Across the street, I saw half a man. He was shuffling, squirming legs from where I stood--nothing more. The propped open hood of a rusty 1980's Ford pickup truck concealed what might have been. It seemed within reason--obvious, for a moment--that, with hood agape and legs jerking, machine was eating man.
But wait... No, of course not. The man was merely leaning into the machine, tweaking and tugging at its insides. Yes, that's it: he was fixing his truck--a latest attempt to resuscitate something the rest of the world moved on from some time ago.
From my second story perch, I continued observing. I saw no fancy tools. Saw no replacement parts. No team of mechanics--saw none of that. But I felt pity, and then felt hot shame quickly rise within me upon feeling it.
I tried to recall seeing a car less than a decade old since arriving here in Cameroon. Maybe... but I couldn't be sure.
What I had seen made it seem unlikely the half-man could afford anything better. I had seen, first with numbers and then my own eyes, how poor job prospects were in the region. I'd come to understand that the only way he could keep moving forward--or keep playing catch up--was to forever be fixing the perpetually broken.
If I was the half-man, would I too be so crafty? So resilient?
I saw half a man fixing a rusty truck, and felt hopelessness. But whose hopelessness did I feel?
Out back, a sudden flurry. Cheers, moans, jeers, groans. Bickering.
Somebody scored, I thought. I had walked past the dirt field not five minutes earlier. Now, I imagined the lumpy, twined wad of rags vaguely resembling a soccer ball passing through two upright sticks.
The days-long drizzle had finally stopped. From the open window out of which I leaned now freely flowed a steady whoosh of newly pure air that, despite its damp and its chill, washed over me like a warm blanket. Wafting skyward from the soaked soil was that universal, unmistakable post-storm bouquet: earthy; woody; musty, yet vibrant. Invigorating.
Lack of sleep dulled my mind, but unfamiliar surroundings and the contradictory breeze kept senses sharp; disoriented, alert, all at once. Fully alive.
From behind came something familiar.
"Whose world is this…"
"The world is yours. The world is yours."
It was Nas.
Nas? What the ****? I turned to face the music.
Sure enough, from across the room, Illmatic leaked valiantly from a Dell desktop that couldn't have been much newer than the New York MC’s 1994 masterpiece. My host, a local 13-year old boy I'd met the day before while setting up a computer lab at his nearby school, was sitting at the desk upon which sat the computer. At some point, as I drifted off, into myself, he had logged onto the World Wide Web, searched YouTube, and clicked play.
What is this, some kind of statement? I wondered.
I drew closer. I sat down next to my new friend. He produced a mangled cell phone that wasn't quite what I considered a smartphone back home and began swiping through pictures.
The pictures followed familiar themes: Sunglasses. Peace signs. Tough guy posturing. Shy girls unable to stifle sly smiles. Old cars made to look new. His swiping came with words: a rapid-fire audiovisual tour of his life. At a desk in a room inside his family's cinder block home in a village in Cameroon, my new friend painted for me, with words and selfies and stories, a self-portrait that bursted with familiar passions and insecurities, but also startlingly alien details. He blushed at a girl; he told me about the two pairs of shoes he called "mine."
The boy talked. Nas preached. I absorbed, then noticed a textbook on the table. Its cover read, “Computer Programming for Beginners.”
I was stuck.
I was stuck somewhere between the familiar and the foreign.
Stuck between instinctual sympathy that bubbles up when seeing something my experience labels “bad”, and a harsh denial of that sympathy; a learned denial whose cold reason stifles; a shame-ridden denial spurred by a rejection of white guilt and all its nasty manifestations; an entrenched denial, the product of a moment in history where plenty of problems and incredible insights are met with few definitive, unconditionally good answers.
Stuck between feeling awed by this Nas-listening 13-year-old who couldn't afford new cloths yet was teaching himself code, and thinking of course he is, why am I surprised?
Stuck between "I'm glad I came" and "am I really helping?" and "but this isn't about me..." and "...or is it?"
I am stuck in a strange place, surrounded by contradictions, paralyzed by uncertainty, by sensitivity, by perspective, by insight.
Stuck with every advantage save ignorance.
Stuck wondering what to do and how to be.
Stuck wondering if this quandary really is, somehow, progress--somehow "woke-ness."
The song--itself confidently unstuck; universal; immortal; good--was wrapping up.
“Who’s world is this?” my host passively posited aloud once more.
Is he stuck?