2017 Grateful 8

I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve met my fair share of people in places I’ve visited, lived, and worked. Many of them are but vague memories from a distant past. Others are permanently etched on my brain. Some I hold close to my heart. And a few, a small few, have taken a sliver of my soul and called it theirs (they’re my soulers). All have contributed somehow to making me the woman I am today.

You might think that the soulers are the ones I’m closest to. Not true. I might have met them fleetingly, in passing, friends of friends. I might not know their birthday or their dog’s name, or even if they have a dog. I might know very little about them other than that one thing that resonated with me and made me look at the world in a different way.

I heard this week that one of my soulers had died. He fought an eight-month battle before waving the world adieu. I have no doubt that he’s gone on to bigger and better things and that the world’s loss is truly heaven’s gain.

I met J when I was visiting South Africa a few years ago. [I think of him as Big Mac, his email handle :-)] He and his lovely wife E took me to visit the township of eSizameleni. When they retired around 2005 and moved into a retirement village, they tithed money from the sale of their house and committed, through their foundation, Smiley Families, to helping the resident gogos (isiZulu for grannies) and the kids they’re rearing. That middle generation has been all but wiped out by AIDS – and those healthy enough and lucky enough to find work often have to travel to it, leaving their parents at home to mind their children.

What impressed me most, during that brief time, was Big Mac’s empathy. He wasn’t blinded by grandiose thoughts of doing good. He wasn’t prescribing what he saw as a fix for what ailed the people or the township. He wasn’t out to convert the world to his way of thinking. His lot, as he saw it, was to try to make their lives a little less bleak.

He wore his religion lightly. He was a man of faith with a staunch belief in his obligation to help, to do what he could for his fellow man.

Our core function is to hold a monthly service to provide spiritual support for some of the grannies and the 60 women-headed households in eSizameleni township here in Wakkerstroom. Together with a religious service we provide a nourishing soup for all those who attend. A local baker provides fresh bread for each meeting and everyone gets at least one loaf of bread together with about three litres or so of soup to take home.

I saw videos of these get-togethers. The happiness. The joy. The smiles. And all from a people with little to be happy or joyful or smiling about. Inspiring stuff.

I asked him once about what would happen when he and E were no longer up to the task, not knowing then that it would only be a matter of years. He said they were planning to send four of the younger adults (18-28) on a Christian Leadership course which they hoped would:

…equip them to someday take over from us when we can no longer do things and thus ensure the future of Smiley Families when we are gone.

I really hope this happened.

When I had it, I sent money. He asked me once what I wanted him to spend it on. Up to you, I said. Your call. You’re there. I’m not. One Christmas, he bought the gogos some hampers but instead of the usual groceries, he told me that he’d included

…special treats that would help take their minds off the grinding poverty of their daily life.

Another time, the local lads wanted to play in the soccer league and needed kit. My money helped suit up the team. He sent me this photo – one I look at periodically when I feel as if nothing I’m doing matters a whit. It never fails to make me cry and remind me just how lucky I am to have been born into the life I live. There, but for the grace of God and all that…

He was in the UK a couple of years back and I made it my business to be there at the same time. We met in Durham. He was a little older, a little slower perhaps, but he still had that glint in his eye. He still radiated the same pragmatic goodness that drew me to him. That evening:

I had the privilege of sitting around a dinner table with four South African friends with a combined age of 270+ years. Talk was not of pains and aches and pills and potions. There were no complaints, no regrets. Instead the conversation was futured with new opportunities, new travels, and new friends. No one was even close to being ready to sit back and retire to suburbia. Aging gracefully is truly a case of mind over matter.

Just when I can see the light at the end of my dark tunnel, others are about to enter theirs. My thoughts and prayers go out to Big Mac’s family and friends. I will be eternally grateful that through his ministry he gave me the opportunity to help, to do some good, to make a difference in someone’s life, however slight. He did so much for so many without expectation of anything in return. He helped me build a yardstick by which I measure goodness and served as a constant reminder that something as simple as a bowl of soup and a box of groceries can make a difference.

