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A Moment of Clarity

The holiday season twenty years ago was the worst of his life. Just a month or so earlier he had, without warning, left his wife and five-month old son and was now living on his own. He hadn't spoken to her since. There was no other woman. He wasn't on a drunken binge. In fact, he loved his wife, but felt he had to leave for his own sanity. And it wasn't like his wife was driving him crazy or anything. It was just the circumstances of their lives at the time. He felt he couldn't talk to her and tell her what he was feeling. He knew he would not get a hearing. So, seeing his only choices as leaving or losing his mind, he split.
there ain't no reason for us sitting down
to try to talk our problem out
cause we know the truth
it ain't no use
each other we must do without
Early one November morning, he grabbed everything he could carry and went to his parents' house. They thought he was nuts, but then that wasn't anything new. After putting up with their "Son, you should do this," and "Son, why didn't you listen to us before?" he hid out. It probably took a while for his wife or anyone else to notice his absence. You see, he and his wife were members of a black nationalist organization. The organization was their life. Almost everything they did was for the organization, with other members and under the watchful eye of its leaders. They lived with other members. They celebrated with them. They fought along side of them. The life was total. It was complete. So, when he decided he had to leave the organization, it also meant leaving his family. There was no way around that.

He couldn't just stand up and say he was going to leave. That would only get him hurt. He couldn't say goodbye. He just had to split. Now, after twenty years, he doesn't remember the day or anything. He recalls that he had spent the night on usalamu (providing security) at one of the organization's many buildings. He wasn't supposed to sleep on usalamu, but unlike most nights, he had been wide awake all of that night, tossing the imponderables around in his head. Could he talk to his wife? Would she turn him in? Would he be beaten or just mentally broken down? How would he leave? Where would he go? What would his life be like? Would he ever see his wife again. And his son? Would they hate him? And on and on.

His replacement arrived promptly at seven o'clock.

"Habari gani, Ndugu?"
"Njema, asante,. Habari gani?"
"Njema, asante."
After exchanging pleasantries, he said "Tutaonana," and walked out into the brisk morning air. His decision had been made. This would be his perfect opportunity. He went to the umuzi where he and his wife lived with other families. No one was there. He gathered his clothes, his law school books and his camera, and left without being noticed. Since he usually spent the days at law school, he would not be missed at least until that evening. And he wouldn't have night-time usalamu for a at least a week so the opportunity wouldn't present itself again for awhile. And he knew that his mental state definitely couldn't survive until then.

His plan worked fine. Besides his family, he had to leave behind some prized possessions, most importantly his typewriter and his entire record collection. He could only carry so much on the bus, you know. In any event, that would only haunt him later.

The phone calls started the next day. Udugu (brothers) from the organization would call for him at his parents' house, but, on the rare occasions the phone was answered, his parents said they hadn't heard from him and didn't know where he was. He himself would not touch the phone, always startled when the phone rang. He couldn't talk to them. His wife called too, some times angry, sometimes crying, but he couldn't talk to her either. He was afraid. If they knew where to find him, he might not survive. That he knew from the stories of what happened to others who left. Once his wife and an ndugu (brother) came to his parent's house while he was there. His father told them he wasn't home, that he didn't live there. But they did find some law books under the stairs and took them. So much for Black's Law Dictionary. And so much for staying there. They now knew he had been there. So he went to stay with an uncle fifty miles away.

He was missing Kwanza. He wouldn't be at the this year's karamu, and, maybe, never again. Not to mention he was missing his wife. His uncle's family was celebrating Christmas, then the New Year. He didn't celebrate Christmas anyway and the New Year promised nothing but sanity and pain. So he just kept playing Stevie Wonder on the box. Over and over again.

there ain't no reason trying to force a smile
when pain is there in its place
cause we know the truth
it ain't no use
let's part before we lose the strength
Being alone was difficult. He loved his wife. He finally knew what his Criminal Law professor meant when he said, "I feel for you but I can't reach you." She was a member of the organization because he was. She had a mind of her own, but they were in love and both believed in the program. They were married in the organization. That's also where their son was born. Their folks thought they were crazy to get married so young, crazy to waste time on this black stuff, but they weren't going to listen to any of that. Besides, the organization, the wafuasi (advocates) were their family now.

His wife had even wanted to leave before. They had talked about it. More than once. It was more like, she talked and he, not really listening, talked her out of it. After those talks, they both were afraid the other would turn them in if it came up again. So it didn't.

