The American Dream: A Case for Liberalism

 

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“…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…”

*  *  *

Many things come to mind when asked to describe the essence of America –  its energy and innovation; the various freedoms that Americans enjoy; the racial and ethnic mix of its people. But perhaps fundamental to the essence of America has been the concept of the American Dream. It has captured the imagination of people from all walks of life and represents the heart and soul of the country.

The American Dream has served as a road map for the way we often envision the course of our lives. The rules of the game are well-known, as is the bargain that is struck. For those willing to work hard and take advantage of their opportunities, there is the expectation of a prosperous and fulfilling life. The United States has long been epitomized as a land of equal opportunity, where hard work and skill can result in personal success and fulfillment, regardless of one’s station in life. While the specifics of each dream vary from person to person, the overall vitality of the American Dream has been fundamental to the nation’s identity. 

It can be found throughout our culture and history. It lies at the heart of Ben Franklin’s common wisdom chronicled in Poor Richard’s Almanack, in the words of Emma Lazurus etched onto the Statue of Liberty, the poetry of Carl Sandburg, or the soaring oratory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It can be heard in the music of Aaron Copland or jazz innovator Charlie Parker. And it can be seen across skylines from Manhattan to Chicago to San Francisco. Yet it can also be found in the most humble of places. It lies in the hopes of a single mother struggling on a minimum wage job to build a better life for herself and her children. It rests upon the unwavering belief of a teenager living on some forgotten back road that one day he or she will find fortune and fame. And it is present in the efforts and sacrifices of a first generation American family to see their kids through college.

In many respects, the American Dream has been deeply rooted in the concept of a journey-the journey to a new country, the journey across generations, and of course, the journey within one’s life. It is about motion and progress, it is about optimism, and it is about finding success and fulfillment along the way. And yet the conditions under which Americans have pursued this Dream have been fraught with risk and economic uncertainty.

The settlers of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries took enormous risks coming to the new world, often arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs. Once here, there was not much in the way of government help or financial assistance (with the exception of available land). Self-reliance, rugged individualism, and determination were seen as the keys to prosperity. And yet, in spite of the risks and struggles, the American Dream has been, and continues to be, a guiding force reflecting the manner in which we see our lives unfolding. Turn on the television, listen to the radio, surf the Internet, or pick up a magazine while waiting in an airport, and the images of the American Dream are ever present. From the solidly middle class couple engaged in their careers and lifestyle, to the rags to riches superstar making millions of dollars each year, the American Dream is portrayed as attainable, as long as we commit ourselves to hard work and perseverance in striving toward our goals.

The American Dream has ultimately been about the manner in which our lives unfold and the ability of the individual, no matter where he or she comes from, to exert considerable control and freedom over how that process occurs. In a sense, it is about being able to live out our individual biographies to their fullest extent. 

For more than three centuries, the hallmark of liberalism has been the attempt to promote individual liberty. Liberalism is a group of political, social and economic theories that centers on the values of individual liberty, equality, economic freedom, limited and democratic government and the rule of law. Words such as liberal, liberty, libertarian and libertine all trace their history to the Latin liber, which means “free”. Liberalism holds that all individuals should have equal treatment before the law regardless of social status, race or sex. Some important liberties in modern liberal states include freedom of speech, press, religion and association. Liberty is constrained by the harm principle, which states that you have liberty as long as you do not harm others. Liberty is a political concept that refers to freedom from undue or oppressive restraints on a person’s actions, thoughts or beliefs imposed by the state. 

The modern ideology of Liberalism can be traced back to the Humanism which challenged the authority of the established church in Renaissance Europe, and more particularly to the 17th and 18th Century British and French Enlightenmentthinkers, and the movement towards self-government in colonial America. John Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government” of 1689 established two fundamental liberal ideas: economic liberty (meaning the right to have and use property) and intellectual liberty (including freedom of conscience). His natural rights theory (“natural rights” for Locke being essentially life, liberty and property) was the distant forerunner of the modern conception of human rights, although he saw the right to property as more important than the right to participate in government and public decision-making, and he did not endorse democracy, fearing that giving power to the people would erode the sanctity of private property. Nevertheless, the idea of natural rights played a key role in providing the ideological justification for the American and the French revolutions, and in the further development of Liberalism.

“all men are created equal. . . . ” This phrase caused some embarrassment when the Declaration was issued, for a number of colonists, American “patriots” as well as pro-British “tories,” pointed out that it was hypocritical for a slaveholding country to proclaim the equality of all mankind. In England Dr. Samuel Johnson criticized Washington, Jefferson, and other slaveholding colonists for their hypocrisy: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” In fact, Jefferson, a slave-owner himself, included a sharp attack on the slave trade in his original draft of the Declaration. This section was removed by other members of Congress, however, while the claim that all men are created equal remained.

AMERICA:  chronology of key events – 

1565 – First permanent European settlement in North America – St Augustine, present-day Florida – founded by the Spanish. North America is already inhabited by several distinct groups of people, who go into decline following the arrival of settlers.

1607 – Jamestown, Virginia, founded by English settlers, who begin growing tobacco.

1620 – Plymouth Colony, near Cape Cod, is founded by the Pilgrim Fathers, whose example is followed by other English Puritans in New England.

17th-18th centuries – Hundreds of thousands of Africans brought over and sold into slavery to work on cotton and tobacco plantations.

1763 – Britain gains control of territory up to the Mississippi river following victory over France in Seven Years’ War.

War of Independence

1774 – Colonists form First Continental Congress as Britain closes down Boston harbour and deploys troops in Massachusetts.

1775 – American Revolution: George Washington leads colonist Continental Army to fight against British rule.

1776 4 July – Thomas Jefferson’s American Declaration of Independence endorsed by Congress; colonies declare independence.

