I’m about to do something unexpected.
Let’s consider dancers. A ballerina moves in ways that you can somewhat predict. Even if you don’t know anything about dance, you can be certain that her next move will be fluid, precise, and classical. You will not expect her to start stamping with flat feet, move her hips sensually or roll over the floor in dramatic expression.
How contradictory it may sound, her movements are restricted and static.
This is not a critique, but an observation. The ballerina has chosen her path exactly because her dance will be characterised by these limitations. It’s what distinguishes her from a modern dancer, or a Latin dancer.
This little trick can be applied in almost any field us humans have created. Genre conventions in film and literature, branding of products and companies, even in courses offered at the universities- there are rules and restrictions grouping elements together. It’s necessary to understand things, to unify, create order and clarity. But just as categories unify, they also separate. To see an engineer from an architect, red from blue, and good from bad.
Ah- I have just built a sneaky bridge. We are entering the fragile sphere of beliefs and ideas, where categorising human elements can have disastrous effects. Religious wars, genocides, totalitarian regimes, all sorts of fun stuff.
Now I know this is nothing new, and this series I’ll be writing is not going to delve into the topic of the wrong or rightness of categorising. What I _will _do is challenge my own (lack of) movements.
I was born with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This means that my brain is different from _neurotypicals_, in the sense that my prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped and I have a lack of some neurotransmitters. Translation: the region responsible for planning and emotional regulation is somewhat small, and I have less serotonin and norepinephrine and my dopamine gets removed too quickly. Dopamine impacts movement, mood, motivation and attention.What this means in normal people talk is that I’m funky. It means that, combined with hyperactivity, I seek novelty and stimulation by default. And because my prefrontal cortex is asleep most of the time, I have trouble regulating this innate desire for me to-
Yeah, I cannot sit still, mentally. It’s why I travel, why I am impulsive, why I get bored easily and procrastinate yet somehow forget to eat all day absorbed in a drawing or a story. Why I explore ideas and change my mind because I cannot be static, I need to question, and I embrace being openminded.
But am I really? Am I as fluid as I claim to be? Some ideas of mine are fixed. Killing is bad, rape is bad, nuclear bombs certainly bad. Stealing flexible, lying depends on context, and honesty is sometimes terrible. Religion is…
I halt. Start shifting. It’s becoming uncomfortable. I used to be static when I got to this topic, knowing my response can kill me in some parts of the world or can make me seem ignorant or self-righteous.
Movement part I: religion, we’re getting to the point I promise.
||Cognitive biases: social- proof tendency, confirmation bias, belief bias, bias blind spot ||
I grew up in a secular society, in a capital known for its tolerance and open-mindedness. My father is a loose Muslim, my mother a looser Catholic. In school I was taught that evolution was true, and in history books I read that enlightenment caused us to distance ourselves more and more from religion. This was called progress. And I believed that the way forward was away from religious influence over society. None of my friends were religious and the one experience I had in church was bad, because I wasn’t allowed to listen to any other music than gospel (and I loved drum and bass).
Meanwhile I read philosophy, believed in the divine through Bazin’s ‘Ontology of the Photographic Image,’ and had a laissez faire attitude towards those with faith. I neither condemned nor embraced, and thought myself to be logical and kind. I could rationalise my disbelief and did not reject the notion of a god existing somewhere.
But of course, everything changed when I moved to Sierra Leone. A religious society where for the first time I befriended people who practiced their faith. They accepted me, I accepted them, and I witnessed their rituals and dealing with the challenging context they often found themselves in.
During Ramadan I started envying those with faith- I missed my own family. Those going to Church connected with their tribe, sharing something beyond themselves- I missed my friends. Something inside me stirred; it’s not that I wanted to be religious, it’s that I wanted to have faith. To be moved by something that isn’t my own hyperactive brain to engage in something beyond myself.
Then, after listening a to philosophy podcast titled ‘Reason and the Gods,’ a lady made a point uncomfortable for loose spiritualists like me. “You cannot pick and choose from a religion. You have to experience it as a whole. That’s when you get the benefits.”
A mirror, right in my face.
I claim to be fluid, but I’m actually static. I have never really done religion properly. I haven’t read the Bible, went to church and prayed consistently. Nor did I read the Quran and held Ramadan. Yet I think that I do not fit in these structures, even though I see people around me find so much joy and fulfilment. What am I holding on to? Is it my Western arrogant thinking? My belief that rationality and faith cannot co-exist?
It’s stirring. I’m going to learn a new choreography. Get some unused muscles stretched and supple. I am going to move with religion. Learn the beats, break a sweat. After a month of real commitment I can at least support my opinions with empiricism.
