On Doing Things

This orig­i­nally appeared on mis​ter​agye​man​.blogspot​.com on November 24, 2014.

Thinker, tinker.
Use your hands once in a while. 
From your cave you have eaten miles 
And swallowed kingdoms, have you? 

Have you? 

Tinker, thinker.

Recently it’s been whis­pered that my coun­try has become a ‘failed state’. I thought about it for quite a bit and decided to fix it. Then I thought some more, about what I could do. 

Results are inconclusive.

In my teens, when I first con­sid­ered the poor world and its des­per­ate need of a hero, I deter­mined to heal them with fan­tasy books mod­elled on the ‘Eragon’ uni­verse. Later I dis­cov­ered ‘Things Fall Apart’ and started plan­ning for life as a con­scious African writer. I was young; now I’m old. Now, I’m con­cen­trat­ing on remem­ber­ing to wash my dinner plate.

As a child, I was quite con­fi­dent with my hands. I would try any­thing that looked inter­est­ing, armed with good inten­tions and noth­ing else. My enthu­si­asm was con­sid­ered by Fate, and things didn’t blow up in my face as often as you’d think. But now I am old enough and aware enough of myself to admit that I haven’t done much that is tan­gi­bly useful.

I am grate­ful for an intu­ition which allows me to com­fort­able grasp cre­ative con­cepts, but for a very long time I would just ran­domly strike out- in music, lit­er­a­ture or visual art- vaguely inter­ested to see what would happen. I had an con­cep­tion of the audi­ence or user which ranged from apathy to hos­tile resis­tance. I argued that I did things for me. It’s a valid point. Problem is, I didn’t really. I just did things. The ‘for’ didn’t enter into my calculations.

This atti­tude resulted, as it usu­ally does, in very per­ish­able prod­ucts. Drawing would fade in beauty in days; the sin­gu­lar ridicu­lous­ness of my inven­tions would become appar­ent in very little time. It turns out, whims pass. I’m aware of this now, but I’m still not over it. It’s a deep-rooted phi­los­o­phy which I have to chip at every­day. I often catch myself making things just because they are fun to make. (Or plan­ning to make them, which is more likely.) I don’t scold myself for doing this; fun things should form a respectable per­cent­age of any healthy life. The dif­fer­ence is that now, I do not try to con­vince myself of the thing’s use­ful­ness. Problems are tan­gi­ble, prac­ti­cal things. Naturally, their solu­tions should follow in this vein.

You may know some­body like me. Generally, when we see a func­tional prob­lem, our most direct con­tri­bu­tion to the solu­tion is inform­ing others of its exis­tence. Our strong point is intu­ition; when we see some­thing wrong, we know it’s wrong. Sometimes we even go fur­ther to under­stand why it is wrong, and how to fix it. But then we stop. As far as I can tell, this fail­ure to move on to the actual doing isn’t conscious. 

When we are small, we hate this sort of person- the sort of person I’m trying not to be. Grownups iden­tify prob­lems, then ask us to fix them. They see the dirty thing, and it fills them with dis­gust. We do not par­tic­u­larly mind the dirty thing, and it comes as a sur­prise to us when we are informed that we are expected to clean it up. This sort of thing is even more painful when some unat­tached grownup has a prob­lem, and our grownups gen­er­ously offer our ser­vices to fix it. And then, even more painfully, they mod­estly dis­miss the grat­i­tude offered to them. It is hard on children.

But then chil­dren grow, and forget these clear dis­tinc­tions between doing and talk. In my time I have pro­duced many fine rants about the gov­ern­ment. Did these won­der­ful essays offer solu­tions? The fact is, when you’re writ­ing that par­tic­u­larly pithy anal­ogy, that para­graph of drip­ping sar­casm about the Honourable Minister, you feel it’s as useful as actual elec­tric power. True,If they could some­how con­nect our bright­est satirists to the grid, I have no doubt that we’d be fine.

We aren’t though. Living on the inter­net as I do, I see more com­men­ta­tors than actual doers. For every pos­i­tive story of a real change made, there are 1.7 mus­ings on whether Ghana is worth loving. There is no such thing as Ghana. There is family and friends who give us love, and miles of cable which run our self-pub­lish­ing oper­a­tions, and car­pen­ters and farm­ers and those extra­or­di­nary people who deal with our rub­bish. As an artist and a mar­keter, I can only inspire and enable these people to do what they do. Inspiration is a very good thing. But it lacks nutrients.

There’s a fan keep­ing the flies off of me now. It wasn’t work­ing before, and I sweated and itched in silence. Then out of des­per­a­tion, I plugged it in, and noticed that I could still hear the motor purring. Fired with a ridicu­lous idea, I pressed the motor and the front… fan cage thing together- and the blades began to turn. I can’t tell you how proud I feel right now. I am just wait­ing for my friends to come in and see me, enjoy­ing the fruit of five sec­onds’ labour. I wonder how I’d feel if I’d actu­ally built the thing, as tech­ni­cal school guys appar­ently do. My best friend planted beans after we fin­ished in JSS. I laughed at him. Mostly because beans are just funny, of course.

“Beans, beans, the musi­cal fruit.”

But also, I thought it was silly of him to waste time play­ing with dirt when we could be learn­ing code or some­thing. Problem is, until we tran­scend our carbon-based biol­ogy as a species, beans will remain more useful than Java. But I’m not talk­ing about that. I’m musing about the per­cep­tions. Our tech­ni­cal schools lack fund­ing. People who admit to doing Vocational Skills get used to the awk­ward pauses. This won’t be fixed by increas­ing fund­ing for sci­ence labs. I wonder if I will ever have the need to make my own salt from pre­pared solu­tions of dilute HCl and NaOH. It’s not entre­pre­neur­ship either; at least not entirely. There’s a lot of entre­pre­neurs now in Ghana, but mostly in the ser­vice indus­try, where cre­ativ­ity most mat­ters. The ser­vice indus­try cre­ates wealth and value in ways which are hard to dis­tin­guish from text­book eco­nomic bub­bles. It’s only sus­tain­able when founded on a good strong base of makers of food and machines and such. You need people who can take raw mate­ri­als and make them help­ful. (‘Helpful’ is work­ing gear, as opposed to cou­ture.) Also I hear there’s an impend­ing short­age of plumbers. Plumbers aren’t typ­i­cal makers, but we do need them really badly.

You may notice I haven’t actu­ally given any tan­gi­ble solu­tion. Possibly you’ve read all this with a slight sneer, wait­ing to see how I sum up. Of course this stuff isn’t new, you say. Where’s the magic fix to back up the spec­u­la­tions and the phi­los­o­phy? As usual, I don’t have the answer. I am just start­ing the conversation. 

That’s all I know how to do.