Suffering

I met Comfort Freeman (a Liberian) in Ghana. We shared different experiences after Comfort honestly didn’t  believe that I am from South Africa. Any country on the African continent must surely be inhabited by blacks only. It is extremely hot and humid where we are while the copious amounts of “Stone Strong Lager” goes down like water.

Liberia is a country in West Africa which was founded, established, colonized, and controlled by citizens of the United States and ex-Caribbean slaves as a colony for former African American slaves and their free black descendants. Thus one of only few African countries not colonized by Europeans.

Comfort was a younger man during the Liberian rule of Charles Taylor. During his term of office, Taylor was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity as a result of his involvement in the Sierra Leone War (1991 -2002). Domestically, opposition to his government grew, culminating in the outbreak of the Second Liberian Civil War (1999– 2003). By 2003, Taylor had lost control of much of the countryside and was formally indicted. That year, he resigned, as a result of growing international pressure, and went into exile in Nigeria. He was found guilty in April 2012 of all eleven charges levied by the Special Court, including terror, murder and rape. In May 2012, Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Reading the sentencing statement, Presiding Judge Richard Lussick said: “The accused has been found responsible for aiding and abetting as well as planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes in recorded human history.”

Like always, I want to understand better, and I ask many questions. One thing bothering me was the fact that Liberians under Taylor’s rule apparently view him as a hero, and would actually like to have him back as their President. I keep this question for later and first want to understand more about the suffering endured by Liberians under Taylor’s rule. Comfort goes into deep detail of horrific cruelties suffered by citizens, as dished out by Taylor’s army and rebel soldiers. Amputations, rape, murder and other seriously uncomfortable atrocities. Comfort tells about him and his parents having to stay indoors for weeks, demolishing their shack from the inside to provide for enough firewood to cook and survive – not daring to go outside, or otherwise be slaughtered like chickens.  He also tells about a time when you could not find a single chicken in Liberia. Chickens and eggs apparently had to be imported from Kenya.

The time is right and I ask Comfort, how on earth can Liberians ask for Taylor’s return with all these atrocities still fresh in everyone’s minds? How can he be viewed as a hero? Comfort’s reply is mindboggling: “Charles Taylor is our hero, he made us suffer, he taught us how to survive amongst suffering. Today we can handle suffering better than ever before – thanks to our hero, Charles Taylor”.

How on earth does anyone comprehend this? Is suffering the only thing left in some parts of Africa? Is suffering the one and only thing to overcome? Is this what Presidents are there for? It was Friedrich Nietzsche who quoted: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering”. But is this not taken to literally in some parts of Africa?

Mark Manson describes man as – “Who you are is what you are willing to struggle for”. If this is how certain Africans make sense of life, let it be. And maybe, just maybe the rest of us are simply missing something very important here??

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Forgive and Forget

Shake Hands with the Devil is one of the saddest books I have ever read and one of the most heart-breaking eye-witness accounts. A kind of naïve and painfully honest confession of the failure of a man and the total failure of an organisation, a meticulous description of one of the worst betrayals in the history of humanity. In spite of serious omissions, in particular about the massacres in the areas that were theoretically made secure by the UN, in spite of its ponderous and often verbose style, it is unfortunately a book that must be read in order to understand how, with imperturbable coldness and implacable cynicism, the peacekeepers allowed an entire country to commit suicide. As for Dallaire, who is considered a hero in Canada, he explains that he was a powerless victim like the 800,000 dead who continue to haunt him. – Gil Courtemanche, April 2005.

I’m busy reading this shocking account of the Rwanda genocide by Romeo Dallaire, having the usual Primus at The Forest Garden Inn, in Nyamagabe, Rwanda. I start a conversation with the waiter – in his late 20’s. It was somewhere in 2014, and I realised this youngster must have been barely 10 years old when the genocide of 1994 between the Hutu’s and Tutsi’s erupted. Knowing that the genocide subject in Rwanda is a petulant one, and not knowing how to prompt a discussion about it with the young man, I confirmed that he was circa 8 – 10 years old at the time. He lost his parents and a sister.

