Looking Back, Series

Looking Back: Constancy

By Nick Twinamatsiko, Uganda:

We owe a great deal to constancy. Exploration would have been impossible or futile if the geographical features had changed location with time – if John Speke, on returning to Mwanza, had found that the vast lake he had seen months before and christened Victoria had relocated, perhaps to West Africa. It would be meaningless to teach Biology if there was no constancy to the basic shapes and characteristics of plants and animals. And if there was no constancy to planetary orbits, if different days had different durations and we sometimes went 30 hours without seeing the sun set, our clocks would be quite useless.

Every organism has its unique sound from which it doesn't vary, and in the earliest childhood, I learnt the bleat of a goat, the mew of a cat, the bark of a dog, the quack of a duck and the drone of a bee. The landforms are fixed in position, and every morning when I toddled out of the house, I found Kisana, the towering hill of the village, standing in its place. It was the same with the playfield at the foot of Kisana, and the swamp, and the vast sandpits, and the woods that straddled the River Rwizi. If, one morning, I had found that the great hill was no more, or that it had swapped positions with the woods, I doubt my sanity would have survived the sight. We owe our mental stability to the stability of Nature. Kisana was in its place every morning, casting down on the village a superior, inscrutable look, and communicating to me the idea that if I stood on its summit, I could touch the sky.

Men and other animals pattern their routines on the cyclic processes of Nature, and I learnt early in life that different periods of the day have corresponding characteristic sounds. Morning had its sounds, afternoon had its sounds and twilight had its sounds. Our home was adjacent to the village feeder road and was surrounded by several trees, and I invariably awoke to the sounds of birds singing, cocks crowing, herdsmen whistling, their rods cracking against cows, the cows mooing or galloping, and the early traveller hollering out greetings to my uncle, who would be whetting his machete against the stone in his compound. Afternoon was marked by the clamor of school pupils hurrying from school or reluctantly going back. And at twilight, it would again be whistles of herdsmen and the moos of cows; then the croaks of frogs in the swamp and the rambling drivel of drunkards on the road as the stars decorated the sky. Finally, as I lay on bed, I heard the unfathomable hisses and hums of the outdoor night that would have been fodder for fear if my parents hadn't been close by.

Every Friday was a market day, and there would be long streams of people on the road, bearing all manner of merchandise: pineapples, sugar cane, paw paws, passion fruits, oranges, tangerines, tomatoes, sweet bananas, and so forth. I knew the taste of each of these items, as well as of the other fruits, such as mangoes and avocadoes, that nobody sold because almost everybody had the trees in their compound. A paw paw never tasted like a passion fruit, or vice versa. Each fruit had a distinctive flavor, and whether the passion fruits were picked from our own garden or purchased off traders that came from Shema, they tasted the same – just as Fridays always smelled the same, thanks in part to the aroma of the soft pan cakes wrapped in banana leaves that were borne by some of the people going to the market.

The planets maintained their courses and speeds and so made it worthwhile to learn to read the clock. The landforms and water bodies maintained their positions and so made it easy for me to learn the geography of the village. The men and the animals patterned their own routines on the patterns of Nature, and followed these routines so consistently that it was possible to predict the sounds of different times of the day or the smell of Friday or the fact that December was the month of roasting maize cobs.

Acquainted with the characteristics of different animals and fruits and plants, and with the behaviors of planets, and with the immovability of Kisana, I was on the path of Science long before I stepped in a classroom. But when I did step in a classroom, it was assumed that I knew nothing, that knowledge begins with the alphabet. It was the legacy of colonialism.

As for Kisana, it had seen Chwezi come and go; it had seen the Mzungu come and go; and three hundred years from now, it will probably look down on my grave, and think: “I knew him when he was a toddler. I have seen him check on me every time he emerged from sleep. His current sleep is a strange one since it has gone on and on, but if ever he emerges from it, he will find me here, still standing in my place.”

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