1781 – Rebel states form loose confederation, codified in Articles of Confederation, after defeating the British at the Battle of Yorktown.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN 
16th president preserved Union, emancipated slaves

  • Born in Kentucky, 1809
  • Known as ‘Honest Abe’ and the ‘Great Emancipator’
  • His Gettysburg Address honoured the Union dead, set out the principles they died for
  • Assassinated in 1865 

1783 – Britain accepts loss of colonies by virtue of Treaty of Paris.

1787 – Founding Fathers draw up new constitution for United States of America. Constitution comes into effect in 1788.

1789 – George Washington elected first president of USA.

1791 – Bill of Rights guarantees individual freedom.

1803 – France sells Louisiana territories to USA.

1808 – Atlantic slave trade abolished.

1812-15 – War of 1812 between the US and Britain, partly over the effects of British restrictions on US trade during the Napoleonic Wars.

19th century – Residual resistance by indigenous people crushed as immigration from Europe assumes mass proportions, with settlers moving westwards and claiming “manifest destiny” to control North America; number of states in the union rises from 17 to 45.

1846-48 – US acquires vast tracts of Mexican territory in wake of Mexican War including California and New Mexico.

Civil War

1854 – Opponents of slavery, or abolitionists, set up Republican Party.

1860 – Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln elected president.

1860-61 – Eleven pro-slavery southern states secede from Union and form Confederate States of America under leadership of Jefferson Davis, triggering civil war with abolitionist northern states.

1863 – Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in Confederate states to be free.

1865 – Confederates defeated; slavery abolished under Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln is assassinated.

1876 – Sioux Indians defeat US troops at Little Big Horn.

1890 – US troops defeat Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee.

1898 – US gains Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and Cuba following the Spanish-American war. US annexes Hawaii.

World War I and the Great Depression

1917-18 – US intervenes in World War I, rejects membership of League of Nations.

1939: FDR proclaims US neutrality

1920 – Women given the right to vote under the Nineteenth Amendment.

1920 – Sale and manufacture of alcoholic liquors outlawed. The Prohibition era sees a mushrooming of illegal drinking joints, home-produced alcohol and gangsterism.

1924 – Congress gives indigenous people right to citizenship.

1929-33 – 13 million people become unemployed after the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929 triggers what becomes known as the Great Depression. President Herbert Hoover rejects direct federal relief.

1933 – President Franklin D Roosevelt launches “New Deal” recovery programme which includes major public works. Sale of alcohol resumes.

World War II and the Cold War

1941 – Japanese warplanes attack US fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii; US declares war on Japan; Germany declares war on US, which thereafter intervenes on a massive scale in World War II, eventually helping to defeat Germany.

1945 – US drops two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrenders.

1947 – US enunciates policy of aid for nations it deems threatened by communism in what became known as the Truman Doctrine. Cold War with Soviet Union begins.

1948 – America’s programme to revive ailing post-war European economies – the Marshall Plan – comes into force. Some $13bn is disbursed over four years and the plan is regarded as a success.

1950-54 – Senator Joseph McCarthy carries out a crusade against alleged communists in government and public life; the campaign and its methods become known as McCarthyism. In 1954 McCarthy is formally censured by the Senate.

1950-53 – US forces play leading role against North Korean and Chinese troops in Korean War.

Desegregation and the Vietnam war

1954 – Racial segregation in schools becomes unconstitutional; start of campaign of civil disobedience to secure civil rights for Americans of African descent.

JOHN F KENNEDY 
Killed by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, 1963 

1960 – Democratic Party candidate John F Kennedy elected president, narrowly defeating his rival Richard Nixon.

1961 – Bay of Pigs invasion: an unsuccessful attempt to invade Cuba by Cuban exiles, organised and financed by Washington.

1962 – US compels Soviet Union to withdraw nuclear weapons from Cuba in what has become known as the Cuban missile crisis.

1963 – President John F Kennedy assassinated; Lyndon Johnson becomes president.

1964 – US steps up its military intervention in Vietnam. Civil Rights Act signed into law; it aims to halt discrimination on grounds of race, colour, religion, nationality.

1968 – Black civil rights leader Martin Luther King assassinated.

1969 – Republican Party candidate Richard Nixon elected president amid growing public opposition to Vietnam war. US military presence in Vietnam exceeds 500,000 personnel.

US astronaut Neil Armstrong becomes the first person to walk on the Moon.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR 
Civil rights leader was renowned for his stirring oratory 

1972 – Nixon re-elected and makes historic visit to China.

1973 – Vietnam ceasefire agreement signed. The campaign had claimed some 58,000 American lives.

1974 – In a TV address, Nixon announces his resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal, over a 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters. Gerald Ford is sworn-in as his successor.

1976 – Democratic Party candidate Jimmy Carter elected president.

1979 – US embassy in Tehran, Iran, seized by radical students. The 444-day hostage crisis – including a failed rescue attempt in 1980 – impacts on Carter’s popularity and dominates the 1980 presidential election campaign.

Global assertiveness

1980 November – Republican Party’s Ronald Reagan elected president. Reagan goes on to adopt a tough anti-communist foreign policy and tax-cutting policies which lead to a large federal budget deficit.

1981 January – Iran frees the 52 US embassy hostages, on the same day as President Reagan’s inauguration.

RONALD REAGAN 
Former president, said to have restored US self-confidence 

1983 – US invades Caribbean nation of Grenada, partly prompted by its concerns over the island’s ties with Cuba.

1984 – Ronald Reagan re-elected president, beating Democratic Party candidate Walter Mondale.

1986 January – Space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after take off from Cape Canaveral. All seven crew members are killed. Manned space flights are suspended until September 1988.

1986 – US warplanes bomb Libyan cities. “Irangate” scandal uncovered, revealing that proceeds from secret US arms sales to Iran were used illegally to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

1988 – Reagan’s vice-president, George Bush, elected president.

1989 – US troops invade Panama, oust its government and arrest its leader, one-time Central Intelligence Agency informant General Manuel Noriega, on drug-trafficking charges.

1991 – US forces play dominant role in war against Iraq, which was triggered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and ended with the expulsion of Iraqi troops from that country.

