to do more —to shake off the lethargy. I feel like I have been on a long working vacation with little structure but plenty of busyness in the last two months. From my travels and learnings, I have encountered a plethora of ideas that I wish to explore and write more about. The one thing I need to fix about my travelling is not giving myself time to reflect on what I see and experience through tools like meditation and writing, in situ. Photography is great and it captures the moments and the sights, but it will barely reveal what you were feeling or thinking about as you navigated particular spaces or time (Crazy idea: maybe I should travel vlog!). I am hoping to get back to writing on a daily basis (even if just 500 words per day) and I am hoping to establish regular rhythms of life here at Edinburgh. I am hoping to create rhythms that protect me from busyness for busyness sake, that instead guide me towards a more meaningful, healthy, curious and creative existence — whatever forms these take.

I am realizing: I love detours even when they make little literal sense. There’s often this running conflict between my head and my heart. My head wants efficiency, speed, productivity, the end in sight. But my heart wants to wander, to explore, to be lost in the nuance, to complicate the simplistic, to question the unknown. When I had my bike back in Kenya, this would manifest itself in my rides. My mind would tell me to peddle faster on a path I knew so I would best my last speed, but then I would discover a detour I had never taken. With little regard for the detour’s terrain or where it led to, more often than not, I took the detour. At first it would be blissful. I would feel like a maverick. Uncharted waters, yaay! Then at a certain point, I would feel frazzled. I would blame myself for not just taking the path I knew and making life more difficult for myself for absolutely no reason. I would panic and lose my sense of direction. I would wander around like a headless chicken, doubt my ability to ever find my destination, or home, again. I noticed the same pattern this week in Edinburgh. I know a clear path from my room to my lecture halls but on some days I will unconsciously get off that path so I can find a different way, the risk of running late sometimes notwithstanding. I will feel great about exploring a different nook of the city but then I will check my time and realize I am almost running late, so I will check my Google Maps for directions which will reveal that I am walking in the wrong direction and so my palms will get sweaty and my heart will race; I will walk in the opposite direction without paying close attention to whether I am supposed to turn East or South, words which don’t make much sense to me in the real world, then five minutes in I will discover that I was actually walking in the right direction all along; I will feel ashamed about my inability to follow simple directions on top of being late to the event now, but I will have no time to feel ashamed because I have to find my way…and I will be late now, and lost, even though not so lost that I need to ask people for directions and I will feel all emotional but I won’t cry on the street because men aren’t supposed to cry, at least not on the street, at least not for flimsy reasons like feeling lost. I will eventually figure my way out and get to the lecture halls ten to fifteen minutes late and feel like I have to apologize for my tardiness which I am not really sure I should call tardiness.     

Curiosity

Source

I am listening: to lots of podcasts. I discovered that Google have this cool, new app for listening to podcasts. Since then, I have become a huge fan of three podcasts in particular: 1) NPR’s TED Radio Hour (which curates TED Talks around a certain topic or idea and discusses them with the TED speakers), 2) Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations and 3) The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Ears Edition (which always cracks me up more than it should in the most inappropriate of places). There are also plenty of great podcasts from a variety of fields and topics that keep you updated with what is happening. The great thing with podcasts is you can listen to them as you do something else. So I find myself listening to them in the gym or as I walk or take a ride somewhere.

Here are some of my latest favorite jams: Motigbana by Olamide, London Town by Mr Eazi ft Giggs (dat bass boi!), Tujiangalie by Sauti Sol ft Nyashinski, I Like Me Better by Lauv, Been Calling by Maleek Berry, Long Live the Chief by Jidenna, Fire to the Sun by BERA ft. Patoranking (next level video) and Something New by Wiz Khalifa X  Ty Dolla $ign.

I am watching: Okay, I am trying to get myself to watch less YouTube because I am a huge YouTube junkie. YouTube has been responsible for more than 50% of my ruined early morning plans. So I am autoplaying less videos and falling asleep to books instead of YouTube. In the last two months though, I have binged on This is Us, which I wondered why I had not watched sooner, and Marlon, the hilarious sitcom with the dumbest theme song.

