Wednesday, 28 January 2009

living large?

I was reading a speech posted on Toomuchcoffee made by Johann Rupert at the University of Pretoria recently and was really interested by a couple of points.

He claims that "prior to a century and a half ago, the standard of living was roughly the same all over the world. It didn’t really matter whether you lived in New York, London, Paris, Mexico City, Johannesburg, Cairo, Nairobi, Beijing, Tokyo or Manila - the standard of living was roughly the same. In the past century however, the standard of living in various countries has changed dramatically so that today we have developed nations and undeveloped nations.

During this period some societies clearly prospered, some trod water and others actually went backwards. Africa has gone backwards. It’s got nothing to do with us being African or black, forget this old racist line of ethnicity. If so, why did similarly educated people with the same ethnic background end up experiencing such different qualities of life? I was in East Germany just after the fall of the Wall. They were destitute. Why is the average South Korean nearly 6cm taller than his northern counterpart? The truth seems to be found in the choices made by societies as to the economic and social political system under which they choose to live."

It seems to me that we need a whole new way of thinking about how we do things. We need to have big dreams and the determination to see them become reality.

I was in an interview earlier this week with Blum Khan, CEO of Metropolitan Health Group, one of South Africa's biggest medical scheme administrators. He had many pertinent things to say.

Something that really stood out for me was "We weren't ambitious enough when we worked out our structures for health care post '94".

Prior to the '94 elections, South Africa essentially had a health care system that was working well for about 6.5m people. After '94, the customer base increased to 44m, as it attempted to expand health care to the entire population.

This UDF poster was made in 1984. How far have we actually come in the past 24 years?

What has happened since then? Nursing colleges have been closed down (allegedly because of funding issues), hospitals have been restructured and "normalised" (political-speak for enforced transformation on racial grounds) and highly skilled people have been fired or pushed out.

We have more than 40 000 vacancies in our health care system. In a reply to a question in Parliament last October the number of vacant posts for professional nurses was given as as 16 362, staff nurses 5 752, nursing assistants 10 403, medical doctors 3 632 and specialists 1 652.

But just last week I heard of a doctor in a Cape Town hospital who was told that when it comes to promotion "the first place will go to a black man, the second to a black woman, the third to a coloured man, the fourth to a coloured woman, the fifth to an Indian man, the sixth to an Indian woman. So you're seventh in line, no matter what your qualifications are".

That's just insanity. We've gone from one politically insane system to another.

The powers that be seem to have forgotten that one of the principles of our democracy is a health system that provides better care and better access for all.

So what's the solution? What's going to stop us slipping further and further behind the developed world?

During our struggle years, human rights and dignity and hope were fought for by people of all races, regardless of the personal cost. And now, nearly 15 years later, we find ourselves in a situation where greed and nepotism and tribalism ensure that the benefits of this democracy are once again just for the few.

It seems to me that the time has come once again for the ordinary people to stand up and demand change before it is too late. Do we have the drive and will to do it all again?

Monday, 26 January 2009

Will books still kindle our creative fires?

Today post is by guest Karen Bruns, who shares her thoughts on books in the digital age.

I'm totally sold on the idea of (almost) instant reading pleasure. My idea of heaven is to be the guy in the library in the Robin Williams movie "What dreams may come". Actually, heaven in that movie is enough to make me a really good girl... all that wet paint!

But officially the Kindle is not available in South Africa yet, so I asked Karen for her thoughts on our relationship with The Book.

Over to Karen:

As a child I really wasn’t that keen on the idea of school – institutionalised hell had been my brief experience at the local Maltabella-enriched playgroup. But what were the options at a time when Veldskool was the educational antidote to the perils of suburbia? 70’s South Africa did not see any advantage to individualised home schooling.

Bloody-minded and unwilling, I only agreed to enlist at the local primary so that I could learn to read for myself. My adults were undisciplined, needing to “rest” their eyes too frequently and skipping pages crucial to the storyline. I just had to go and do it for myself. Then I’d be out of there faster than a racehorse on five legs, or so I thought.

I was smugly reminded of this well-negotiated, but poorly structured, deal by my mother as I came over the hump of my third degree and contemplated a fourth. After two dozen years, had I still not learned to read, she asked.

Growing up, books were my escape from provincial ugliness. They provided the symbolic tunnel out of there. Anyone who has ever loved a book knows that it goes beyond the story – there’s the feel of the book, the weight of it, its smell. But with books, we say, "It was a real page-turner - I couldn't put it down." We don't talk about addictive books.

But I know fellow-addicts when I see them and in April, London’s Earl’s Court is teaming with them. London Book Fair season – the annual international event where publishers and agents all exhale hype, in a desperate effort to keep the reading world churning. It is neither refined nor genteel. There are no long, lubricating lunches. The LBF is a war zone and you have got to be a combo of devilish Miranda Priestley, fast-talking Jerry Maguire and tenacious Robert Mugabe to survive Day One.

