How to have a conversation with the past: A letter to Ssekabaka Muteesa I

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Many photographs made in Uganda are in collections abroad. The earliest ones known were made in 1875. They are in a collection in Belgium and not or barely known in Uganda. We would like for this to change. The photograph in question is a portrait of one particular king and his chiefs. But it stands for all the images that are shielded off by copyrights and (other) archival regulations that no longer make sense when a right to access of history is taken into consideration in a day and age in which digitisation and sharing of photographs is as easy as it is.

 

This blogpost is the first part of a long letter written by HIPUganda’s Andrea Stultiens to Kabaka Muteesa who ruled Buganda from 1856 till 1884. While contact with Arab traders from the Swahili coast was established during his father Kabaka Suna’s reign, Muteesa was the first King of Buganda to receive travelers and visitors from Europe. The letter traces the cultural and social biography of this photograph.

 

Please note, the actual ‘conversation’, with contributions by a wide range of artists is presented in the blog posts ‘The Show is Almost On‘, and ‘The Show is On‘.

 

Above: photograph made by explorer H.M. Stanley in 1875, reproduced from a book (see footnote 4).

Below: its negative.

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Dear Ssekabaka Muteesa,

Do you remember posing for a photograph with eleven of your chiefs? The picture was made by Mr. Stanley when he first came to Buganda. Did you ever see a print of the negative he produced? Or maybe of the engraving that was made based on the photograph? It served as an illustration in the first volume of mr. Stanley’s book ‘Through the Dark Continent’ that was published three years after the visit.

I am asking these questions because I have been looking into the life and uses of this one photograph. These efforts to trace the presence of the picture in Uganda help me to construct a historical perspective on the positions and uses of photographic pictures in Uganda at large. 

From the first visit by mr. Speke, who is said to have been the first European to meet you in person, these visitors started to write about you and their encounters with you. These texts have, in turn, been interpreted by numerous historians with an interest in pre- and early colonial East Africa. 

One of the articles that falls in the latter category stands out because of its title; ‘Images of an African Ruler: Kabaka Mutesa of Buganda, ca. 1857-1884’1The article starts with the remark that

There can be few areas of the world which have been more systematically misrepresented than Africa, especially that part of the continent south of the Sahara. For centuries, and certainly since the Midas-like Mansa Musa sat astride west Africa on the maps of fourteenth-century Spain, the weird and wonderful imagery of Africa has flooded Europe’s vision of the continent. Much of this imagery has been generated by European, and even here it has been generated by Africans themselves, the original meaning and intention is often difficult to discover. The imagery has, to the non-African world, become Africa […] (1. p269)

I was surprised to find that the reference made in this fragment to the Spanish maps is the only one in the article that points to actual pictures. The word image continues to be used, without further discussion of it, in a metaphorical sense referring to written sources describing you and aspects of your rule and life. These sources, some written by Ugandans, others by non-Ugandans are compared and used together to generate ‘images’ of you. The lack of reference to actual existing pictures is, I argue, symptomatic of the use of pictures in relation to the writing of histories of and in Uganda in two ways. First simply by their absence. And second for the lack of critical use of pictures and their sources. This true both in Ugandan as well as for international use of pictures about Uganda in relation to historical narratives. It also raises questions about what ‘misrepresentation’ is, and how it could be corrected and prevented. These are issues that have continuously on my mind and that I will get back to in the conclusion of my writing to you.

My main interest obviously lies with images that are not pictures generated in minds by words. I am interested in pictures we see with our eyes. Pictures that have a stable material appearance that always relates to two events; the event of their production and the event of being seen 2.

This long letter to you has four parts. In this first part I will tell you how I came across the photograph mr. Stanley made of you, which other versions of it I encountered, why I consider it to be an important picture when trying to understand the position of photographic pictures in general in present day Uganda.

