By Ade Adepitan
In 2018, we commissioned 51 authors from 25 countries to write essays exploring ideas about freedom for The Freedom Papers, a publication produced in partnership with Gutter Magazine. Five of these essays, including the one featured below, were commissioned by young programmers aged 8-14 who were working with us as part of the Year of Young People 2018. Read on for Ade Adepitan's essay, and visit guttermag.co.uk to purchase a copy of The Freedom Papers.
What is freedom? This is the first time I’ve thought about the meaning of the word, maybe because I’ve never had to worry about being free. I grew up in Plaistow in East London. My family didn’t have much money but as long as I didn’t break any laws I could act, think, and do what I wanted. Apart from when my mum chose the clothes I wore to school, which would’ve been perfect if I went to a Nigerian circus prep school for pink chequered suit wearing clowns. Not so cool, however, if you went to a standard comprehensive school in Upton park.
Now this may sound strange but I think having a disability played a big part in making me feel free. I contracted polio when I was fifteen months old; it destroyed the muscles in my left leg. This meant I had to wear an iron leg brace called a caliper to help me walk. Having polio made me look different and stand out, at a time when you just wanna blend into the crowd. Instead I had to learn from an early age how to deal with people pointing and staring at me.
I realised very quickly that I had a decision to make. Do I let the jeers and judgment trap me into the loser they think I am? Or do I take control of my story and make my life what I dream it could be? I took the second choice. In 1984 I watched the Olympic games on our small family TV. The opening ceremony took my breath away – spectacular fireworks, incredible dancing – there was even a man in a rocket suit blasting off into the sky. It was absolutely nuts! I wanted to be there, and even as a young boy who could barely walk, I chose to believe that I could be there one day.
I remember at the start of each race in the athletics, I would sit on the sofa in our living room, close my eyes and as soon as the starter gun went off I’d begin to pump my arms up and down like I was one of my favourite sprinters. In my mind I was in the Olympic stadium and the whole crowd were cheering for me. I did this for every race and it felt amazing, by the time I got to the ten thousand meters I was knackered. Occasionally mum would come into the living room to check on me especially when she heard me screaming with joy (because of course I won every race by the tiniest of margins). She would shake her head and laugh. As she left the room, I could hear her muttering under her breath ‘there must be something in the water because this boy is acting crazy!’
I knew from the moment I set eyes on the Olympic games that I wanted to be an elite athlete and compete against the very best in the world in front of thousands of people. Even though I didn’t realise it at the time, that was the moment I found my path to freedom.
Freedom means many things to many people and can come in different forms. Prisoners have their physical liberty taken from them. In some countries people are not able to speak freely about what they see as injustice, or criticise the leaders of their nations. I guess it’s because I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience any of the above that I define freedom as the liberation of the mind. I see it as the ability to think for yourself and create your own destiny, to realise it’s OK to make mistakes and it’s OK to do things differently. Sometimes the hardest thing to do in our world is be ourselves, partly because it takes time to know who we are. But it’s also natural to spend a lot of our time worrying about what others think of us because deep down, I think we all want to be loved or at least respected by our peers. Mental freedom comes when you’re able to let go of those judgments and allow your creativity to flourish. Athletes call this being in the Zone! Some people call it being in the moment.
Some of the greatest moments in my life have come from when I’ve been in the Zone, and let my skills do the talking. It’s a special place where you’re free to be the best you can be. Once you experience it you never want to leave, when you do leave you always want to go back. That’s because freedom is probably the most precious gift any of us can ever have. Those of us who are lucky enough to be free should hold it close, help those who don't have the same opportunities and never ever take our freedom for granted.
Copyright © 2018, Ade Adepitan. All rights reserved.
Supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund through Creative Scotland.