The young man – understandably so – not keen to take the conversion much further. I persist and asked him: “How do you deal with it, how do you forgive or how do you forget”. His reply is simple and painfully relevant. “……To forgive and to forget is easy, the difficult part is – which one to do first…..”

In our struggle to decide “which one to do first”, we many times do neither. These words explain so many of not only today’s global conflicts, but also our own deep and personal ones.

“……To forgive and to forget is easy, the difficult part is – which one to do first…..”

 

Bicycles & Dependency

The “dependency syndrome” is an attitude and belief that a group can not solve its own problems without outside help. It is a weakness that is made worse by charity.

No better example of  – “I am not responsible for my own destiny” – exists in Africa than the attitude of the everyday bicycle user in Africa north of the Limpopo. Bicycle users – mostly dangerously over-loaded (overloaded according to the average westerner)  with produce, valuables or friends and family members – always drive right in the middle of the road. The operator can mostly not see behind him (because of his overweight load). You, the approaching vehicle, has the important responsibility to warn the bicycle user of your presence. There exists no need on the part of the bicycle user to frequently look behind himself to analyse oncoming danger – in which case he can swerve out of the way. (I say “he”, because I still has to come across a female bicycle user in Africa north of the Limpopo).

The bicycle user’s safety is the responsibility of everyone around him, not his. I find this anomaly to be entrenched in the culture of many rural areas in Africa north of the Limpopo. “Our destiny, wellbeing, happiness and general right to survive, are in the hands of someone or something else – not ours.

This dependency syndrome is further described by an encounter I had with tattered and torn little children deep in rural Rwanda. I am used to the normal – “give me money” quote coming from the streets of poor rural Africa. On this day in Rwanda however, the juvenile youngsters were confidently chanting – “Give me My money”. My money ??? How deeply entrenched does a dependency syndrome have to be to result in a sense of entitlement and demand. As if to say – “you have to, need to give me My money. You feel guilty, you will give me My money, you owe us.  Of course many of us then in actual fact do give them Their money………….

The “dependency syndrome” is an attitude and belief that a group can not solve its own problems without outside help. It is a weakness that is made worse by charity.

 

Chicken & Chips

Enro Hotel, Mityana, Uganda.

Not many guarantees exists in Africa north of the Limpopo. One guarantee that do exist however, is waiting hours for a lunch or dinner order in small-town rural restaurants, hotels or pubs. You gulp down copious amounts of good quality cheap beer, while jokingly believing that your choice of meat is probably still being slaughtered – waiting.

I order “Chicken & Chips”, hoping that this time around the African staple diet will probably not take too long. Several 30-minutes pass while frequent rounds of “another beer” suggestions go by………

The shy and aloof lady appears (eventually), stares at me for an eerie while and then embarrassingly announces that the kitchen don’t have “Chicken & Chips”. After already waiting for ages, a mix  emotion of anger, laughter and amazement overpowers me. Going back to the menu and re-decide on another option would simply not be an option. So I ask – “okay, tell me then what do you have available in the kitchen?”

Relieved that I didn’t overreacted in totality, she declares – “We only have “Chips & Chicken”. This time however the laughter spontaneously erupted from within, and I requested the “Chips & Chicken”. The “Chips & Chicken / Chicken & Chips” arrived after several more beers. The plate had chips, chips, chips and a small piece of brutalised shrapnel of chicken.

This anomaly became one of my favourite African-experience-stories around friends and fire – from there onwards……….

As recent as only days ago, I realised for the first time what actually happened on that mixed emotions day in Uganda, and this understanding is critical for survival in Africa north of the Limpopo. Not having “Chicken & Chips” does not mean I don’t have “Chicken & Chips”, it only means that I don’t have “much” chicken. I have a small piece. But I have plenty of “Chips”. For that reason, “Chips” should be the first word of your order. I only have “Chips and Chicken” means, the portion will have a heap of chips, but only a shrapnel piece of chicken. “Chicken & Chips” means – more chicken than chips. “Chips & Chicken” means more chips (much more) than chicken.