And then I watched Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman which I am still processing. I had eagerly anticipated the movie, having watched Spike Lee’s and John David Washington’s interviews on various late-night shows. On my flight to Doha, I read Spike Lee’s cover story on TIME (a much recommended read, BTW). This only stoked my desire to watch Blackkklansman so when I learnt that we would be getting free tickets to the movie theatre in our orientation week (thanks MCF team!), I knew exactly what to see. I will give no spoilers but if you’ve seen or read anything about the movie you already know that it is based on the real-life story (or “some fo real, fo real shit” as Spike Lee would put it) of Ron Stallworth, a black American cop who infiltrated the KKK by pretending to be white in the late 70s. There are several pivotal images, scenes and sequences in the film that make you very uncomfortable—scenes and images that stay with you. Little surprises here, as Lee has often seen himself as a provocateur. The coda in particularly, where Lee closes with the footage of the 2017 riots in Charlottesville and Trump infamous ‘very fine people on both sides’ comment serves to remind us that while the story is based on history, it’s also a modern-day story. This brings urgency to the story and reminds us that there is more that remains to be done. That while our protagonist triumphs, the structures that prop up racism and white supremacy still stand and there are still people working hard to reinforce them.

Two interesting things I noticed watching the film: 1)  how powerful and loud the silence in the theatre once the film ended was. It was as if every member of the audience joined in a moment of collective awe and reflection. I have heard the film has had similar impact in other places: silence, awe and standing ovations greeting its end. I admire that. It’s great to arouse applause, but when your art inspires silent awe and reflection, you are on a whole different level. 2) How complex the characters in the film are. Unlike the demagogues in the KKK or in the Trump Administration who would rather traffic in sloganeering, simplistic (bumper-sticker or “red hat”) rhetoric, Lee presents characters who are bold but not devoid of blemish. He presents the reasoning on both sides but still stands unequivocally on the right side of history. When he puts up the image of a white woman who was killed by Nazi sympathisers during the Charlottesville riots alongside the tribute “Rest in Power” he makes a powerful point that the film is not about blacks against whites, not black and white. But rather about taking a stand against injustice in our world, no matter who we are.  

I am reading: quite a lot actually. Great news: I completed my Goodreads goal of reading 30 books in a year with close to three months to go (and some days before I officially begin my Masters)! This is the first time I’ve set and accomplished an annual reading goal so I am very proud of myself for it. Here you can see the list of the 30 books I’ve read this year. From romantic novels to graphic novels to autobiographies to business non-fiction to memoirs on writing to short stories by remarkable authors: this exercise has been one of the most enriching to my life this year. I am also happy that out of the 30 books I’ve read, 13 (43%) are by women. Not that I want a cookie for reading women, but I will never forget that wintry afternoon when Jamaican author Marlon James—who’s probably the most well-read person I’ve ever interacted with—told our Living Writers class at Colgate about how most men (and women, but mostly men), even the most well read ones, do not read women and how the distortion shows up in their work and their conception of the world.

The most outstanding books I have read in the last two months are Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect and Option B by Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO and a really incredible human being) and Wharton genius-professor Adam Grant. The Medici Effect postulates that groundbreaking innovation happens at the intersection of various fields, subjects or industries. For instance, he gives an example of how an architect used biological understanding of how termites cool their shelters to design Eastgate, one of the most energy-sustainable buildings in the world at a fraction of the cost in Harare. He discusses innovation at a personal, corporate and societal level. What spoke to me most were sections where he discussed polymathic thinkers who integrate knowledge from a variety of fields to innovate in business, arts, tech and society at large. It’s comforting to see my perpetual academic, professional and intellectual nomadism validated.

Option B, written in Sandberg’s voice, discusses building resilience and finding joy in the face of adversity. Partly a love letter to her late husband Dave Goldberg, Sandberg wrote the book in the years following her husband’s sudden death. In the book, she writes candidly about how she and her family coped with the loss, discussing concepts such as post-traumatic growth and how to support people who experience traumatic events. Adam Grant’s academic background layers the story with incredible research on grief, resilience and joy. A key takeaway from this book for me is the research by Martin Seligman that presents three Ps that stunt our recovery from negative events: 1) personalization—the belief that we are at fault, 2) permanence—the belief that the event will affect all areas of our lives, and 3) permanence—the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever. Or as Sandberg summarizes it “It is my fault this is awful. My whole life is awful. And it’s always going to be awful.” Research has shown that we recover faster when we realize that the traumas of our lives are not entirely our fault, do not affect all aspects of our life and that they will not be forever. From the book, I also learnt the power of letting those going through hard times know that they are not alone and actually being present and kind.

