Where we really came from – How we really got here

An appreciation of Matatabooks and some sharp questions about our quests and questioning


Hello dear friends!

Today I want to talk about a rich trove of insight from friend and fellow author Braz Menezes, which has once again set me back to re-thinking and adding more subtlety to my understanding of Africa.

I know I’ve made this point before (and don’t mean to be a bore about it), but I am unusually tribe-less (raised in a crazy micro-culture, torn from family at just barely twelve). There is certainly a lot of loneliness and pain associated with being so odd (often not-knowing the thing everyone else assumes), but over the years I have come to appreciate its special value also.

Above all else, I have a long and fundamental hostility to group-think. Not only because I saw it drive massive abuse which lasted for years, and enabling denial which still has not cracked for many, a half a century later, but also because I have so often seen it used to bully an outsider or newcomer.

To be clear – I can ‘pass’ for normal just fine and have for decades – I don’t mean I still feel personally assailed by tribalist numbskulls in large numbers, but rather that my early solitary outsider position has left me unable to dismiss others who do still feel like that, ever since. I also can’t help noticing – over and over – how easy it is for many ‘normal people’ to ignore dismiss or even despise those who don’t already know the home team chant (or even sing-it with a suspicious lack of zeal).

Which brings me to the key philosophical point I want to look at in this piece – what do we think for?

Let me try a couple of examples which will make my question clearer.

Do we want a series of labels for reality which are easy and emotionally dramatic, with all judgements pre-made for us, and no doubt, careful consideration or serious effort required of individuals at all?

Or – instead of clean and easy answers – would we like challenging and revealing questions, which humble us with their complexity and subtlety, tease us with the richness of clues on offer, and stubbornly defeat all attempts to simplify and reduce them to one simple moral shade for all time?

In my experience, group-think almost always comes in the first form. It is morally simple, good guys and bad guys are easy (and breathtakingly vast) categories, and you situate yourself as a ‘goody’ simply by singing the home team fight song. Lots of smiting – and big shared shameless smiles.

I spent many youthful and idealistic years far too fond of dogma myself. Still struggle with it (recovering ideologues need just as much vigilance as any addict). What keeps me on-track is my empathy for the excluded tryer (and awareness of the vast potential thus tragically wasted).

Thinking for yourself – embracing the extra difficulty, even when you are offered a simple answer which comes with social favour and much easier access – seems almost foolish – especially in these overheated times. Why forgo so many belonging-advantages at the same time? For what?

Because the savour of life is in the mystery – and by that I don’t mean the pretentious obfuscation of false spiritualism – but the things which are fundamental to human experience, and yet ever beyond us.

Love and friendship, discovery and creativity, learning and building, shared struggles to make the world a better place for others. None of these come from group-think, all require individual initiative.

The willingness to do the difficult thing, not because you know it is certain to succeed, or win you accolades from others, but just because you know it is the thing that moves in the direction of good.

In “The Matatabooks Cycle” Braz Menezes brings us a rare and fascinating combination of these elements. His first book “Beyond the Cape” opens with a brief history of Goa under the Portuguese then tells how the ascendant British Empire later brought a group of talented English speakers from Goa to help administer government and business in their colonies in Africa.

From here we are treated to a childhood in Kenya, sights and sounds, flavours and playmates all brought to life with sweet regard. I remember a Chinese teacher long ago telling me that the best way to learn about your own language, is to study another, because a lot of the features that are most interesting about yours, are things you wouldn’t even notice, until you see them done a different way.

“Lando’s” childhood, and his constellation of friends, relatives and other important inspiring or intimidating adults around him, will definitely bring back your own youth (fears and fondness both) and the combination of warmth and adventure remind us that an enriching childhood isn’t about being protected from the small hazards (and large dogs) of life, but being introduced to all, with wonder and gratitude. Feeling always a small part of a larger responsible and enduring whole.