 

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The gods must be crazy

When I stumbled across South African writer Damon Galgut, I was well impressed. I’d just been to South Africa and as is my wont, had visited a local bookshop to sample some national authors. This is something I’ve been doing for years and it’s paid off in spades. If you’ve not read Galgut, put him on your list. My personal favourite is The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs.

godsBattened down by the Kis-Balaton on Day 2 of 2017, after a lovely afternoon in the outdoor hot springs at the fab Kehida spa, we’d eaten well. It was movie time and my first time to see the 1980 South African movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy. Others in the room had seen it multiple times. They promised me slapstick comedy but the opening, documentary-style gambit threw me. Wait, they said. Just wait. Be patient. A couple of hours later, I’d made up my mind: If the world was ending and I had a choice of just one movie to watch for eternity, this would be it.

Curious to know more, I did a little digging. Back in 1980, writer/director Jamie Uys (I wonder if any relation to my old mate, L?) raised enough money to make this low-budget movie, one which would turn out to be the most commercially successful in the country’s film history, grossing $100 million worldwide. The fab Nǃxau, who plays the Kalahari bushman, is said to have been paid anywhere from $300 to $2000 for his role, depending on what you read. The gods must indeed be crazy.  Apparently, it broke all sorts of records in Japan when the original Afrikaans version dubbed in to English was shown, and it was this best-selling foreign film in the USA that year, too. Can’t think of where I was that I missed it…

nxau_2003The film, with its multiple story lines, is set in Botswana. Before he was cast in the role of Xi, Namibian farmer Nǃxau ǂToma had seen just three white men in his life. He would go on to make six more movies before returning to farm in Namibia, dying of TB some time in his 50s. A bushman himself, he had little experience of the modern world, something the movie makes the most of.

Xi’s path crosses those of Andrew Steyn (working on a PhD that involves lots of stool sampling) and Kate Thompson (the newly arrived school teacher). Steyn is played by Marius Weyers, who might be better known for his role as Rudolf Van de Kaap in Blood Diamond.  His bumbling ineptitude around women is so real it’s easy to forget he’s acting. It’s a laugh-out-loud gem of a movie with layers of depth to it. It can be as light or as a thought-provoking as you want it to be, depending on your mood. It has good guys, smarmy guys, and bad guys. It’s genuinely funny with no special effects, bells, or whistles. And in its simplicity lies its beauty.

Xi and his fellow Ju’/Hoansi bushmen are living it up in the Kalahari. The gods have given them everything they need. They have enough. All goes well until one day, a glass bottle falls from the sky. Innocent as they are, the bushmen assume the Coke bottle is a gift from the gods and put it to all sorts of uses.  But there’s only one bottle and soon, it starts to cause problems. The tribe decides to rid themselves of this evil thing and Xi volunteers to throw it off the end of the Earth. The movie is his journey.

Highly recommended.

Selfish? Perhaps

A few years ago, I was invited to South Africa by an amazing woman, EK where I met many of her wonderful friends. Two who continue to inspire me are J and E; they work with the kids and gogos (isiZulu for grannies) of eSizameleni township on the outskirts of Wakkerstrom in South Africa. [eSizameleni translates to ‘we help each other’]. When I can, I give to their self-funded organisation, Smiley Families.

I have plenty of stuff; I don’t want for anything. When asked what I’d like for Christmas or my birthday, I say ‘money for  my township’. It’s not mine, of course, but through the regular updates from J, I feel as if it’s a small part of me. They showed me around when I was there and it was quite a sobering yet heartlifting experience.

IMG_0520 (800x518)Compared to this typical two-roomed house in eSizameleni that is often home to extended families of ten or more, my single-occupancy multi-roomed flat in Budapest is palatial. I could spend my days feeling guilty about having so much when others have so little but that would be both a waste of time and a waste of energy. Each of our circumstances is different. Who knows what the next life might bring for me… or you. I have friends better off and worse off than me in the material stakes: some make salaries I can only dream of (were I so inclined); others are barely making ends meet. What we have in common is not our material wealth, but our values, our outlook on life, our shared sense of compassion. These are what matter.