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Above; screenshots made of appearance of the photograph made by mr. Stanley on a resource of the Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium)

The first time I remember consciously seeing the photograph of you and your chiefs was through a reference of a friend. The picture I was pointed to was small, no more than one inch high. It was captioned as a photograph of Kabaka Mutesa I. Considering both its age and what it depicted, I was surprised that I had not seen the photograph before. I knew by then that photographs of Kabakas, your descendants, usually met a lot of interest both in Uganda and among Ugandans in the diaspora. A search led to another version of the picture. I found it in a collection that holds a large amount of documents left behind by mr. Stanley in European country Belgium. After visiting you Mr. Stanley worked for the Belgian King Leopold. Mr. Stanley mapped the Congo Colony for him, a territory that initially became the King’s private colony, and later was Belgian property for about half a century 3. This time the picture was printed in a book about Mr. Stanley’s photographs and drawings. 

It looks like both the negative and three prints of the negative are part of this collection. Despite several attempts to see the negative and prints I have not been granted access to it. I have been working with the version of the photograph that was printed in the book just mentioned.

I will now describe how I read what I see what I see on the picture mr. Stanley made. My knowledge of the history of photographic technology makes me assume that I am looking at a photograph that was made on a glass plate negative. The picture is black and white. It has a rectangular shape that is more wide than high. On the page of the book the pictures is surrounded by a black surface on all sides. In the upper and lower right hand corners the black surface enters the rectangular shape. In the upper corner there are small black flakes. It looks as if the emulsion layer on the glass plate that carries the negative has been damaged. The glass plate broke in the lower corner and part of it is missing. Towards the upper and left and right edges of the picture a white haze overlays the scene. The whole picture is made up of shapes in various tones of white and grey rather than of clear crisp lines. Despite the general blur there are two details that show me that a rather long shutter speed was used. One of the men who stands behind you has two noses, which means he moved his face once while the exposure of the light sensitive plate was taking place. The man to his left moved his left arm that is therefore less defined than other parts of the photograph. The stick or staff you are holding also appears twice, indicating, again, that it moved. You are in the centre of the photograph, seated on a wide chair. You right arm lies on the armrest of the chair. Your left arm rests on your left leg. In your right hand you hold the staff or stick already mentioned. There is a white spot on your left little finger that I interpret as a ring, because several people mention in their descriptions of you that you wear rings. You are dressed in a white Kanzu with a long dark robe over it. On your head you wear a fez. Behind you I see eleven men dressed in a similar style. Some of them do not wear a robe over their kanzu. Only three of the men wear a fez, while two of them have a light coloured head cover that looks like it could be a kind of turban. One of the men carries a walking stick. The men have different distances towards the camera. They seem to be standing in three different lines. On the right side of the photographs I see a man who stands in line with the chair you are seated on. His feet are missing because of the piece of glass that broke away from the negative. The man’s head disappears in the mist and damage in the upper right corner. The background of the photograph is formed by a wall made of reeds. Immediately in front of the wall are eight men. Between them and the foreground with you and the man on the right side of the picture are two men. They are positioned on the left side of the photograph. One of these men is again partly covered by mist, the other one is carrying a stick or staff. In the lower left corner there is a large curved object in the foreground that could be an elephant’s tusk. In the far end of the corner there is a rectangular shape. It is unclear to me whether this is part of the photographed scene, or part of the damage that obstructs a clear view of the scene that was photographs. The ground you and the man sit and stand on looks like soil. The foreheads and nose bridges of all the people in the photo are white, indicating that the light came from above. This points to the photograph having been made in the middle of the day. This makes sense taking the limited sensitivity to light of the dry plate that Mr. Stanley used into account. The scene depicted has little definition and very few details, specially if I compare it to other pictures that were based on it. I will consider these interpretations in the next section that discusses the life of the photograph in various historical interpretations. I will continue to link the existence of these interpretations to how and where I encountered them to point out their presence in Uganda.

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Above: Photograph of the page containing an interpretation of the photograph, from a copy of mr. Stanley’s book Through the Dark Continent, Vol.1 that is part of the collection of the Uganda Society in Kampala.