My ADHD brain is rejoicing. My peers will not be surprised by yet another of my wild movements. One month of dedication, it’s a game really.
How does it work? I will do three religions: Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. But I might choose to expand to others if I see it fit. I will start with Christianity, because that one is the easiest for me.
Let’s get moving.
TO BE CONTINUED.
*To avoid confusion: this form of experimentation is very much limited to this specific topic. Having an aversion to violence is not something one needs to test though beating someone up. Also, my aim is not to find a religion, or to compare and give judgment. It’s a pure experiential and personal endeavour to avoid being rusted into a belief.
Drumming boy or- what life without Ritalin in Freetown looks like
I hang on the balcony hanging on my phone, overlooking the crowded Dundas street. The shadows are pastels, the never-100% white signs and plastic chairs aggressively reflect the midday sun.
I am crying on the phone. It's one of those days that nothing seems to work and my period is about to come and its Monday and the night before I binged on half a chocolate bar which is officially classified as a 'subjective binge', and I couldn't sleep and I'm out of Ritalin and chaos is thoughts and thoughts are looping.
To summarize; I have nothing to cry about.
I cry silently whilst observing the coming and going of Sierra Leonean workmen cementing a sad building, women carrying baskets of lime's stacked upon one another, taxi's, okada's, kekes honking carrying passengers with sun-bleached eyes that passively stare out the broken windows.
I am about to embark on worst-case-scenario- what if I never should have moved here, why do I even think I deserve to exist, what is the point of getting up in the morning and why am I so tired if I don't even work that much- train that leads to the capital of DOOM, when my eyes catch a little boy making a beat.
With two pieces of broken tile. The faded salmony tiles with ragged edges have lived a life not many can identify with. Coming from the broken heart of a life-tired tile designer who never wants to eat on Thursdays but always has his deadlines on Thursdays and finally delivers this design, which will go in category 'Buy big pay small' for exactly three months as a final desperate strategy of a failing company, then ending up in Sierra Leone of all places, where the buyer started constructing a house but after three rainy seasons of having al his doors, window, handles, cement, sand, water and tiles stolen gives up and decides to instead spend his diasporic money on Black Label and Guinness beer in the UK.
No one wants to buy the stolen tiles. Tired of trying, the thief (ironically being the brother of and secret father of two the constructors' 7 children from the three different girlfriends the buyer keeps next to his British wife) decides to dump the cargo on the street the night of national cleaning day as a silent protest against national cleaning day because he believes that the travel ban directly influenced his impotence.
Nothing stays unused in Freetown. The 330 stolen tiles had all but dissapeared before dawn, leaving 3 broken tiles that no one bothered to even consider as a piece in a mosaic for those squatting toilets. Totally forgotten they lay there, unwanted. Pieces in a world that doens't give a shit about them. Laying on a pile of dusty rubble, until a boy weighing nothing wearing nothing picks up two of those pieces, stares at them intently, and then, claps them together.
What a metamorphosis! A pleasant short-wave high pitched sound is born. The boy knows that this is it. He continues; tak-tak-taktak-tak-taktaktak, his lower lip pulled out. He stands there with his legs wide apart exploding into tiled madness as his friends watches and gyrates his head. I stop crying. We all are hypnotised by the unexpected pleasantry of the tile beat. My from the balcony, the two boys on the street. He now gets creative, adds a little notch; rakakakaTTKAKATtrakakarTATATK, faster than before, It continues - traffic fades, just the tile beat and his hearbeat and my evaporating sadness and last cry of the tiles who are
outgrowing their original function. Clap clap clap.
Who could've thought these tiles were destined for such greatness?
Then, with much force and determination, the boy throws one of the two pieces on the asphalt in front of him. It shattes dully without much drama. He stares at it, throws the second one with a bit more force. Yet another unimpressive death. For a few seconds, the beat lags on in my head. The boys are immobile, their boredom chasing after them as they start walking again. The beatmaker glances up to me, and I wonder whether he can see my teary eyes. And I wonder if he thinks I cried for the tiles, or for the beat, or for his poverty, or for ---
The traffic sounds swell, I am back in reality. Ten minutes have passed. I need my Ritalin back.
Landing in Amsterdam after some time in Freetown is similar to landing on Earth after having lived on Mars and realising that you left your clothes in the spaceship. I know that that comparison makes no sense at all, but hey, this was what came out of my brain.
