A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
December, 2012, I am in Nakuusi, Uganda, a small African village, population 180. Early each morning I am taken, along with Sylvia’s younger nieces, nephews, cousins, brothers and sisters, in a rickety pickup to the day’s eurythmy* movement class. It’s the rainy season, so the roads are pitted with gullies and potholes. The children, along with Sylvia, sit in the truck’s open bed; I am given the passenger seat in the cab. As bicycles, mopeds or walking are the common means of transportation in this rural community, the sound of a car or truck draws children out of mud huts. They are curious to see who and what is passing by. Traveling at a snail’s pace over the challenging terrain and navigating our way between the ridges and holes in the road, the children can catch up to us. Our driver knows most of the families en route, so we have even more reason to make frequent stops, allowing for time to say “hello,” and exchange tidbits about local news.
A tussle and struggle ensues, as the children rush to our truck. Each child wants to be the first to reach fingers right up to my white arm and touch. The race being over, dark eyes aglow, an inevitable chorus of laughter and screaming breaks out, Muzungu, Muzungu! which means white in the Luganda language.**
This village, Nakuusi, is located about 220 kilometers southwest of Entebbe, a major city and the site of Uganda’s international airport. Sylvia Namukasa, founder and director of KYEMPAPU (Kirinda Youth Environmental Management and Poverty Alleviation Program Uganda) had organized three weeks of eurythmy movement workshops in the villages surrounding Nakuusi.
Of course I knew that these were innocent children and that most of them had never seen a white person before. Just the same I had trouble getting used to their reaction. Even six-month-old babies, cradled in their mothers’ arms, would burst into tears as I approached. I felt horrible. I wanted to be free of being reminded of a difference. I kept hoping we could feel that: nothing separates us. Not only was this a new experience for these children, it was also a new experience for me. I was now in the minority. The deep rift and significance of the words discrimination and race began to take root in my heart. No longer just words in the English language, they now had strong feelings attached to them. I was experiencing being different than other people.
That initial feeling of isolation and being different was erased, one day, as if by magic. I had planned the eurythmy class and had practiced the poems with my two Ugandan translators, days prior to the actual workshop. Sylvia hadn’t expected so many children to join the Muzungu with her dance. In a large dirt opening outside the mud brick walls of a village school in Kabandiko, nearly 150 eager children had gathered.
After the children had formed a large circle in the middle of the open schoolyard, we began with a verse, “From the stars we have descended.” We then enacted a lively Russian folk tale which I had adapted for the occasion so that the grandfather plants a cassava root instead of a beet seed. Forty-five minutes in the morning sun, moving, laughing, dancing with our limbs and feet, making speech visible. We then closed with a verse about how straight and tall we can stand. In a gesture of silence we crossed our arms, resting them on our chests. As we knelt on the dirt, I said, “Listen to the birds.” Silence fell upon our large circle. “Let’s guard all our secrets and wishes deep in our hearts.”
The class ended, and we gathered under the huge umbrella of a mutuba tree for a photo shoot. We moved the pure vowel sounds of Uganda in eurythmy. U, g A n, d A. Marcus, a young boy, separated himself from the throng of children to present me with a gift. Extending his left hand, he looked up. In the palm of his hand rested one egg. Its perfect, elliptical, beige smoothness made the moment seem larger. We were touched by something greater than either of us, and we smiled.
Turning toward the pickup, I slowly began to gather my things. Sylvia and her family returned to the open bed of the truck. As we drove away from the school yard, the children waved from the road. They no longer screamed Muzungu and ran; rather they waved and smiled. What seemed to separate us was gone. What we had exchanged belonged to all of us. Now we were people returning to our homes.
But that’s not the end of the story.
New questions arose. How do I work with the layered and burdened history of race and discrimination? How do I activate a strength that can truly climb into the situation? How do I enter into the core of difference and kindle understanding?
Upon returning to my home in America, I read Toi Derricotte’s memoir The Black Notebooks. She writes, “. . . We understand that blackness is both real and unreal, that it can’t be explained, nailed down, or verified. That it is an attribute out of the body, slightly, like a halo and therefore insubstantial.”Using Toi Derricotte’s image I add, how do I reach past the “insubstantial . . . halo” of race and discrimination? How do I change something in myself?
I asked the question, and began to try out the following exercise. I love poetry. It is an art form which plays an important role in my life. Alongside writing and reading poetry, I always keep at least one poem alive in my heart. I memorize it. Many of the voices of both living and late African American poets are an inspiration to me. Recently I became aware of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “MY DREAMS, MY WORKS, MUST WAIT TILL AFTER HELL.”
This poem became my daily recitation and meditation. After breakfast I listen to my own voice speaking the poem out loud. I taste the words. I let her words work in me. “I am very hungry. I am incomplete. / And none can tell when I may dine again.” I try to allow that her experience live in me, speak to me. In time I have begun to think the following: Perhaps this is a way, perhaps this can help me dip deep and change the difference thing. Help me understand race and discrimination. Help me clearly see the incidents and struggles in African American life. Help me move with a transformative light of empathy into this wound.
— by Gail Langstroth writing for Vox Populi
for Gail Lanstroth’s website, click here.
*Eurythmy is an art of movement developed by Dr. Rudolf Steiner (1912). Each sound of speech is a unique movement. The eurythmist attempts to make visible the air gestures which are formed when we speak.
Mathias Mugema, Sylvia’s younger brother, informed me of the history of this particular word for the people of Uganda. Muzungu is singular for a white person of any sex and Bazungu is the plural form. The word was adopted from the Swahili-speaking culture during Kenya’s fight for independence from the British in 1963. Kenya’s MAU MAU rebellion drew its name from Swahili: Mzungu aende ulaya Mwafrika apate uhuru, meaning: whites should go back to Europe and Africans should become independent. The Luganda language of Uganda adds the letter /U/ after the /M/ thereby remaining true to the word’s original pronunciation.
Toi Derricotte, The Black Notebooks, An Interior Journey (New York: W.W. Norton & Company) (pg. 182)
Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999)