 

Having read about your interest in technological developments I wonder how much Mr. Stanley told you about the photographic process 5

Did he mention that it was not possible to reproduce a photograph in print? While that was indeed the case, a picture based on the photograph mr. Stanley made of you and your chiefs did, as already mentioned, illustrate the two volume book that was published about his journey. To achieve this the photograph had gone through two steps of interpretation translating it into a picture that could be reproduced by print. The first interpretation was done by an illustrator who made a drawing of the photograph. The second one was done by an engraver, who translated the drawing into a cliché that could be printed many times 6.

The engraving that was made of the photograph is very detailed. While the photograph itself only suggests some sort of footwear on the feet of the chief in the middle ground to your right hand side, you and most of your chiefs are wearing shoes with a distinct form in the engraving. In the engraving your chair is placed on a carpet. The bottom left corner is of this version of the picture shows a plant where there are some shapes on the photograph that are hard to identify.

I came across this engraving several years before I saw the photograph. It was printed on page six of a book titled ‘Uganda, a Picture History, 1857-2007’. The picture is captioned as “Mutesa I with his County Chiefs; a drawing based on a photograph around the same time”. ‘The same time’ refers here to 1875, the date mentioned with the other picture printed on the same page; another engraving from mr. Stanley’s book.

 

Below: spread from Uganda, a Picture History, 1857-2007, published by Fountain Publishers in Kampala in 2008.

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Years later I would see a copy of the first edition of mr. Stanley’s book in the library collection of The Uganda Society. The Uganda Society is a “Membership based Society to promote Uganda’s literary, scientific and cultural heritage”.

The page the picture is printed upon is no longer connected to the book. It looks as though this is the result of the use and handling of the book, and the interest in the section that deals with mr. Stanley’s visit to Buganda including this particular page. The caption of the engraving in the book mentions you as “Mtesa the emperor of Uganda”. Some of the chiefs have been named while others are simply referred to as “other chiefs”. In the naming of the chiefs titles and names have been confused, which may have been the reason for the editor of ‘Uganda, A Picture History’ to omit this original caption.

Below: 2010 Calendar on the event of the burning of Kasubi Tombs, including your portrait, standing for you and for your son Kabaka Daudi Chwa. From a private collection of film and calendar posters, in Kampala.

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Above: Photographs made during a visit to the Kasubi Tombs in Kampala. July 2016.

Over the  years I had also seen a portrait of only you in several places. It seemed as though is was one and the same picture that was reproduced and usually framed. On this picture I saw a rather static face, with a long face, big eyes and a pronounced nose. You, again, wear a fez and an ornamented robe. I saw the picture, among other places, in the Kasubi Tombs, your former palace and burial ground. I saw it in the information centre of the Buganda kingdom at the Lubiri (Royal enclosure including Palace in Kampala, and in the Lukiiko (Buganda room for Parliamentary meetings). I also saw it in various publications, ‘A Picture History’ being only one of them.

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Above: Photographs of biographical publication about you, bought on Kampala Road, December 2016.

 

At some point along the way I started to tell people about the photograph made by mr. Stanley. These people were not random individuals, but included officials of the Buganda Kingdom government, people with a special interest in Ugandan history and, above all, artists and photographers. None of them knew about the photograph or recalled to have seen it. But they all knew the image, in one version of another. One significant response to the photograph came from Dr. Ham-Mukasa Mulira, a grandson of the Sekibobo who served your grandson. He told me that his brother, who lives in England, had done a research about you and made the claim that you were never photographed. At the same time Dr. Mulira had read of the origin of your portrait in a manuscript written by Barbara Kimenye, a lady who worked in the 1950s at the court of your namesake and great grandson Muteesa II:

The most interesting prince of all was Prince Joseph, an uncle of the Kabaka, who always looked as though he had wandered into the palace straight from working on his farm. His English was impeccable, despite never having been abroad, and some of the results of the experiments carried out on his farm earned the respect of the Agriculture Department. Among the Baganda, however, Prince Joseph was famous for his portrait of Mutesa I. Mutesa I died in 1884, long before Prince Joseph was born, and the portrait, probably Africa’s first Identikit composite, was produced from verbal descriptions given by some of the old princesses who remembered the man. It is said that the portrait took fifteen years to complete, because the old ladies never stopped arguing over the shape of various features. Since they must have been either dead or going senile by the time the portrait was finished, there could not have been anybody in a position to say how good a likeness it was 7.

