For Lack of a Guitar

What would the world look like if it was a little bit of a better place? If people had a few more chances? If life was a little easier? If opportunity was a bit more evenly distributed?

When I’m in Lilongwe, I usually stay at a backpacker’s hostel called Mabuya Camp. After being there enough times, I’ve gotten to know most of the staff.

A while ago I promised one of the day guards, George, that I would teach him to play guitar. His first lesson was to be at 6:00pm, an hour after his shift ended. I showed up on time, guitar in hand but, for whatever reason, he’d already gone home. However, one of the night guards, Peter (“Peetah” in Malawi Pronunciation), nearly jumped into the ceiling when saw I had a guitar. He asked if I could teach him to play, so I said sure.

I’ve been playing guitar for over 6 years now, and in that time I’ve taught a fair number of people the basics. Some have gone on to become fairly good, and still play now. Others lost interest within the first 5 minutes. No one, however, has ever learned half as fast as Peter. Not even close.

To be honest, I was completely amazed. Dumbfounded. Most people struggle to play a chord when they’re first learning. He was making the guitar sound good.

I asked him if he’d played before, and he said yes, but not for a long time. Four years ago someone showed him how to play. He got to practice for two months, a couple times a week, and then that was it.

Two months of intermittent practice, and then four years without playing. Not very much to go on. He didn’t even remember the chords. But it didn’t take more than 20 minutes before he had the thing sounding really nice.

The thing is, Peter is obviously a natural. Learning an instrument is about a lot more than moving your fingers. It’s about knowing what good music sounds like. It’s about intuitively being able to understand an instrument and the music it produces - to understand how what you do with your hands relates to what you hear. It’s not easy.

As he was playing, I couldn’t help but think about how good Peter could probably get if he had a guitar of his own to practice on. But he doesn’t.

I don’t know what Mabuya pays, but the typical salary for a guard in Malawi is somewhere between K4,000-K9,000 per month (CDN $31-$69). At best a couple dollars a day. Barely enough for the basics. Certainly not enough to think about a guitar any time soon.

But it goes so much further. Peter could be a great musician, but for lack of the opportunity - for lack of an instrument. For the lack of a guitar. How many other people in the world could be something they’re not, for lack of a few more dollars a day, for lack of a little opportunity? What kind of world could we live in? Would it be a better place? A more interesting place? A happier place? I think so.

If you’re still reading, just take a second to think about this too. Stop what you’re doing, sit back, and press play on this video (turn your volume up nice and loud, because it’s pretty quiet). Listen to Peter playing guitar – his first time in four years – and think about what the world could be like if opportunity was spread a little more evenly. Think about the world we could make.

Peter on Guitar (music starts around 0:25).


1 comment:

  1. thanks for making me take some time and think today. Too much hustle and bustle. I was missing some much needed reflection & visioning time.

    chapter retreat this weekend. The "Retreatails" email is still going strong. Hopefully we'll have some guitars out there.