After the holidays, he started going to classes again. Enough time had passed and his parents' phone had stopped ringing. There were no more "visitors". He was gone. He knew something might happen if they caught up with him, but he also knew they were no longer spending full time looking. Anyway, he'd only be at school during the day, reducing the chances for serious bodily harm.

Attending class was OK. And he would study in the library between classes, staying off the beaten path. It was while studying at a carrel tucked into a remote corner of the library that first contact was made. Apparently someone had seen him arrive that morning and put in a call to the Hekalu (temple). A group of brothers found him on the second or third floor of the library. "Why'd you leave...?" "What about your wife? Why aren't you taking care of your mtoto (baby boy)?" Other things were said, too, as they sought to pressure him to return. Threatening things. But he made it clear he wasn't coming back, that he was not leaving with them. So the Sultani (senior officer) told him he "better not be seen around the school any more." That if he was seen, he'd be "thrown out of that window over there." He remembers looking at Sultani's face and then out at the window. He knew there was no bluffing going on here.

The brothers left and he was alone. He used to be one of them, but this was it! Officially, irrevocably, he was out of the organization. He was safe, for the time being. They wouldn't harm him as long as they didn't see him again. Now, in addition to his wife and son, in addition to the organization he loved, he had to leave school too.

as i look back i'm really trying to see
just what it was that made us spark
cause the fire's out
it leaves no doubt
the flame's not burning in our heart
How had it come to this? He was happy in the organization. Of course, there were parts he liked more than others. He didn't like pulling usalamu . He didn't like yangumi (martial arts). Fighting wasn't his thing and doing pushups on his knuckles wasn't him either. Frankly, any kind of pushup was too much for him. And poster details all hours of the night. Anything that took away from needed sleep he didn't like. On the other hand, he was the editor of the organization's newspaper and its photographer. The newspaper was not just an important assignment. He had to do everything as editor -- writing stories, taking and processing the photographs, layout, distribution, everything! Plus he got to work directly with the organization's leader, a great writer. He learned so much from the leader, and he revered him.

He could take the bad with the good. He was committed. He believed in building institutions to serve the black community. He was committed to that as an intellectual proposition, but he was also committed, unlike a lot of folks who talked a good game in college, to doing it! It was hard work and he loved it. Thrived on it.

In some ways, the organization was a cult. All the standard ingredients were there save one. The Imamu, or spiritual leader, was a serious intellectual. There was nothing off balance about him. The same can't be said for everyone, nor the environment that they created. They read Mao, they read Nyerere and Nkrumah and Ahmed Sekou Toure. Amilcar Cabral. They took lessons from those leaders and applied them to their daily lives. A lot of time was spent discussing ideology, but that too, was just fine. As a political science student in college, political philosophy was actually fun, and he learned far more here than he did in any college classroom. What ultimately "got" to him was the criticism and self-criticism. And the heavy pressure to conform to the group-think.

To a large degree, the pressure had always been there. When speaking to an officer, wafuasi (advocates) were required to preface every comment with, "Appreciating what's been said, and if I understand everything correctly, as Imamu teaches us..." and then say what they had to say. After completing statements, they were required to conclude with, "If I have said anything of value or beauty, all praises due to Imamu, and all the mistakes have been mine." And on and on. The Swahili (which he loved) and the rest, the heavy militaristic orientation ultimately stifled free thought. If you did something wrong, you had to face why? why?, why?, as if answering the questions of a child, even if there was no reason "why." So, by the end, he wasn't sure whose thoughts he was having, or where his thoughts ended and the organization's began.

And then there were the women. He's no radical feminist today, certainly and wasn't one back then, but some of the organization's beliefs insofar as women were concerned were tough to take. For example, a strict translation of his wife's Swahili name indicated that, in a very real sense, she "belonged" to him. That she was "of" him, and that her role was to serve him. The theory did not always match the reality in this arena because the organization's women had clearly assigned, important roles, including caring for the children, cooking and other aspects of "social development." The men did not really share in these activities. And over time, as the Imamu's views changed, the role of women changed too. More -- but not quite -- equal.

we still are young and both of us have time
to find our winter love in spring
yes we know the truth
it ain't no use
we're not each other's everything
What finally happened had to do with his role as the organization's newspaper editor, and seems ridiculous when viewed in hindsight. He had devised a plan to have the newspapers counted out in bundles of 100 as they came off the printer to make the distribution process more efficient. And since the printer's counter is sometimes off, but since thousands of extra copies were always printed and thrown away, the machines would be set to have the bundles sized at, say, 106 instead of 100. That way, while most bundles would have a few extra papers, it could be guaranteed that none would have fewer than 100. If an outlet ordered 500 copies, they would receive five bundles set to total 530 papers, but guaranteed to be at least 500. All at no cost against the newspaper budget, but saving hours of counting out and bundling papers at the printing plant.

