The Somali Saga: Didn’t You See It Coming? December 09, 2008 – 16:35

I do read regularly the hundreds of various blogs and articles on developing Somali issues, and I do note the trends. What I don’t have anymore is an insider’s view, so I will skip the conclusions I have come to over the forty years of following the news. And you know that a Somaliphile, given the choice between food and the news, will choose the news. It is from a distance that I see the picture. I see lots of words flying around the internet, but very little constructive advice and almost no strategy. That is understandable. There is no consensus within Somali society, nor in the institutions on the outside that have “Somali Desks” or “Somali budgets.” Somalia and its friends are spiraling into a hell made by both the international power centers and a minority of Somalis themselves.

Unfortunately, the institutions that could make a difference don’t get involved in the right ways or for the right reasons, and that is because they (UN, EU, IGAAD, AU, Arab States, donor countries, etc) are competing with each other at many levels and also within their own organizations to the detriment of Somalis. My question, Where Do You Stand? is not meant to lead to a specific conclusion or to advocate one particular position, but to illustrate the futility in the present circumstances in any Utopian strategy. My question has no practical endgame, but might lead to one. The answers to it might be enough to swing the action in the right direction. I can’t fix those institutions that need fixing on the Somalis’ behalf. But if looking in the mirror would help the overall understanding, please do look in the mirror. It is good for all of us.

First, Where do you stand, USA? As the world’s “only Superpower,” the US and its proxies are now primarily concerned with the international terrorist issue, and Somalia is only a part of the engine of fundamental Islamic terrorists. The US policy is a one trick pony. Over-simplified anti-terrorism has been the signature hallmark of US policy and its domestic politics for many years. The Somali (and other) people be damned. Somalis have suffered under British, Italian, Soviet, US or Ethiopian domination since before most of us were born. Bush’s most recent administration provides only the latest and most callous attempt to disregard Somali people for one foreigner’s or another’s higher domestic goal. In this case, anti-terrorism has been a big seller in US politics since 9/11. Collateral damage isn’t measured. You must search out and destroy “terrorists,” and specifically those terrorists that you put on the USA list of Al Qaeda associates. You have to burn the place down to save it. The US through its clandestine and overt activities has made friends with brutal leaders like President Abdullahi Yussef, mass killer General Morgan, thug warlords Mohamed Dheere, Abdi Qaibdeed, and loads of other local Hawiye and Darood warlords, too numerous to list. The US government wed with the brutal Ethiopian military two years ago, and who knows who else was involved, in order to ferret out these “terrorists” in Somalia. But how does the US strategy appear to the millions of Somali men, women and children who now live in IDP and refugee camps? And how many innocent Somalis have died in this endeavour? The neutral observer might ask, Who is the terrorist? Where do you stand, USA? Have you killed and captured a hundredth as many terrorists in Somalia as you have created? You must have the numbers somewhere in the War Room. Look it up, Mr. Jones. Have the Colonel bring the numbers. We would like to know.

Where do you stand, Italy? You always manage to take a lead in the EU committee meetings on Somali policy, and you, Italy, won’t really help bring peace to Somalia. Admit it. Thank you for the Mbagathi Model that gave us The 4.5 Political Representation and The TFG. All Somalis but the sitting Parliamentarians would agree that that was a hideous joke. If you need quotas, then why not make half the parliament women? You are living in the “good old days,” Italy, of virtual slave-driving in the Southern agricultural regions, living in the frolicsome days of huge money laundering operations (bananas for dirty money) under the various iron fisted regimes you fostered and corroborated with. Can’t wait to get those thousands of Italian businessmen back from the Kenyan coast, can you? Ah, to run the beaches of Gezira and Mogadishu again. You have since put small NGO operations on the ground, true, but how much water have you brought to the people, how much medicine to the villages, how many schools are operating. What can you do to transcend the chaos now. You took the lead at Mbagathi and gave the Somalis The TFG. Try to do better for the Somali people next time.

Where do you stand, Kenya? Somalia’s most powerful neighbor, Kenya, you are mortified that Somalis might extend the growing violence all the way to Nairobi’s Central Business District. Believe me, if things continue on the current path, the violence will spread. We all pray it won’t make it to the Kenyan cities. So, closing down the border is priority number one, two and three for the Kenyan government. Not high priorities are: bringing social and health and educational services to the Somali portions of Kenya or to the Somali citizens themselves who traditionally cross those borders in their every day livelihoods. No, that might win some hearts and minds and show true democratic tendencies in “democratic Kenya.” Real democracy is a frightening thing, but you can do it.