Of course I was especially fascinated by the idea of living in a subculture within the larger culture – there were some echoes of my own sequestered upbringing, but huge contrasts too – especially in the sheer vitality, culture and participation of the energetic Goan community, in the life of the country as a whole.

As we progress through the books, Lando falls in love and witnesses the Mau Mau rebellion in “More Matata – love after the Mau Mau” and then travels to London (with some fine witness of that great city at one of it’s coolest moments) is educated as an architect, falls in love and begins his own family and practise, all in the last few years before Kenyan independence – the especially sweet “Among the Jacaranda.”

The last two books in the series, “Soul Searching in the Seychelles” and “Tsavo – The Money Eaters” bring us into his growing practise and show us the excitement and worries Lando encountered trying to make substantial lasting contributions, but frequently stymied by forces well beyond his control or influence. The triumphs achieved feel all the sweeter for the ones that got away, but again, the wasted potential – in this case from corruption – is truly heartbreaking, and so richly illustrated that one feels for so many sincere tryers who were blamed for failing on a tilted field.

The whole series is enriching and satisfying – but also a fine wholehearted challenge to our lazy modern habit of Manichean (stark simplistic moral dichotomy) excess.

Some young people would read about him getting a commission for a gas station from an oil company and think that bad, because we now see corrupting big money and environmental concerns, every time we think about oil. But we could just as easily think about new farm equipment to fend off famine, and if we read on we soon realize that opportunities like this, were what helped him build his practise so he could take on ambitious social housing developments to help the poor (a project especially dear to his heart).

The whole question of colonialism, similarly, deserves a more detailed and less Manichean look.

This is not to obliterate the many harms done or hide them in any way (if you read me regularly, you already know I view empire with extreme skepticism and do that in great detail), but harm was not the only result of these projects, and many of the institutions left behind, by England in particular, were later adapted and carried on, even when the old queens boot, finally came off their restless neck!

Most importantly, we really absolutely have to stop doing the lazy sloppy moral categorization thing.

For Braz’s character Lando, watching his hopes for social housing thwarted by some of the very revolutionaries who had so long decried poverty, and used that cry to win power for themselves, was undoubtedly heartbreaking, a sign his contributions would probably count more elsewhere in future.

I can’t help thinking of the path of the ANC in South Africa – from underdog heroes to the whole world in the seventies and eighties, when I knew several refugee partisans myself, to an unending series of scandals in government. Really not the result their supporters expected at all.

Were there good reasons for Africans to be upset about the brutality and the profit extraction sides of colonialism? Absolutely yes – and frankly, there still are, in many places in Africa, Asia and South America, where contracts with multinationals have mostly replaced gunboats, as engines of coercive diplomacy. (France and USA are being expelled from the Sahel for just such arrogance, as I type).

But does that huge generality say anything useful about any single individual life? Absolutely NOT!

Watching from Lando’s perspective, the rise of Idi Amin in Uganda, and his deliberately cruel racist populism, we see how so many in the Goan community realized their time in Africa was almost done, even though Kenya never descended nearly so far, politically. In the new climate, too many unscrupulous politicians could get votes, by directing hate at those who were identifiably Asian.

We can feel the fear and the loss of hope keenly (like nowadays – things that seemed reliable and enduring for decades suddenly evaporated, leaving huge numbers confused and uneasy). But I was also reminded of a very memorable thing which one of my African friends said many years ago.

I have a lot of friends who come from elsewhere, and I love to hear their stories about home, to help enrich my picture of other places, with their keen enthusiastic direct witness. I’ve also noticed something. If you talk to them in a group of locals, they tell certain stories. But if you are lucky enough to see a group of ex-pats all together, they tell very different stories. Like any three of them together can set up a momentary local pocket of culture, and let you get a little glimpse of elsewhere.

My friend from Uganda was talking about the old days, with two Ghanaians and a sound-man from Khartoum. He’d already helped me expand my view a lot, because like a lot of folks in the west, I used to look at Uganda askance for their government’s incredibly harsh treatment of gay people.

