This book was recently read by the book club I belong to and it was such an easy and enjoyable read . To be honest I was not expecting much but boy was I pleasantly surprised! This collection of short stories by popular comedian Trevor Noah is set in his native South Africa and takes the reader back to his growing up years with his mum, younger brother and interesting extended family.
I have always been fascinated with the history of racial segregation stemming from slavery in the West and apartheid in South Africa so the fact that this was one of themes made the book captivate me from beginning to end. Trevor’s story of growing up in apartheid/post-apartheid S.A is poignant and moving but he still manages to infuse humour into it. His mother Patricia is the real MVP and manages to raise him in the midst of so much lack and confusion. This book is a collection of stories but because they flow so seamlessly they seem like just a single story.
While many parts made me laugh out loud ( like when he found out his gorgeous prom date couldn’t speak English) and one part made me cry (when he reunited with his dad who showed him the book with newspaper clippings from his shows) there were also a lot of deep lines which resonated well with me. Here are just some of my most memorable lines from “Born a Crime”.
“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.”
Dreams are a product of so many things. How can you dream of something you cannot even fathom? Think about it when the Russians and Americans were dreaming about putting a man on the moon countries with limited technology weren’t even harbouring such ambitious dreams or aspirations! That’s why what we are exposed to (and what we expose our children to) is so important and serves as a “not so blank” canvas on which we can paint our dreams.
“Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being”
Truly language is such an important aspect of any culture and it immediately breaks barriers. Trevor’s mastery of several languages helped him gain acceptance in a society where he stood out as a multi-racial child. When you are able to speak one’s language it brings an immediate connection that can’t be described. Even when you don’t speak it fluently the fact that you try makes a difference, and in many instances can earn you a discount or literally save your life. For example in another post on Mary Slessor who was easily the most impactful missionary in South East Nigeria, I write about how the one thing that helped her gain acceptance amongst the Efik people was her mastery of their local language. While other missionaries spoke to them though interpreters, Mary spoke directly to them in their own tongue and as a result won over their hearts. It’s the same with Trevor he showed in his book how speaking another man’s language shows them that they matter and immediately puts them at ease.
“I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. “What if…” “If only…” “I wonder what would have…” You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days.”
Unlike Trevor I do have my regrets in life but I do not dwell on them, rather I learn the lessons and move on. However just like Trevor I am consumed with regret for choices I don’t make. I do not want to live my life wondering “what if” and would rather try and fail than not try at all. This is what helps me push through even in the most difficult situations, like when I had to go back to school for a second Masters degree a couple of years ago. Having gotten all my education in Nigeria I wanted to experience studying abroad and even though I had four young children and knew it would be tough but I didn’t want to look back years from now and say, “Oh I wish I had gotten a masters in the UK” that for me would be even tougher. In life we have many dreams and sometimes we are told its too late or too ambitious but as long as the desire is there give it a go. “What if I fail” I hear you say but my response quoting Erin Hanson is “oh, but my darling, what if you fly?.
“Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” she would say, “but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter.”
This is something I hold on to – do not let your past experiences make you bitter, instead they should make you better. It is easy to sit down and brood over all the wrongs that people have done to you but you will just end up a bitter person. A more productive approach is to learn the lessons “let the pain sharpen you” let the experience teach you something that will make you a stronger, sharper and more sensible person. This leads me to the next memorable quote from the book.
“I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother, her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold onto the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass kicking your mom gave you or the ass kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on. You’ll have a few bruises and they’ll remind you of what happened and that’s ok. But after a while, the bruises fade and they fade for a reason.
The bruises fade for an excellent reason, it’s to allow you get over it and try again. Forgetting pain is what allows a woman go through an agonising labour and still yearn for more children. See, playing the victim has never helped anyone…never! Yes, you may have had a difficult life, your husband dumped you, your friends betrayed you and your boss is horrid but none of these things should stop you from becoming who God has called you to be. Let us remember the story of Joseph, this is a guy who was sold into slavery by his blood siblings, falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and almost forgotten in jail. Still when he was summoned to interpret Pharaohs dream he could have said “na true…una don see jaki *! shebi I interpreted for the other guys before, now I should come and interpret and be thrown back into jail after abi?…biko free me” . He could have said he didn’t have any idea what the dream meant. However, he knew God had given him an assignment and he spoke having no idea what lay in store for him. It’s important not to hold on to past grudges but to allow our God given destiny be fulfilled. Always remember that in life offences will come but what’s important is not allowing them fester and dictate your life, learn the lessons and carry on.
“We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others because we don’t live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip off people with subprime mortgages if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping off. If we could see one another’s pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it for us to commit the crimes in the first place.”
In the book of Matthew 22:39, we are told to love our neighbour’s as ourselves. If we truly saw everyone as our neighbour and loved them as ourselves then the world would be a kinder place. Drug dealers hardly do drugs as they know the dangers and if those ravaged by drug addiction were members of their household many of them will think twice. It is this disconnect that many criminals have that allows them to recklessly harm and hurt others. Once we aim to see others as we see our loved ones or ourselves then we will be the happier for it.
