I had two dreams last night. Or, let’s say, I remembered two dreams upon waking up – for I hear a human being often has numerous dreams in one night, but only remembers one or two on waking up. So I remembered two dreams.
In the first, we were boys, teenagers, gathered at my uncle’s house, a grass-thatched hut for the boys a short distance from my grandmother’s main house. We were preparing to party, the kind of village parties we had at Christmas while growing up. Food was cooking nearby. The mood was excited…My buddies were moving about gaily – although I did not seem to identify any faces. But my eldest brother was certainly there…
I was standing outside the house looking yonder, across the river. Suddenly, people began shouting in alarm, running around frantically in someone’s farm. A young man in blue overalls was in trouble. He looked like Charles, a loudmouth, self-proclaimed “expert” on Catholicism I once was with in the choir. His tuneless voice was a guaranteed irritation. He had wanted to be a priest and proceeded to the seminary; but only to come back after a few years to regale us with funny tales about what he had encountered and why he dropped out. The village superstition was that anyone who dropped out of Catholic seminary would run mad. And Charles hadn’t looked quite sane to me.
Now there he was, struck by electric power and balancing precariously in the air on a live wire, shouting for help – I could not hear him from where I was, but I thought he was screaming anyway. People were yelling at him to jump down from the cable to save his life. If he remained standing there another minute, he would surely perish. It was heart-wrenching! A few years ago I lost a relative who was electrocuted near his home at a Nairobi slum. That guy, come to think of it, bore an uncanny resemblance to Charles!
In one quick leap, Charles jumped off the cable and landed on the ground safely. What a relief!
Turning around, I realised for the first time that the buddies I was with had all gathered outside my uncle’s house with me to watch the surreal episode. With the happy ending, it seems like we returned into the house to start the party…
In the second dream, the scene was sharply different. We had walked, I can’t remember with whom, into what seemed like a very serene retreat centre. Gentle sun. Manicured, windless lawn. Tall trees. Silence. A gentle river, flowing quietly…
There were several people around. I didn’t seem to know any of them. But we weren’t a big crowd. And I did not feel they were strangers. We moved wordlessly. Each savouring the quiet. It was all very peaceful. There were Catholic priests. Radiant smiles. I seemed to know none of them. But it did not bother me. Nobody was praying, at least openly. We were all walking about. I do not know to where. Slowly. In silence. Nobody was in charge.
Again my eldest brother was there. A man from our village said something lightly to my brother and I, as we approached the river. It was about our late father. My father was a great, popular man, he joked – or something to that effect. I had heard that line a thousand times as a little boy, said by people in my village. It was always very comforting. I had been terribly traumatised by my father’s sudden death while I was a boy aged about five. I have few vivid memories of him. Such banter from his age-mates and other people in the village really helped me to gradually come to terms with my loss.
I felt fully at peace at the retreat centre. Not even the casual mention of my dead father brought a trace of sadness in my heart. I loved the place. We could stay there forever…
Of course I woke up and realised it was only a dream. I began to reflect about the two dreams. I don’t know why exactly. Was I looking for some clues from these dreams about the direction my own life was taking?
Which was the better life, I wondered: the one depicted in the party at my uncle’s hut – a mixed bag of real life, comprising moments of fleeting happiness and heart-wrenching episodes? Or the pure serenity of a retreat garden that mirrored heaven, as I thought of it?
Why not withdraw from the hustle and bustle of life and take refuge in a quiet peace, where our hearts and minds are safe from the endless striving for joy in a fickle world where tragedy is not so far away? A world where life is uncertain, sad memories torment us and a fine afternoon of partying is almost ruined by a freak accident across the river?
It was a soothing thought. My mind drifted to the words of Jesus in the gospel, where he urges all those who are lumbering under heavy burdens to go to him so he could give them a rest. Living at a retreat garden all my life would surely be such a rest, I thought.
But that is just fantasy, isn’t it? Or worse, cowardice and hypocrisy. Fantasy because it is really not practical that we can all live in some serene prayer garden until we die peacefully in our sleep in a ripe old age. It may be tempting to want to withdraw from the rowdy, uncertain world into quiet seclusion in the hope that one could shield oneself from the harsh realities of life. That would be cowardly. A lack of faith in resilience of the human spirit and the ability of our species to actually solve problems.
Life isn’t meant to be an afternoon stroll in a retreat garden, or is it? We must confront the jumbled reality of life here and now, deal with our world’s ruggedness, and build our meanings and peace from the thick of this turmoil.
I am sure we often attempt to create personal ‘spaces’ for ourselves, lock ourselves up in our cosy little cocoons determined to enjoy our undisturbed happiness without the intrusion of the broken other(s). It is selfish and hypocritical. I think we must face the full range of our won reality.
Moreover, outside the serenity of the retreat garden, there is plenty of suffering that pleads for our attention, and which we must respond to if we are to lead meaningful human lives; there is violence of all kinds; politicians making bad laws and cynical policies; millions of people going to bed hungry; majority of the sick having no access to quality healthcare while a few privileged ones are pampered in the most expensive hospitals; gangs of jobless youth on the prowl; powerful personalities fomenting chaos to win the next election; drug lords driving an entire generation into hopelessness and death; private companies making super-profits at the expense of their workers, the environment and our common future; billions of shillings of taxpayer’s money ending up in the pockets of well-connected individuals…
Are we going to run away from these ugly facts of life to seek a selfish peace, hoping that we and our loved ones would not be personally affected by this epidemic of social injustice? Are we going to turn our backs on the brokenness of our world and hide in secluded, manicured lawns, which, by the way, so many of our fellow human beings can not access? Is that how we would become our brother’s keeper, as the scriptures urge?
Well, I have no doubt that personal peace is a great value, nay the ultimate value, to be sought by us all. I think the world would be a worse place to live in if we all went around agitated, unable to find rest. But that said, it would also not be a liveable world either, at least for most people, if all those of us who have the opportunity withdrew to a serene prayer garden, literally and figuratively, hoping that somehow our own and other people’s suffering would magically go away.
I think that socially conscious individuals who firmly believe that a better world for all human beings is possible, that the good life is the right of everyone and not the privilege of a few, are unlikely to retreat into the quiet of a prayer garden for longer than is necessary to recharge their spirit before returning to the trenches of struggles for social justice.
There is urgent and arduous work to be done everyday to create a better world. Otherwise Jesus would have lived to a ripe old age and died peacefully in his sleep. Or Steve Biko. Or Thomas Sankara…
* Henry Makori is an editor with Pambazuka News (www.pambazuka.org)