by Mara Jebsen
One of my favorite memories is also a mysterious one.It is 2006, and I am in Togo. The first goal struck for the continent of Africa has just been shot by Mohamed Kader. He’s representing the Togolese team, who are making their first and only World Cup appearance. A near-hysterical roar goes up in the neighborhood. I suspect I can hear roars from across the nearby Ghana border, too.
The sound is the invigorating effect of many groups of fans rising out of their seats in thatched roof bars and in courtyards under sticky mango trees. I run up to the balcony at the top of our house to see what’s happening in the street. A parade of shouting boys has collected on a road near the ocean. They are running and waving Togolese flags. An intense color combination results: the yam-dirt road, the brown boys, the dirty whitewashed city walls– and the whipping grass-green, and primary red and yellow of the cheap plastic flags. The boys march and deliver their holler into the big wide sound. Now one particularly small boy, wearing only green underwear, does not have a flag. As I watch, he shimmies his skivvies down over his dry knees, raises them in the air, and, belly thrust out, waves the green underpants round and round, whooping buck-naked for all he’s worth.
I'm not sure why I like this image so much. I’ve tried, in storytelling, to re-enact (without actually undressing) the fluid motion of the boy stripping and whooping without deliberation. He may have been about 7, and he swung the underpants around like a lasso, but with his head held high, proud.
In my work as a teacher of first-year undergrads I sometimes teach a lesson that I call: Parades.
It leans on material taken from Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and particularly from the famous section called: A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. In the novel, Kundera describes what two characters of different nationality and gender, who are in the midst of a love affair, are really thinking of when they say a particular word. It becomes clear, for example, that when Franz tells Sabine that she is a woman, he feels he is giving her a compliment. But for him, the word has stories and beliefs attached to it that do not at all match the ones that arrive inside Sabine when she hears what he says. I am particularly interested, however, in the part called Parades.
I ask students to do simple representing work first:
For Franz, a parade is_____________.
For Sabine, a parade is____________.
Of all the rather stellar writing that Kundera produces in the passages about parades, maybe the most memorable is the description of how Sabine, who was forced to march for the Communist party, kept hating the girl behind her for treading on her heels. The students never miss this part, as they are able to really remember what it feels like to be out of step, and the intense irritation of having people glare at you if you sing out of tune, or that feeling on the back of your ankle if someone steps on you.
Its harder for them to describe what Franz makes of parades. He is a scholar, and fears that his whole life—all its dramas and watershed moments—will be lived out inside libraries, and on paper. He suspects that real life is being lived in the street, particularly the French street, where people are protesting something. It doesn’t much matter what. To him, a parade is the expression of courage and brotherhood that he lacks.
The last two parts of the exercise, which I won’t belabor, since I’m hardly at at the whiteboard at the moment, are:
For Kundera, the practice of participating in a parade might be complex because________________.
When I think of the word “parade,” what comes to mind is: __________________________.
From an educator’s point of view, its interesting to see how hard it is for the students to synthesize the two, equally compelling ideas of what a parade might be, as they they try to answer the third question. But then, again, I find it hard, myself. The parade can be fascist; it de-individualizes. The parade is the roaring expression of human collaboration.For Kundera, it is dangerous, but it is of course both of these things.
What’s yet more intriguing is that of course, in the American context, the word “parade” loses much of its political flavor. The students think of Gay Pride parades because the’re influenced by the reading–but they move on to talk about any sort of rag-tag collection of people trying to have a party by wearing funny things and walking together in loud and jaunty fashion.
–Which maybe brings us back to the little boy celebrating Togo’s World Cup goal. It was a short-lived joy. Togo didn’t win that match, or any match. Not long afterward, the Togolese team would have the harrowing experience of traveling to Angola for a game and getting shot at in the bus,losing players, and then being disqualified for not backing out of thier game on time. They would experience a number of weirdly tangled scandals and strange dangers that are hard to fathom from the outside. Ultimately, the reality of working in/for countries that had such complex relationships with thier managemnet and goverments, meant that many players were not terribly excited about being associated with logos or flags. The flags, which had been for sale in street stalls around the time of the world cup, and which were not at all a visible marker of the city or country before or after the competition, always struck me as strange.
In a related anecdote, when my half-Togolese family would visit relatives in America, we’d always be amused at the density of American flags in upstate-New York. “Where are we? America!” we’d say, as the car drove past every third flagged house. “Where are we now? Still America!” America, where you can’t forget where you are. But it was a good-natured laughing, since we are of divided loyalties. There may have been a note of envy in there, too. What would it be like to be a person who put up a flag? Which flag would we put up? My sisters and I now live in America and are happy to be here. But we're rooting for Ghana in this World Cup. Many Ghanains and Togolese are cousins and family, long ago separated by arbitrary national borders.
And what were the Togolese boys celebrating? It wasn't nation. It was something to do with culture and race–that people like them—who spoke their language, and knew some of the same things they knew—were on television, for all the world to see. I’ve written before about what it is like to live in a small place. There is the sense that everything that matters is happening elsewhere. Just to be represented seems enough, even if it isn't clear what's being represented, or how.
Again, the boy. I cherish the image because it’s funny and awesome.I like the gesture because it replaced a flag—a flag that couldn’t possibly mean what anyone wanted it to mean– with a little boy’s tatty green underwear. I don't know exactly what the gesture would mean for Kundera, or for his characters, or for any of my students. But for me, there's a kind of rightness to it.