Kenyans in power are predominantly agricultural. Farmers and nomads always have issues with each other. Remember the range wars between free range cattlemen and the fenced-in sheep industries in the western US – Nebraska and Kansas and parts of Texas, over a hundred years ago. The battle is still going on in the Horn of Africa. Water resources are scarce and both economic sectors, the farmers and the nomads, believe that God provided the water for them. Pasturage and water. It is really pretty simple. Men and boys, tribes and clans, people of all stripes will go to war over pasturage and water. Where do you stand in the equitable distribution of those resources, Kenya? Somalis provide Kenya with much of its meat. A calmer Somalia would be good for Kenya’s food security.

Where do you stand, UK? You had a big role in establishing the Warlord Government, The TFG, back five years ago. How did it turn out from your point of view? Should you have listened to the low level advice you got from your Man in Nairobi? He was pleased with himself to be able to drink a few beers with real Warlords, and then pop into some photo ops with them. But did he listen to the civil society representatives, the women, the intellectuals who had fled to London and Cardiff and Birmingham and Toronto and Minnesota and Nairobi? Did anyone in the British High Commission or DFID involved in the government building process speak two words of Somali? Do you think it matters now? Did your people ask or take advice from anyone but the militia types, the gangsters and “clan leaders” with arms and willing boys with no schooling? Why wasn’t John Drysdale, the pre-eminent authority on Somali politics, culture, and language invited to advise the process? You knew better than the experts, didn’t you? Where do you stand now?

Where do you stand Germany? It’s all an exercise in EU rigidity, isn’t it? Stick together, try a little bit of development aid here and there, and then run for the hills when the political process caves in. Why didn’t you see it coming? Somalis honor the little bit of support you have provided in the way of infrastructure building and the medical services that you have implemented. We all know you are trying. But because of the surrounding chaos, it is not really affecting the people on the ground. They are all running to the border and living under trees. Food to refugee camps is not a curative strategy, nor is endless studies and assessments. What is your plan for the next phase? Do you really care?

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where do you stand? You both have interests historically, but no thinking Somali would trust you very far, either.

You, Saudis, don’t want to see a new competitor in petroleum production in the area. Drives prices down, doesn’t it? And Somalis know that substantial petroleum was discovered in the North in the late 1980’s. You have frustrated both the Somali livestock and petroleum development like a mother lioness protecting her cubs. Is that really the way to treat your Muslim brothers and sisters? Or is that brotherhood only operative when you are in front of the cameras? You have shared those shipping lanes from Sinai to Socotra for centuries, but who has benefited from them. Not the Somalis, at least very much. How did you distribute the revenues? At least you are eating good Somali mutton and lamb chops, no?

You, Egypt, are best known for the “Butros Butros Ghali Plan” for Somalia. When the eventual Secretary General of the UN, BBG, was foreign minister of Egypt, he tried to concoct a strategy with then Super Dictator Siad Barre of Somalia to transplant millions of Egyptians, easing Egypt’s overpopulation, to inhabit the arable lands of Somalia’s “second rate citizens,” the Rahanweyn, the only predominant clan in Somalia that farms, that works with its hands, that lives an essentially non-nomadic existence. Good farmland it is. Between the two rivers and along their banks. Sorghum, wheat, fruits galore, chickens and pasturage. Thank God that plan never bloomed. But the Somalis, and particularly the Rahanweyn still remember. And now the Rahanweyn are much stronger than before. You must deal with them in your future strategies. Where do you stand? You and the Saudis are members of the Arab groups. Egypt, you are part of the African Union, you have influence on each other and the West. Where do you stand? I ask.

Uganda, where do you stand? The world won’t forget your courage in sending troops to Mogadishu. Thanks for being the only country to heed the call from the AU to “keep peace” in the TFG days. Those days are almost over now. Will you pull out now to use your resources at home, stabilizing your own leaky borders with South Sudan and Congo? Or will you stay in Somalia, securing your own fortification, with the hope of establishing longer range ties with the Somalis that do prevail, in order to keep some geographical pressure on your two competing geopolitical neighbors, Kenya and Ethiopia? Where do you stand?