The African Conundrum

The African conundrum… is rooted out of the historical, philosophical and cultural bastardisation, imbalances and inequalities which many post-colonial African governments have always sought to address, though with varying degrees of success, since the 1960s. Lamentably, this African conundrum is rarely examined in a systematic manner that takes into account the geopolitical milieu of the continent, past and present. This volume seeks to interrogate and examine the extent of the impact of the geopolitical seesaw which seems poised to tip in favour of the Global North. The book grapples with the question on how Africa can wake up from its cavernous intellectual slumber to break away from both material and psychological dependency and achieve a transformative political and socio-economic self-reinvention and self-assertion. While the African conundrum is largely a result of historic oppression and a resilient colonial legacy, this book urges Africans to rethink their condition in a manner that makes Africa responsible and accountable for its own destiny. The book argues that it is through this rethinking that Africa can successfully transcend the logic of post-imperial dependency.

Capless

The “Capless can phenomenon” – In Africa north of the Limpopo, everyone has a yellow plastic jerrycan. It’s like having a cell phone elsewhere in the world. Now these kegs are for water, or “local brew”, or to get fuel to a stranded car or motorbike on the side of the road, or whatever stuff in liquid form you can think of. The amazing thing is this. 9 out of 10 of these cans do not have caps. Whether empty or filled with something, they don’t have caps. Even if it means the carrier will get to his destination with half of its original content.

The “Capless can phenomenon” of Africa is one of those conundrums a westerner cannot comprehend. Why on earth would you not prevent your can content from spilling, especially if you take into account the dreadful conditions over which these cans are transported, carried or moved. After all what the hell happens to the can caps, where do they end up, are they used for something else? Most of us don’t understand this apparent ignorant behaviour by yellow jerrycan operators. The yellow jerrycan operator however, do. And there must be a reason for it…. 

When in Africa …..

When I fly the 12-seater caravan in Africa, I always use an opportunity to the co-pilot seat – if it is available. It is mostly available, despite the standing protocol of these reliable African transport birds not to fly without a co-pilot. I like the seat, because the earphones and thrill of the seat reminds of my military years way back in the 80’s. We took off from a tea estate landing strip during a fermenting storm on the horizon. The pilot is a middle age Arib man – Hassan. I know Hassan from earlier encounters in the African sky. Gliding towards Dar es Salaam everyone is quiet, wishing the horizon would clear up. The ancient Garman on the console indicates approximately 30km away from Dar es Salaam and Hassan indicates to Julius Nyerere control tower his proximity to the airport – after the other three caravans were already asked to hang back. “It doesn’t look promising” – tower replied, “but come closer we will see.” Minutes later, while lightning strikes illuminates the sky in crystal white flashes, Hassan tempts the tower with another request. “You have no permission to land; I repeat – you are not authorised to land. Abort to Morogorro airport.” Hassan is silent, and his eyes think of something. “Control tower, Morogorro doesn’t have fuel, but Dodoma has”…..” Then abort to Dodoma”, control tower replied. Dodoma is practically 1,5 hours of flight back in the direction we came from. Hassan flanks sharply to the left and shudders 180 degrees the other way……………. I will miss flight 186, my connecting flight to SA in the morning. Instinctively, I looked at my phone, and see a signal……………

