Campbell Corner Essay Prize
OF MUD & MAGIC
The first time I saw the little man, it
was the rainy season. The dusty road leading
from the Kawangware Market to the bus
stop had turned into a morass of viscous,
endless mud. He was navigating it carefully,
his tiny body and misshapen legs no match
for the slippery muck.
He was a dark chocolate brown, a tangle
of mismatched parts. The fact that he
could walk at all was a miracle. Severely
crippled, his legs bent and splayed like
green twigs under the weight of his thin
trunk. His arms seemed too long; his head
seemed too large. He was trailed by a
gaggle of children who were staring and
nudging each other, twittering like sparrows.
I knew they would follow him all the way
to the bus stop, just as they followed
me every day, singing out “How ah you?
How ah you?” They seemed more fascinated
than repelled by him, and indeed he smiled
at them as he struggled toward the road.
I was a recent arrival in Africa, but
I had been there long enough to figure
out that it was an “in your face” place.
The colors, the smells, the crush of bodies,
the noise, the daily struggle to get from
one place to another, to buy food, to
live, all conspired to keep you alert.
It was intensely fascinating, warm and
welcoming; it was intensely mysterious;
it was intensely cruel.
I was still reeling from the shock of
arriving in this slum and realizing that
it would be “home” for an indefinite time.
The sounds of women screaming kept me
awake at night. The drunk prostitutes
that lived nearby often fought in the
street below, splashing blood and spit
and mucus on the walls. The men from the
bar peed in the hall I had to walk through
to get to the road. I now knew every Chaka
Chaka song ever written because the juke
box played her music from 6 a.m. until
midnight. My dreams mirrored the bombardment
of the days, and I felt tired, inside
and out. I was sitting on a sea of squelched
emotion, and the minute I saw the little
man, tears sprang to my eyes. I watched
for a moment, then looked away, hating
the staring children, hating the pain,
hating myself for hating. I kept my eyes
on the puddles and walked the last few
yards to my room above the local bar.
In the days that followed, I couldn’t
shake the image of that small crippled
body. I was filled with sadness thinking
of what he must have endured as a child,
the taunting, the abandonment. Who looked
after him now? Where was his tribe, his
community? Was there anyone who saw beyond
My mind wandered back to a time several
years before when I had lived in a small
West Texas town. There was an unforgettable
dog (should I say “dawg”?) that lived
in my neighborhood. He was a mangy, dirty
white mutt who was missing his right hind
leg. In spite of that, his walk always
looked jaunty and confident. The interesting
thing was that he seemed to be the King
of the Doggies. I often saw a retinue
of healthier, more well-bred animals following
him. There was never any sign of an owner,
and his air of freedom was palpable. He
had a curious dignity, a sense of self
that totally defied appearance.
This sense of self was the quality shared
by the little man and the little dog.
Even at that first sighting, with the
children, the mud, with the general nastiness
of the scene, he seemed dignified. He
appeared neither victimized nor angry.
He looked at the children with something
almost like love. I was reminded of the
D.H. Lawrence poem,
I never saw a wild
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
Several months passed before I saw him
again, but hardly a week went by that
I didn’t think about him. He came to symbolize
Africa for me, in all its pain, with all
its resilience and courage. As I slowly
adjusted, I saw even more clearly how
crippled it was, yet how profoundly intact
was its sense of identity. My own inner
dialogue was filled with contradictions.
On the one hand, I experienced an instantaneous
love for Africa; on the other, a constant
revulsion at the cruelty and waste and
inhumanity of life there. Every day included
a new experience of suffering and helpless
pity at others’ fates. Pity fought it
out with a deeper compassion that accepts
what is, seeks transformation, sees beyond
the moment. I wanted to be useful, and
I resented the black hole that swallowed
up all attempts to put something lasting
in place. I was struggling with my own
sense of vocation, and Africa made me
question the value of what I was doing.
Yet even as I struggled, I fell more and
more under its spell. I loved the profound
generosity and beauty and warmth that
infused even the smallest encounters.
I loved the smell of clean-washed clothes
in the tightly packed mini-van to town.
I loved the sunrise and the sunset.
These inner contradictions produced a
state of quiet rage. A chorus in my head
taunted me, reminding me that I never
wanted to come here, saying that I had
been involved in this type of work too
long, pointing out that I was tired. I
was having visions of moving to some quiet
little town, buying a quiet little house
and being sort of a global Miss Marple.
I spent my days feeling inadequate and
bereft of vision.
The pain was not simply for myself. I
grieved for a place that seemed full of
situations that all the good will in the
world wouldn’t change. All the aid money,
all the imagination, all the hard work
seemed destined to go to dust in the relentless
corruption and failure of services that
mark Africa. I was weeping over Jerusalem.
I was weeping for myself. I was wishing
I could make another decision about my
life’s work. Yet if someone had given
me the opportunity to leave, I wouldn’t
have done it. Why? There is no single
answer. Terrified of confronting this
tangle of emotions, I stayed busy, appeared
content and hoped it would pass. So it
was that the little man’s crippledness
mirrored not only that of Africa, but
also my own deep lack of wholeness.
I was hurrying down the road to catch
the bus. The rains had passed and now
it was dusty again, crammed with people
selling peanuts and going to market or
to town, littered with garbage, the open
ditches plied by chickens and goats who
mysteriously disappeared each night and
reappeared at dawn. I was running, angry
at having to do an unexpected chore in
the middle of a tightly packed day. I
almost ran over him.