The Clinton years

1992 – Democratic Party candidate Bill Clinton elected president.

1992 – Congress passes North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, intended to create free-trade bloc among US, Canada and Mexico.

2004: President Bush unveils space plans

1995 – Oklahoma bomb kills more than 160 people in worst ever incident of its kind in US.

1996 – Clinton re-elected, beating Republican rival Bob Dole.

1998 – Scandal over Clinton’s purported sexual impropriety with White House worker Monica Lewinsky dominates domestic political agenda and leads to impeachment proceedings in Congress.

1999 March-June – US plays leading role in Nato bombardment of Yugoslavia in response to Serb violence against ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo.

Democrats lose

2000 November – Republican Party’s George W Bush wins presidency.

January 2001: Bill Clinton’s farewell

2001 July – US tests its controversial missile defence shield, or “Son of Star Wars”.

11 September attacks

2001 11 September – Co-ordinated suicide attacks on various high-profile targets, prompting the US to embark on a ”war on terror” which includes the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

2001 October – US leads massive campaign of air strikes against Afghanistan and helps opposition forces defeat the Taleban regime and find Saudi-born dissident Osama Bin Laden, who is suspected of masterminding the 11 September attacks.

2001 October – USA Patriot Act approved by the Senate, giving the government greater powers to detain suspected terrorists, eavesdrop on communications and counter money-laundering. In November, President Bush signs a directive to try suspected terrorists in military tribunals rather than the courts.

2001 December – Energy giant Enron declared bankrupt after massive false-accounting comes to light.

2002 January – State of the Union address: President George W Bush includes Iraq, Iran and North Korea in what he describes as an “axis of evil”.

2002 State of the Union address: “Axis of evil”

2002 June/July – Telecoms giant WorldCom’s multi-billion dollar accounting fraud is revealed, eclipsing the Enron scandal to become the biggest business failure in US history.

2002 November – President Bush signs into law a bill creating a Department of Homeland Security, the biggest reorganisation of federal government in more than 50 years. The large and powerful department is tasked with protecting the US against terrorist attacks.

2003 February – Space shuttle Columbia’s 28th mission ends in tragedy when the craft breaks-up while re-entering the atmosphere. The seven astronauts on board are killed.

Iraq war

2003 March – Missile attacks on Baghdad mark the start of a US-led campaign to topple the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. US forces advance into central Baghdad in early April.

Bush: “We have seen the turning of the tide”

2003 1 May – Speaking on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, President Bush declares that the main part of the war in Iraq is over.

2004 May – Furore over pictures showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in US custody.

2004 July – Senate report says US and allies went to war in Iraq on “flawed” information. Independent report into 11 September 2001 attacks highlights deep institutional failings in intelligence services and government.

Bush second term

2004 2 November – Presidential elections: George W Bush wins a second term.

2005 August – Hundreds of people are killed when Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive storm to hit the US in decades, sweeps through gulf coast states. Much of the city of New Orleans is submerged by flood waters.

2006 March – Congress renews the USA Patriot Act, a centrepiece of the government’s fight against terrorism, after months of debate about its impact on civil liberties. The government agrees to some curbs on information gathering.

2006 April-May – Millions of immigrants and their supporters take to the streets to protest against plans to criminalise illegal immigrants.

2006 May – The only man to be charged over the September 11 attacks, self-confessed al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, is sentenced to life in jail.

2006 November – Democratic Party wins control of the Senate and House of Representatives in mid-term elections. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld steps down.

2007 January – President Bush announces a new Iraq strategy; thousands more US troops will be dispatched to shore up security in Baghdad.

CREDIT CRUNCH 
The 2008-9 financial crisis sent shockwaves throughout the world 

Lehman collapse

2008 September – Turmoil in the US and international financial markets as major Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers collapses and other big US financial players face growing troubles as a result of the “credit crunch”. With hundreds of billions of dollars wiped out in bad loans and a prolonged property slump, the US faces its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Obama elected

2008 November – Democratic Senator Barack Obama becomes the first black president of the United States.

THE GEORGE W BUSH YEARS 
Wave of support after 9/11 yielded to derision at home and abroad 

2009 January – First “Tea Party” rally held in protest at Obama administration’s plans to bail out banks and introduce healthcare reform. The populist and libertarian movement acts as focus for conservative opposition to the president’s reform plans.

2010 March – Democrats in Congress succeed in passing a bill on health care reform, despite strong Republican opposition, procedural setbacks and public scepticism.

US and Russia announce agreement on a new nuclear arms reduction treaty to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The pact was to be signed on 8 April.

President Obama unveils a new defence policy significantly curtailing the circumstances in which the US would use nuclear weapons.

2010 May-June – Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico causes the United States’ biggest oil spill to date.

OPPOSITION TO OBAMA 
Tea Party agenda provides rallying point for disgruntled conservatives 

2010 November – Republicans make sweeping gains in mid-term elections, regaining control of House of Representatives.

2011 May – US forces kill Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in an operation in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.

2011 July – The final Space Shuttle mission is completed with the landing of Atlantis on 21 July, bringing about the end of the 30-year programme.

2011 September – Anti-capitalist protesters take to the streets of major cities, marching under the slogan “Occupy Wall Street”, against “corporate greed” and increasing government debt. The protests inspire marches in other cities worldwide.

2012 January – President Obama unveils a revised defence strategy involving budget cuts, but insists US will maintain its military superiority.

2013 January – Barack Obama is inaugurated for his second term as president

Global surveillance disclosures: The revelations of the NSA’s PRISM, Boundless Informant and XKeyscore domestic surveillance programs were first published by The Guardian and Washington Post newspapers.

2014 August – Michael Brown was shot and killed, in what was ruled by a grand jury to be self-defense, by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, igniting protests and riots in the following months.

President Obama announces a restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1961

2015 April – 2015 Baltimore protests: Protests and rioting occur in Baltimore, Maryland after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

Obergefell v. Hodges: Gay marriage is fully legalized in all 50 states.