Currently, I am also re-reading Chimamanda’s Americanah with Sheila and remembering why she’s #goals. I am also struggling to finish Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

I am missing: the cats. I definitely don’t miss the stench of their excretions but I must admit I miss their calming presence. I see their fur on my clothes, a constant bother when I lived with them, and it makes me a little nostalgic for what we had. I am getting a plant to add life to my university room but it’s not the same thing. The plant won’t meet me at the entrance with incessant meows or climb on my table when I am trying to concentrate. (Note: this is the saddest paragraph in this whole 4500+ word piece.)

I am loving: exploring new ideas and spaces. If one thing shines through my life’s work, I’d want it to be my unadulterated curiosity. I have a raging desire to uncover the unknown, question the known and see the new. Exploring new cities such as Kigali, Vienna and Edinburgh has been an eye-opening experience. You learn so much history from the architecture to the city planning and see different motions of life that put your own life into perspective.  

I am accepting: that I will never crave popularity like it was the only thing in life that mattered. That given a choice between standing up for what I believe is right and going with the popular flow to fit in, I will choose the former in a heartbeat. This will almost always place me in uncomfortable, even risky, positions. Fitting in is nicer. No wonder more people conform. Standing up, sticking out, questioning the majority, is a daunting emotional journey. Half of the time you doubt your sanity even if the evidence is in your favor. But it is always worth the effort.   

I am wondering: about an interesting proposition made by American playwright Ayad Akhtar at one of the events at the European Forum Alpbach last month. In a nutshell, he argued that the world needs less stories because it’s way too “storified” and people are using stories to bamboozle their way around when reason fails. He talked about how people like Donald Trump will create a narrative of an America that has lost its glory and people will sign onto it in droves with little regard to the facts. I’ve had a longstanding passion for telling stories so you can imagine how sacrilegious I found Ayad’s proposal, especially coming from someone who makes a living off telling stories. But the more I chew on it, the more I understand his perspective.

Nevertheless, I don’t feel there is anything new to the argument. Stories are as natural to us as breathing is. We conjure myths to explain our origins and create narratives to fill out the unknown. But in the same way stories can humanize us, in the wrong mouths, so too can they dehumanize us. You spread a story of the “other” as inferior and a threat to “your people’s” existence, don’t be surprised if soon enough “your people” rise up against “the other.” How many times has this movie played out in real life?

But narrative will not disappear, at least not soon. And I believe we’d be poorer if it did. Yet reason, fact, truth must remain the True North. Not to say that truth cannot be arrived at through narrative, because if not, then why bother writing at all? But we who are tasked with telling stories must understand the power we wield and use it for good, in service of truth. And as recipients of thousands of storylines on a daily basis, we must remain critical. We must question stories that oversimplify us and the world we live in. We must weight the narratives with reason, ask for evidence, when people try to bamboozle us with them.

I am excited: to be back to school. In many ways, I think I never really left school. Even outside the walls of academia, I was always a student of life and art and education and Africa. But to get an opportunity to focus on learning is simply amazing. For a year, I don’t have to worry about paying bills. I can throw myself into asking questions and seeking answers, grand and frivolous. I am excited to know my classmates better and to discuss some of these questions with them. I am glad we have a pretty diverse bunch of people in my program and I look forward to conversations with them.  

I am grateful: for the scholarship offer that allows me to study and live in one of the leading universities in the world. I am particularly grateful for the time that the scholarship “buys” me to pursue knowledge. We probably don’t think of scholarships in this sense. But having worked in “the real world”,  for close to 70 hours in some weeks, while trying to pursue artistic and personal endeavours, I have developed deep appreciation for the intrinsic value of time. No matter how great a time manager you are, no matter how diligent you work, there’s only so much creative or intellectual output you have when you log in such long hours for employers or constantly worry about having enough to cover your expenses. Which is why conversations about art and finance, especially in places like those we come from, are inevitably tied. As such, I am grateful that I get time to question and find answers, to pursue intellectual curiosities, but to also create more in the coming year.

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