SA Football teamA couple of years ago, the money I sent was used to buy kit for the town’s football team. When I opened this photo, I cried. Not from any sense of misguided self-congratulations – it wasn’t a case of ‘wow, how great am I’ – but rather from that sense of achievement that only comes from being in a position to make a difference, however small, and choosing to do so.

Giving financial help to strangers is relatively easy; giving it to friends is not as easy. We are conditioned to going it alone; to seeing financial help as a handout. We are taught to be self-reliant, to be independent. Offers bounce back with choruses of ‘Thanks all the same but I really can’t accept.’ Can’t? or Won’t? That year in Wakkerstrom, EK taught me an invaluable lesson: in refusing to let her buy something for me (I was broke at the time), I was depriving her of the opportunity to do something nice, to pay it forward. I was being selfish. Instead of smiling, saying thank you, and making us both happy, I went through the litany of shouldn’ts, couldn’ts, and can’ts. In her own inimitable way, she patiently explained her logic. It took a while for me to be comfortable with her generosity.  It was a difficult lesson to learn. If you cut me open I’m sure that you’d find the words ‘self-sufficient’ tabooed on some part of my innards. But in learning how to accept graciously, I’ve become a better person. I continue to pay it forward. And the more I give, the more I receive. Not euro for euro or forint for forint or rand for rand, but in terms of friendship, love, consideration, and a general sense of well-being. Sadly, it’s not easy getting people to agree with me.

One of my heroes, Antony de Mello, makes the point that we shouldn’t delude ourselves. When we give to the homeless in the street, we do so to make ourselves feel better, not with any great expectation of making a huge difference in their lives. We often don’t give because we reckon they will spend our hard-earned money on booze and cigarettes. But so what if they do? If it makes their lives a little easier, why should we care? In giving to friends, we pay it forward in the hope that when the day comes that we need help, someone will be there for us, too.

I had an e-mail from J recently telling me how my last contribution had been spent. I know he won’t mind me quoting it.

I was going to try and take the grannies on a trip to a Zulu cultural and historic centre about 300 km from here to see if they could be inspired by some of the traditional crafts that their ancestors had produced.  Sadly this fell through as I could not get hold of a bus from the local bus company.  Eventually we opted for putting it towards some Christmas hampers.  We decided that rather than get them some of the day-to-day foodstuffs, we would get them some special treats that would help take their minds off the grinding poverty of their daily life. 

Misc 2012 12 08 015 (800x596)I read of this and of the 60 families that benefited and then saw the accompanying photograph. These special treats are a stark reminder of the material imbalance in the world. I firmly believe that those of us who have, have a responsibility to give. And the more we have, the more we should give. FI, in a Facebook update about the plight of homeless in Budapest, said recently: A piece of clothing, some food, perhaps a few hundred forints goes a long way in helping these people survive the winter of 2012. Since I read that, I don’t leave the house without coins in my pocket. Instead of shaking my head when approached on the street, I give. Even if it’s only 100 forint. I have no way of knowing how much or little difference it will make to them, but I know the huge difference it makes for me. Selfish? Perhaps.

All it takes is that extra second’s thought to remind myself that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Be it time, money, food, or simply a smile or a hug, in my mind, it is the act of giving that will save the world. Check out this video from Noah and the Whale… it explains the ripple effect of thoughtfulness better than I ever could.

To J & E … thank you!

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Light from a big sky

Late afternoon. April. South Africa. The sun starts to set and this particular part of the world is bathed in a godly light. Cecile B. de Mille comes to mind. The clouds move, slowly changing shape, as if an invisible choreographer is directing them across the sky. The same ingredients: sun, clouds, sky and yet no two afternoon skies are the same. As we travel back to camp, we meet our neighbours. Tired from a day foraging for food, they laze around in the evening sun. We pass a baboon, engrossed in picking fleas from his mate’s tail. Focused on the task at hand and paying no attention to our kombi. We may as well be invisible. The sunlight catches him just so and adds a reddish tinge to his coat and dresses him for an evening at home with the family.