2016 June – 2016 Orlando Nightclub Shooting: A self-proclaimed Islamic State fighter, Omar Mateen, kills 49 and injures 53 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, before being shot and killed by an officer.

Donald Trump wins the 2016 presidential election, and becomes the forty-fifth president of the United States. The Republicans also regained the majority of both the House and Senate; an election in which the Republican candidate wins the election while the majority in Congress maintains a Republican control hasn’t happened since 2004.

2017 December – The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 is signed into law, lowering income tax rates and the corporate tax rate.

 

 

The Relatives

The humidity gave Nick a shortness of breath. The heat was unbearable and could instantly be felt as soon as he stepped out of the plane. “I will not run, I will not run,” Nick kept telling himself. I will not cry, I will not cry, he thought as he hit the tarmac at Bujumbura International Airport; after what seemed like an endless flight of steps down the airplane stairwell. It was about two weeks after the September 11 terror attacks in New York.He remembered the fateful night of October 1993. He felt a bit of anger but put those feelings aside for the time being as he entered the tiny airport.

It was empty compared to JFK or Roissy Charles De Gaulle in Paris, and very small. There were a few Europeans with UN passports, and other Burundian teenagers that dressed like kids back in the US; sagging pants and durags on their heads. They looked happy and excited, but arrogant. After filling out the official forms and picking up his bags, he was harassed by people he didn’t know, who kept asking him what he had brought them. He graciously declined their request. He was shocked by their audacity and lack of shame. If only he really understood what they went through every day, maybe he would have better answers- or better yet, a solution. But those were not things he thought about yet.
As he stepped out into the arrivals hall, he stood in front of a big crowd, who kept waving at him. For a moment he thought they were waving at him, and then someone behind him would come out running, full of emotions and tears and falling into their loved one’s arms with screams of joy. What a feeling this must be, the orphan boy thought. All of a sudden he saw a familiar face: a very beautiful woman approaching him with open arms as she spoke in French.
“Nickolas? Nico – it’s you!”
Nick froze with emotions. He dropped his bags and smiled almost up to his ears, recognizing his mythical cousin from the pictures she sent with her emails. They embraced as she cried with happiness.

*

Nellie’s and Nick’s grandmothers were sisters, and she was the only relative that he had left. She had gone back to Burundi after sixteen years living abroad in Belgium. She got married there and had a son. Frits, her husband, was fifteen years her senior and had been married once before. He was a chemist from Belgium and they decided to relocate to Burundi, as he found peace there, in the midst of all the chaos going on in the country.