The week started earlier with a Tanzania Forestry conference in Dar es Salaam. I walk into a seminar (slightly late) and face an elated brother at the table. Overcome by pride and brotherly love, I greet and hugged him while his heartbeat matches mine within a split second of touch. What are the chances, I meet him in Africa – thousands of kilometres away from “home.” It is impossible to focus on the seminar, I’m staring at this colossal of a man next to me, a man who had to overcome so much a while ago, a man who decided to answer the call of Africa, a man that now possesses Africa in so many ways – a changed man. I note the facial scars, the sun baked elbows and glimpses of stubble alongside the goatee that was clearly trimmed in a hurry the day before. We both planned the rest of the seminar around spending maximum time together, beers and laughter with friends, colleagues and fellow Africans. All the time, I’m swollen with pride to introduce him as my brother at every opportunity possible – occasionally jokingly asking the newly met who they thinks would be the youngest of the two of us – they sometimes get it right. The conference consisted of two programmes during the week. The first part would be sit down conferences and the later part would be a field trip 3 hours’ flight to the Southwest of Tanzania – the Southern Highlands forestry region. I was booked on the second leg, Thys was not. We conferred and within minutes Thys was also booked on the field trip. Thys has certainly changed, and his decisions are now based on his own words – “you only live once, and while you live today, today is what matters.” Thys will drive 8 hours to sleep over in our guest house and proceed the next morning for another 2 hours where he will meet me, who will fly in the morning to the Njombe airstrip. The stay over at our guest house – after endless WhatsApp messages during the night – did not work out, but Thys is African, and conjured up another plan to lay down his fatigued head for the night. The Njombe airstrip is an Africa special, grass covered and hardly used. One way only and cannot handle cross wind situations. I knew this, and was never keen to fly to Njombe, but the conference has new land offerings in that region, it’s my job, I must go. Approaching Njombe, the pilot (not Hassan) dived sharply through the morning cloud cover frantically searching for the airstrip. I know the area on the ground and pointed it out at the very moment we exited another cloud, realising that we have just passed crossways over it seconds ago. Disembarking with my cleanest dirty shirt of days before, my searching face spotted my brother awaiting patiently at the side of the airstrip. I walked across and it became another epic moment. Thys played a song he was playing while waiting for me – a piece of music that can only be appreciated if you were there…. Before the field day progressed successfully, we briefly discussed our get together for the evening while Thys opened his cool bag with tailormade snacks and drinks for the day. Professionally packed by a seasoned traveller. I used the opportunity to, for the first time, confess my dislike in flying the caravan through cloud cover. It is nerve wrecking and edges on tempting with destiny. The next day’s flights will be exchanged for a road trip with Thys – on the ground. The excuse – of course – is to spend more time together. The evening formalities, thank you’s, asante sane’s, karibu’s and lukewarm clapping of hands with ambassadors, district counsellors and investors are over and we are hungry. Thys has a packed cool back with amongst other things, vacuum packed spare ribs. Knowing African towns, we were instantly welcomed by a street vendor and an open charcoal fire. Another larger-than-life moment exploded within minutes, without any effort…….. We left the next morning to embark on the last day of the conference field trips – a two-hour drive. Slightly abused from the previous night’s street braai, the radio started oozing songs of yesteryear. Unforgettable songs apparently favoured by Thys’s driver – Tumbo. John Mayer, Jim Reeves, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Diamond. Sitting still or not singing along is impossible and soon the headaches were extinguished by deafening song from croaky voices, classically etched into hearts and souls – on the spot. Forester Simon thinks the crazy mzungus are out of control, but tries to sing along. Thys is an impressive individual, prompting relevant questions at presenters, while the others gaze in awe. He knows his field and dare the one who replies in uninformed fashion. Thys owes the soil he stands on. At the field stop of forestry research trials, Thys and I decide that we have seen such too many times before. Knowing that our time together is coming to an end, we sat on the back of the bakkie for a last couple of cigarettes and philosophical exchanges. A storm is brewing again, and my heart jumps in my throat. I need to catch the 12-seater caravan plane back to Dar es Salaam for my connecting flight back to Judy and the boys – whom I haven’t seen for four weeks. The clouds, the clouds, the clouds. I briefly mumbled again my fear of flying through thunderous clouds – I don’t know if Thys heard me…. Mixed emotions of our brotherly trip coming to an end, the anticipation of being with Judy and the clouds passes in lightning fashion through my head – I started to feel tired, immensely tired. Thys notices, and mentions something in this regard – I ignore it. We greet each other, wishing that it was a dream, wishing to wake up and realise it was just a beautiful dream. The realness of our week together hurts like a red-hot prodding iron through the heart. The reach for a last hug is quick but intense, and Thys drives off to overnight in Iringa again. Me? I’m driving back to the tea estate airstrip to catch the flight back to Dar es Salaam. ………………………………………………………..