Ethiopia, where do you stand? Or should we just ask the question again of the US? Would you have gotten involved if you were not paid well to do so? You have played out all sides of the issue. You need a route to the sea, don’t you? So you keep your options open with Somaliland, Puntland, the Central Somalia Government, and any factions that might guarantee passage from your territory to the sea, even War Lords in the Juba River Valley. Oops, the Al Shabaab just took Kismayu. Life is never easy, is it? I guess I have answered the question for you, Ethiopia. How much were you paid to invade Somalia on the grounds that the fundamentalists were coming. The fundamentalists provoked you into war with young boys and hot words. It is an old game. You got suckered in. You lost a lot of boys. You killed a lot of people. Where do you stand now?

United Nations, where do you stand? You are very good at urging peaceful resolution. You are plainly inept at implementing anything along those lines with muscle or depth. You are good at expressing dismay at the way things are and at claiming Commemoration Days. Your leader in the UN Department of Somalia has correctly pointed out that the UN cannot continue to run its programs by remote control. He is right. Your theories on children and rules of law and nation building and International AIDS Day and disease control are admirable. You keep good quantitative records for your annual reports. We all want accurate estimates of measles and rainfall. Can’t you bring together all your fighting siblings to actually bring positive change to the people on the ground? Or is the system designed with the fatal flaw that if everything is running nicely, you at the UN have no jobs. So you don’t really have a burning desire to solve the Somali Saga, do you? Is that what sustainability means these days? Sustaining the chaos in order to maintain the third largest UN center in the world in Nairobi? Please don’t tell us how many jobs you create for local Kenyans. Most of them are gardeners, night watchmen, drivers, low level bureaucrats, bartenders and comfort women.

Since you, the UN, have so many voices and your message is so well massaged by now, I wouldn’t ask each of your divisions to speak at once. But World Food Program will not be needed in Somalia if peace comes to the people. Somalia has always been a food exporting culture. World Health Organization will always have a job to do, but historically 80% of its annual budget stays in Rome. UNEP, the environmental agency within the UN, has had almost no effect over the years in Somalia. The desertification since the 1960’s is incredibly evident from the air and the ground, the pressure on grazing is horrendous. So, UNEP, you needn’t say much. You haven’t even been in the game. Food and Agriculture Organization, thank you for the data gathering over the years. You have made the best assessments and maps of any of the UN agencies. You have tried to coordinate donor efforts and NGO’s. Would that we could see results in the future on the ground. Where would you stand if you had the resources handed to you that UNDP now has? Could you do a better job? Stand up and say so, if you believe it. Oh, sorry, that would break UN protocol. Don’t blow the whistle.

So, UNDP, where do you stand? I hope you can do better than give vehicles and radios to the various police units in the future. Many of the policemen you have supported are now under your own investigation for crimes against humanity. The government people you have supported are taking cuts from the “pirates” after each ransom is paid. Most of the Somali political elite appreciate all the free room and board you have supplied them for years in exotic hotels in Nairobi, Djibouti, Naivasha, and who knows where else? The Somalilanders do appreciate the improved airport runways at Hargeisa, but the primary regular flights into and out of there are UN and EU planes bringing “Kenyan and other experts” into the safe zones for quick assessments. How many nomads need good tarmac runways? How many nomads need another assessment for that matter? Do something that helps the people. If you can’t, just say so. Go look for a job in your home countries. You are terrific in meetings, and there is always a need for excellent meetings in the developed countries. Where DO you stand?

UNICEF, where do you stand? Why do you not drill boreholes for the people more than a couple of kilometers from the paved roads? These are nomads, for God’s sake. They don’t walk along the tarmac. Why is the first thing you put up on a new site a big branding sign that says “This project is funded by UNICEF.” Why don’t you push renewable energy projects? Are you invested in diesel? Your fundraising efforts and celebrity ambassadors overshadow the projects you do. I know, you work in all those areas that would affect children. So every part of UNICEF is mirrored in the UNDP structure, too. They do HIV. You do HIV. They do education. You do education. They do school building. You do school building. Mother and Child. Mother and Child. And you both put your names in block letters, just to make sure any passers by know who did it. But please. Why is every sector of activity duplicated in the UN. Once by a UNDP sibling and once by UNICEF. You should start to talk to each other. And please don’t build any more school rooms without making arrangements for teachers’ salaries and desks and chairs for the kids. Maybe some chalk and blackboards while you are at it. A school is not a school just because it has concrete floors, walls, windows and a name. Where do you stand? How can you do a better job in the future of Somali children?