“Abel wanted a traditional marriage with a traditional wife. For a long time I wondered why he ever married a woman like my mom in the first place, as she was the opposite of that in every way. If he wanted a woman to bow to him, there were plenty of girls back in Tzaneen being raised solely for that purpose. The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. “He’s like an exotic bird collector,” she said. “He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.”
Trevor’s mum was amazing, however one of the poorest choices she made had to be getting together with Abel, Trevors’s step dad. Here was a man attracted to an independent woman but bent on caging her and killing her spirit. His story reminded me of a lady who got married to a man from a different tribe at the age of 21. Her father was livid and forbade her from carrying on with the relationship but she stubbornly refused and insisted that being from a different tribe was not a big deal. Her husband was impressed, this was a woman who knew what she wanted and was bold enough to defy her father. Later in the marriage, the young couple experienced some turbulence and the husband blamed it on his young wife’s stubborn streak, how ironic! Wasn’t that one of the things he loved about her? How she could not be pushed around and tenaciously held on to what she believed in? Suddenly he was now trying to stifle that voice.
Many of us are like Abel or the man described above, we admire a person just as they are and when we win their affections we decide we must proceed on a mission to change them, strange isn’t it? Now it’s all well and good for people to positively rub off each other but one should never expect to change a human being. Accept them as they are and pray that with time you will create the right mix, balance or synergy together.
‘Because,’ she would say, ‘even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.”
Trevor’s mum exposed her son to a lot. She was a determined young woman and she wanted her son to know there was more to the world than the ghetto they lived in. This is how dreams are made…you read books, watch TV, mix with different people, visits places and you discover there is much more to life. Many times our vision is limited because our exposure is poor but this does not have to be the case. We can be bigger than we currently are if we gain the right experiences and are able to dream big. I remember a certain lady who grew up in Ajegunle*, they didn’t have much but her mum ensured she went to a good primary school in a better neighbourhood and gained admission into a Federal Government College. All her efforts paid off and when she landed a plum job in a big Multi-national on the Island, no one believed that this well-spoken and well put together young lady was born and raised in Ajegunle. Her mum prepared her for the bigger world and she prepared her well.
“The first thing I learned about having money was that it gives you choices. People don’t want to be rich. They want to be able to choose. The richer you are, the more choices you have. That is the freedom of money.”
Ain’t this the truth! A good number of people do not want to just acquire money for the sake of it but are just interested in the freedom money brings. The freedom to send your children to the schools you want, the freedom to wear the kind of clothes you want without always waiting for them to go on sale, the freedom to take a holiday when you want!. That is really what money is supposed to be, a medium of exchange and something we control for our benefit not something that controls us.
“Comfort can be dangerous. Comfort provides a floor but also a ceiling.”
Preach Trevor! In other words comfort can be a trap and can be very dangerous, comfort is what makes you think you are doing ok while you are living far beneath your potential. Living in your comfort zone can limit you and prevent you from rising to the heights you should ordinarily rise to. Comfort can make you complacent and help you make excuses for mediocrity. Comfort makes you settle for everything and anything, a bad suitor is seen as not being too bad “at least he doesn’t beat me” you tell yourself, a crappy job is managed because you tell yourself “at least I have a job” and mean friends are tolerated because you tell yourself “at least she is nice sometimes”. Your comfort zone can actually do you more disservice than you can imagine and it’s time to get up, maybe fight a few battles and face a short wilderness because at the end you will find yourself where you are truly supposed to be. Refuse to settle and get comfortable on the wrong floor of life’s storey building.
“The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”
This is what Trevor’s mum told him and while we may disagree on corporal punishment the truth is that tough love works. As a parent it is better you discipline your child in the safety of your home and teach him vital lessons than allow him get out of control and end up on the streets, because if he gets into trouble on the streets it will be big trouble.
” I think God made humans shit in the way we do because it brings us back down to earth and gives us humility. I don’t care who you are, we all shit the same. Beyoncé shits. The pope shits. The Queen of England shits. When we shit we forget our airs and our graces, we forget how famous or how rich we are. All of that goes away. You”
This is truth! As a child I went to a St Saviour’s Primary School where at the time more than 90% of the student population was “white” . The fact that we had to use the toilet and do our business the same way made me realise we were all the same, when we hurt ourselves at playtime it was the same red blood that flowed. As a result I was never one of those people who felt “oyibo*” people were special or anything, they were just people full stop. It’s this truth that makes it amazing to me that one human being will sit down and think himself superior to a person of a different race, meanwhile all your bodily functions operate the same way. It’s just puzzling and totally bewildering to me, you can have sex with a person but yet treat them like they aren’t human? This is why I am drawn to black American history as it’s just crazy to see what our brothers and sisters were subjected to by people who for some crazy reason could not see we are all the same. It’s the same reason I do not understand tribalism or understand why people maltreat their helps and other employees, after all is said and done we are all the same shikena.
Hope you enjoyed reading this and will share your favourite parts from this book in the comments section, thank you!
*a slum in Lagos.