Using the Experience of Travel to Contextualise My Life

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I’ve lived and worked almost half-a-dozen different countries in the last 10 years and probably travelled to a further three or four at least – Zimbabwe (home); South Africa (studies and work); Namibia, Botswana and Zambia (travel); the UK (work); Turkey (work and travel); Spain (travel); and France (work and travel). Of course it’s futile to try to go everywhere, to see everything, but I’ve felt a great desire to see and understand the way human societies operate and interact with each other.

Travel compels us to confront the world and challenges our perceptions of it

Travel compels us to confront the world and challenges our perceptions of it. Are other people just like me? No, but many of them seem similar in appearance, habit, likes, hates, tastes, desires etc. Do people live similar lives in other places? Surprisingly so actually, after taking into account differences in climate, topography, local economy etc. My impression of that swathe of humanity I’ve encountered in my travels is that, by and large, we act mostly on hard-wired impulses within the limits of law and society, the cultural aspects of societies providing context.

My impression of that swathe of humanity I’ve encountered in my travels is that, by and large, we act mostly on hard-wired impulses…

I can say this as a person coming from an emotionally and socially insular background witnessing first-hand the market places, shops, stalls, malls, squares, streets, pubs and restaurants where the majority of humanity gather on a daily basis for at least a portion of their daily routine. I’ve seen very few people obeying a strict, religiously codified way of life, except perhaps a section of Muslim society during the month of Ramadan and the Benedictine monks I co-existed with for a week at Belmont Abbey at Hereford in the UK.

The truth of it is that I marvel at how the world has come to be the way it is: the spread of mechanised agriculture; modern cities with their concrete and metal infrastructure; the pervasiveness of the internet; parking lots and MacDonald’s outlets; tin cans; plastic bags; highways; cars; suits and ties… the list goes on and on. It is paradoxical to think that amongst all this complexity there seems to be an underlying desire for some sort of accord or common purpose.

It is paradoxical to think that amongst all this complexity there seems to be an underlying desire for some sort of accord or common purpose.

I always marvel that most people seem to have an intuitive knowledge of such things, perhaps almost an expectation, that the world may look different from place to place, but that the people and things people aspire to will be similar. It’s taken a while for me to catch on. I grew up in post-colonial Zimbabwe in an English-speaking environment.

Most Europeans claimed some degree of British ancestry, myself included, although mixed marriages were common. My father’s ancestors were Cypriot for instance. Besides other minority European groups such as the Greeks, Portuguese, Italians and Afrikaans-speakers, there were Asians of Indian/Pakistani descent and a large proportion of bilingual Africans. I went to school with Shona and Ndebele kids from an early age. We didn’t think anything of it.

That’s not to say that there weren’t racial issues in society but at that age we were largely ignorant of the ethnically motivated violence perpetrated after independence in the south of the country and the racism that remained in some sectors of white society. How sad it is that generational issues, buried for a period of time can later resurface so viciously. I’ve just finished reading Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe which goes some way to explaining the roots of my home country’s present divisions and woes.

I’ve just finished reading Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe which goes some way to explaining the roots of my home country’s present divisions and woes.

HH did some excellent research in compiling her book, mostly through first-hand interviews. It’s interspersed with analysis – her own, of those interviewed and insights gleaned from professional people with training in psychology. In the final analysis she suggests that a better way of dealing with Mugabe, in terms of diplomacy, would be for the West to treat him with a bit more respect. It is hard for many of us to think in those terms but it has to be remembered that he is the head of state, however undemocratic that position may be, and that he was the subject of some injustices under the previous white administrations.

The thing with ‘Mad Bob’ is that he’s not actually that mad, although there are some strong arguments to be made in favour of self-delusional patterns of thought. What seems to underpin what must surely be his final years in office, is a very strong desire to be remembered as the leader who stood up to British imperialism without backing down. He says as much in the final chapter. He wants this to be his legacy.

