I recently made a terrible decision. I wanted to rid “unimportant” papers and scrap books off my bookshelf. There are a lot! I opened a folder and was greeted by an original A4 print I typed to propose the establishment of a Science Club at Mpaka high school when I was still its Head Prefect. I flipped through the papers; the receipt I was given by the Ministry of home affairs when I paid for my very first Identity Card and Travel Document, the drafts of letters my father and I wrote as affidavits for the South African embassy to grant me visas, the sketches of my then three years old niece in her genius attempts to write numbers and so on and so forth.
I paused. Deep breathe.
So many papers to rouse so many memories. And that’s just what I accumulated largely in Malawi and in Swaziland; I had not yet checked the folders containing ALL sticky notes, cards and letters that I received from my friends, my host family and well-wishers during the two years I lived in Germany.
These simple pieces of paper are all valuables to me. But, what’s the measure of a “value”? Perhaps the significance of a “thing” in a specified period of one’s life? What else do I have that wouldn’t be deemed valuable?
Two-third of my suitcase. For this I actually counted because I don’t own much!
One of my two towels is from 2010, and it was part of the donations that were given (if I remember correctly) by some Belgian students to the refugee children in Dzaleka Refugee Camp. By then I was almost thirteen. I also have a t-shirt dating back to the same donations.
Two of my t-shirts were bought in pairs: one for me, one for my twin friend Alberto. They both look like they are from the 11th century, but I cannot get rid of them. Not in my weirdest dreams.
When you have nothing, you treasure everything.
Before long, I was taken aback to my visit to the United Nations Headquarters in New York about two years ago. In the visitors’ lobby, there was an exhibition about refugees. The exhibition comprised mainly of three sections, one of which I want to highlight here. It was “The most Important Thing; Portraits of an escape” by photographer Brian Sokol. [I also talk about “Clouds Over Sidra”, one of the three sections, in Refuge-e: The Journey Much Desired.]
Asked about the most important valuable refugees fetch before fleeing, answers ranged from a picture (of a loved one), fishing nets, a cooking pot and so on.
A moment to reflect: When you have nothing, you treasure everything.
I don’t know exactly why I keep all the pieces of papers related to school or the government. Maybe it’s because when fleeing we had no chance to salvage any documents, and the resulting complications still haunt me.
But what about clothes? Many Good Samaritans have offered to take me shopping, I mostly declined saying, “I have enough.” My rags from the refugee camps follow me everywhere. They are my identity; my passport if you will.
My photo album captures the rare happy memories that sometimes I wish to forget. And so does every single piece of these clothes and notebooks and sticky notes. All of them are better than any items the capitalistic western societies can offer!
Now, unrelatedly, with a bit of knowledge about how most of the shopping malls are grounded on exploitation and distant cheap labor, I treasure what I have even more. It all makes me want to live simply – whatever that means!
I am privileged to have partly seen the worst and the best that humans can achieve. If you are young, upper-middle class growing up in a country like Canada, it is highly unlikely that you reflect on what you own. It is even odd to imagine that the thousands of dollars spent yearly accumulating materials that you often don’t need could perhaps sponsor tens of children’s education in a distant community, refugee camp or nation! But do you ever wonder, if you were to flee, what would be the one thing you would take with you?
For the youth in ghettos and refugee camps, and for me to a large extent, three things are a given: The present is compromised. The future is uncertain. The past, which we often want to forget, is the same past we carry through our present in hope that we can look back to it in the future with tangible evidence of having lived it. Our valuables are that past!
It takes me minor triggers to think of the inequality that exists; the poverty and suffering unknown to the “developed world,” and yes; the joy in vanity unknown to the less privileged souls in refugee camps and squatter settlements. It all only gets worse. What can I say?