*

The drive to their home was an emotional one for Nick. It had been eight years since he last saw his native country, and he felt a mess of emotions; fear and confusion. It felt like a healthy tooth being yanked out without any anesthesia. Everything had happened so fast, and he hadn’t been prepared for the events that occurred. Just like that, he was thrown into the woods to fend for himself. The love and support the Pécresse’s gave him was too pure for him to fathom.
It was really hot and humid. He kept sweating. He had rarely spent time in the capital city back when he still lived with his parents, but not much had changed in eight years. Actually, almost nothing had changed. The potholes in the roads eight years ago were still there. Some were even bigger. There was an air or atmosphere of despair, abandonment, negligence and surrender. Things were not going well in the country, but at least they were slightly better than when he left.
How beautiful is this country! Nick thought as he looked around like a tourist in his home country, noticing the not-so-distant hills on one side and the lake on the other. Nellie gabbed and gossiped about people they knew, while Nick rolled down the window to smell the lake. He closed his eyes and had a flashing memory of his younger brothers laughing and giggling when they all took a bath together. Frits interrupted his flashback.
“So what do you do now that you finished college?” Frits asked, looking at Nick from the mirror, trying to focus on the road.
“I’m a counselor at a hedge fund firm in Manhattan,” Nick replied.
“Interesting,” Frits exclaimed. “How old are you? You seem to be young to be a counselor. You must be a star,” Frits added.
“I don’t know if I’m a star. All I know is that I feel and understand people. I guess it’s just a gift. I’m very grateful. I just turned twenty-seven last month.” Nick answered.
“Good for you, young man. It would even be better if you could work your magic here. People need counseling here more than you would imagine,” Frits added.
“You don’t say!” Nick retorted rather sarcastically. “So do you love what you do?” Nellie joined in the conversation.
“I actually do. I used my conversations for the basis of a book I just finished writing. It just got published. It is actually getting good reviews as we speak, and I just got offered a full scholarship for grad school at Harvard.” Nick said proudly.
“Really? Wow, Nick! I’m so proud of you. You keep amazing me, cousin. What is the book about?” Nellie asked.
“I have a copy with me. Read it and tell me what you think.” Nick answered.
“I guess we have so much to talk about. I’m honestly glad you are here,” Nellie added.
They arrived at their house, a villa in the hills with a view of the whole city. It was astoundingly beautiful. After setting his bags down, he presented them with some gifts: a Cartier watch and Channel No˚5 perfume for Nellie, a Mont Blanc pen for her husband, and a Yankee cap, a basketball, and CD player for their ten-year-old son Stephane.
Nellie gave him a brief tour of the house as she told him the story of how she met Frits in Brussels. After that he got acquainted with his room. He sat on the bouncy bed, still not fully grasping the fact that he was back in his native country. He took a refreshing shower and went downstairs to be with his cousin. His nose and ears were still congested from the twelve hour flight from Paris.
“Eight hours from N.Y to Paris. I spent 2 weeks in Paris, then another ten from Paris to Nairobi. Then two to reach here,” Nick lamented.
They sat in the living room, reminiscing on the good old times, and talking about their parents and other departed siblings. She showed him photo album after photo album. It was a very endearing moment for Nick, who for the first time in a very longtime felt like he belonged somewhere. In a way, this trip would help him move forward. It would not be closure, but an acceptance of reality.
Frits and Stephane joined them only for a few minutes just to let them know that they were leaving for the rest of the afternoon. Stephane needed to attend to his Judo class. “We will see you later!” Frits shouted out of the window of the Range Rover.
As soon as they left, Nellie asked Nick if he wanted to drink something or if he was hungry. Nick gracefully declined, as the jetlag was kicking in. Nellie called for the house help and sent him to buy some drinks.
Nellie was extremely pretty, with very smooth, hairless skin, small pointy nose and a smile to die for. She had put on a few pounds around the waist area and oddly always looked tired with her irresistible puppy eyes. But it gave her charm. As soon as the house help returned with the drinks in a green plastic bag with Sylvester Stallone as Rambo on it, she asked Nick if he was sure he did not want anything. Nick excused himself and went to bed to have some rest.
Waking later, he opened his eyes slowly and immediately felt lost. Blank white walls were all he could see; musty and humid air was all he could feel. The small fan was at full speed but could only barely alleviate the heat. Nick yawned, popping his right ear. He was feeling much better, and hungry.
He ran down the stairs to see what was happening downstairs. The sun was setting, and felt rejuvenated by the breath of cooler air coming in from the wide open glass front doors. As he reached the living room, he saw two empty big brown bottles of Amstel beer on the coffee table. He noticed Nellie’s red shoes on the carpet next to the sofa. He made his way to the kitchen, hoping to find her there. He met the house help Juvenal.
“Where is Mrs. Nellie?” Nick asked.
“Madame is by the pool at the back. She told me to let her know as soon as you woke up. I have prepared some food for you.” Juvenal answered.
“What did you make for me I’m hungry,” Nick retorted quite joyfully, noticing yet another empty Amstel bottle.
“Some roast beef, plantain bananas, rice, beans and some lenga-lenga.” Juvenal quickly responded. Nick didn’t pay attention to what Juvenal was saying, as he was looking out through the kitchen window at Nellie on her cell phone.
“So are you going to eat?” Juvenal asked, getting irritated.
“Lenga lenga, you say, huh? The last time I had lenga-lenga, I was a small boy. Never mind, no beef for me, but lots of lenga-lenga.” Nick answered, walking towards Nellie.
Nellie was on the phone talking loudly, laughing erratically with a cigarette in her left hand between her index and middle finger. A small bottle of gin was in front of her, but Nick could not see any tonic or juice. She drank it straight, with lots of ice. It shocked him a bit, but he would not comment quite yet. She hung up the phone, and she stood up happily, stumbling a bit and holding herself to the chair so that she would not fall. She hugged him for a minute or so saying, “You’re up, American boy. I am so happy you are here, cousin. We are going to have so much fun.”
They sat back down, and she yelled at Juvenal to bring his food quickly. “It’s so hard to find good house help here, you know”. She yelled again at Juvenal to bring some lemon.
“I was talking to Chantal, my best friend here. Her husband has traveled. So we are going out to the club tonight. Are you up for it?” Nellie asked as she took a good swig of her gin, munching on the ice as she waited for an answer.
“I thought we would do such things later in the week. You know I just travelled from the US,” Nick answered, trying to put some sense into the conversation.
“Come on, man. Don’t be a pussy. How old are you now? You’re not a baby anymore. Let’s have fun; live life to the fullest. Anyway, you will have time to sleep later – when you’re dead!” Nellie retorted, laughing uncontrollably.
It was hard for Nick to find any humor in what she was saying. For a minute, he did not recognize his cousin. This was another person all of a sudden. Why did she have to use words like ‘pussy’? he thought. He found it vulgar. Where is all this coming from? he pondered.
He agreed to go out to see where all this would lead to. He ate, filling up his stomach, while Nellie ordered Juvenal to bake a cake for him. They chatted until sundown, when she got a phone call from Frits. Her husband and son were on their way back. She told Nick that they had to leave or else it would be difficult for them to go out. She told Juvenal to hide all the ash trays, return all the empty bottles and not say a word to her husband. As far as he knew, they were going to see some old friends.
About five minutes later, Chantal was honking at the gate. They hurried to her car and left the house. In the car Nellie introduced her cousin to her best friend, who had just dropped her husband to the airport. Pleasantries were exchanged. Chantal then opened the glove box, removing a medium sized Gordon gin bottle. The women laughed naughtily, but the only thing Nick kept thinking was, where is all this coming from? How is this going to end? I bet someone is going to get hurt.

