Ages ago, I used to tell people that I had a falling out with my dad because he was a tough man, a slave-driver who wouldn’t see me for who I was and who always pushed me to do things I had no interest in.
Now, after far too many years without him, I look back and realise it was simply teenage angst. That time of your life when all that drives you is raging hormones and a rebellious devil-may-care attitude towards the world. Especially towards family.
My dad passed away in 2003, I had just barely made 20. In my rebellion, I had moved out of home at 18 and started living my life, my way, trying to see what this world had to offer.
Today is Father’s day, and this is a letter to a man who both terrified me and inspired me and who I desperately wish was still allive.
Let’s first get one thing out of the way: I miss you and I love you. Much more than I thought possible and much more than I can tell, through written or spoken word.
I long for your wisdom each day, which I now see for its true worth. Days and nights long, I have stared at the ceiling in absolute terror at what lay before me, and all I wished for was to talk to you again, to simply ask you how you would have done things, or sometimes, if you had some spare cash lying around to bail me out.
The world is a hard place dad, and now I know and see why you always had a frown on your face while we were out gallivanting during school holidays, even when I’d foolishly ask you why you never got holidays like us and you’d simply reply, “because we need food on the table” and I’d walk away puzzled. The world has changed so much, and it is a world that needs fathers to guide their children. Fathers to teach their boys how to be boys and their girls how to be girls. It’s a sad sad place, and yet, dad, it is a wondrous place.
So very much has changed since we had that argument about Post vs Email, where I, starry-eyed technology ardent, struggled hard to explain to you, die-hard traditionalist, how communication was now so much faster! You were happy with opening your post once a month, and getting a handwritten letter or two, and I was happy when every five seconds, an alert popped up, “You’ve got mail” and I could open it and read it there and then. Smileys and forwards and silly do-this-or-something-bad-would-happen-in-the-next-ten-minutes messages. While we now communicate across the world in real-time, the information overload has gotten so much worse. There’s now Facebook! And Google! And Twitter! Monstrous machines that seemingly know everything about your private life and constantly drown you in information and yet we embrace them whole-heartedly. We give up the very essence of our lives to them, throwing away our undergarments of self-respect and culture and tradition and privacy and intimacy, all in the name of staying connected.
It is sad, and it is beautiful, and I don’t know if you would have embraced it eventually, but I know, knowing you, that you would have been shocked.
But, we cannot fight change. We are doomed to an existence where time ploughs forward, regardless of the resistance or threat we collectively or singularly pose. We are slaves to the worship of trivialties and the exaltation of the self. The world, Dad, has become so connected. The degree of seperation between me and US President Obama – oh, America got its first black president in 2008, can you imagine? I remember how you were glued to the Clinton saga and would talk about it for ages – is now effectively less than 4. So connected, and yet, irony of ironies, so much lonelier. People sit at their computers while the sun rises and falls. People hang out in the real world and end up staring at their phones the entire time, communicating via phone to someone seated right next to them.
The world has changed.
Wars erupt almost daily and automated machines target and kill with disturbingly lethal and clinical efficiency. Kony, who destroyed our entire village and rendered Amaa and our elder-folk homeless for more than a decade, became a celebrity when some massively ignorant and misguided boys thought they could change the world by getting people to “like” and “tweet” and wear t-shirts. And Egypt and Lybia saw an end to decades-old dictatorship because a group of people chose to “like” and “tweet” and then took it to the street.
Businesses rise, fall and crash each second against the harsh shores of reality. It’s funny Dad, you were an accountant, your idea of success lay in the bottom line; are we in the black or in the red? Did you know that these days, companies that barely make any revenue and make zero profit are being valued at billions of dollars? Billions, dad!
And here’s the biggest shocker: Did you know your son, who always wanted to be an engineer and sit in a corner somewhere and just make things, is now a businessman? In an industry that didn’t exist when you started your first restaurant?
It’s been 9 long years without you, and everything has changed. Everything.
But one thing stays constant. You were my father, and all you cared about was guiding me through the trials of this world. All you wanted was for me, for the four of us to be able to survive this world when you were gone. You knew this world would pose challenges that we were not prepared for. Challenges that we would only be able to face by having a core foundation that we could fall back to when everything else failed.
We are surviving, dad, but only barely. We need you, and yet we cannot have you. But we are glad for one thing, I am personally glad for one thing: I owe my survival and ability to survive to the lessons you taught me. Lessons that I can now extract from the lashes and punishments and words and advice and shouts and responsibilities that you dispensed on a daily basis.
Lessons like: Take care of your business and your responsibilities no matter what, a precursor to leadership in more ways than you will ever know. All those times when I saw you leave the house knowing well that you needed to make money or you would have a starving family if you ever came back empty-handed. All those times when our health and wellbeing was more important than a new pair of trousers or kaunda suit for you and resulted in endless trips to the tailor to get another discreet patch added in. Those times when you cared more about education and less about appearances, so much that you enrolled me in one of the best schools in the country at a tremendous financial sacrifice on your part. When I was one of the brokest kids in school and hated you for not visiting me or not giving me money for upkeep and only now that I see what it cost to just pay my school fees. Your priorities and sacrifice and commitment to what was important in the long run… I see it now. I live and breathe it now.