There is no conclusion. Look in the mirror. Ask yourself in this time of change what you can do to be effective. I know, it is a new concept. I hope it doesn’t make you twitch. I would feel good for the target beneficiaries and the neutral observers that have been watching. There are a lot of us. Where do you stand?


© 2008 Awdalnews Network

 

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Confession by the Stream

Kids in Kenya

We used to find the dry chicken shit on the ground, not the fresh stuff, and use it for toothpaste, rub it on the teeth. If you ask Amina, Amina will tell you. I have so many Aminas, but this one had a big heart, even if she was a thief. She and I were how old? Smaller than Kamau is now. Who is that age that you know? I can’t think of anyone, but I was young. I don’t know where we learned to do that. We didn’t eat it, just use it for toothpaste. I was born with very white teeth, but it was those days of using chicken shit that made my teeth what they are today. Amina could steal your dress or a blouse and wear it in front of you. She could rob anyone, a Japanese or European or an African. There is still a Japanese looking for her. She is a drunkard today in Nairobi West, twenty four seven.

Amina’s house had one of the first TV’s in the neighborhood then. When her mother went out one day the brothers decided like doctors to do an operation on the TV to find out how the people got inside from the back of the TV. They took it apart to find the people in there. How did those little people get into the TV from behind and how could they be so small. Everyone was watching to see where the people were, how they could fit in and live there and be so real. The TV was in parts all over the place. We never found the people and the operation never finished. Those boys were beaten like nobody’s business when Amina’s mother came home. They also broke the radio with an operation looking for the voices inside.

I had to clean the house and compound every day even before I started primary school and we had a cat that used to shit in the house and it was my job to clean up after the cat. I was the only child with the same father and my Mother hated me sometimes, not because of what I did, but because I made life difficult for her, like I was extra baggage. Maybe she knew I would be like her when I was older and she hated herself or her life, so she had to hate me in advance. But I love her now in her grave. I love her so much. I think of her every time we pass the roundabout below the cemetery and I know she is looking over me. She used to beat me like it was my fault that my Father took another wife.

I called my cousin over to take care of the cat problem, we were living in Kiambu, and even if it looks like a paradise, it was for me terrible at times, I used to go to my special hiding place down by the river where I could just sit away from everyone and think. My cousin came and I told him to get rid of the cat and he did. He is now in maximum security in Naivasha, I can’t remember what for. I used to know someone to get him out, but now I don’t know anyone anymore. You know his father. What do you call the father of your cousin? He came up to us on the street yesterday and said hello to us.

Children. That’s why they call them children.My Grandfather's Place

Notes on Scars

p10119571Margaret:  “I am a Malaya.”

Christina:  “I am just a Prostitute”

Just Two of the Angels


I woke this morning in a gorgeous venue, a house full of lovely children, lovely mothers. Half a dozen brown kids busy in the kitchen, busy on the patio, pitching in: What are you doing? We are playing. Karate kicking 5 year olds, pratfalling, somersaulting, dancing up and down steep stairs like mountain goats, light, beyond gravity. Make believing, asking questions, doing favors, feeling good. Healthy, healing.

Teenagers making coffee and toast and soft boiled eggs for me, pre-teens, the middle ones, looking after the younger ones, the mothers supervising activities and tending to the laundry, cleaning floors, drying wet clothes up on the line, youngsters doing homework at the picnic table: Everyone but me, very busy. Even the gardener is moving around the place, transporting stones by wheel barrow below, washing the car, tidying the hedges by the bean field, anticipating the chicken houses and day old chicks to come in January.

The mothers and I are recovering from Nairobi Night Club After-Burn, a common local disease, not just on weekends, the effect of furious expression, focused presentation dancing, shooting 8-ball, chatting up locals, measuring tourists, regulars, newcomers, kicking Friday night into Saturday morning, putting on the dog, giving it all away, surging sweat into the Nairobi night, in tune, on time to the music, one place live, one place studio blare, mechanical down-beat techno-disco, Kenya 2K tradition. Mindless reveling, born in stuffy Gigiri bureaucracies and foreign bush posts and remote humanitarian projects or displaced persons’ camps, exiles from The West in the Nairobi night, System Geeks getting what they think they need. The vamps and vampires wait on the barstools for the money to flow. The Angels sit there, too.

