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Primitive grace

By D. Garreth Wilck / November 2, 1982

I remember meeting Emmanuel Chimebu Ozoh (Emma from then on) as the roommate of my friend Ward, a South African. At the time, I was entrenched in the intellectual rigors of a college course in world politics, so naturally a white South African rooming with a black Nigerian intrigued me.

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When the polemics between us faded, we usually got down to more relevant subjects, and often that meant explaining American culture to Emma: why social pursuits came before studies at this institute of higher learning. Why the girls wore shorts that bared their legs in the summertime. (He would ask: Doesn't it bother men's hearts?) Why you didn't just expect people to greet you with hugs and open arms at every encounter.

Emma listened with an openness that included not only his eyes and ears but his whole being. He struggled to know me, my culture. But he lived with an abiding peace that carried him across the campus green like leaves floating in autumn air.

Soon, without my fully realizing it, I was fascinated by his culture. He told me of his village, where the entire population of men, women, and children would scramble from their homes to greet an arriving stranger. Where the slimmest hopes of entering college meant studying in the dimmest light for hours, while gasping in the heat. Where relations between the sexes were deep commitments, meant to endure.

When I saw that the winter's course included African History, I seized a space. Then, the realizations started: much of the world went to bed hungry each night as I went for doughnuts before sleep. My ancestors had stripped Emma's homeland in search of slaves. Whole cultures, rich with skills and insights into life's mysteries, withered in the face of the onslaught of ''modernization.'' People who knew nothing of boundaries and fences had their land, their tribes, their families, fractured by imaginary lines drawn on a map three thousand miles away. Their fate - to be herded, like the animals they tended, into the resulting nation-state.

Somewhere along this rock-strewn road, I was knocked flat by the realization that there was an entire history, a completely different way of life for millions of my brothers, and I had known nothing about it. Nor had I cared.

How could I have been ignorant of the needs of what I would now call ''the third world''? Where had this ''third world'' been all my life? Hiding behind the first and the second?

A few months later, I got myself onto a plane bound for Kenya, East Africa, with seventeen fellow students. There the land I read of became reality: the African plains swallowed me whole; the thunder of thousands of wildebeest echoed in my ears. I remember waking up on the shores of Lake Nakuru amid a symphony of bird sounds; negotiating the maze of carts, shops, and cultures of Mombasa; sidestepping the beggars; racing a flock of running schoolchildren across a hillside to see who could greet each other first; sagging in the dense, febrile heat that plagued our trek along the Tsavo River and then searching for strength; slowly wrenching ourselves from the country, but not before being surprised by a Kenyan friend who had endured an all-day bus ride just to give us a few gifts and see us off.

When I returned ''home,'' the United States had become the Altered States. My land had been stripped of its wonder and silence. It represented some sort of electro-neon dream to me. Shortly after arriving in the country, a few friends and I drove down to a local discoteque for a friend's birthday celebration. The sound that usually set my feet dancing turned my mind on end. My whole being reneged that evening. I left almost immediatedly.