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Above: Nasser Road, Kampala, January 2017, with posters for sale including the portraits of the four most significant Kabaka’s since the mid 19th century, starting, of course, with you.

 

Kimenye’s story made me look at the available portraits of you with renewed interest. This time I did not approach them as copies of a reality or of a photograph, but as constructed interpretations of your likeness. I now noticed that the engraving that was made ‘from a photograph’ significantly altered that likeness. While you and your chiefs are, to me, clearly black men in the photograph, your features look Arabic or even Caucasian in the engraving. I can think of three reasons for this. The first one would be that the illustrator and engraver were not familiar with black faces and projected familiar faces into the picture. The second reason would be that familiar and fairly clear elements in the photograph, such as clothes and headwear, were complimented with faces seen on other available pictures and photographs showing similar outfits. This however does not take ideological factors that surface in mr. Stanley’s writing into account. Mr. Stanley was impressed by you. Only days after he met you he writes a letter requesting British missionaries to travel to Buganda and set up a mission post. In the letter he describes you like this:

Mtesa is about thirty-four years old, and tall and slender in build [..] with broad shoulders. His face is very agreeable and pleasant, and indicates intelligence and mildness. His eyes are large, his nose and mouth are a great improvement upon those of the common type of negro, and approach to the same features in the Muscat Arab when slightly tainted with negro blood. […] As soon as Mtesa began to speak I became captivated by his manner, for there was much of the polish of a true gentleman about it – it was at once amiable, graceful, and friendly. It tended to assure me that in this potentate I had found a friend, a generous King, and an intelligent ruler. […] I could not regard this King or look at him in any other light than as the possible Ethelbert, by whose means the light of the Gospel may be brought to benighted Middle Africa.

In this and other fragments Mr. Stanley describes you as someone he can identify with and who he wants to relate to. Moreover he wants to convince his readers that they can also relate to you and your people and should consider acting upon that identification. He argues that a Christening mission on the African continent should, if anywhere, be set up in Buganda. I think that this is the main reason why the faces of you and your chiefs are the result of projections of the familiar onto the engraving, rather than readings of what was thought of as unfamiliar or other from the photograph. This argument is supported by a picture that I assume to be an interpretation of the engraving and its context.

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Above: Portrait of you in a book part of the library of 32 Degrees East, a foundation for artists in Kampala.

 

This pictures is again an engraving, but a new plate was made for it. This could have been necessary because the old plate got lost, or because the printing of the large edition for the books that was in high demand had worn the plate off. In this new engraving your facial features changed once again. I have seen two versions of the engraving. One of them shows you with your chiefs, the other one only you. I came across the group portrait in a book that published Mr. Stanley’s exploration diaries in 1961. The picture is captioned as “Mtesa I, the Kabaka of Uganda, from a photograph by the author”. No further reference is made to it in the book. The portrait of you alone appears in a book about Alexander Mackay, who you may remember as one of the first missionaries reaching Buganda in response to mr. Stanley’s call. He arrived around the same time during which Roman Catholic missionaries also reached you.

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Above: Page in The Exploration Diaries of H.M. Stanley, published in 1961.

