It is sometimes easy to forget the history that lies within the places that surround you. For instance, when I drive through the streets of downtown Winnipeg, I seldom take the time to remember my Great Grandfather and the thousands of other immigrant workers that marched through the same streets in the 1919 General Strike. In a similar vein, the historical significance of Citadel Hill is often forgotten when I am sledding down it at full speed on one of Dalhousie’s many snow days. And I never stop to wonder why the statues that my university friends and I stumble past after a long night in downtown Halifax are all of British colonial officers and not of Mi’kmaq leaders.
More, it is even easier to neglect how history informs the realities of your day to day life. The Winnipeg General Strike, for example, was an intellectual breeding ground for the Canadian left – as a result, the Strike laid the foundation for the labour reforms and workers unions that many Canadians enjoy today. In the 1700s Citadel Hill was an extremely strategic fort for the British. Without it Nova Scotia, and all of Canada for that matter, might not exist today. And it is no coincidence that as my university friends and I stumble around the colonial statues we also stumble past Mi’kmaq people living on the streets.
The examples above illustrate a little theory I have. My theory is that Canadians have developed a bad habit of forgetting how their history shapes the way they experience reality. As a result, I think we tend to take for granted the important role that past generations of Canadians play in our everyday life. At least I sure do. Hegel makes a very similar argument about the important role that history plays in shaping human behavior. For Hegel, human subjectivity (or agency) is comprised of three things: (1) our self; (2) our self-perception (no matter how inaccurate it might be); and (3) our historical circumstances. Interesting as the first two elements of human subjectivity are, it is the third element that gets Hegel really excited. I can picture him jumping out of his lederhosen as we speak.
Hegel says that history shapes everything about who we are. It shapes how we behave, how we react to situations, and our possibilities for the future. Hegel believes that the vehicle that history uses to shape us something called historical Institutions. Historical institutions (family, for example) act as a connecter between us and our predecessors. Hmmm, I wonder if Momma’s Boy Eddy ever read Hegel. In more concrete terms, Hegel would say that it is no coincidence that I have left leaning political ideas (not too left though) and that my Great Grandfather marched in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Even though I never met my Great Grandfather, some of his values and experiences have been passed down to me through the historical institution of family. Thus, a part of me has been, in fact, created by history.
Although Hegel might provide some interesting ideas as to why we are connected to history, he does not do a good job of explaining why we tend to forget these connections so readily. Perhaps we disassociate ourselves with our past in the name of progress or maybe we are just lazy. I think it is more likely that we disassociate in order to hold onto a shred of individualism; to make ourselves feel special. Unfortunately, I fear that have taken the habit of historical disassociation along with me to Uganda. How Canadian of me. And just like a high school student at West Kildonan Collegiate who is addicted to cigarettes, this is a difficult habit to kick. After all, I’ve been doing it my whole life.
My little Hegelian epiphany hit me while I was riding a boda boda on Friday evening. My fellow Scholars and I were on our way back home from “Olympic Night” at the Euro-African Kampala Film Festival. The feature of the night was entitled “The John Akii Buh Story: An African Tragedy”. The film chronicled the spellbinding tale of John Akii Buh, a Ugandan man who shocked the world by winning an Olympic gold medal in the 400m hurtles at the 1972 Munich Games. Amazingly, Akii Buh managed to win Olympic Gold and smash the world record after only training seriously for a couple of years. Unfortunately, tyranny deprived Akii Buh of reaching his full athletic potential in the years following his historical performance.
The movie goes on to show Uganda’s descent into genocide and civil war under Idi Amin’s iron clad dictatorship. Disturbing clips of mass executions and people fleeing gun fire on the streets of Kampala flashed across the screen as excerpts from Akii Buh’s memoirs were read by a narrator. Some of the actions carried out by Amin’s solders were so horrid that I would not let myself believe they occurred where I was sitting only a few years ago. In this case, I disassociated myself with history because I could not bear its proximity to my life in Kampala.
Although he was able to safely escape into Kenya and then to Germany, the horrors of Idi Amin’s reign over Uganda still impacted Akii Buh. He lost everything: most of his family, his friends, his country, and the sport that he was born to do – and all for reasons beyond his control.
Most elite athletes that I know have the luxury of making a conscious choice to retire from their sport, to move on with their lives in search of bigger and better things. Akii Buh, however, possessed no such freedom and that in and of itself is a tragedy. I am hardly an Olympic athlete so I cannot empathize with the plight of Akii Buh to the same degree that others can. However, I have had the privilege of training alongside some people who are competitive on the national and international stage, so I have a rough idea of the amount of dedication it takes to be the best in your sport. I also have a rough idea of how it must feel to have that sport indiscriminately torn away from you by the selfishness of a dictator. To take away sport is to deprive one of self-actualization – and by extension, to deprive one of life itself.
Canadian athletes that I have come in contact with (namely swimmers) tend to forget just how lucky they are to dive in a pool 9 times a week; to practice something they love more than anything without fear of it being snatched away. Once or twice a month my coach usually reminds me and my team mates of how privileged we are to be varsity athletes, but the message is quickly forgotten once he reviles the energy system for the upcoming practice. Let me tell you, swimmers on my team usually spend more time cursing the divine beings they believe in than thanking them. Unless you are a sprinter. Life is good if you are a sprinter.
If Akii Buh’s story taught me one thing, it is to cherish every metre of every practice that I get to swim, savior every stroke that I take (even if its fly), and relish in every second that I spend in a pool without fear of having to leave against my own will. It is my sincere hope that my fellow athletes at Dal, or anywhere for that matter, will take some time to remember just how blessed they are to have the freedom to do what they love.
Okay, where was I… oh right, boda. There I was, bumping along the streets of Kampala trying to digest the images of genocide and civil war that entered my mind a few minutes ago. My Canadian side had completely taken over by this point so I was already trying to find ways to dissociate my reality with the history that created it.
And then we passed right in front of the Ugandan Parliament Building.
I was immediately overcome with emotion; a mixture of: anger, fear, and shear disbelief. Just a few minutes ago I watched actual footage of people shot dead in front of the very same building while they were chased by machine guns. During the movie I convinced myself that I was far away from the unspeakable acts carried out in Uganda just a few years ago, but as I rode past the Parliament building there was no denying it. The ugly face of history was looking me right in the eye for the past six weeks and I was incapable of realizing it until that moment.
Everything clicked as I continued towards my apartment – that is, once I came to terms with the history embedded in Kampala’s streets. The people on the side of the road weren’t poor because they were African (contrary to popular belief); they were poor because selfish dictators stole everything from their families. Because it was not enough for Idi Amin to steal one generation so he had to take two or three more with him; because Amin’s military government was propped up by ‘developed’ countries who only withdrew their support after countless people lost their lives.
In sum, my Hegelian epiphany allowed me to register that the past, not the present created the Uganda that I see every day. So when Westerners look at Uganda and wonder why there is poverty, hyperinflation, or political instability, they should not look at CNN or BBC for the answer. Rather, they should look at the history books. That said, the fact that Ugandans remain positive, hopeful, steadfast, and innovative is a testament to their resilience in the face of adversity. I know that I would not be able to accomplish what so many Ugandans have if my history was stolen from me. I also know that Canada would not be half the place it is now without the history most of us were lucky enough to have.
So, my fellow Canadians: let’s kick our habit of historical disassociation. It will not be easy, but once we do perhaps we will be able to understand ourselves and those in faraway places just a little bit better.
p.s. It is high time for another Q & A blog. Please submit your questions via the comments section below, facebook message, email, or just turn East and yell really loud.