Lessons like: Help those in need whenever and wherever you can, which, father, has caused me more trouble than I can tell. I saw the desperation of the people you pulled out of the village and brought to Kampala to study and learn and live a better life and I saw most of those same people spit in your face, rebelling and fighting against you, thinking they now had it made and sadly, painfully watching them go back to the village empty handed, slowly falling back into the very lives that you were trying hard to save them from. And yet you did it over and over and over again, and I never understood why, and I never could explain it when I was asked. But now I know that it was a) simply your nature to help, just like mine now is and b) you were simply paying a kindness forward, a kindness that had been extended to you at a time when the world had you cornered and you had nowhere to turn. A kindness that saw me grow up with my Uncle and Aunt in Bugoloobi flats and a kindness that eventually turned me, us, into who were are today. I am your son and I cannot and will not let that legacy fall, no matter what the cost is, financially, emotionally, physically or spiritually.
Lessons like: Accept and own up to your mistakes and if you can, fix them. This particular lesson was delivered mostly through kiboko, and I laugh now at it all. Everyone who has ever been caned at some point in their childhood (for a genuine reason) laughs at it now. At the brutality and cruelty of it all. And we laugh because we now accept it, and get it (maybe not so much the whips we recieved from school, those ones were pure malice), we get it because somehow, as children, nothing lingers in the memory longer than a stiff, yet flexible kiboko hitting the buttocks, bare or not, with sufficient frequency and force to elicit a two part response; first, a shortlived vehemence for the deliverer (bad pun) and secondly, a longer resolve and determination to not repeat the same mistake again. Mistakes are a fact of life, and while there is no one to whip us for it now, life whips harder, with lessons that last longer and are more painful to resolve, but you taught me to accept my mistakes, atone for them and move forward again and either fix them or avoid making them again. And father, I thank you for that particular lesson.
Lessons like; Be a man, know your place and treat ladies with respect. Over the years, this has been distilled into a knowledge that sometimes I will have to be strong-willed but that never means I should stop being gracious, fully knowing and understanding that my place is to provide and protect those closest to me, at whatever cost, even if that cost means doing something the lady will not like. You taught me that my place is not to assert dominance through fear or terror, because as much as you got angry often, I never ever saw you raise your hand to hit a woman, I never saw you belittle my step-mother, I never saw you shout at her. Even the arguments we heard coming from the bedroom were never something to worry about. And through all this, she respected and adored. You were her man, and you took care of her, as best as you could. I am not weak-willed, at the mercy of the chaos around me or a slave to my own emotional outbursts, neither am I sadistic and brutal, foolishly trying to assert my dominance in a world which no longer accepts such extremes. You taught me how to be a gentleman, how to take charge when I need to take charge and how to sit back and let someone else take charge, even if sometimes that gives the appearance of weakness.
Sadly, because of this, I still cannot cook to save my life, despite our bachelor days when it was just you and I, trying hard to survive in the fresh wilderness of Lugazi and you had to concoct all sorts of wierd meals until eventually one of your sisters swooped in from the village and saved both of us from starvation and destroyed palates.
And lastly, your biggest gift to me, to this day, was a life of faith and trust in a higher power. I still believe in God, dad, and to this day, I still accept Jesus as my personal saviour. But I will not lie to you. I have slipped and fallen many many times, done foolish things and been swayed from the path you taught me to keep, far too many times to bother recollecting. It is a tough place to be, this world, but I am thankful that you introduced my to Christ, and I remember fondly that day in Lugazi, marching infront of the TV as you led me into salvation. It’s really cheesy when I think about it now, but I cannot forget the fact that that was the day when you started showing me a true path to my personal enlightenment. And now, it is not about beliveing because you said so, but I believe more from my personal experiences and my choices, not because of a doctrine, but because of a life and a deep spiritual knowledge of self and God.
As I learn more about you each day from relatives, I know now that you were a deeply flawed man, and your own salvation saved you from a life that was spiraling out of control. And I know you more now as a man who was trying to find his place on this earth, and while doing so, trying hard to raise and provide for a family and still, at the same time, leave a legacy to be proud of.
We had our fights, our fallings out, our flared tempers and heated moments, and I hated you, and you hated me, as all relationships are bound to be at some point, but for today, for me, your flaws are forgotten and my foolishness is a thing of the past. All I choose to see is the father who loved me and moved heaven and earth to provide for a family that he deeply cared for. A family that sill misses him to this day.
And yes, I may not be all that you hoped for yet, but I know, without a single doubt, that you’d be damn proud of the son you raised during your short stay here on earth.
Today, I salute you. You were a great and loving father.
Happy Father’s Day, Mr. Benge, sir!
Your loving son, Solomon King Benge.
PS: The King name you gave me was one heck of an awesome gift!