We turn a corner and see a lioness, stretched out on the side of the road, enjoying what’s left of the heat of the day. She radiates pure gold and seems so placid, so tame. On guard, protecting the cubs I know are nearby, she appears so approachable. And yet I know that if I reach towards her, that will change. In a flash. All the godly light in the world won’t change the fact that she is wild – not wild in her world, wild in mine.

A zebra, black and white in the noon-day light, turns biscuit brown as he grazes beneath the lowering sun. Yet another trick of nature as all its forces work together to change the shape of things as we see them. To show us that nothing stays the same, not even for a little while. Things are constantly changing, however minutely. How we see things depends a lot on when we look. Nothing is certain.

The silhouettes of dead trees stand still against the sky, blacked out by the sun. As the French artist George Rouault so insightfully said: A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human. It’s like being at a private screening of evolving art; a gallery open to the world but empty now, save for the four of us and nature.

It is at dawn and at dusk when the true magnificance of the bush comes to be. It is during these quiet transitions between time that I am most a peace, suspended in world where nothing matters but the now. And a tiny piece of me wishes I could stay.

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All eyes on me

Alaska. South Africa. Could two places be more different? And yet, while in South Africa recently, Alaska kept popping into my head. And it started when I saw a buffalo. Alaska is a great place to spot moose, caribou, bear and the odd buffalo if you are lucky. In Africa, they talk of the Big 5: elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion (interestingly, this is to be expanded to the Big 7, to include whale and shark…mmmm). Two completely different casts of characters, animals known for either their predatory nature or danger potential in compromising situations, with one common denominator. The Alaskan bison and the African buffalo don’t look alike all; it’s a bit like me having, say, Japanese cousins.  But the relationship is there.

As the late AK was fond of saying, for every one animal you see in the bush, 49 see you.  HR is convinced that when he goes to heaven, St Peter will play back a video showing him all the animals he failed to spot on his trips to Kruger and that will be his purgatory. Driving through the park gates was like driving into another world, a world where humans are locked up and animals roam free. A world where looking out the window of a kombi you might spot nothing for hours but acres and acres of bush and scrub and then suddenly, you round a bend and happen across a lioness on the side of the road.

Much of the excitement of being ‘on safari’ is not knowing what you’ll see next. Every bit of your being is tuned in to where you are and what you’re doing. You’re on high alert for the best part of the day. You react to the slightest movement in the trees, call ‘stop’ to the driver (the incredibly patient EK) who will then reverse and give you time to check out what you think you’ve seen. It can be very frustrating – rocks, trees, bushes all begin to take shape and morph into animals. You’d put money that what you saw was alive and breathing but no… it was another one of nature’s tricks.

But to truly enjoy it, to really get it, you need to be aware of the majesty of it all. It’s not about spotting the Big 5. It’s about spotting the chamelon on the side of the road; it’s about never tiring of seeing herd after herd of waterbuck; it’s about dumping that ‘gotta be big to be great’ attitude that is so prevalent in our world of blockbusters and bestsellers. Yes, your first elephant or lion or zebra will always have that extra ‘specialness’ of being your ‘first’ …but the shame of it is that it’s so easy to devolve into a ‘seen one, seen ’em all’ attitude.

On a night safari (the only option available to see animals at night as private vehicles cannot leave the compounds after 6pm) it was upsetting to hear people groan ‘it’s only a herd of impala’. How anyone could tire of seeing these gorgeous faces is beyond me. Likewise, the zebra. Amazing creatures. I could watch them all day. Their black and white stripes (28 on each side of the average Z) moving and merging into new patterns and shapes. Art on hooves.Whether their stripes are for camoflage or to prevent insects biting  is still under discussion and has been so for more than a century.