Noticing the signal on my phone, while banking to the left for Dodoma, I unconsciously dialled “Lovy” on it. I need to make contact, I need to tell her something, I will tell her I will miss my connecting flight to SA due to bad weather. She seems to be contend with it. I put the phone down, knowing that I did not tell her the whole truth – we are in trouble. I managed a couple more messages on Whatsapp – telling her to be calm and relax, knowing that she knows – we are in trouble. Approaching Dodoma, the runway was clearly not negotiable, covered in rain, rain that was now also clattering the plain’s windscreen with fierce intensity. A violent storm descended on the side of the runway where the pilot needs to touchdown – the windsock clearly indicating the approach to be from the north. Hassan looked at me, indicating in a strange hand gesture that he will land from the opposite side, as if to ask my permission…..I nodded. Approaching now a few meters from the ground a sudden gust of wind lifted the plane’s backside vertically, leaving us staring at the ground in front of us. I knew at that very moment that I will leave the crash site unscathed, I will survive, I’m not leaving now…….. Seconds thereafter the plane was swiped sideways, the landing strip now to the very left of us. Hassan dropped all controls and rammed the plane on all three wheels with four consecutive bouncing manoeuvres following, pulling it straight, ramming on the brakes…. Back in the waiting room I managed to get connected and noticed several messages from “Lovy”. Messages of prayer support from friends, family and colleagues. Judy commandeered the whole world to pray for me, resulting in a safe landing……..I would learn later that she was on the road back from work when I made the first call – a horrendously stupid move on my side. She blacked out on the road, fighting an emotional breakdown, kept it together and reached home. At home, she stumbled from the car and with some magical last energy dropped onto her knees in the garage and prayed – again. Asking for angels to guide and prevent planes, cars, busses and danger everywhere not to harm me. A message from Thys indicated that a prior suggestion for them to fetch me in Dodoma and drive to Dar es Salaam was simply impossible, I would not make my connecting flight. Being in a distant outlandish place in the middle of Tanzania, knowing that I must get home, I started begging one after the other refusing taxi driver to take me to Dar es Salaam. “It is too far”, “we don’t drive at night”, “it is late”, and all the right excuses for that time of night, with those types of conditions. The rain and thunder thumps my face and luggage on my back when I find one. A Muslim non-English speaking taxi driver with a taxi. After negotiations and relentless hand gestures we left for the 8-hour road trip to Dar es Salaam in a car with only a dim selection of light options, pounding rain on the windscreen and hooting trucks to contend with. The adrenalin has taken over – I don’t care. Judy and the whole world is praying – I will be okay. Just outside Dodoma, the driver hit a curb dividing the two sides of the road in two. The curb rips through the undercarriage in a way certainly bringing this taxi to a grouching halt. But no ……….. we move on. Not minutes thereafter the driver left the road to the left and in a frantic attempt to bring it back on the road sideswiped it, us facing the 8 rolling truck wheels passing by our faces in a horrific moment of death……. With the car stopped sideways in the middle of the road, and a small crowd of snooping Africans gathering, we noticed no damage at all. How on God’s earth is it possible – no damage. Realising an intervention is needed, I gestured to the driver that I will take over the driver seat and head on towards Dar es Salaam. We made it 8 hours later, arrived at the airport and for the first time I could collect my thoughts and make proper contact with Judy – the woman who ordered angels to guide me. It was 2 o clock in the morning. Just before I collapsed into a hallucinating sleep on the airport bench, I thanked and loved Judy on Whatapp. Both of us could now close our eyes. Dozing away, I realised how immensely much I loved her, and how immensely much she cares for me…….. How does one man pay this back ever??