I see myself through the window, a bright bird diving into the greenery, coming out the other side, going into a luscious shrub flashing black and scarlet, sweet, coming out the other side of time, banana yellow on shiny coal. I know illusion. Where is that magician now? I want to see beyond that hedge. I plunge through the bush. I want to know the other side of the garden. I will climb there. I will look back down on the world from the aromas of the herbs and bean and potato patch.

Seven kids, three mothers, angels of mercy, angels of charity, jamming vamps, practiced international models, starlets in the Nairobi night, the best of the best, sages in see-through, virtue costumed in vice. Four fathers not around, maybe in Somalia, maybe in Sudan, maybe in UK, or USA, or Germany or Italy. International fathers, left the seed here, Nairobi mothers tending crop. Survivors in Hell, transforming battle scars to a Heaven of security, disciplined service to the in-group of sisters, natural community, common language, Kuja Hapa Mama, insist the kids have formal education, formulas cover the wall of the study room, areas of triangles, diagrams of flower parts, unconditional love and comfort, keep the young ones innocent, at least for another day. Angels of goodness, clean hearts pouring bizarre and tawdry stories into the cup like sweet white coffee, tales with heart, randy, crazy, insane, cinema verite, laughing at the Devil, tempting fate in the Nairobbery street, albeit the upscale side: believers in God, but not in men or law. I am also a father not around. In Kenya, one says, “I am paining.” And I am paining, too.

Somehow the mothers get what they need, each one differently, they give to each other out of love and faith, the sisterhood of mothers. The Head Angel has no fear. She built a fifteen room retreat far, but not too far, from the glitter, cheap make-up city-action, in the hills, half an hour from town, high, highrayyyy Bob Marley sings, music above, noise below. It is substantial, the work and planning. Even from the gate at the road connecting the estate, one senses quality, a sense of purpose, the money has been well spent, the project is not finished. Who knows and who cares how many sources she was to find, how many ups and downs she was to integrate, how many disappointments she was to mix into the present state of affairs? She looks ahead, ignores the madness behind. She dresses her scars with a burst of laughter, the optimistic remark. Her wings spread over a home, a project, no negativity allowed. That is her coping state.

I browsed her bookcase at noon. I found Michael Ondaatje, The Collected works of Billy the Kid and The Cinnamon Peeler. How did these treasures find a country home on the border of the Masai bush with Cityness in Kenya? Were they left by a former husband or boyfriend or visitor, a drunken Irish overlander, a friend of a friend? I asked, of course, where they came from. She found them herself by instinct in a second hand book section in town, by reading a bit, a sample, by examining the look and feel. How intuitive she is, how accurate the quality of her hunches. I re-read much of Billy, I read half of Cinnamon. I went to the patio and had my coffee, sugared and stirred by 2 year old Jonathan, I read some more from Ondaatje. He speaks of scars, I go slowly through it, I have been thinking of scars quite a lot lately.

We remember the time around scars,
They freeze irrelevant emotions
And divide us from present friends.
I remember this girl’s face,
The widening rise of surprise.

And later in the poem, I am tearing by now, stone quiet, I again flash to the impact that Ondaatje has on me, directly, indirectly, how Peggy wrote of him, how she, a wonderful poet in her own right, gave me Billy The Kid, how I have it stored neatly in my mother’s place in Cowpens, South Carolina, I could put my hand on it in the dark, how the scars do “freeze irrelevant emotions.” I am a father not around. In any event he concludes:

I would meet you now
And I would wish this scar
To have been given with
All the love
That never occurred between us.

So he triggers me into the world of scars and emotions once again. Maybe we are all Billy The Kid somehow, the Queens of Vamp in Nairobi, the soldiers of humanitarian despair in the boonies of Sudan and Somalia and Afghanistan and Bolivia and Zimbabwe and Atlanta ad nauseum. When Billy is described as “not all good and not all bad” by Sally Chisum, she is painting the human condition, not Billy. There is an Angel in every Devil. There is a redeeming feature in the air. And hope is in the kids, no? Please don’t mar them scar them, it isn’t necessary; they face their traumas eventually, we must give them a proper state of mind to do so.