 

Mackay’s sister writes about you as a man who devides his sympathies between the various visitors, much to her brother’s frustration. You are no longer imagined as the person whose intellect and power would lead to the enlightenment of ‘the dark continent’ that mr. Stanley saw in you, but as an opportunistic and potentially dangerous monarch. This was translated by an illustrator and/or engraver into a face that looks to me no longer Arab but more convincingly Caucasian than the picture made for mr. Stanley’s book. The nose is thin, the nostrils are prounounced, and so is the chin. Most significantly the shape of the mouth has changed, with the edges of the lips pointing down. These changes make, I would argue, your face appear less sympathetic and harder to identify with. We see then, again, a transformation in your likeness that has nothing to do with you, and everything with the story the picture illustrates. I do not know enough about the group picture this likeness of you is part of to make a similar argument there. It is unclear when and for which context it was made. I assume that your likeness was isolated from the larger picture that included the group, and not the other way around, but I cannot be sure of that. The chiefs behind you form a more organic group than on the photograph or the ‘original’ engraving. Their gazes are no longer towards one central point where the camera was and thus placing emphasis on a central perspective, but turned in different directions. It therefore looks as thought it was meant to be an observation of a scene, rather than a registration of a group of people posing.

 

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Above: From Lyon Fahs, S., Uganda’s White Man of Work, A Story of Alexander Mackay, 1913, New York Missionary Education Movement of the United States and Canada, Opposite Page 14. I did not see the book in Uganda.

I came across two more likenesses of you in books about Alexander Mackay. Both of them depict scenes in which you are meeting your white visitors. Both of them were published in the 20th century and both pictures contains elements that are derived from either the photograph or the engraving. In the oldest one ‘Uganda’s White Man of Work’ we see you seated in a chair in front of a reed wall, with chiefs seated around you and mr. Stanley seated on a stool in front of you. You are wearing pointed shoes similar to those in the engraving, and it is as if you and your chiefs all sat down after the photograph was made to listen to mr. Stanley. Slightly newer is the book ‘Mackay of Uganda, the missionary engineer’. On one of the pictures in it we see two white men in white suits. You are lying down, behind a shield and a spear. While your face is tilted the light on your face still seems to come from above which points to the use of the photograph or the engraving as its source.

Below: Yule, M., Mackay of Uganda, the missionary engineer, 1923, George H. Doran Company, New York. Opposite page 112. A physical copy of the book is part of the Africana section of Makerere University in Kampala.

 

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Above: Reproduction of negative that is part of the collection of Makerere University in Kampala.

The last historical picture I need to mention is another portrait of you. I saw several reproductions of it, some in colour, some in black and white. With none of them a source was mentioned. I initially thought that it was the same picture as the ‘identikit composit’ made by Prince Joseph. My continued interest in your likeness led me to female British painter Dorothy Tennant (1855-1926). Tennant studied painting in London and Paris. In 1890 she married mr. Stanley. I assume that she had access to a print of the photograph and painted from it. The Stanley household had a black servant who, in a photograph made by Dorothy’s sister Evelyn Myers, poses with the couple.

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Above: Sir Henry Morton Stanley; Dorothy (née Tennant), Lady Stanley and ‘Sali’ by Dorothy’s sister Evelyn Myers (née Tennant). Platinum print, 1890, collection (and copryright) National Portrait Gallery, London.

The portrait Lady Stanley made of you is a watercolour painting that is part of a private collection I have not been able to identify yet. But the picture is readily available for reproduction for all who are willing to pay for it. While there certainly is a resemblance between your likeness on the photograph and on Lady Stanley’s watercolour painting, I think that ‘Sali’’s features may also have served as a reference.

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Above: a gallery showing several pictures made by Dorothy Stanley, with your portrait among them.

One significant difference between your likeness in the Mr. Stanley’s photograph and in both the drawing and the watercolour painting is that in the latter two there are two strings on the robe you are wearing. Each string has three knobs on it. These are present neither in the photograph, nor in the engravings. They are, however, details of the robe that Ham Mukasa was photographed in, when visiting Britain in 1902. This way of dressing was not unusual, and it is possible that Lady Stanley (or Prince Philip) observed this detail on other photographs. But Ham Mukasa did visit the Stanley household while in Britain:

After [dinner mr. Stanley] took us to see a picture of our old King Mutesa, which he had drawn; it was exactly like him, and the Katikiro said, “If you have many copies of the picture I would like one”; and he said that he had only this one picture, but that he would get a copy made and give it to the Katikiro 8.

