Tracey Emin: My Life In A Column

'In a place where nobody knows who I am, or what I do, stands my library'

Friday 25 January 2008 01:00

Kampala, Serena Hotel, Room 302. I am lying in bed. The linen is just as I like it, very soft. The pillows hold my head in a perfect way. I am very comfortable in my five-star hotel. I am neither too hot, nor too cold. Outside my open window the sound of Kampala rolls by – a city with faint colonial references, a mixture of ramshackle shantytown and art deco. A place that decades have missed. Businessmen wear ill-fitting pinstripes and drink Fanta through straws, and world clocks are set by hand – KAMPALA – JOBURG – BOMBAY – BEIJING.

I am positioned in a different part of the world that rotates on a different axis. I am very close to the Equator and the people are very black from the sun. I have never been anywhere and felt so white. As we drive along the hand-carved muddy roads, far away from the city, amongst the lush green, green Ugandan flora and teeming fauna, tiny impoverished children in torn, dirty rags wave from their wattle and daub huts, shouting "mzungu" (whitey); their little eyes flash as they smile.

I lay there flicking through the channels, my mind's eye mixed with the million images of the day before and the screen in front of me. I go from BBC World to CNN to Al Jazeera, Sky and back to BBC. They all say the same thing – Tracey, this world is a mess.

Through my TV, I am connected to every corner of the globe. Peter Hain has resigned. Heath Ledger is sadly still dead, and I have to wonder why the Palestinians don't just keep running through that hole in the wall. I find the whole thing depressing and attempt to find something Ugandan. A woman with a really big bum fills up the whole of the screen.

I flick again and have the Kenyan crisis. Think of a country run by teenagers. My brain starts to plummet as I concentrate on war, humanity, fear and hatred. My forehead starts to crunch in on itself as I try to fathom why the world is in such a mess. How did it get that way? Why can't this great ball of shit just stop rolling for five minutes and take a look at itself?

Some of us have the ability to see and observe everything, but we often numbly stand by, content to be the worst kind of witness – the kind who is totally aware, who knows but does nothing.

In life, it is so difficult to implement change. Rarely does change come without loss, death or misery – or vast amounts of red tape. Even the good things are almost impossible to achieve. But yesterday, I did something good. In fact, something more than good; it was brilliant! I opened the Tracey Emin Library. I am still in a slight state of shock that a chance meeting, a chance conversation, could lead to so much.

I often feel dissatisfied or dislocated in my life, like I am not complete. I tire of seeing the spoils of my hard work constantly pouring into a vat of myself. People who know me are aware that I do a lot for charity. I enjoy it, it is rewarding, but I am always removed. I can't make decisions and be hands-on. For ages, I have wanted to do something that would be helping others but at the same time really helping me. I want to nurture something, see it grow.

By working with a small, small, tiny charity, and an investment company, I was fast-tracked. Within six months of a seed of an idea, now, in the middle of poverty-stricken rural Uganda, as part of the Forest High School, stands the Tracey Emin Library. In a place where nobody knows who I am, or what I do, miles and miles away from the galleries, collectors, good and bad reviews, stands my library. In a country where the infrastructure is weak but getting stronger, a country forcefully running from its cruel internal history, a place of devastating beauty, land-locked, holding in its belly giant crocodile-infested lakes, and the people are sweet.

Schools here don't have libraries. In fact, rural areas have very little. Most have no doctor, no clinic, no hospital; schools are few and far between. Education cannot afford to be a priority, but it should be.

When I was at junior school, every year there was a prize-giving – six or seven prizes – always going to the goody-goodies, the children who appeared to come from the least dysfunctional homes. Maria and I would sit cross-legged in the assembly hall and sneer as each goody-goody was presented with their award for being exactly how they should be. Then, in the third year, when I was about nine, the headmaster announced: "This year we have a special prize, a prize for someone who started a job and continued beyond what was expected." And my name was called out. My name was called again and I got up and made my way to the front.

In maths we had to make a paper house using a set square and ruler, measuring angles so the house could be cut out, folded and stand. I made 10 houses, a church, garage, sweet shop, greengrocer's, butcher's. I painted them all, put them on a large sheet of cardboard, made trees, parks and a road; I made a whole village. I didn't do this in my maths class, on my school time, I did it in my play time. I did it because it made me happy. I think this library may be just the beginning.

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