I read for three hours on the flight yesterday to Nairobi the autobiography of Waris Darie, the nomad girl turned international fashion model. Her story is woven like a reed milk jug around her childhood trauma, FGM. My mind was on trauma even the days before, I had just distributed to a woman’s health group in Hargeisa some unpublished notes of Dr. Paul Michael Schlosser on Triggers and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the scars left by trauma, the states of mind that allow us to cope with the scars, but not necessarily in the healthiest ways, how to take the negative charge out of the trauma, how we must learn to help each other through these triggered states that are formed by the trauma.

Scars. PTSD. The States of Mind that Angels must return to when they look for money in Nairobi. They are scarred and triggered. The States of Mind the Somali and other women carry for life because of their childhood circumcisions. They are scarred and triggered. The States of Mind we go to when we are here and hear that teacher’s voice from the past, a false accusation, a hurtful lie, or the policeman’s siren coming louder, when we see the closed fist of a bully. The common laws of psychology we share.

So it is all convening in a flood on the patio. I sip my white coffee. The essential Somali scar, the Nairobi night-heat, the fathers not around. FGM links Waris to Schlosser to me. Now Ondatjee and Angels Annie and Christine and Maggie close a circle, put a roof on it, shelter us for now. The scars are there in all their beauty. No charge. The traumas are beneath the surface. No charge. The collective survival techniques and unconditional love tie us together. Panaceas, Universals we must remember.

I plunge again, I take Ondaatje to the most rear garden, up the hill behind the hedge, into the herbs, the beans and maize, above the house and flower garden. I feel he has been there, too. Two pre-teens follow me, then take the lead to the highest view of the valley. I look back down and know there is hope. Good luck and good intention. Couple of kids in the garden looking down, too, quiet and peaceful. My Twenty four hoursback in Nairobi are up.  Amen.

Copyright 2009 Jim Shanor

Ball

pj-ballDon’t remember the first ball in my life. Soft ball? Tennis ball? Ping Pong? It was likely a ball of yarn. My mother Ruth used to knit household items, make mittens, sweaters, and baby clothes, fix collars, make doilies, mend things. Most mothers of war babies knew how to do that. We were pre-automatic washers, before the tags on our cotton-rayon shirts said Made in Pakistan or Hecho en Mexico. Mothers in many parts of the world today still knit and darn and weave and crochet. So there are modern boys and girls rolling the balls of yarn around the carpet, dropping them off chairs, tugging on them with the cat. Learning how the spheroids work in nature. A ball can be a great teacher.

PJ got a new ball yesterday. He was sleeping in the grocery cart, nodding back and forth, wouldn’t wake up as we snaked up and down the wide aisles all around the newest supermarket in Nairobi. I had to hold his head in my hands and push the cart with my forearms. Underground parking, shops and chain stores just opened in a mall that could be a clone of a new one in Atlanta or Dubai, escalators, glass walled lifts, indoor fountains, waterfalls pouring down, rushing water sounds, down to the tropical garden on the base bottom floor. We chose a green UEFA-branded full size soccer ball, pumped full of pressure and bouncy. PJ woke up from one dream to another as we left the display bin of balls. I showed him the new ball and he wrapped his arms around it and said, “Ball.”

As a kid, I loved to roll a ball on the shag carpet, estimate where it would stop. I could play catch with myself by throwing a hardball against our concrete stairs in 1953 Tulsa. I learned how to put a spin on it, make it jump, and I became part of the change in direction when the spin took. We anticipated the physical results, we became part of the world of the ball. Balls teach us physics. Gravity, friction, momentum. Force, mass and acceleration. Later in the teen years, the arcs and curves we learned about, by feel, in games we played as toddlers and children, catch, baseball or cricket, football or soccer, tennis or bowling or volleyball, we learn again when we study conical segments in analytic calculus. So in a way, playing ball helps in advanced mathematics. I made that connection in a calculus class looking out the window at the school baseball diamond, wishing the game had started. In baseball, long flies and pop foul balls travel in parabolas, slightly altered by the friction between the spinning baseball and the air around it, maybe the night air under the floodlights, maybe the dusty air blowing across the field before a summer storm. The stitching in the spinning baseball catches more air on one side than the other, and the ball curves in accordance. They say it wouldn’t curve in a vacuum. They say in a vacuum the parabola of a throw would be perfect. They also say there is no such thing as a straight line in nature, but then we grew up with straight lines from home plate to the outfield fence, a line to divide fair and foul balls. We thought the foul lines as part of nature back then. We lived in a world of lines and curves when we played ball. Natural Law ruled.

