Chengelo, my old boarding school, was like stepping right into the past with both unchanged places and faces, and where Jacob fell in love with the ropes course: swinging between the pines with the wind singing between the trunks and tugging at the tree tops.
Driving through the Copperbelt on the way to Chimfunshi the tarmac ruffles and sinks into two deep furrows made under the weight of the heavy mining trucks. On the other side of the town of Chingola the flat landscape specked with acacia trees changes dramatically with a daunting pit emerging surrounded by dry barren hills – Nchanga Mines; the worlds second largest open pit mine covering nearly 30 km squared.
A couple of hours drive from the mines lies a chimp refuge started by David and Sheila Siddle in the early 1980’s. Their passion was wildlife and their life’s work has been to save a multitude of animals, mostly chimpanzees from everywhere around the world. Shiela, now in a wheelchair, welcomed us with a chorus of barking dogs who wanted a stroke and a cuddle. She sighed and her voice cracked from sadness as she told us about Billy the hippo who they had saved as a baby from poachers, and who had been poisoned three years ago. Billy had been a close companion to her for over 20 years. A pleasure to meet people who live their passion.
About an hours drive from Ndola lies a little game park with cosy chalets nestled in the bush on the banks of a dammed up river. Bumping along the dirt roads of the park we spotted a variety of buck, zebras, giraffes and birds, visited the snake cages and spent the evening curled up by a crackling fire.
A couple of years ago I visited Livingstone together with some friends. In the centre of the main road of the town is a line of beautiful mango trees beneath one of which an elderly lady sat in rags. She sat, surrounded by plastic bottles, with her bony shoulders and withered breasts showing through the tears of her brown tattered dress. There she sat, day and night, whenever we passed by, and having been brought up to act when faced with suffering, we decided to do something to help her. We went to the local PEP and bought her some t-shirts and chetengas, a roast chicken, some water and a few other things that escape my mind at the moment. We crossed the road, headed for the mango tree, bearing our gifts, but as we approached we heard her mumble the word ‘no’ over and over as she shook her head. We stumbled and hesitated a brief moment, but so certain of the goodness of our actions, we forced our generosity upon her, leaving our gifts at her bare feet. The next morning the gifts were gone, and she still sat under the mango tree, surrounded by plastic bottles, with her bony shoulders and withered breasts showing through the tears of her brown tattered dress.
I recently read a novel called ‘Gifts’ by Nuruddin Farah. The story is set in Mogadishu in the early 1990’s when Somalia was ravaged by war and famine from a severe drought, and received much financial support from other countries. The story revolves around the theme of receiving gifts and the question of dignity:
“Last week the world ran and Africa starved. […] Last week, while the non-starving peoples of the world ran, taking part in the self-perpetuating media exercises of TV performances, Africa waited in the wings, out of the camera’s reach, with an empty bowl in hand, seeking alms, hoping that generous donations would come from the governments and peoples of the runners. […] I feel shy, I am tongue-tied. Like a child to whom an adult has given a gift, who smiles timidly and takes it, and whose mother says, “Say thank you to Uncle,” I too say, thank you one, thank you all, Uncles Sam, Sung, and Al-Mohamed too.” Farah.
This question of a continent, of a nation, of a human being receiving and at the same time maintaining dignity is a pertinent question which is raised in this satirical song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5opSsAYQ3k
But I don’t mean to bring the notion of generosity into question. I call out with Dostoyevsky’s character Alyosha Karamozov:
“We are all responsible for everything and for everyone before everyone, but I more than any other!”
I merely wish to point out the complexity of the phenomenon of ‘giving’.
But how then does one make a difference in the face of suffering? How are we to respond to responsibility for the Other? I do not know. And I certainly do not believe in simple generalized answers. I believe that it is a question that we must ask ourselves in every encounter with the other, again and again, in situated specific circumstances. And I believe in bravery – in daring to act, even with the risk of failure.
One place that certainly makes an admirable difference is Mechanics for Africa, where we have the privilege of renting a house and having our base during our time in Zambia. They train mechanics as well as running a workshop – providing an education, providing jobs, providing a future, providing dignity.
Ibo Island, once the capitol of the Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique, has a rich history as a flourishing centre of trade for the Arabs, the Indians and the Portuguese. Slavery was abolished in Britain in 1807 but continued to thrive in eastern Africa. In the 19th century approximately 1 million slaves were transported from Mozambique (many through Ibo), and the Portuguese slavery (although abolished in 1869) was not effectively suppressed until the beginning of the 20th century. Mozambique acquired independence in 1975, suffering a civil war from 1977 to 1992 where fighting ceased, holding their first multi-party elections in 1994.
Ibo Island stands as a testament to this history: the beautiful ruins of a rich regime of exploitation, the oppressors having abandoned their dynasty, leaving the inhabitants to survive on their own in a globalised world that insists on western systems established through centuries. It is much like someone changing the world of a severely narrow sighted man who, originally having arranged the world in a way that did not deem narrow sightedness as a handicap, suddenly lives in a world where glasses are necessary to survive, and then abandoning him with the materials to make his glasses but letting him know that the recipe for making them can only be found on the other side of the globe. He stands, blind, in world built by making him weak, posing demands that he does not have the tools to live up to.
But the island is now, after 40 years, slowly beginning to be rebuilt.
It is difficult to come up with a generic definition of childhood – it looks so different depending on who you are and where you reside in the world. Most would agree that childhood is a time where you feel comfortable sitting on the floor with your legs crossed. Most would agree that childhood is a time where one often does not understand the rules of the game, does not have a clear sense of the upcoming future; of what the other will do in the next moment or what is expected of him/her in this particular situation. Most would agree that childhood is a time where learning (in every sense of the word) is central.
Thank God for Iris International in Pemba who restore childhood for so many: orphanage for approx. 100 kids, free schooling and feeding program for almost 5000.
I love airports, the gate area in particular. It holds a certain oxymoronic feel: ‘resigned anticipation’ or ‘serene excitement’. It is as though the air is filled with the prospect of upcoming experiences, of adventures, or perhaps the joy of reunification, and at the same time, the hard uncomfortable rows of chairs draw me in and instil within me a sense of submissive longanimity, as if one could wait endlessly.
This oxymoronic sense seems in my experience confined to airports. Other transition rooms generally seem to produce a thorough sense of impatience. The entrance room of our house, for instance, where either we as parents fret and urge and coax and beseech the kids (who often seem to develop an unfathomable slowness in this particular room) in order to get them out the door in time (whether it be for school or football practice or visiting grandparents). Alternatively, it is them, the kids, who impatiently trot about in the small room, like racehorses in their boxes eager to be let loose, waiting for us to get ready to leave, and gallop away the instant the door is opened. But not in the gate at the airports. Here they surrender to the waiting despite the obvious excitement and anticipation. And wait we did in airports as eventless and dull as Addis Ababa and Dar es Salaam.
Finally, after 26 hours of travel, stepping out onto the runway tarmac at Pemba, Mozambique, as dusk was falling, we were greeted by a warm breeze carrying the smell of saltwater. The first leg of our trip had commenced.