Early in life, I noticed a queer thing. I was not growing as fast as some of the boys I had joined school with. I mean in height and size. It all started when I failed to get into the school basket ball team. “No, you are too short!” coach said. “Try something else.”
Hurt, when rugby was introduced, my heart leaped with anticipation. I had this friend called Sembusi, with whom we excitedly started playing. In the first major game, on opposite sides, we both divided for the red ball. But before I could snatch it, my friend gave me such a rough push that sent me reeling over with pain. I couldn’t fight back. Sembusi had suddenly grown huge and put on a lot of meat on his biceps. I decided from there on only to enjoy rugby as Sembusi’s cheerleader.
My lack of rapid growth in height and size came with a certain boom though. When it came to entering our dining mess, the smaller boys were given the fast pass. The Idi Amin reign of terror was at its peak, with food scarce and the meals so skimpy. So, you can imagine, how I flew the steps to get to my table and scoop out as much posho, before the bigger boys arrived.
Actually my being smaller never bothered me, for there was also an area where I seemed to have the last lough. As I look back my love of books could have started there as a way to beat the bigger boys. There was this guy, a head taller than everyone, who loved to gather smaller boys around him. Weak in class, he compensated by grooming a gang of followers. I didn’t join though, lost in my books. He resented me for that.
While for me it was books there was another smaller boy I shall call Shorty who just didn’t walk away from the yard to go hiding in the library. As others grew and he stood still, Shorty decided to squeeze his smaller fingers into one bloody fist. All it took was one small slight and he would snap. Tiny as he was, Shorty would throw wild punches hard at the bigger boys, always aiming for the balls. Only the teachers who stop him by yanking him away, all bloodied, a tooth on the floor.
When later I moved to the US for further study and work, I noticed something which would take me back to my childhood. Being a Christian I joined a church perched in a neat part of town where I soon discovered I was the only black. It never bothered me or let me say I didn’t even think much of it. All I could see where people who laughed, quarreled at times and had their share of problems. Every Wednesday we would go out to invite new members, like Jehovah Witnesses minders. What I remember, the Whites would receive us eagerly, but for Black dudes, never. They seemed to resent the missionary Whites.
Yet, if they knew, here was a homely church filled with regular guys, who went about coasting a simple life. Many drove to church in rather ordinary cars and seemed to dress ever in the same suits and had on the same shoes. In fact, I hardly remember the kind of SUVs later to find back home, in Uganda, congesting traffic along potholed tiny streets.
In this church was a friendly family that would often invite me after service for a meal. We usually went to a diner, where buffet meals were served, and easy on the pocket. On some rare occasion this family would invite me visit them at home. Home was a glittering house seated atop a hill overlooking Tulsa city. There your eyes where washed with what they call old money. Seated, after a fancy meal, sipping coffee, you heard things like, “my kids education was paid for by our grandpa!” Excuse me. “Next weekend I will be flying to check on my factory in Australia.” Eh! But the guy had seemed so ordinary.
I had an apartment in a less affluent neighborhood. There was a way I came to know of some people visiting. In most of the cases, whenever you saw a sports car, rooftop open, and heard almost deafening juke box music blaring, you didn’t have to guess much which race was behind the wheels. The car drove fast into the parking lot, shining wheels spinning to an abrupt squeal. A guy adorned with all sorts of golden necklaces like an African chief jumped out, and sauntered about. He looked like me. Quite jet black.
At first you would say he was loaded. But no; in those parts there was such a wide berth of wealth between the largely low living whites and quite ostentatious blacks. What I came to gather is that while the whites, like those I went to church with, seemed to be at pains to exhibit their pearls; the blacks, once they collected a few, couldn’t just wait.
I had this black friend working on a night shift as a cook in a fast food restaurant. Once, while heading for class, he dropped by my apartment. “Come and see my new Ford sports car!” He pulled me out. There it was: a cool, polished white animal, with bright Michelin tires. He smiled. “I now will be working hard!” He had too. Those cars didn’t come easy on the pockets. Sometimes he would call me desperate for a loan to help him pay up the car loan installment.
This is when I started realizing that some of the problem in our lives are largely driven by trying to compensate something we feel we are lacking. We blacks being poorer desperately needed something to show off as finally somebody. We craved for respect. We needed to prove we had arrived. Of course there were many cheaper cars around my buddy could get, save on, and steadily build up a fortune. But there was that gap or rather hole he had to fill up.
I am sure psychologists have studied this phenomenon and given it a name; but here I will call it, the compensation paradox.
This is how it plays out. Back to my childhood, which was filled with all types of crazy characters fidgeting around as Presidents of modern nations, aside from Idi Amin, there were two chaps who were never short of antics. Few of those who saw Presidents Omar Bongo of Gabon and Emperor Fidel Bokassa of Central Africa Republic, could ever imagine there were a bit petit, in life, for all their flare.
In the case of Bongo, diminutive in size, he compensated his lack of height by having on high heel platform shoes, covered with some large bell bottom trousers. Meanwhile, Bokassa the Emperor of a country with starving orphans, compensated for all his deficiencies by strapping on a uniform filled with a suitcase of medals. When this caught the attention of an unschooled Amin, not to be outdone, the two forever, were locked in hot pursuit of each other, who has more medals.
For some these might appear like they were benign incidents, but what drove these chaps was the compensation paradox. For whatever they lacked our chaps leading independent nations had to find a way of compensating their deficiencies with platform shoes or just stuff themselves in such unconformable jackets packed with starry medals, for everyone’s attention.
But don’t think it is only individuals who struggle with the compensation paradox. Nations, especially poorer ones, struggle with that complex too. Just recently, I came across development statistics from East Africa. I found that my country not only has the least population of the three major East African nations but also the lowest GDP and per capita income. Then I found something puzzling. At 534 Members of Parliament, Uganda has the largest parliament of all and with an approved 80 member cabinet, it doubles the numbers of either country.
How do you explain this anomaly? Since she has the least economy, Uganda, must compensate for what she lacks by packing a tiny building called Parliament like a football stadium with infinite MPs, and feel some sense of greatness.
The problem with compensation paradox is that it can often lead one to make irrational decisions. I hate to report that my friend with a Ford sports car eventually failed to pay his dues, and at some point, lost his job, soon dying a miserable man. I saw the same fate befall many black families too who were always in a hurry to impress someone, take on outsized credit, only to default and be thrown out in the streets, as the whites they were trying to compete with cruised by.
Back home I have seen my poor nation struggle to pay its bills, yet take on more loans to buy a new fleet for her outsized Cabinet. What is killing us here? Meanwhile the lenders of Uganda, some of whose leaders find no qualms in riding bicycles to work, keep piling on her debts. Of course they are secretly laughing for not long they will come calling, mortgaged land titles in their hands.
The way I see it every life needs to overcome the compensation paradox, find peace, and start cruising peacefully in one’s God given castle. It is what they call being comfortable in one’s skin. Those who fail to reach that point must get set for a rough ride. Never comfortable in his skin, fighting to prove he was still around, Shorty, desperately took on the bigger boys who made him loose a lot of teeth!