‘Mr. Mark, You were lost and now you are found again. You have lost your colour too, which is not good. But you are fat and that is good’
Yes we are back in Gulu after a few weeks in the UK. What was it like to return to the West? In a word; cold, in two words: very cold. Snow, rain, biting wind and damp that gets into your bones; all the usual glories of an English winter. But, old friends wanted to know, what is like over there? Representing your experience of one very different country to another is difficult. Cognitive dissonance, the impossibility of holding two contradictory views in the mind at once.
I had forgotten the omnipresence of the past in the west, not just in the age profile either (so different to Uganda where the average age is about 15). Old buildings (once ‘modern’ styles referencing an ancient past) up against the glazed and reflective new.
Wolf Hall on the TV. Or, how to explain to Ugandans the roomful of over life sized naked men and women that we visited? The newly refurbished cast room in The Victoria and Albert Museum, Victorian plaster casts of famous (mostly but not entirely) Italian Renaissance statues; art that reworks an imagined Classical past.
Reworking the past is such a common western habit. In an African land without a surviving tradition of image making and a spoken culture in which conflict has wiped out much of the aural experience of the past, maybe you don’t want to remember what has happened anyway. Or maybe the past is a luxury denied the poor? I have always found it odd that in East Africa, near to the Rift Valley where mankind began, everything still feels so temporary and transient. There is none of the co-existence of recent and deep past with the self consciously present and projected future that characterises the west, or maybe that’s just wealthy London.
What was it really like at home? In three words: very ****ing cold.
Just before we left I tried to explain real cold to a colleague, how being cold hurts, the many heavy clothes you have to wear.
‘So, you have fires in your house?’
How to explain central heating?
‘So, Mr Mark you have a big metal tank screwed to the wall and it keeps the room warm by pumping hot water through it?’
I could see that my colleague didn’t believe a word. The impossibility of holding the concept of cold in forty degree heat.
‘It’s all about edges’
My father said (also an artist and teacher), as we were discussing some of my unsuccessful attempts to draw African landscapes using western art techniques.
‘And edges are the very devil’
I think he is right, trying to represent one place to another means finding your way through the edges, boundaries and cracks that make the task almost impossible.
We returned to a desiccated Gulu deep in the dry season, our house thick with fine dust covering every surface, creeping through every crack.
Wiping away layer after layer, perhaps influenced by the overt Christianity that also permeates everything here (so unlike the West), I thought, perhaps we are all the same underneath: ‘from dust we come and to dust shall we return’.
Or was that just too clever, not edgy enough?