*

They decided to start off the evening with a few drinks at a charming place just by the lake called Cercle Nautique. There, they would meet up with other Diaspora Burundians who had come back to the country for various reasons. Nick got introduced to Nellie’s friends, who all acted and talked like her. They were inebriated, gossiped about other people, judging them, mocking the ones that seemed weak, and talked highly of themselves.
Nick had two glasses of wine, but in reality he could not stand alcohol. It affected him badly and quickly, impairing his judgment. He hated being in a situation where he could not think straight, and waking up without a clear head. He decided to get some air and get away from the crowd. Nellie noticed his uneasiness and followed him. He lit a cigarette, walking slowly towards the car. She caught up to him and asked him, “What’s wrong American boy?”
“I am feeling uneasy Nellie.” Nick replied.
“Wait, I just have the right thing to get you to relax. You are just too tense, cousin.” She took out a rolled-up joint of marijuana.
They got into the car, and parked it on the darker side of the entrance, playing some dim music, pushing back their seats and opening the sun roof.
They started smoking in silence, as they were both unsure how the other felt about smoking reefer. Nick broke the silence with a question, “Have you ever been in love?”
Nellie laughed out loud looking out the window. The question made her shy. “You are a weird guy. Where is this coming from?” She asked, defending herself.
“Just curiosity,” Nick replied.
Nellie paused as she puffed away her worries, blowing her smoke as if she was in slow-motion.
“I don’t think I have ever”. Nellie added.
“What about Frits? Don’t you love him?” Nick asked, perplexed. She giggled again, passing the blunt to Nick and blowing more smoke, her eyes diming down. The weed was kicking in.
“Are you serious with these questions?” Nellie asked.
“Yeah, I actually am.” Nick replied trying not to laugh. He was getting high as well. She let out a little burp from the beer she had been drinking.
“Sorry!”She exclaimed, placing her hand in front of her mouth. She laughed again. It was getting hard for her to control her laughter now. “I have never been asked these questions so bluntly. You have really become westernized. An American boy,” Nellie laughed again.
“With that kind of reaction, I think you have answered the question,” Nick added.
“I don’t really know. At times, I feel like it can happen to me. It happens to others. What about you Nick? American boy, have you ever been in love?” Nellie asked.
“Once. It was a while ago. Her name was Fatima, but I was more naïve then,” Nick answered, staring at the stars.
“The meaning changes when you grow up, I guess,” Nellie added, feeling his hurt.
“You talk like you have some experience in that department, though,” Nick commented as they both laughed.
“I think I was in love with my first boyfriend, but I must have been about seventeen or eighteen years old and just needed to fit in. We had just arrived in Brussels, you know. Looking back, though, I think I was.” Nellie said.
“What did it feel like?” Nick probed.
“Well, very happy and a sense of fulfillment. Just being together felt like I was on top of the world,” Nellie answered, smiling and bobbing her head to the soft music that was playing.
“Are you looking for this feeling again? You know, out of fear of weeping later, some people don’t accept the joy that is knocking at their doorstep,” Nick added.
“Yes, I got hurt bad. But it is a great feeling indeed,” Nellie answered, almost falling asleep.
“What music do you listen to? I believe that music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot be silent.”
“Wow! That is deep. I listen to all genres, but mainly dancehall. It just makes me want to dance. I enjoy it most when I dance with someone else. It’s got so much rhythm and base. Love it!” Nellie replied, mimicking some dance moves.
Nick started singing Till my baby comes home by Luther Vandross: ‘Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby/ You said you would come back this way, babe/ Baby…baby…baby, oh baby/ I love you/ I really do. His singing made Nellie smile.
“What do you think about before you fall asleep?” Nellie asked.
“What if this? What if that? I’m curious,” Nick answered.
“Yeah, me too. I think about the future and things that would make me happier,” Nellie added.
“Happier? Aren’t you happy? You are married to a very nice and responsible guy. You have Stephane. You told me that he is doing well at school, and he is healthy. You have a beautiful house. Why are you not happy?” Nick asked with a tone of sincere surprise.
“I am comfortable but not happy.” She answered back.
“Ok! Fair enough. What’s lacking then?” Nick asked.
“Nice question,” Nellie paused. “Something is missing. I feel like…”
A knock on the window interrupted her. Two policemen with rifles were patrolling the area and wanted to be sure that they were not having any intercourse in their car. They were on the lookout for such things, as it was an avenue for bribery.
Nick and Nellie were ordered to get out of the car. They got frisked violently. While Nick remained calm, Nellie was erratic. She spoke in Kirundi and argued frantically with them. She gave them a wad of cash, after which they disappeared without thinking twice. The cousins then entered the restaurant in a hurry, distraught. She told Chantal what had just happened and told her that they had to leave. She did not feel safe anymore, so she started persuading the others to leave the place. She particularly wanted one of the guys named Eloge to follow them, as she had a particular interest in him.
Eloge was a few years younger and had spent the last decade in the French-speaking part of Canada as a political refugee. However, he was tough mentally and an entrepreneur. He sold second-hand and refurbished cell phones from Canada to various African countries. He was his own boss. He had a deep voice. He spent a lot of time in the gym in pursuit of a body shape that he knew women liked in men. He basically had a big mouth, in the sense that he always spoke his mind regardless of how it made the other person feel. Some would deem him to be an alpha male. Inevitably, Nellie got attracted.
They all left in a cortege, going to one of the only night clubs open at the time. It was safer if they stuck together, because there were army road blocks all over the city that were there to ensure that people did not violate the national curfew; another avenue for bribery. They gathered at a night club called Archipel. On their arrival, everyone was already drunk. The motley crew was super excited, all emotions glaring, each individual with his own agenda, but outwardly adhering to the group dynamic.
Nick had lost touch with reality due to the marijuana. Nellie was becoming uncontrollable as she kept on downing gin and tonics. Nick all of a sudden started feeling paranoid. What would Michel think of me if he saw me right now? Nick thought. My kid brothers died and I survived. Now look at me. Is this the best way to honor their death? I do not deserve this life. Mom should have lived. She was just the kindest. She deserved the education, the book publishing, the good food and wine I ate in Paris. God, why did you have to take mom?
He put his hand in his pocket just to check that he still had his wallet and identification. They were there. He felt a wave of relief. The disc jockey started playing a popular song from the US. Nick felt consoled by the familiarity of the tune and the effect it had on the people present in the club.
Without realizing it, he began dancing all by himself. He gesticulated like a buffoon in the middle of the dance floor, trying his best to mimic the dance moves from the kids back in the US at the time. They called the dance the Harlem Shake. Nellie was flirting with Eloge when she noticed Nick letting go of himself dancing like a nitwit, and she couldn’t help but feel relieved to finally see vulnerability out of her cousin. Nobody ever has everything figured out, Nellie thought. Seeing her cousin in that state, she grabbed Eloge’s hand and led him seductively to the dance floor. They starting dancing, syncing their hips in a sexual motion. She didn’t care anymore; all she wanted was to do what she was not supposed to do. Eloge thought that he had everything under control. The rest of the group, including Chantal, formed a circle, as each person of the group entered the circle and started balling out in ecstasy, encouraged by chants and whistles by the group of friends. Nellie moved away from Eloge and joined in the circle. She started dancing as if she was possessed, moving slowly in tune with the beat and touching herself in a sexual manner. The motion of her hips hypnotized all the men who watched her. Her hands touched her private parts, moving up to her breasts and ending with one finger in her mouth as if she was an innocent child who did not know how naughty she was – a mixture of innocence and sexual aura. She was just captivating. As the song changed, she left the circle to get yet another gin and tonic. At the bar, she met people she knew. They hugged and screamed with joy. They took shots of tequila, reacting as if they were disgusted by the poison they had just ingested in their fragile bodies, but they liked how it made them feel: free from their worries, responsibilities, their mistakes and the daily life they had chosen to live. They just wanted to be who they really were inside.
It was 6am and the sun was rising. The DJ was playing his last song. Nick was exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally. He asked Nellie if they could go home. Nellie had become aggressive. She did not want to leave. Nick tried to put some sense into her head, but she was out of her mind. Eloge was walking past them when she just grabbed him and kissed him in front of everyone. She then pushed him away and told him that she was married and started laughing. Chantal grabbed Nellie’s hand, and they both disappeared in the ladies’ room. Chantal came back out and told Nick that he would have to take a cab because Nellie was not ready to leave quite yet. She gave directions to the cab driver and sent Nick back to the house.