That Manichean thing again. The government is bad and it’s been there awhile, so it must reflect absolutely all of the people. Sure – like Reagan well-reflected all my American hippie pals, or Biden faithfully represents for my Catholic friends, for that matter! (but so much easier a generality to assume, about places we know so much less about, right?)

Not only was this fellow not of that mindset, he had actually done time in a Rwandan prison, because he was part of a travelling AIDS awareness show promoting safe sex and condom use, and at the time (80s), even though millions of lives were being lost, the whole subject was considered immoral.

Who rescued him from that prison? A British Diplomatic envoy, who happened to be visiting someone else, but took on his case as a personal project.

I should mention that my Ghanaian friend, a hereditary chief on the Upper Volta river, felt outright pity for me, for my lack of family connection and network. He was there in Black Star square in 1957 the day Ghana became the first sub saharan African country to declare independence from Britain. He even hoped to become a revolutionary cadre and travel to Moscow (sixteen is an excitable age), but work and family came first. By the nineties he was not only raising his own teenage children (and supervising all of their homework, so they got stellar grades in everything) he was also putting his cousin through dental school, and trying to meet the expectations of those from his village back home who expected the big man to send them many presents from what they considered the land of easy wealth (an impression many fewer now have of Canada, as is sadly appropriate).

Every time he returned he made a point of getting right with both his Catholic and his Voodoo priest.

Both of them were hard working dedicated fathers, shouldering responsibility for others overseas also. Super impressive men, who had, through all their ups and downs, accumulated a great deal of humour about life and pain. Different again from that of the Russian contingent in our lab (also fascinating), but both more different from so-long cozy western conditions, than from each other.

So here – with all of that in mind, was the little tidbit which kind of blew my mind.

One day in conversation, the Ugandan said, Amin was definitely crazy, (many truly horrifying murders) but there was one thing you could say for him. When he was in power, it was like a sign went up halfway between England and Uganda that said “Turn around, White boy!” More impressive than his smile as he said this, was the gleeful laughter shared by all of the Africans present – even all those decades later.

From that day forward, I have taken that quote, from that extraordinarily civilized and self-sacrificing man, to be a baseline indicator of the scale of shared anger which colonialism ultimately provoked. Scary, but very real stuff (and so many of the historical harms are still obscured to this day, even while others are played-up for partisan political advantage by the unscrupulous).

Have African governments done well for their people? The record is very mixed. Some of the regimes most hostile to the old colonialists have been especially hard on their own citizens.

BUT – none of those countries or the people in them are static, and none of them conform to the myriad stereotypes we still so often call to mind, when we think of places and peoples distant.

In particular, culture, scholarship, entrepreneurship and civilization are outstanding and populations far more eager than we decadent (terminal?) western nihilists can recognize – one of the main reasons I am so determined in my opposition to what are clearly western supremacist “environmental” plans, which will block African development almost completely, while preserving advantage for the golden billion (full circle back to the tragedy of wasted potential of the silenced outside tryer).

To be clear, the environment is crucial (another of my favourite subjects) but that is just not the way.

We need Africa to succeed (and I swear, we’ll need them to feed us one day, and should act accordingly, so as to build up a surplus of gratitude, rather than a record of earned resentment).

We also need to think a whole lot more about how we all got here, how many contributed their effort and will to this, and also about how things were ‘then’ – before all those innumerable contributions.

Braz Menezes’ Matatabooks series will welcome you into an arc of time and a place of mixing and changing cultures, then send you home with a head full of fresh insight and the over-arching warmth of new gratitude for luxuries you never realized (until you saw things done so much differently).

The world changes around us, always. There is no safe moment to jump, or try. We can observe or participate – and while participation hurts too, regrets for chances never taken sting twice as badly!

And finally, after love and witness of many decades, by the time you set the last book down – that isn’t a collection of pages on the shelf – but a fine new friend.

I know, I’m biased, but I still say try the experiment yourself – read ‘em – then I dare you to deny it!


I am always curious about what you are thinking

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