I always checked the mailbox on Thursday afternoons when I came home from school because that’s when Sports Illustrated showed up, and each week I scoured it. I’d lie down on the floor of my bedroom and systemically work through the entire magazine. Rick Reilly’s column on the last page was always first, then the articles, then smaller features. I even went through the advertisements for pictures of athletes I could put up on the walls of my bedroom.
Probably around the time I was sixteen, I came across this Nike spot with Barry Sanders. It immediately went up on my wall.
I kept it with me through college, made photocopies for my students when I taught, and I still have the original taped up next to my bed even now.
I love the ad because it is a call to action. It encourages us, as I said in an earlier post, to attach a purpose to our lives. It is not enough to live. We must extract some meaning from the lives we lead rather than simply getting from one day to the next. I’m not necessarily talking about sweeping, Meaning-of-Life conclusions, although they’re good too. Sometimes it’s about the little things, those small things that we forget too soon after they happen or don’t even bother to remember at all. This is an idea that Rick Reilly, that SI writer from the back page, conveyed in a column over ten years ago.
Life is about finding your own meaning, your own happiness, and pursuing it passionately. It is about living your life, not necessarily the life others—your boss, your parents, society at large—are telling you needs to be lived.
When I made the decision to spend last summer working in the Ugandan courts, some of the people I told were concerned with the decision. Their questions suggested that by walking a less traveled path, I was hurting my professional prospects and that I would be better served by working in the legal system in the States. Some friends and acquaintances said things like, “At least it will be a good line on your resume.” At the time, I agreed with them.
What sticks with me now wasn’t that these people were averse to me traveling to Africa. Rather, it seemed that they were averse to the idea of a person bucking convention. That the decision to leave a good job as a teacher and head to law school was an indication that I was beginning to take life seriously, and working in Uganda wasn’t consistent with that mentality.
To me, however, I was taking living seriously. I had dreamed for a long time about going to Africa. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, and I didn’t have a particularly clear reason why—just that I wanted to go. So from the moment I first heard about the opportunity during the first day of law school orientation, I decided I would not let it pass.
Matemwe is a small fishing village on the far side of Zanzibar just off the coast of Tanzania. At the end of my summer in Uganda, I spent three days there, intent on decompressing from my time in Africa, trying to put the experience in perspective. During my stay at Keys Bungalows, I didn’t look at a clock, use a cell phone, or put on shoes. I occupied the space between my bungalow, the bar and restaurant looking out over the Indian Ocean, and the beach.
There is little tourism in Matemwe, and fishing drives the economy. The fishing fleet—comprised exclusively of old, wood trimarans—is seaworthy but not luxurious. They anchor between the beach and the breakwater about 50 meters offshore, and the fishermen can walk through the coral to the boats when it is time for the fleet to leave. Because the winds off the Indian Ocean constantly howl, the breakwater is long, running parallel to the coast for nearly a kilometer before opening to the sea. This protects the fleet when it is at anchor, but restricts it as well. At low tide the breakwater serves as a barrier, and it is only when the tide rises that the fleet can get in and out of harbor. For that reason, the fisherman’s working day is dictated by the rise and fall of the tides corresponding with the moon. The result is a rush hour at high tide, with dozens of boats setting sail to head for the fishing grounds at once.
With the fisherman gone for the day, the women wade out into the pool formed by the breakwater to harvest seaweed and calamari among the coral. Submerged paths of white sand weave safely through the jagged coral and sea urchins to the harvesting grounds.
Along the beach, young teenagers set up sticks as goalposts and a ball of wound yarn, fishnet, and rope serves as a mostly spherical soccer ball. Younger boys race homemade toy sailboats in ankle deep water, learning the lessons of the wind they will need when they become fisherman, and little girls sift through the sand looking for shells to sell to tourists.
Upon the return of the fleet, the market at Matemwe bustles, but some fisherman choose to conduct business face to face in the few restaurants along the beach. Late one the afternoon, I looked up from my book as a fisherman carrying an octopus walked up the steps into the bar. Hanging at his side as he approached Simba, the cook at Keys, the octopus’s long tentacles dragged across the sandy planks of wood. As Simba and the fisherman finished negotiating the price of the octopus, I moved to a hammock to continue the book. It was Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Moments later with the sun dropping behind the east-facing beach, a rhythmic thwack rose above the sound of the wind and interrupted my reading.
Thwack, thwack, thwack.
I looked out in front of Keys Bungalows onto the beach where a young boy was sitting on his knees, swinging a meter-long stick in a sweeping motion over his head before accelerating it down, hard toward something on the sand in front of him. He was wearing a dirty shirt and jeans that were cut below the knee. In this way, he looked a bit like a pirate, but Country Man, another worker at Keys, told me he was a “beach boy,” one of the many young children who wander up and down the beach looking for ways to earn money. Country Man sometimes would send him to pick up cigarettes from the store or buy fruit at the market and pay him a delivery fee.
Simba had hired the boy to help him prepare the night’s meal, specifically, soften the octopus. Because the octopus was fresh, it needed to be tenderized before he cooked it. For this work—a ten-minute session of repeated clubbing—the boy was paid 500 shillings, about 50 cents.
A bit down the beach and closer to the shoreline, black sea birds fought against the offshore wind, working their wings without progressing before diving back to the sand. On ground they summoned more energy to hop back up into the wind and repeat the process. My thoughts wandered from the curious behavior of the birds—an endeavor that seemed to expend energy without any apparent benefit—to my work in Uganda and the safari in Tanzania. I had come to Zanzibar to make sense of my experience, but placing the past two months in a proper context was something that could wait, so I returned to the book.
The Alchemist is a story about a boy called Santiago. He is told that it is “the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” But it is not enough to have dreams. After all, we’ve all had dreams. Santiago is told that when a person is young, “they are not afraid to dream and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend.”
But that is just the story’s beginning.
Later that evening over a plate of fresh grilled octopus, Simba asked about the book I and I explained to him that it is about a boy pursuing his Personal Legend, the purpose for which each of us was put on the earth.
I tell him the octopus is delicious and ask Simba if he has a Personal Legend. From the other side of the bar, he takes a long draw on his cigarette and contemplates the question.
“To make people happy,” he says finally, exhaling the smoke. “Hakuna matata.”
He laughed at the sound of his native Swahili and I took another bite of octopus.