The cigarette smoke wafting through the glass doors at Schiphol airport, using diseases as swearwords (cancer whore, sufferer-of-thyphoid), tiny shorts on old ladies, a man with an assortment of beer cans on a bench in the city park, supermarkets that don't accept cash anymore; last year it fed an identity crisis. Dismay, loss of connection, a strange detachment from a culture that one cannot actually detach from and loss. Loss of a place to belong to.
I thought Freetown was going to be it. A place where I could pick and choose between opposite values, where I could shed my inherent prejudice, my Western vision (arrogant and self-centered and ilogically logical) replaced by an African view of life.
Oh, how wrong I was. I remembered driving through an SLPP rally on Lumley beach. Hoards of ravers in green, drunk, dancing, slamming cars, massive mania on a sticky night fed by political fire. Me, the always outsider, observing, floating away. Thinking, I really don't belong here. Looked at the others in the car, all Sierra Leoneans, all with neutral expressions. Thumbing through a phone, staring out the window, they surrendered. To everything, always. It was just me who was resisting.
I felt so out of place that I broke. At parties I was often scared to dance, worried that they would look and see whether 'the white girl could shake her ass,' or steer clear from the aerobics class I used to love, just because I thought that the women hated me. As I thought that they hate mixed-race girls. Instead of going out, being with people, I stayed in and read books. Watched anime. Wrote. Retreated into my own world with carefully picked impulses. Started working from home a lot more. No people staring, no questions asked. No beingoverchargedandtalkingKrioandthengettinglooksandthenpeopleaskingmynumber x6879.
If I did bump into people at those rare occasions that I went out, I'd get frowns. "Are you in town?" me, shuffling, "yeah, I've been keeping a low profile," what a euphemism! What should I say? I am experiencing a 12-part identity crisis and I don't allow myself to feel sorry for myself because really, am I not the luckiest person on earth? Should I tell them that I never thought I'd be able to live from writing and now that I do I feel like a fraud? What about all those people with real problems? Whose siblings die because they've been taking antibiotics for every single cold? Or those who have to choose between eating dinner or sending their kids to school? Or...
And then, Amsterdam. Where complaints deal with a name change of a public square (Stadionplein), or dog poo in the park, or Ramadan (such a, how did she call it- useless tradition), or Muslims (women haters!), or the metro (too hot), or cycling (saddlepain), or sitting (the new smoking), or standing (sore feet), or living (too .......
I take a deep breath. The world overwhelms me. I think of an old Limba lullaby my father used to sing me. And I look at an old lady carrying a heavy bag of groceries, her white hair neatly combed, bulky shoes to protect her sinking feet. No one should dare give her a hand, she's old, but not dead yet. As she would say. And I smile, from my eternal cloud of observation, I smile. It's good to be back.
Freetown I love you
I’m in a taxi. It is covered with sun-bleached stickers of Tom and Jerry, the Smurfs, cars, Dora the Explorer, plastic figurenes, disney , glitter eyes, sparkling roses and - to top it off a Rastafari flag and a Muslim holy text dangling from the rear mirror.
The music is blasting from crackling car speakers, and the driver turns the volume down as he sees that I’m trying to make a call. He wears a worn-out beanie and bony hands.
I am suffering because it is cold. Theres a northern wind and everyone is complaining. It’s 25c.
The radio blasts an APC manifesto of a man shouting in Krio that ‘APC gives life’. I wonder how they can claim that.
It is too cold for me to walk up the mountain, so I decide to suffer double death by choosing 3 minutes on an okada over 15 minutes by foot, and as we cross up the hill with 2k an hour we pass by the collection of Fula shops where the Imatt community is having a street party. Tall speakers blast afrobeat sped up x10, surrounding it are children, men, women dressed in jumpers, covered in scarves and gloves shuffling about with content smiles on their faces.
I wave. “Una dae enjoy o!”
“Eeeeeh Aminata!” They reply. The children sing in chorus, “Padi, padi, padi!”
Above me the stars are exacerbated by the cold. Opposite my mountain I see the crater that the mudslide left behind. Such a contrast with the pleasure now experienced by my community.
As we arrive to my house, right on top of Leicester peak, dread comes and stab sme from behind. I look at the raving group of people, maybe 50, maybe 30. And imagine the floor crumbling underneath their feet, a wall of rocks burying them alive.
But tomorrow doesn’t exist yet and right know they celebrate. The moon and stars as surrogate stroboscopes and cheap whiskey bags as muscle oil. And I know, that this, is why I love Sierra Leone.
Two years ago
If one were to ask me where I was from I'd swiftly reply, "Amsterdam," in a tone that suggested that digging deeper was not appreciated. Amsterdam southeast was where I was born. The suburban should-have-been utopia that turned out to become a Valhalla for immigrants and criminals.