What seems to underpin what must surely be (Mugabe’s) final years in office, is a very strong desire to be remembered as the leader who stood up to British imperialism without backing down

That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Zimbabwean political discourse in the last 20 years but HH felt, as do I, that the West has taken the wrong approach in dealing with the man. He wants so desperately to be loved by the British after all. Flatter him and acknowledge him and use this as leverage for implementing dialogue. No dialogue, no progress.

Just like the Robert Mugabe she portrays as a rather complex character, moulded in large part by his childhood experiences, I’ve asked myself many times over the years how it was I came to hold my particular view of the world when I was 10-13-15-18 years of age. What were the predominant forces? Who were the main actors, main influencers? I’ve no doubt that most were within my society rather than without.

I can, for instance, recall my father being for the most part an affable man but outspoken. He was a lawyer so that probably goes with the territory. Nonetheless he held some prejudicial views which reflected in part those of the society he grew up in and in part views held by his mum (my grandfather died when I was very young. Too young to remember his character). One of these prejudicial views involved looking down on those who were different either in opinion or character. I didn’t realise it then but much of what he said was about projecting an image of authority and certainty whereas beneath he was a rather insecure man.

(my father) held some prejudicial views which reflected in part those of the society he grew up in and in part views held by his mum

South of the border apartheid South Africa was in existence until my mid-teens. I remember as a youngster traveling down to the South African coastal city of Durban with my family on our annual summer vacation. En route we’d drive through some unusual-sounding towns like Messina, Louis Trichardt and Pietersburg. Once we stopped off at a place called Warmbaths which was actually a spot with natural hotsprings, popular with local Europeans. I was probably only 8 or 9 years old and when the ticket person at the gate started talking to me in a strange, guttural tongue that neither me nor my brother understood, the two of us bolted back to our mother embarrassed.

Of course the language we’d confronted was Afrikaans. Back then I used to make my brothers laugh impersonating the news-readers on SABC which aired in both English and Afrikaans in those days, the late 80s. I didn’t think much about the English-Afrikaans division over the years except that van der Merwe jokes were popular in the community. Van was a dim-witted Afrikaans dude who was always doing something dumb and his antics elicited many laughs much in the same way as the English tell jokes about the idiot Irishman. I didn’t think much about it all the same.

It was only much later when I attended Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape of South Africa for 2 years that I had to revisit the question of my white African identity. A relatively small town it was overlooked by a garish brick-and-concrete monument (the mont) to the 1820 Settlers (British). Many of their descendents still lived in the area. The vast majority of the student body were native English speakers and Afrikaans was only heard amongst the working class ‘coloured’ ladies in the kitchens and supermarket tills in town. I remember Afrikaners aka Dutchmen/rocks/rock-spiders/slopes being the butt of a lot of jokes amongst my (mostly) white English-speaking South African housemates.

I remember Afrikaners aka Dutchmen/rocks/rock-spiders/slopes being the butt of a lot of jokes amongst my (mostly) white English-speaking South African housemates.

Once, when one of them heard Afrikaans being spoken on campus by a couple of female students he told them to ‘shut up’ in no uncertain terms which completely astounded me at the time. Ironically, it turned out he was from Klerksdorp, a predominately Afrikaans-speaking town just outside metropolitan Jo’burg. In retrospect it’s not that surprising. I imagine Rob growing up in an atmosphere of tribal rivalry which obviously left its mark.

I dropped out of Rhodes after two years for personal reasons and certainly nothing to do with any of the anecdotes I mention here. It was only several years later when I returned to South Africa to finish my Honours degree at another university, Tuks, in the largely Afrikaans capital city of Pretoria did I learn that this white-on-white discrimination cut both ways. It certainly was not pervasive but it was subtly present on several occasions.

My impression of many Afrikaners, both then and now, is that they are culturally and linguistically distinct and what that to be appreciated in those terms. I think what many people looking at the country as outsiders fail to understand is the uneasy alliance between the English and Afrikaans speaking people under the legislative apartheid of the Afrikaans-led National Party during the last century.