While the days did take on a certain sameness as we found our groove, that sameness was superficial. Up at dawn. A quick coffee and some rusks (ours made by the incredibly talented SD from Ermelo, Mpumalanga). Pack the kombi. Then out the gate. Brunch about 1oish (Pretoria’s HR in charge of the braai) and lunch late afternoon before back to the camp to supper. That was the routine of it. DR has it down to a fine art – she’s the mistress of order and organisation and could run a small nation. She’d get my vote for president any day. The excitement, the wonder, the magnificence of  it all came in between. During the long hours of nothing, years of collective memories surfaced and I realised how lucky I was to be in the company of such greatness.   And then the adrenaline rush when I thought I saw something. The frustration when it turned out to be a rock. Another rush and this time I was sure it moved… and it did… and I saw nature at her best, in all her glory. And I felt insignificant.For all our modernity, for all our inventiveness, for all that we claim in the name of progress, nothing can match the uncomplicated complexity of nature. A world where survival is what it’s about; a world where beauty is not augmented by creams and lotions; a world where big and small live side by side and being different is part of simply being.

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Playing with the elephants

A number of years ago, while sitting in her house in Slough, the indomitable EK promised that some day, she’d take me to play with the elephants. I have to admit, the very words ‘play with the elephants’ conjured up all sorts of wild imaginings. Elephants wielding baseball bats in their trunks. Elephants playing football. Elephants doing the 100-yard dash.  Being South African, EK often paints her thoughts with words, a refreshing change from the formulaic descriptives used this side of the world. But playing with the elephants??? No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get a handle on what she meant.

And then I went with her to Kruger.Now, some less fortunate people go to Kruger on tour. With guides. In groups. I was extremely lucky to have three personal, professional and very entertaining guides in EK and the Springbok Kids (sounds like a band, doesn’t it…and yes, believe me, they sing and bring a whole new meaning to the concept of a ‘captive audience’). Between them, they’ve more than 100 years of elephant play time under their oxters and I knew I was in good hands. Being slightly anal, I refused to believe that elephants could hide. They’re massive. How could they disappear behind a tree? But disappear they do. One minute they’re there. The next, gone!

We left the camp each morning between 6 and 7am and motored around all day, stopping for breakfast and lunch. You can only get out of your vehicle at designated rest areas or occassionally, in the middle of a long bridge. The animals see vehicles as just another beast – on four wheels rather than four legs,  rarely venturing off the road. Tame enough. No threat. That first evening, on our way back to camp, we hit on a herd of elephants playing in a river. It was gobsmacking – awe inspiring – to see these massive creatures frolicking around like kids. When they’d had their bath, they wandered up across the road to go home. My more experienced companions were keeping a sharp eye for signs that one of them might charge because despite their bulk, they’re fast! They can travel at 25 mph and at that speed, you wouldn’t want to run into one!

I wondered what animals did all day in the bush. Just eat and sleep and wander around? Perhaps. Only once did I see one doing something approaching work,  using her trunk to move a heavy log – admittedly I had trouble seeing the sense in moving a log from a to b, but then again, working for the sake of working is quite common in human terms, too. But when you consider that a grown elephant needs 300-500 lbs of food each day, finding that food and eating it is a good day’s work in itself.

Close up and personal, even the youngest of them looks old and wrinkled. But they’re happy in their skins. I didn’t see any of them working out or trying to firm up that flab but man, do they have eyelashes to die for – they can grow as long as 2.5 inches, without mascara! I fell in love. For me, elephants are the rugby players of the animal kingdom (am thinking Keith Wood here). Big, strong, bald, great eyes. I could forget about dieting as no matter how big I got; with my elephant beside me, I’d still look tiny.

Typically, they reach puberty at 12-14, have kids up until their 50s, and live to be in their 70s. Quite human. They cry, they laugh, they play. They can look sad, and happy, and bored. They’re the world’s biggest land mammal. They grow to 3-4 metres, weigh 4-7 tonnes (think about 12,000 lbs) and have four toes on their front feet, and three on their back ones. They throw dirt on themselves to protect their skin from the the sun (Lancome, watch out!), and this without the benefits of TV advertising!