PJ held his ball in his arms, sitting in the baby seat of the grocery cart, all through the remainder of the shopping trip. We were topping off our supplies for surviving the Kenyan government-versus-the-Opposition confrontation, picking up extra butter, juices, more milk, dried fruit, and bubble bath. Things I had forgotten the day before when I went to stock up. PJ showed his prize ball to other shoppers as we passed them on the way to checkout, holding it up and saying “ball.” He was beaming, causing the others to laugh and smile back at him, Mhindi Asians, Africa men and women, Mzungu ladies with blue hair, and some nice brown mixtures like he is noticed him and his ball. He was making us all happy. I didn’t have to hold his head steady and push the cart with my forearms now. He was very alive and under his own control, and he had a grip on that ball.

We had one stop to make on the way home from the mall. We were to pay the light bill to avoid a disconnection. Mama PJ went into the Kenya Power and Light Company outlet to pay up while PJ and I stayed in the car. He wanted to play with the ball. First, he juggled it in his hands, just to get a feel for the weight and size. He tossed it an inch or two upwards, caught it, did it again, squeezed it, turned it in his hands, got the feel for the new toy. He trusts me enough to show me the ball in outstretched hands, but not enough yet to let go of the ball. He calls out a long string of baby talk in an ascending voice, getting near ecstasy, and ends the thought with “ball.” I wondered if “ball” was a universal phonemic sequence, even intelligible in tongues and baby talk. A woman parked in the next car in the parking lot turned toward PJ and smiled and he held up his ball to let her see it. “Ball,” he said.

“Ball,” she echoed.

As a primary schooler, there was little I remember but the highlights of playing some kind of ball. We played before school, sometimes softball, sometimes playground soccer, sometimes unruly forms of “keepaway” or “kill the man with the ball.” We made our own rules, we improvised partnerships, we chose teams quickly so not to waste time that we should be using to play ball. We learned to throw and catch and kick and dribble, to bounce and shovel and toss and snatch various shapes and kinds of balls. We went through the same routines at recess and lunch time at school, all of us waiting anxiously for the freedom that “ball time” gave us from the hard cruel classroom, the ordered discipline of the educational conveyor belt. Would that I had had a handball to squeeze quietly in my alphabetical rows-and-columns seating, during the lectures on The Five Civilized Tribes or the major river systems of the world or the exercises drilling us on diagramming sentences. Can anyone give an example of a homonym? Bawl and Ball. A synonym, Jimmy, give us a synonym! Ball had no synonym. Is that true in every language?

By now PJ was dropping the new ball on the passenger side feet-rest area, saying “ball,” then climbing down to retrieve it, repeating “ball,” putting it back on the seat and climbing back up, and telling me seriously at each step, “ball.” He must have done that two dozen times, showing the ball now and then to shoppers carrying their own goods back to their parked cars, naming his ball and getting smiles and reinforcement from everyone. He threw the ball up to the ceiling of the car, bounced it off the steering wheel, spun one off the gear shift, and he even shared his green wonder with me now and then. I think I know how he was feeling. This was his ball.

I eventually learned a lot about life and social interaction, about team play, about minor fleeting fame by playing ball as I grew up in Oklahoma. I was good at catching a football, the ovaloid kind, so I was made a wide receiver. What I eventually learned there was that football coaches are a strange breed, and when the adrenalin hit them at the opening kickoff, they shouted above the roar for everyone “to find someone to hit.” I didn’t take to that as well as I did to diving for a low throw from our quarterback, or leaping in the air in the end zone, catching a touchdown, just waiting for the crunch from someone just looking for me to hit. I could catch it and hold it. How could anyone drop it? It was The Ball.

We played and practiced baseball day and night when it was the season. The ball is the game, in a sense, so we chased and shagged fly balls, scooped up hot grounders, flipped and tossed the ball to team mates or tried to burn fast balls by the opposing batters. We threw one hoppers to the base ahead of the runner, we bunted, slapped and slugged balls depending on the game situations, we had a system of communications to agree what kind of spin to put on the next throw, how to make it curve, whether it would be a fast ball or a slow ball, a high or low one, who would cover second base and catch the ball thrown from the catcher on an attempted steal. A new baseball is a near perfect thing. It will follow the rules of nature. It smells so sweet. It feels good in your hands. It looks good to the crowd, in sunlight or under the lights. It makes a sizzling sound just before it pops a leather glove, and when you hear that, you know you are playing hardball.