My impression of many Afrikaners, both then and now, is that they are culturally and linguistically distinct and what that to be appreciated in those terms

I’ve talked to many Afrikaners who will tell you, straight to your face, how they’re the real victims of history, how they were first compelled to leave Europe for reasons of religious disagreement, later falling foul of the British and even now misunderstood by the world at large. “We just want to be left alone,” is one sentiment I heard from a well-spoken, late 30-something Afrikaans man smoking a pipe during my stay in Cape Town earlier this year.

Not only did it make me want to understand the roots of European colonialism on the sub-continent better but it got me thinking more about the nature of colonisation and the fact that no nation is every guaranteed influence over other nations in perpetuity. The world expands and shifts as so do alliances, cultures and languages.

The world expands and shifts as so do alliances, cultures and languages.

My point is that alliances between former opponents are occupiers are a necessity in the game of nation-building. What happened in South Africa cannot be dismissed out of hand as a blighted exercise in colonial opportunism. There were tangible economic benefits even if the racial discrimination was awful. Knowing this and being more in tune with civil liberties, human rights and notions of equal opportunity for all, is it not still pertinent to remember the value of forging difficult alliances in order that our different societies and cultures can get on with the business of doing business?

Now here I am sitting in France, another nation with a rich and colourful history and I realise that, despite doing four years of French language instruction at high school, I still know very little about the people themselves let alone the subtleties of the language which evade me now rather as they did then. What I can say is that all the French people I’ve had the good fortune to work and live alongside thus far have been very friendly and approachable.

I’ve seen first hand a long and proud history as manifest in the architecture of medieval towns and villages, and within the centres of bigger cities too. Numerous churches and cathedrals span centuries of civilisation. The people speak a different language, have their own cuisine, culture and so forth. Many speak no English at all. Yet they appear to live as others in the West do and enjoy the fruits of economic prosperity. It strikes me that we could just as easily be living in a world where French was the principal language rather than English.

It strikes me that we could just as easily be living in a world where French was the principal language rather than English

Going back to my previous analogy, I suppose that in the same manner Afrikaans and English will persist in Southern Africa side by side even if English is the more international of the two. I’ve come to the conclusion that language and culture are so intertwined that it is probably very difficult to reject one without the loss of the other. Perhaps we need look no further than the British Isles to understand the value of alliances amongst near-neighbours.

Perhaps we need look no further than the British Isles to understand the value of alliances amongst near-neighbours

It seems to me that the Irish (Republic), the Scots and the Welsh have taken to the English language quite widely yet retained their own native dialects (I don’t know percentages off-hand). They remain culturally distinct and enjoy good trade and labour relations with their more powerful neighbour. In the case of the Scots and perhaps the Welsh too, they have won back chunks of sovereignty from the Union that may well culminate in full autonomy in a relatively short space of time without compromising the aforementioned benefits.

As for me, my heart is not British but I speak their tongue and I admire their achievements, much of their culture, and their long-established form of democracy which at least ensures a periodic change in leadership. I hold a British passport because Mugabe left me and countless others a stark ‘either/or’ scenario in forbidding dual nationality. Having a Zimbabwean passport in this day and age is pretty limiting i.t.o. travel and work opportunities. Like many other young Zimbabweans of my generation we are sad and angry at having our dreams of a ‘normal’ life in that country dashed because of things that had nothing to do with us, prior to our births.

Like many other young Zimbabweans of my generation we are sad and angry at having our dreams of a ‘normal’ life in that country dashed because of things that had nothing to do with us

Some of us blame our parents and their generation for either naiveté or having kept too many skeletons in the closet. We are also angry with Mugabe, the man who once promised unity and reconciliation, before he became the intolerant dictator that he is today. Better that he had been a Marxist from day one rather than get our hopes up for a land of equal opportunity. Who is going to be brave enough to stand up and challenge a status quo that gives us little cause to celebrate. Is it time for another form of nationalism, not based on race, but on our right to live with equal rights in the land of our upbringing?

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