It's the afternoon, and the children are sleeping. It's winter here, and everything is blooming. We have found ways to pass the time with this cold, grey weather. We make an event out of buying fish food. We throw parties with hundreds of tea candles burning around the garden. We build a castle out of wooden blocks, and then destroy it with one swoop. A metaphor for life, I whisper to the babe, but the wisdom is lost on him and so we watch a video. The tree outside my window has yellow flowers that form cones. They glow like torches against the grey sky. But this is not how I intended to begin this post.
Years ago, when I first moved to East Africa, it was a different life for a while. There was no ayah pushing a baby on a swing, there was no UN security. There was no M. to help negotiate my course. I had a vague sense of what I intended to accomplish, and how, and a little money, and a good friend who ushered me wisely. ("I can open the door," he would say. "But then you have to walk though.") I also had one word that I forced myself to live by: self-possession. I hadn't thought of this for a long time until today. It's a good word to go by.
Self-possession: The full possession or control of one's faculties or feelings; presence of mind; composure.
It is important to maintain your self-possession when you first arrive, a foreigner in Africa. It is important to reflect upon your decisions before you cross the Rwandan border into the Congo, or attend the French dinner party in Nairobi, or write about the djinns on the Kenyan coast. It is important to maintain a presence of mind, a clarity. The temptation (upon arrival) is the opposite. The temptation is to become possessed---"controlled by an evil spirit, crazed, mad"---because of the intense beauty; because of the sense of personal freedom and limitlessness, because the nights are so dark compared to home, and the spirits so tangible. (With time, instinctively, we re-build our own little societies around us and curl up in them. The limitlessness, the darkness and the spirits fade away.)
To become possessed, to go insane. I have known people in New York who have done that. It is important to exercise your self-possession anywhere, I suppose. Many years ago, I felt I lost my presence of mind after a stint in Rwanda. I was not mad---I was working and walking down streets and living in apartments when I got home. But it took over a year to regain my composure. Perhaps that was why I was so careful when I returned back, to try again.
"Thus am I mine own prison." I read that in a poem once, and it seemed the next line to put down.