I live in Africa. For those who read my ramblings frequently, this will not come as a surprise. Africa, the hardest of places – sadness, despair, misery. A darkness that is not a comment on the brightness of the sun or the easy smiles of people who face adversity every day. Adversity that would make Americans crumble. Oh, I don’t mean that we are a weak people – current ‘millennial’ and ‘iGen’ discussions aside. We have created unimaginable wealth and brought to the world uncommon technological advancements. We have razed mountains, defeated diseases and walked on the moon. Weak people, a weak nation cannot do these things.
So how then do we consider Africa?
I have a son. Those who read me regularly will also know this – my pride. My joy. My exasperation sometimes too, of course. But my soul nonetheless. He’s about five years old, give or take. He is not exceptional, as we are not exceptional – kindergarten, work during the day and watching ‘Mickey’ at night. Eating dinner with a Dr. Seuss book. Vacations when we can afford them; family and Chucky Cheese and the Science Museums that he loves so much. Nothing that would make anybody in the west gasp at the extravagance or green with envy.
Envy – inequality, emotions more prevalent than is warranted in America these days; where people emerge from their parents’ basements clothed in their outrage that they were not born Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. That they do not have a castle like Angelina Jolie, that they are not as beautiful as a Kardashian. They rage and they burn – knocking statues and banning books which make them uncomfortable, exacerbating their feelings of inferiority which really have nothing to do with externalities, nothing to do with others. Because there is an emptiness within which will not be filled no matter how many statues are pulled down or how many ‘safe spaces’ are stood up.
I have a driver here in Africa. He is a good man, let’s call him Muhammad (although that is not his name), a Muslim who prays on Friday and celebrates the High Holidays with his family. We pay him well; he makes more than a mayor. Days off and good hours and loans when he needs them. In the terms of African employment, his is a life of luxury. He is roughly my age, and he has a son. Had a son, actually; a boy who was my son’s age.
Last week the boy died. Malaria; not an infrequent occurrence in Africa, but an unthinkable tragedy nonetheless. We gave Muhammad the week off, with money for a funeral to celebrate a tiny life that was lost; a future that will never be; the sparkle and quick smile of a child growing up under African skies extinguished forever. That spirit which those who know Africa recognize in the joy of a people who refuse to let hardship destroy them. The only solace I suppose is that my driver had the whole summer off – he was able to spend that last summer with his little boy. That last summer. I think about my own son; opportunity, a chance event at birth placed him where it did; in America. That is inequality. These days when I look at my son, I can’t help but see him also through Muhammad’s eyes. The stark differences; America and Africa, airplanes or those little green busses, rich and poor – alive and dead. I don’t know what Muhammad thinks, besides the obvious heartbreak. Anger or acceptance? Bitterness or gratitude for having had his son as long as he did? When he looks at my little boy it is not in jealousy; but how could it not be? If the situation were reversed, what would I feel? All questions without answers I suppose.
Which leaves me only with sadness and an exhortation. For those of you who rage with envy, using the word ‘inequality’ to justify your bitterness; who want to knock down statues to fill the void in your hearts, I beseech you. Come to Africa. Consider your lives juxtaposed not against Jeff Bezos, but against Muhammad. Let kindness fill your souls, and begin to work against that inequality. You will find that fight is a fight worth having; that life is a life worth living – and you will probably find your spirit filled with a wholly new sensation; joy.