*

Frits opened the door for Nick. He looked extremely annoyed. Nick felt extremely ashamed. He told Frits what had happened. Frits calmed down, and told him that they would talk when he woke up. Nick struggled to go up the stairs, swaying and lurching with every movement as Frits watched him fail to walk up the tiny flight of stairs.
“I hope you are proud of yourself now, counselor?” Frits commented in a rather sarcastic tone.
Nick, unable to pay attention to what Frits was saying, reached his room, where he collapsed and blacked out instantly. Later in the day, Nick got woken up by the unbearable heat. His head pounding, he felt awful.
“I will never drink again. For sure this is the last time,” Nick whispered.
He was feeling hungry. He slowly walked down the stairs, drowsy, with bad breath and reddish eyes. He looked sick. He saw Frits in the living room reading Nick’s novel while his son Stephane was watching TV. Frits ordered his son to go play outside. They then sat in silence for a few minutes or so as Nick gulped ounces of water.
“I bet you are thirsty,” Frits commented
“I feel awful. You cannot imagine,” Nick replied
“I can imagine. I tried this lifestyle for a brief period in my youth: drugs, alcohol and sex. Fortunately I quickly realized it was detrimental to a person’s karma.” Frits said.
“What do you mean karma?” Nick asked perplexed.
“I mean the sum of somebody’s good and bad actions in one of their lives.” Frits replied.
“Are you talking about reincarnation?” Nick asked, confounded.
“I believe that our actions have so much power that it not only affects our own lives, but those around us, our loved ones, our children and our children’s children. Whether we like it or not, we live through them and them through us.” Frits answered.
Nick remained silent as he pondered at what Frits was saying.
“Are you planning to go out drinking your whole time while you’re here? Is this what you envisioned yourself doing when you planned your trip coming back here?” Frits asked with a tone of disappointment.
“I guess I needed to get it out of my system. I needed some form of release therapy. Being here has drained me of all my self-control strength. I am swayed by all kinds of emotions that I did not imagine that I could feel. I am giving myself a break. Plus, all this is making Nellie happy,” Nick replied.
“That is how most alcoholics start, by giving themselves a break.” Frits answered, while focusing on Nick’s book.
“Where is Nellie, anyway?” Nick asked.
“You tell me,” Frits answered rather sarcastically yet again.
“I left her at the night club.” Nick exclaimed.
“She came home a few hours ago. She is fast asleep in the second guest room. I could barely recognize her. Now she is going to be asleep the entire day. Even our son Stephane has been asking me why Mommy sleeps so much lately. Do you imagine that?” Frits said.
“Does she always drink this much, or is it just the festive mood?” Nick asked.
“This behavior is new to all of us. She had a miscarriage last year. We lost our second child. Before Stephane was born she had managed to get a good job at BNP Pariba. She was a star in fiscal economics but had to take a break in order to take care of our son. She never found the strength or motivation to go back to it. I see her with our friends’ kids. It is never the same with Stephane. Maybe he is a constant reminder of what could have been. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it has been getting worse over the last decade. The frustrating part of all this is that we never get to talk about it. All I’m sure of is that the miscarriage was the tipping point.” Frits answered.
“Whose idea was it to come back to Burundi?” Nick asked.
“It was actually mine. I figured it would help us to change our environment due to the miscarriage. We led a hectic life in Brussels. I worked a lot, but made a lot of money. She hated the cold, and never got along with my friends or acquaintances. I managed to get beside myself and realized that we could have been heading in a disastrous direction. I proposed the idea of a getaway to her. It pleased her. So here we are. Now I have to deal with Chantal and the rest, and I do not like the way things are turning out.” Frits answered candidly.
“Have you really tried talking to her? As in what do you guys talk about intimately?” Nick asked.
“That is a very interesting question Nick. I will have to get back at you on that one,” Frits answered with an air of surprise.
Frits noticed how Nick was suffering from his hangover. He stood up without saying a word and fetched two aspirins out of his medicine box. “Take these and eat something. It will help you feel better,” Frits said, then threw Nick’s novel in front of him and added, “You have a lot to offer to people around you. I urge you to make this trip meaningful.”
Nick remained silent as he resisted reacting to the avalanche of emotions that clouded his thoughts. Those words reminded him of Michel. It reminded him how much he wished he had father around to teach him how to be a man. Guys like Frits or Michel were wise, but they were not his father. He wanted it from his father.
Later in the day, Nick woke up as the sun was setting. He went to check if his cousin was still asleep. There she was, snoring, her arms and legs spread wide like a star. He did not know how to feel; he just accepted what he saw. The hangover was fading, as he was getting back to his senses. He could not find Frits or Stephane. It was a Saturday, and so he decided to go get a sense of what normal Burundians did on the weekend.
He hopped on a taxi-moto and headed for the lake shore. He got dropped at a very popular beach next to the port. Common Burundians hung out there – those that spoke Swahili more than Kirundi. They tended not to have cars, did not go to fancy schools, and did not hold fancy managerial positions, nor official functions. They got drunk on the cheapest beers, and got pleased and entertained by the simplest of things. They were full of dreams, but almost gave up on them as they had no idea on how they could surmount all the numerous obstacles they faced. So they drank, danced to music and experimented with various drugs. They basically indulged in activities that soothed their feelings of inferiority and sadness. Nick needed to understand this particular feeling of inferiority and how it affected an individual’s life, because he did not know how to deal with his.
He wore beige shorts, a black polo shirt and a NY baseball cap worn backwards. He wore his reading glasses as he was going to read Animal Farm by George Orwell. As he started walking in the sand, he saw a group of people that had gathered. He sensed chaos in the atmosphere. He heard screams and people arguing. Drawn to the brawl and low mumbles, he got into the spectating crowd. He found a half-naked woman holding a large beer bottle, drunk out of her mind, venting her frustration to the crowd about how she lost her husband to two fishermen who usually fished with him. She lamented on how one fateful day the three of them went on a fishing trip together as they always did. At the end of that day, only two of them came back. Her husband was missing. At that particular time, there was a shortage of fish, and fishermen did not manage to reach their normal quotas; anxiety was rampant as their catch basically meant their livelihood. She accused them of having thrown him into the lake. She explained how they did so as a form of sacrifice to whatever creature or mermaid God ruled the deep waters in order to appease it so that it could release the flow of fish. It sounded absurd, and Nick could not believe what he was hearing. She further explained how she had never been the same since. She searched, and went to the police, but all to no avail. She went to see pastors, gurus and witch doctors to get justice, but nothing worked. Frustrated, she started drinking to alleviate her trauma. It destroyed her. It annihilated her energy. It confused her, making her hallucinate.
Nick walked away after hearing enough as he perched under a palm tree to ponder on what he had just witnessed. The events he had just witnessed made think about HAPPINESS. He wondered what made it so fleeting; he did not even know what it meant. Was it love? Was it the ability to love? Was it the sensation of being loved unconditionally? Could it be security? Peace? What about the stillness of the mind. He got stuck on the idea of HOPE and how it could be the precursor of it. Why does the grass always seem to be greener on the other side of the fence? He reasoned that everybody is in love and irrationally attached to the concept of “what could be”. That is the essence and wealth of a youthful mind – having options, having the ability to dream. Reality is probably just too boring; slow, or unengaging. That little fantasy of ours; that little secret is the only thing that keeps us going. Some people call it hope, others view it as goals, and spiritual souls call it faith, and the professionals, vision.
However, Nick found it odd how happiness was always in the future – never in the present.
These philosophical thoughts got interrupted by an old bum playing beautiful music on a dingy homemade guitar. The music was hypnotizing and soothing, but let out feelings of despair, hurt and disappointment. The small waves smashing on the reef mixed with the complex guitar riffs made it sound like a symphony of life – a life of sadness counterbalanced with a consoling promise of hope. It quickly got dark and Nick headed back home.