We are in the jam going home now. Bumper to bumper in front and back of us. Cutting the engine to save fuel until we are ready to move twenty meters again. Everyone talking on cell phones. “It’s bad downtown.” “Don’t go there.” “I’ll be at least an hour late.”

We are taking a shortcut on a two lane road through a beautiful old forest, a forest preserved by the government, adjacent to the Presidential State House. We have moved five hundred meters in the last 45 minutes. The traffic going the other way is equally slow, people cutting their engines, too, and reading the Daily Nation newspaper. PJ is showing his ball to the drivers of the cars in the adjacent lane. He would normally be itching to get out of the car by now, but he has his ball. “Ball,” he tells a driver stopped beside us in a government Mercedes Benz. The guy smiles and forgets about the jam and the confrontations he just left in town. He nods his head to PJ. “Ball.” We should all be outside kicking it around.

I am thinking that PJ is lucky. “He has the Spirit of The Ball in him,” Mama PJ has mentioned to me before. She has seen his intensity when he plays with a ball. He has several small balls at home, a little white leather soccer ball, kid size, one that he can palm with one hand, toss over his head or lag to a shag carpet near the door. He knows how to get some lift on that one, too, kicking it against the sitting room wall, and he has learned to punt it like a Goal Keeper from Manchester United would. He watches football on TV and shouts out when he sees the green field and men in uniforms, “Ball.” He also has a multi-colored spiked rubber ball with the Buddha ying-yang design on one side. We bought it in Mombasa when we were almost dead broke, but it was so beautiful that we agreed it was worth it. The Buddha ying-yang ball was made in China. PJ lights up when it’s time to toss either one, kick them, chase them, even take a bath with them. I feel blessed that he has the Spirit of The Ball in him.

We arrive home and PJ plays with the ball all over the house, working up a sweat in the chasing it around, somehow in a new trance. I’m wishing he could see some of the passes that Bob Cousy used to make with a basketball for the Boston Celtics, or Larry Bird’s side-spin full court pass just inching by a defender for a spectacular assist. The Spirit of the Ball was in them both, those Celtics. How perfectly balanced was Warren Spahn, an Okie country boy, when he threw a pitch in major league baseball for the Braves, elegant, powerful, in time and in tune. How we boys used to watch the best pool hustlers on Route 66 stop in to shoot some pool down at Doc’s Pool Hall in Tulsa, watch them run racks and make a cue ball almost talk as it went about its mission on those green felt snooker tables or one-pocket tables, biting the rails with a little low-right English spin, or screeching to a stop at just the right spot, backspin reining it in. Those hustlers were playing for money, so they had to feel at one with the Laws of Balls or perish. The winners played like they were in Buddha ball trances themselves.

So PJ comes walking in here after his nap, says hello, wants to try a sip of my grapefruit juice, then he leaves for a minute and returns with the new green ball and wants me to play. He saw some neighbors dribbling a basketball at the Holiday Break and he is trying to dribble his green football on the carpet under my feet. He just hijacked me from my story. I gotta show him how you control it with your fingertips and you gotta keep it low and you can do it with both hands. We are having a ball. He will have his own heroes to mimic, so I’m sure he can learn the advanced levels without mine. There is an artist born every minute.

The news on TV is telling me there was a jam today, that tensions are running high. I escape into the highlight zone now, picturing Arnie Palmer’s driver turning a golf ball’s flight a little left on a dogleg, under perfect control, or San Francisco’s John Brody’s soft deliveries of an American football to a predetermined spot known intuitively to him and his wide receiver, in fully improvisational circumstances with animal noises and searing emotion all around, on national TV, in tune with a friend and team mate who has been working out with him every day for eight months, and they are completing a pass play that has become instinctual to them. I drift and daydream about the throw I made in American Legion baseball five decades ago to cut down a runner tagging up and trying to go to third on a fly ball to me in right field. Testing my arm. Aaahh. To be one and a half years old again, playing with a ball of yarn.

Copyright 2009 Jim Shanor