A Letter to My Sons: Eternal Good Evenings

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

There’s a jazz band in the hotel garden with a heavy bass that’s shaking the table as I write to you, my cold Nile Special beer sweltering in the evening heat. I’ve been here nearly three weeks and just checked in to my flight, a long journey back home starting tomorrow night. My first trip to Uganda was exhausting but productive, and while the report I write with my colleagues will be completed by the end of next month, I will have more lasting memories of the places I visited and the people I met.

I was reminded early in my journey that a formal greeting to a friend or stranger is commonplace, if not expected; one always finds the time to say good morning, good afternoon, or good evening. You are expected to wait for the response, and only then can the conversation properly continue. It’s something I hadn’t experienced in a long time, not since my days living in Ghana, and it was a pleasant reminder that simple courtesies matter. It slows down the pace. It gives you time to smile to the person you’re talking with. A few times in our journey across the country we were lost, looking for a guesthouse, a school or a district office. To stop someone by the side of the road and ask for directions would never be as curt as “Excuse me, where is the Golden Courts Guesthouse?” No. “Good evening,” our driver would say. “Good evening,” the response from a man by the side of the road, approaching us as our driver rolled down his window. And then the discussion, go down this road, turn left, take the first exit at the roundabout. In some cases, when the roads were windy or circuitous, the person we’d ask directions from would hop on his boda boda and personally escort us to our destination.

The band is now playing an instrumental of “Isn’t She Lovely.” The temperature has cooled now that the sun’s down, the patrons in the hotel’s garden area are sitting at their tables with friends, sipping their juice cocktails or Nile beers, the occasional lonely traveller like me typing away on an Excel spreadsheet or something that looks just as boring.

Last week I had the opportunity to meet students, many of them your age, who have benefited from a scholarship program that helps them throughout high school. All were happy to have received their scholarship, most of whom told me that without it, they might not have gone to secondary school. Can you imagine stopping school back when you were 11 or 12? Many of them come from small villages not unlike the ones we passed by as we drove across the country. Let me tell you what I saw.

Driving on the main road up to Arua near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, you get a sobering sense of the toll that drought has taken on the population. Without rain for months, the landscape is scorched yellow as far as you can see. A spattering of dried patches of grass become congregation areas for emaciated goats and cows chewing on meager offerings amidst a scenery blotted with used plastic bags: black, blue, transparent, they are omnipresent, on the ground, stuck in trees, half-burned, in ditches, by the side of the road. It’s as disgusting as it is sorrowful. Massive tree trunks add to the desolation, ancient trees once tremendous and hallowed sit crippled by the side of the road, cut down by villagers, their stumps jutting out of the ground, robbed of most of their branches used for firewood to heat up what would likely be a family’s only meal of the day. You see some men walking by the side of the road, most of their shirts a dull red brown that could have been white a long time ago. You look to your left and see boys playing in a ditch with a stick, shoeless, half-naked and crusted with dirt. Dozens of girls walk on either side of the road, barefoot for the most part, clothed in filthy tattered dresses shredded with time; you know it’s probably the only thing they own. Each girl is holding a yellow plastic jerrycan in her hands if she’s going towards the borehole to fetch water, or on her head if she’s making her way home, a balancing act she masters for a few hundred metres, a kilometre or two, or more. The brightest spots are the school uniforms worn by students on their way back from school; sometimes a bright purple, other times canary yellow. They walk together for the most part, taking up both sides of the road, a blaze of solid colours to spare me from the arid landscape. They seem to go on forever, until finally, a few kilometres ahead, we pass by the school, and see just as many students walking home in the other direction. I try to calculate how long some of them likely walk to get to school, and the best estimate I come up with is anywhere from a few minutes to three hours. And they do this every school day, twice a day. To sit in a classroom with on crappy chairs, to share a text book if they’re lucky, to listen to a teacher whose only resource might be a lousy piece of chalk that scribbles on a bumpy chalkboard that might have been black a long time ago but is now faded.

I think of the lives of children your age who grow up in these villages and I want to dismiss the urge to feel pity. Theirs is a resilience that is admirable. Living a day in their shoes, I suspect most teenagers you know would cower in desperation. It is a life nearly bereft of opportunities, but not, I would hope, of dreams. Unfortunately, even for those who complete their secondary education, their options are limited, and should they find gainful employment, their obligations to support family members will dwindle any savings away. It is a life of obligations, a life of duty and responsibility to family, a life guided as much by a parent’s decisions as an unquestionable and unwavering faith in God.

Having met some children from places not unlike what I’ve described, the reality is that they are no different from you. They stress about exams at school, they act silly in the absence of any adult, and they laugh at my corny jokes probably more out of respect than humour. Like you, they have dreams of who they want to be when they grow up; doctors, lawyers, engineers and nurses. I can’t say that I admire them, because their lives are not nearly as easy as ours, but I am thankful for such trips because they remind me of the respect that others in less fortunate circumstances deeply deserve. It’s a respect that helps me listen to their stories with rapt attention. One boy your age took his savings to buy a goat to help his family. One girl a little older than you used her savings to pay the school fees of a younger girl in her village who otherwise would not have access to primary school. A group of boys your age donated a dollar a month of their precious pocket money to help another student in need. No one obliged them to do these things; they are acts of kindness, acts that reflect their upbringing which reminds them to help others – “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

As I spend my last day on a continent I called home for four years, I down my now-warm beer and head back to my hotel room. The security guard near the elevator looks up from her Bible as I approach. She stands and presses the button to summon the elevator. “Good evening,” she tells me with a smile. “Good evening,” I reply. I notice my own smile reflected in the mirror as I step into the elevator.