Elephants are very family oriented. The herd (of 9-10 animals) is ruled by the strongest female, the matriarch. If a baby is upset, they’ll all hover around and comfort it. But while they take care of their young, watching over them at all times, never letting them stray out of sight, they’re not so tolerant of the young, obnoxious bulls. These are usually kicked out of the house when they hit their teens and hang around in bachelor herds, only going back to the family to mate. (Why does all this sound so familiar?) The older they get, the lonelier they become.  There is something really moving about seeing a lone bull making his way through the bush. His slow, lumbering walk. His big soulful eyes. I couldn’t help but feel for him.

Playing with the elephants turned out to be much more than I’d expected. It was an amazing experience and a humbling one. I’d never quite realised how much of humanity is mirrored in the animal kingdom.

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Coming out of the closet

Yellow hornbill

Since coming to terms with the fact that I fancied the geeky Malcolm (the birdwatcher in the 1980s TV comedy Watching) it’s been years since I’ve had difficult admitting anything to myself. I’m not at all backward about coming forward when it comes to sharing my embarassing moments but in all honesty, this latest fessing up has left me somewhat dazed.

I like listening to birds and have always had a strange fascination with owls. But other than the dawn chorus, I’ve never really had a lot of time for our feathered friends. Once, in Valdez Alaska, when I saw about 14 eagles perched on the one tree, I stood in wonder. A robin in the back garden at home that comes calling every winter, he’s special enough to warrant an audible awe. But for the most part, not a bone in my body twitches. The British called birdwatchers ‘twitchers’. In South Africa, they call them ‘birders’. Same idea. Spend the day outdoors with binocs trying to get a check or a tick against  a bird (the rarer the better). Yawn! Yawn! Yawn!

Kori Bustard

 Now, having spent eight days travelling through Kruger with three avid birders, not to mention having had dinner with three others in Wakkerstroom, it was probably inevitable that something would rub off on me. But then again, I’ve spent years in the company of red-wine drinkers and I’ve never gotten a taste for that! Mind you, I was rather surprised that none of them were the slighest bit anoraky. They are all intelligent, interesting, amusing people with stories to tell.  So much for stereotypes.

Over the course of eight days or so, my fascination with birds became more and more obvious until on the last day, still searching for a leopard to complete the Big 5 (+ elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion), I had to fess up to praying for a sighting of the Kori Bustard doing his mating dance. I’d seen it on EK’s video from their previous trip to Kruger and so wanted to see him live, in action, for myself.  Stuff the leopard… I wanted to see yer man strutting his stuff. And I’d have gladly taken a secretary bird over a cheetah!

Lilac breasted roller

 Another day, parked on a bridge, ostensibly looking for hippos or crocs in the river below, I spotted this big bird in the distance. It flew closer and closer, black and white feathers with a black beak with bright red band and a flash of yellow. I was gobsmacked. I completely forgot about my camera and just stared, mouth open. The saddleback stork can grow to 58 inches in height and there are only 100 in Kruger (a place the size of Belgium). And I saw one of them! It was amazing. But as big as it was, I was equally taken withthe hornbills, the glossy starlings, the blacksmith plovers and the go-away birds – which spend their time shouting ‘go away’!

Ground hornbills

Child that I am, I got such a kick out of being the one to spot the Kori Bustard EVERY TIME, without binoculars, despite being in a Kombi full of birders! It was during a moment of gloating that I realised what was happening. I was shocked. I was hooked. After two days, I gave in and started ticking them off. After six days, I began to recognise them myself and only had to ask about the new sightings. I spent ages following three yellow hornbills trying to get them to pose. I cursed myself for not having a telephoto lens only once during the whole trip: when we spotted seven ground hornbills…. in a tree!!!