The boom was lowered at the weekly brotherhood class. He was asked to explain his new plan, which he did, proudly. In fact, he reported, it had been carried out successfully with publication of the most recent monthly issue. There had been no complaints of too few newspapers for the first time in his experience. Despite his glowing report, he was then severely criticized as counter-revolutionary, as a petit bourgeois who was trying to undermine the unity of the organization. The point was made that relying on the white man's machines, on his "new technology" was somehow counter to all that the organization believed in. In fact, it was better to have a printer detail of six brothers spend hours counting and bundling thousands of newspapers -- and perhaps still getting the quantities wrong occasionally as had been past practice -- than to let a machine do it in a cost efficient manner. In fact, the editor wasn't trying to improve productivity at all. Rather, the accusation went, he was simply trying to avoid being part of the all-night printer details which, as editor, he had the responsibility to lead. And the accusation, while started by one or two people, was taken up by everyone else there, save one -- the Imamu. He sat there smiling, directing the flow, but letting it continue. Through his silence, he was part of the mob, although that silence let him stand above it.

As he stood and listened for what seemed like hours, it was as if something just snapped! He would have no response to these charges. He couldn't. The "smart thing" would have been to just admit the errors of his ways, admit being a reactionary, take the criticism and, proving total commitment, join in through extensive self-criticism, and that would be that. In fact, he was supposed to figure out what he might be accused of and confess to it. An impossible task. He had participated in these sessions many times in the past, but he had always skillfully avoided censure. He avoided the big, silly mistakes, and he displayed contrition as appropriate. And he really sought to learn from mistakes -- his and those of others. Now he was really caught for the first time. There was nowhere to run or hide.

The central problem with this episode was not the criticism itself. It was that he was forced to really think about what he was doing. Having spent years in college learning to program computers, doing statistical analyses and the like, there was no way he could walk away from modern technology. He also could not erase that knowledge from his memory banks. That made no sense to him at all. So he basically couldn't honestly accept the criticism or engage in self-criticism without denying the undeniable. Either all of them were wrong or he was wrong. They had the numbers but he knew he was right. There was no question about that.

So he took the abuse that night, and what came later. The process was irreversible. The damage, irretrievable. In a moment of profound clarity, he had been forced to think for himself. To look around and really, really see with his own eyes. And ultimately, he knew he had to leave the very first moment he could or his brain would, quite literally, explode.

and so i say goodbye
bye bye, bye bye bye
bye bye, bye bye bye
bye bye, bye
so long baby
bye bye baby
That was twenty years ago. The story didn't end there, of course. Maybe she heard about the law school visit. Maybe it was something else, but eventually, sometime soon thereafter, she made contact with his grandmother. They couldn't talk by phone. Who knew who'd be listening? A meeting was arranged. They had to be very careful. He didn't know if he could trust her. He thought he could. He wanted to, but he wasn't sure. It might be a trap. The organization didn't want her to leave either, so she couldn't be seen with him. And it was harder for her to get away.

The first meeting was tense. "Do you love me?" "Why did you leave?" "Don't leave me." He was wary, unsure. She was too. And still very angry. This would not be easy. They arranged to meet again, to talk some more. This time, before they parted, she asked, again, "Do you love me?" "Yes!" he said, and they kissed and held each other. By now he was sure -- he loved her, and she him. As bad as it was, they could work this out. Eventually they talked three times by phone, professing their love for each other. It was agreed. She would leave the organization. They developed a plan. She would take their son to the clinic. She would be alone. He would borrow his uncle's car and pick them up. They would drive their son to his father and then to the umuzi where they would carry off as many belongings as could quickly be loaded into the car. He would even able to salvage a good part of record collection, but not the typewriter. And they would leave town.

Frankly, they didn't have a lot to begin with, but they now own, together with their son, the past twenty years.

Lyrics from "It Ain't No Use" by Stevie Wonder, Fulfillingness First Finale (1974, Motown).

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Meanderings 2.01 -- January 1995