Je vous aime, les boys,


A Letter to My Sons: Clowning Around

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

I’m sitting in a restaurant by the beach. The orange glow of the sun is fading and poised to sink into the Mediterranean. A few moments ago there were a couple of kites shaped like snakes flying high in the breeze above the laughter and screams of joy from children splashing in the sea. The music is playing, couples are taking photos of each other next to the sunset. Many of the women are smoking their shisha pipes, something that wouldn’t be considered appropriate just a short distance away on the other side of the street. The mood could only be described as festive. There’s even a man dressed in a saggy dog costume with a Santa hat on his head hugging children and having their parents take pictures.

This place could be any seaside restaurant, but it isn’t. For those who come here, it’s a refuge from the reality on the other side of the restaurant’s walls. The roads are filthy and in disrepair, trampled upon by scraggy donkeys pulling wooden carts and sad-looking battered cars with broken mirrors, dented fenders, and hanging exhaust pipes. The shops that were open when I drove into Gaza City earlier today sold a smattering of dust-covered cheap toys and clothes imported from China – Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob, and Spider-Man are on countless schoolbags, sandals, and t-shirts at every street corner. The occasional dirt-covered shop window yields a passing glimpse of the promise of a better future: delicately embroidered wedding gowns hugging old mannequins. Posters of gun-toting men at every roundabout are a severe reminder that any foreseeable future is likely to be guided by violence.

Go ahead, make a change in someone’s life, even if it’s only a smile.

I want to believe that the conditions most people are suffering through in Gaza are not the result of their own actions. I want to believe that their poverty is not a consequence of their hatred but of longstanding circumstances shaped by people in power on all sides of the conflict. The average Gazans sitting next to me at these tables tonight are happy; they are enjoying each other’s company as they sit with friends and family under a warm summer evening sky. They are like other Gazans I have met in past journeys: their conversations are lively and spirited, their smiles genuine. The only really mean looking people I’ve ever seen were the guys on the posters holding guns up to the sky.

I asked a friend of mine the other day whether or not he thought there would be peace in Palestine during his lifetime. He didn’t hesitate to say no. Having worked with people here for many years, I unfortunately agree with him. However, my fatalism should never be an excuse not to attempt to create a change that can make things better, at least a little bit. 

A clown just showed up honking a horn and being chased by a group of young children. He’s got the right idea, that clown.

Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam, Daddy

A letter to my son (the original)

A letter written when my first born was two days old:
October 7, 2000

My Dearest Alexandre,

I love you with all my heart, and this love will grow with each passing day, each precious moment. You’ll create your own special moments, Alexandre, but promise me you’ll do the following:

  • Travel across Canada by road and admire the beauty your country offers you, from the twisting roads of Cape Breton, to the serene beauty of the Great Lakes, to the glorious vastness of the Prairies, to the magnificence of the Rockies, to the lush countryside of the West, and the eclectic and diverse buzz of your hometown Montreal;
  • Seek out new friends in the above travels, appreciate and celebrate your differences and similarities;
  • Chase little crabs on the beach in Martinique;
  • Take a trip through the Green Mountains in Vermont;
  • Swim in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, not to mention the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas;
  • Marvel from a plane at Mount Sinai and Mount Kilimanjaro;
  • Go through a rain forest and cloud forest in Costa Rica;
  • Buy expensive bottled water at a street cafe in Holland;
  • Gamble in Las Vegas (but just a little);
  • Kayak in the Pacific, white water raft down the Zambezi;
  • Drive through the streets of Tete, Mozambique, and be thankful that the streets are now paved and no longer bombed from civil war;
  • Give money to a guy on the street who looks like he needs it;
  • Visit my father’s grave and tell him you love him even though he’s never met you;
  • Go on safari in Africa as often as possible and admire the planet’s most beautiful creatures while they’re still there;
  • Go to Area 51 and search for aliens;
  • Paint a picture of something you love;
  • Have the courage to go to Malawi and say “Zonse zili bwino” to those in need – you will see many;
  • Go to the villages of Saag-balong, Woribo Kukuo, and Yipelnaayi and see if girls and women play significant, recognized roles in their communities;
  • Climb Mount Washington, Mount Marcy, and Mount Mulanje (but not in the same day);
  • Bobsled in Lake Placid;
  • Go through the Chunnel in a high-speed train;
  • Try to waterski better than your father;
  • Take a ferry from Italy to Greece;
  • Walk through the streets of Arusha, Tanzania, knowing that thousands of refugees from Zaire fled there to safety and that tens of thousands sought refuge there from killings in Rwanda;
  • Forget about the bad things people say about you, remember the good;
  • Have scotch and a cigar with a friend (but not for a while, son);
  • Walk the streets of New York City, but don’t get shot at;
  • Walk to the rim of a crater in Central America;
  • Ride a train through Europe;
  • Dream to be an astronomer, a pilot, a fireman, a voice for social change in the world;
  • Travel to the Olduvai Gorge and view the birthplace of humankind;
  • See the Grand Canyon;
  • Go to Zanzibar and marvel at its beauty and meet its people;
  • Walk into the slave forts along the coast of Ghana and reflect on how evil and wicked people can be;
  • Write a play and direct it and star in it;
  • See the giant redwoods in California, and look up in awe at trees over 260 feet tall;
  • Scare yourself to death by trekking on the canopy walk in Cape Coast;
  • Make money and spend money, but remember that love is more important;
  • Eat peanut butter every day;
  • Appreciate Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future and strive towards it;
  • Go camping whenever you can;
  • Save a pigeon and nurse him to health in your toy box;
  • Dance, no matter how goofy you look;
  • Love your parents as much as we love you, and
  • Strive to make a difference in your life, the lives of the ones you love, and even strangers’ lives each and every day of your life. You’ll sleep better at night.
All my love,