Blacksmith plover

I have a thing for black and white and was dead keen to get a decent shot of some zebras for my B&W hallway.ThenI discovered the blacksmith plover…and those pyjama donkeys had some competition. Unfortunately the closet birder in me didn’t show her face until we’d left Wakkerstroom – and I missed the opportunity to see some cranes. Now that would have been cool. Equally so, to see some vultures…close up and personal. I’ll just have to content myself with rereading Xinran’s Sky Burial.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

The more I learn about the world, the more I realise how little I actually know. Last week, what I knew about South Africa had been gleaned from newspapers, TV documentaries, reports by aid organisations, Internet blogs, and the occasional conversation about the state of the nation with some Afrikaaner friends. I have vague memories of Nelson Mandela’s visit to Dublin. I remember the strikes against apartheid and the celebrations when South Africa gained its freedom. I’ve seen the cartoons featuring President Zuma standing under the symbolic showerhead (he apparently believes that showering after sex will prevent the transmission of Aids).  I’m still wondering at FIFA’s decision to hold the World Cup there this summer. In short, if my mind were a computer and you did a search on ‘South Africa’ you’d find a complete mismash of information that says far more about me and my misconceptions than it does about South Africa. Everything I have read or heard about the country has been filtered through a perspective that is the product of the life I have lived so far; a perspective that is influenced by my education, my upbringing, and my spiritual beliefs; a perspective that has been largely coloured by the reported experience of others rather than any first-hand experience of my own.

Learning by doing

A South African friend of mine, recognising this huge gap in my education, invited me to join her on a visit home to the grasslands in Wakkerstroom just south of Pretoria. To see another country, not as a tourist, but as a resident, however temporary, is an honour that is all-too-often taken for granted. To see it in the company of someone who is revered (and occasionally reviled) for the work she has done in breathing new life into this small town is a privilege indeed. Were I here as part of a tour group, staying in a guesthouse or hotel, eating in restaurants featured in guidebooks, my vision of South Africa would probably still be intact. My preconceptions – the cities are dangerous; Aids is prevalent; life is cheap; racism is rife; whites are rich; blacks are poor – may have gone unchallenged.

Instead, I have been party to conversations unfiltered by judicious editors or biased press officers. I have stayed in suburban homes built in guarded complexes, often surrounded by two or three layers of fencing. I have listened to horrific accounts of how rage and anger manifest themselves in senseless, brutal assaults on young and old alike. I have seen how differently people react to the threat of violence; how political correctness is severely curtailing growth and prosperity; and how affirmative action, without the necessary provision of skills and knowledge, is eroding hope for a sustainable future. My somewhat naïve questions about the sanctity of elephants have been met with patient explanations of the damage and the danger and the missed opportunities inherent in not allowing herds to be culled. Heated debates on the dire state of public infrastructure, the inability of politicians to cope with growth and development, and the mistakes that have been made and continue to be made in the post-apartheid era all seem somewhat familiar.

Home thoughts from abroad

Interestingly, I find myself contributing to the conversation with stories of what’s happening in Hungary. I hear myself drawing parallels between post-communism and post-apartheid politics; between the Roma and the Zulu; between the townships in South Africa and the villages of Eastern Hungary. I recognise the insularity of the rich and the powerful; the insecurity of those threatened by the devolution of power; and the humility of those who know enough to realise they have so much yet to learn. Corruption, racism, and the ever widening gap between the very rich and the very poor exist to a greater or lesser extent in both countries, as does a growing if unconscious dependency on China. Likewise, patriotism, nationalism, and cultural history abound.

Both countries are beautiful and surprisingly, a lot alike. The great open plains of the Puszta are mirrored by the vastness that lies under the South African sky. The birding paradise of Hortobágy bears a striking resemblance to the grasslands of Wakkerstroom. There is no time difference. The extreme variance between highest and lowest daily temperatures is comfortingly familiar…at least at this time of year as Hungary moves into her summer while South Africa edges towards winter.

The more I learn about  both countries, the more I realise how little I actually know about either of them. What I have learned though, is that to really appreciate a country, I need to live in it. And to really live in a country I need to make a concerted effort to understand both sides of the story.

First published in the Budapest Times Tuesday 11th May 2010