I do not know whether this copy was indeed made for the Katikiro. Or whether the picture Mukasa refers to is the watercolour made by mr. Stanley’s wife. Or if Lady Stanley produced the watercolour as a copy of the drawing her husband made, with the detail of the outfit her guests wore added as an extra feature. But each option seems plausible enough to be added to the picture’s story.

Below: Your portrait, made by Dorothy Stanley offered to buyers.

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While, as we have seen, several pictures have been derived from the photograph mr. Stanley made, not all of them are known in Uganda. The photograph itself was largely unknown when I started to show it around and share it (I will come back to the scope and effects of my actions and interventions in another part of my letter to you). I would say that three of the pictures, the first engraving and the portraits by Prince Joseph and Lady Stanley are at least to some extend part of collective memory in Buganda, and maybe also Uganda. While the origin as a photo is mentioned with the engraving that version of it was not known. And it seems as though no distinction is made between the latter two pictures, it is simply your likeness. While the Buganda Kingdom mostly uses the portrait that Mrs. Kimenye ascribed to Prince Joseph, Dorothy Stanley’s picture also appears in the context of information centres and publications connected to the Kingdom.

In the next part of the letter I will tell you about three that were published with mr. Speke’s book in which he reports on his visit to Buganda, and a drawing he made of you. While they visually do not relate to mr. Stanley’s photograph, they do provide an insight into the reception of pictures in Buganda in your lifetime. I would have loved to hear where you saw drawings mr. Speke and his companion made, but since I know you do not have the possibility to reply, I will continue to share thoughts and findings from my side.

With best regards

Andrea Stultiens

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The blog post series of a letter to Muteesa leads to, and accompanies the exhibition Ekifananyi Kya Muteesa from April 13th till May 13th at Makerere University Art Gallery, and to the last volume in the Ebifananyi book series.

 

 

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Footnoted references:

1 Richard Reid in History in Africa, Vol. 26, 1999, pp269-298

2 Consider reading Ariella Azoulay’s 2010 essay What is a Photograph? What is Photography? for more about the idea of a photograph as an event.

3 See  for instance Hochschild, A., (1998) King Leopold’s Ghost, Pan Macmillan and Reybrouck, D. van, (2010), Congo, The Epic History of A Peoplehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congo:_The_Epic_History_of_a_People

4 LeDuc-Grimaldi, M, 2007, Images from Africa, Mr. Stanley I presume, Koning Boudewijnstichting

5 In Yule, Mackay of Uganda p133, The Story of Mackay of Uganda by his sister, p129, and Ham Mukasa’s Backward Ever Forward Never, vol. 1, 2012 edition. Also see Ebifananyi 4.

6 See Koivunen, L., Visualizing Africa in nineteenth-century Bitish travel accounts for lengthy discussions of Stanley’s visual production among those of his contemporaries. Stanley himself credits E. Weller and E. Stanford for the drawings and engravings in his Through the Dark Continent, pix.

7 Initially Ham-Mukasa Mulira made, with permission of Kimenye’s son David, a copy of Kimenye’s manuscript available to me. David Kimenye was at the time triyng to get the manuscript, that is a memoir of her years in Uganda in the 1950s, written in the 1980s, published. Ugandan news paper ‘Daily Monitor’ published large parts of it in weekly instalments from September 25th 2015. See http://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/New-series–My-life-with-Kabaka-Mutesa/688334-2884480-3bagxwz/index.html

8 See Mukasa, H, Uganda’s Katikiro in England, 1904, Hutchinson & Co, London, p61 (for quote), frontispiece (for photo)

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Aisha
Aisha
·
Mar 21, 17 4:35 pm
#251

This is a bit off but, next time use a font that is easily readable, otherwise all you’ve written is as good as not written.

Maria Backman
Maria Backman
·
Apr 10, 17 1:24 pm
#364

Although the content is very interesting I have to agree with Aisha – the text is almost unable to read. I sit with an ordinarily laptop and have trouble reading the lot. And I think it os very unfortunate since it is very thought provoking!

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