He looked at me, grinned and stuck out
his hand. I smiled back. We looked like
two old friends. He asked me how I was,
and I said, “Fine. How are you?” He asked
how long I had been living in Kawangware,
and I said five months. Then he said,
“I’ve never seen you before”, and we smiled
again. He asked where I was going, and
I told him I had to go pick up the watoto.
“Ah”, he said, “the children.” Our hands
unclasped and we waved good-bye. I never
saw him again.
It was a sacred encounter, a moment in
which the world stops and an alternative
reality intrudes. I knew it even then,
and in the years since, it has taken on
the power of personal myth. It was not
merely the reconciliation of obvious opposites---two
cultures; a tall, white, educated, privileged
woman and a small, dark, crippled, illiterate
man; one who chose to live in this wretched
place because she wanted to “do good”
and one who had no choice. It also reconciled
the inner adversaries that battled for
There is a wonderful story about Krishna’s
mother coming to clear his mouth of mud
that he has been eating. When he opens
his mouth, she suddenly sees the universe
inside him---all his gods and demons,
good and evil, heaven and hell. Since
she would not be able to handle such a
spectacle, he erases it from her memory.
There is a photo in my mind’s eye of myself
and the little man, standing in the middle
of the dusty road, holding hands, and
I have suddenly become aware of the universe
within. It’s a wild place, full of polarities.
Like Krishna’s mother, I seek forgetfulness.
Unlike her, I do not find it, and suddenly,
I am confronted by one small, crippled
man who, for no good reason, is infused
with spirit and wonder, and I see.
I see my freedom. It stares me in the
face and says, “What you do with your
life is not dependent on anyone else’s
truth.” Doing good, living a life of service
has no moral justification, no inherent
value. It’s simply a choice. But, I say,
I want to “make a difference”. Freedom
answers: There are other ways. Okay, I
admit it, I want to feel loved and appreciated.
Freedom says: Well, that might be easier
someplace else. As I wrestle with this,
Freedom patiently waits, then says to
me, “So now, what will you choose?”
In that void, I was given back a sense
of liberty that I had given away. I was
offered awareness and a chance to make
a new decision, wholly new. I could leave;
I could stay. I could continue; I could
quit. Any choice was valid. I saw too
clearly the prison I had created for myself,
and it had nothing to do with Africa or
poverty or futility of effort. It was
made of anger and self-pity. It arose
from oughts and shoulds and stale morality.
The prison lay in the abandonment of my
own freedom and responsibility for my
life. Standing before me was one who should
have been imprisoned, but wasn’t. He seemed
to say to me, “I cannot change the circumstances
of my life, yet I am free. Can you do
less? Choose with your inner eye. Crippledness
is a given, but there is something more.”
In the years since, I have created other
inner cages. I have trapped myself in
fear of change or unreal expectations.
But the little man has joined my meditative
council. He sits there, and by his very
presence reminds me that the real possibilities
of life are often not apparent at first
glance. He reminds me of my freedom to
choose my relationship to life, to transcend
anger, to enter the unknown, to love what
Faced with deformity and dignity, limits
and possibility, in the same vessel, old
paradigms mingle and disappear. That which
is ugly becomes beautiful. That which
is seductive becomes anathema. Interpretations
of life that allow me to deny or repress
the parts I don’t like are transformed.
My tendency to divide events or people
or life phases into “good” and “bad” is
revealed as unbearably limiting. If I
am open, a fresh awareness comes to rest
in my own soul; I see without anger my
own divided self. And I am once again
awakened to the wonder that it is to be
human. I feel the enormous freedom, both
as burden and as release, that comes with
I lived six years in Africa and describe
it as my “heart place”. When people ask
me why, I rarely give the real answer.
I say, “Oh, the people are wonderful and
it’s beautiful”, and that satisfies them.
The reality is that, among the many gifts
Africa gave me, the most important was
the gift of being awake. It was a mine
field of mindfulness. When I thought I
understood what was going on, I’d be blasted
by some incredible act of generosity or
some tragic event. A total stranger would
invite me in for peanuts, pineapple and
tea. A thief would be caught by an angry
crowd and kicked to death as I was walking
to the bus. I began to see Life as a safecracker
who sands his fingertips to make them
sensitive to the inner workings of the
lock, and I was the fingertips. I was
raw, occasionally in pain, but more often
filled with a sense of anticipation, waiting
for the next miracle or bit of madness.
It never failed to come, more often than
not cloaked in mundanity.
This story took place in mud and dust.
How many legends echo through time of
humanity created from mud or clay or dust?
How much of our lives do we spend trying
to run away from the return to earth,
to mystery, to the “unknown Unknown”?
How many chances do we miss to bleed meaning
from the ordinary? I was fortunate not
I never saw the little man again. I often
wondered if he died. There was a suddenness
about death in Africa that I never felt
anywhere else. There were always three
ladies selling peanuts on the corner (“two
for a shilling and one as a deescount!”)
Then one day, there were two. The third
had died; no, they didn’t know what it
was, probably malaria. Everything that
no one could explain was malaria. A schoolmate
of my daughter’s missed a day. Dead. There
was the lady who ran the health clinic,
went home feeling sick. Died. Their lives
and their deaths were swallowed up in
the soil of Africa. Perhaps my little
man met the same fate.
Whatever the case, he never knew that
he had changed my life. He emerged from
the mud, and he has probably rejoined
it, just as I will. Our lives touched
for an instant and created a legacy. Surely
that is holy.