Across the street I could see half a man. He was shuffling, squirming legs from where I stood--nothing more. The hood of a rusty 1980's Ford F-Series truck concealed what might have been. It seemed within reason--almost obvious, for a moment--that, with hood agape and legs jerking, car 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 the car--a latest attempt to resuscitate something the rest of the world moved on from some time ago.
I continued observing. I saw no fancy tools. Saw no replacement parts. No team of mechanics.
I saw none of that, but I felt pity, and then felt hot shame quickly rise within 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 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, jeers, then arguing. Somebody scored, I thought. I had walked past the dirt field not five minutes earlier. Now I was imagining the lumpy, twined wad of rags vaguely resembling a soccer ball passing through two upright sticks being employed as goal posts.
The days-long drizzle had finally stopped. From the open window of which I was leaning out now 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 unmistakable, universal post-storm scent: earthy, woody, musty, yet vibrant. Invigorating.
Lack of sleep dulled my mind, but unfamiliar surroundings and the warm-cold breeze kept my senses sharp; disoriented and alert, all at once.
I heard something familiar.
"Whose world is this…"
"The world is yours. The world is yours."
It was Nas.
Nas? What the fuck? I thought, then turned around.
Sure enough, Illmatic was leaking 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 had met while setting up a computer lab at his nearby school, was sitting at the desk upon which sat the computer. At some point when I was drifting off, into myself, he had logged onto the World Wide Web, searched YouTube for something special and clicked play.
I moved closer; I sat down next to him; 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 a rapid-fire audiovisual tour of his life, painting for me, with words and selfies and stories, a self portrait--his self portrait.
He told me he had only two pairs of shoes.
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 labeled “bad”, and a harsh denial of that sympathy.
a learned denial that stifles with cold showers of reason.
a shame-ridden denial of white guilt, its nasty manifestations.
an entrenched denial, the result of a world with plenty of problems, incredible insights, but few definitive answers.
Stuck between feeling awed by this Nas-listening 13-year-old boy who couldn't afford new cloths yet was teaching himself how to code on his own janky computer, and thinking “of course he is.”
Stuck juggling "I'm glad I came" and "why am I here?" and "but this isn't about me..."
Between what I think is good and everything that might be wrong about my "good."
I am stuck in a strange place, surrounded by contradictions, paralyzed by uncertainty, by perspective, by insight.
Stuck with every advantage save ignorance.
Stuck wondering what to do and how to be.
Stuck wondering if this mindfuck really is, somehow, progress--somehow "woke-ness."
The song--itself confidently unstuck, universally good, seemingly immortal--was wrapping up.
“Who’s world is this?” my host passively posited aloud once more.
Is he stuck?