*

As he arrived back at the house, he saw Frits in his car arguing with Nellie. She was standing on the front porch yelling at her husband. Frits put the car into reverse and dashed out of the compound, almost running Nick over. Nick took a deep breath and approached the main house. He followed Nellie inside the living room.
“Is everything alright?” Nick asked.
“I can’t take this anymore, I just can’t,” Nellie kept mumbling to herself, walking around aimlessly like a headless chicken.
She was dressed quite provocatively, with a tight and extremely short black skirt. She had lots of make-up on, making her look like she was out looking for trouble. Her perfume filled the room as she grabbed some keys, her cell phone and her purse. Nick asked her if she was going out. She did not answer. She walked towards the door and looked back. She smiled, batting her luscious eyelashes and said, “I wish he could understand.”
She received a phone call. She picked it up, answering in monosyllables. She then told Nick that Chantal was waiting for her, and disappeared into the darkness, struggling to walk in her high heels.
Nick, filled with ambivalent feelings, went up the stairs and heard Stephane giggling as if he was with someone else. He entered the room and found an undone bed as if someone had just jumped out of it. He noticed one of Stephane’s little toes protruding from underneath his bed. Nick got down and asked the boy what he was up to, and the kid told him that he was with ‘Bernada’ and ‘Bolida’, his imaginary friends. Nick asked him why they had such odd names. The boy answered that they had unique names because they were special. He was sure that nobody else in the world had the same names as his imaginary friends. They were his secret. They were loyal only to him. They protected him, and always told him that everything was going to be OK. He trusted them because they never let him down, never left him alone and always did what they promised they would do.
Nick returned to his room and laid down on his bed, his hands folded behind his head. He started pondering what Nellie and her husband were going through. He concluded that gluttony was an inordinate desire to consume more than one required. We usually think of a glutton as someone who indulges excessively in eating or drinking. The chief error about gluttony is to think it only pertains to food and drink. Even though gluttony does mean eating or drinking too much, it nevertheless denotes far more than that. Gluttony is an emotional escape, a sign that something is eating us. It has to do with need. A need that is unfulfilled and frustrated for a long period, that is thwarted again and again, which will seek outlets. Such an outlet, among many other possibilities, may be gluttony. Overeating and drunkenness are symptoms of a larger problem of over-indulgence, lack of self-control, boredom or anxiety. When someone falls into the temptation of gluttony, he or she does not only want to eat or drink without limits but devour the whole universe, assimilating and possessing everything exterior, reducing the surroundings to oneself. Physical appetites are an analogy of our inability to control ourselves. If we are unable to control our eating and drinking habits, we are probably also unable to control other habits such as those of the mind (lust, covetousness, anger). This also means that we are unable to keep our mouth from gossip or strife – the inability to say “no”. However, possessing the ability to say “no” to anything in excess is one of the fruits of the spirit. Excessive enjoyment through the senses will result in the senses enjoying you.

*

Nick later went back to Gitega and visited Kibimba, the notorious place where the atrocious slaughter happened. It has since become a place of reconciliation. It has been commemorated by converting the old petrol station where it happened into a monument with the legend, ‘Plus jamais’ (never again!) inscribed on it.

Excerpt from the novel “Greener On The Other Side”

book cover

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