Thursday, March 6, 2014

THE PRISONER



I want to tell something of the sea.  Something of madness and infinite blue.  A story of distance and longing that no longer needs words because that pain has seeped into our souls.  The souls of black folk.  The souls of survivors.  The souls of colonized people.

It was the end of the colony.  Not because we put up a fight, but because the sun had officially set on the British Empire.  I was six years old.  Yet even after independence the vestiges of conquest lingered like the brown smoke from a brush fire on a hot, still day.  For example: stilted bungalows with wide, jutting verandahs and jaunty whitewashed shutters succumbing slowly to tropical decay or the penchant, among Belizean criols, for tea and biscuits in the afternoon.  Nothing says “I am colonized” quite like a black person in Central American eating tea and biscuits.  There were also the soldiers, buzzing about in harrier jets, loudly playing war games with dynamite in the Black Hills, and occasionally impregnating the local beauties while keeping our menacing neighbor Guatemala at bay.  We spoke the Queen’s English.  We measured distance in miles.  We sang God save the keeping-an-eye-on-it-all -herself Queen Elizabeth, who stared out with a Mona Lisa smile from every pink, green or purple bill that we were lucky enough to get our hands on.
But for me, the most important colonial trapping was the British Forces Broadcasting Service.  BFBS, my link to the world.  Broadcasting beautiful, British voices clear across the Atlantic Ocean.  Accomplishing in seconds what it took the Conquistadors decades to achieve: transatlantic mind control.  I was hooked on the soothing nasal tones of Simon Guettier as he played all the biggest Brit pop hits.  Yaz and the Plastic Population, Rick Astley, Duran Duran.

And then there was the news.  Music was an escape, but the news brought it all, good and bad, into the small, humble shack that we called home.  In the evening, as we sipped piping hot lemon grass flavored with raw cane sugar and powdered milk (when we had it) we listened to the BBC world news.  As darkness and the fierce cacophony of insects and animals rose from the jungle outside, I was transported into the larger world of politics, economics and law.  Because my father took the news seriously we all took it seriously, listening intently to the events of the day in London, Buenos Aires, New York, New Delhi and South Africa.
Of all the news stories, the one that carried me furthest was the one about the prisoner.  His name was Nelson Mandela and he had already been in prison for nearly twice as long as I had been living.  Why would anyone put a man in prison for so long?  What terrible thing had he done?  My sense of justice was only just forming.  My father helped shape it as he railed up against the “European” oppressors in South Africa who were afraid of the voice of the people who were native to the lands.  If it is their land, why should other people tell them what to do?

As I grew older, I began to understand the situation more.  I realized that Nelson Mandela stood for freedom - not just for the people of South Africa but for anyone who knew oppression.  And I felt oppressed.  By then, Belize was an independent nation, but it was hard to tell.  The soldiers, the radio, the Queen staring up from the five dollar bill:  by the mid-1980s we were still a colonized people.   Meanwhile, news of Mandela kept coming, even when the small battery powered radio required tin foil to be wrapped around the broken antennas to transmit a semi-clear signal.  Mandela was sent to a small, remote island.  Protests broke out.  The government cracked down.  Soon, even Simon Guettier was involved.  He played Stevie Wonder’s “I just called to say I love” on his show.  I love you, Nelson Mandela, because you are fighting for us all. 

In the year I am preparing to leave Belize, things are changing.   It is spring in the Toledo valley, rainforest trees blossom and the thirsty clay soil cracks like a jigsaw puzzle in the heat.  From the hill where we live, I can see the great blue of the ocean twenty miles way.  I cannot see England.  I cannot see South Africa.  I cannot see the United States of America.  And though I try, I cannot see freedom, either.  But I know that it is out there, somewhere, in the world.  I know it is out there because Nelson Mandela, from his prison cell, has told me so.


On February 11, 1990 Nelson Mandela is released from prison.  The event is big news, but no particular cause for celebration in the home of my mother’s parents, where I live in the United States after leaving Belize.  Alone in the quiet of my room that night, I listen to the crickets chirping in the damp Florida night and cry.  I long for lemon grass tea, the BBC news crackling over the radio accompanied by my father’s grumbling commentary, and my little siblings.  Especially Rosie, who didn’t really care for the news anyway.  Nelson Mandela is free and so am I – yet why do I feel so alone? 

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