On Day Two, you’ll have reread the biographies of Kissinger and North, and Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War, before opening and if you don’t have a battery of parallels up your sleeve, to deal with contract-flush editors’ lack of imagination, you’re a P.O.W. “This manuscript could be the racy love child of Richard Dawkins and Toni Morrison” or “a spiritual thriller that is the essence of Paulo Coelho as told by Ian Fleming”. Frankly, it’s enthralling.

The Fair talk last year was equally contradictory in its excitement. In 2006, the Sony Reader with its awesome screen was born. I heard reports that e-ink looks like paper (well, as close to paper as anything that's not paper can look). Now we have the Amazon Kindle, with the Bezos promise that you can now have "any book in the world in one minute or less" - except when a book isn't available. Once it moves beyond the borders of the United States – it rolls out to the UK in 2009 – Amazon will be in a prime position to more easily extract money from stony wallets.

It's designed especially for the impulse shopper and the entire device works on the concept of "One Click" ordering. The idea is that if you hear a review of a book, you can get it immediately. If you read a nice book cover at the airport bookstore, you can buy it before you even know that your flight has been "further delayed".

The paperback book sized Kindle screen has a clean interface. But that's not all. It has a mobile web browser – you can check e-mail with gmail's mobile interface. It has the potential to be quite the handheld computer if Amazon allows it. The Kindle has its own email address so you can send yourself PDFs for mere cents (US) and they'll show up pretty nicely.

There's a collection of newspapers available, including the New York Times, so that reading the newspaper can naturally fit into your day much more cleanly now. I'm told that in the US the wireless is surprisingly fast - this means that you don't have to dock ANOTHER device into your computer.

It's apparently glorious - but not perfect. The Next Page buttons run almost the length of both sides of the thing, which means consciously avoiding accidentally turning pages. Also, there's a chance that you may fall asleep holding the buttons and find yourself with a dead battery and on the last page. From a design perspective, neither the Sony Reader nor the Amazon Kindle is sexy. The iPod designers were clearly not invited. For the navy-socked and black-shoed amongst us, you probably won't care. It just works. Well, it works if you're in a decent-sized US city, in other words it isn't even coast-to-coast yet.

It also costs more than most people would like it to, but if I'd use it every day to read the newspaper, I'd buy it. The issue, however, is this: Do I really want to read a book on it? When I forget the middle name of the hero of my story, do I really want to be scrolling? Do I want ANOTHER battery operated device in my bedroom (don't ask!)? Will I be able to read in the bath? Thank goodness I don't have access to a US credit card and all these decisions can await another day in Gondwanaland.

Karen Bruns heads up marketing at the HSRC Press (, but writes here in her personal capacity. She is a voracious reader – from autobiographies to travel ezines – and as a result of her personal contribution to deforestation thereby, she is anxiously interested in environmental issues. Articles that she has written about her many forays near and far have been published in national and bespoke magazines – but she still can’t travel with only a cabin bag and she has no ambitions of being a Space Tourist.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

passages of power

On Wednesday I interviewed a professor at the University of Cape Town. Prof Mike Inggs celebrates his 21st year in the Engineering faculty this year, and he has been studying various aspects of radar technology for most of that time. He told me many things that were really interesting, but he may be surprised that the one comment that really stuck in my mind was when he that he didn't know if the study of radar would continue after he was gone.

(The picture of radar here is pretty misleading in this context, but it is pretty. And nothing says radar more than a green screen. With blips. The kind of radar that Prof Inggs and his team works with does far more. More about that another time.)

"Often when a professor retires, that's the end of it," he said. "New people come in with new interests and ideas, and knowledge is lost."

Guest writer Skoorby has written today's post, and he has some really interesting things to say about transitions and how they can happen.

Over to Skoorby:

Two news items from this week so far:

HARARE January 19: The Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai have failed to reach a deal on forming a unity government.

WASHINGTON January 20: Barack Hussein Obama took over the presidency of the United States from George W. Bush in an inauguration ceremony at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Why didn’t people celebrate the departure of George W. Bush? I feel almost as pleased about the end of Bush’s catastrophic presidency as I do about Obama’s election. I’d like to have seen a little more Bush-bashing. I’d like to have seen Bush’s entrance greeted not by polite hand-clapping (and a few scattered boos), but by complete silence and faces averted. I’d like to have seen Obama telling Bush in pointed terms just how badly his weakness, his rigidity and his laziness has failed us all. I’d like to have seen Bush leaving, not in a Marines helicopter and his own jumbo jet, but in a cab to take him to the airport for a coach flight back to wherever it is he comes from.

None of that happened, of course. There are norms about how these transitions take place, and no-one even contemplated any of the things that I would like to have seen. There was no question of how well or how badly the outgoing president had done. There was only the repetition of the long-established traditions.

Within each presidential term, the president has great power and discretion. As we now know, the president can even behave like an autocrat and get away with it. But only within the term of the presidency. Across terms, any single president is powerless. The long-cycle power lies in the norms and traditions. It lies in the system of government. Ultimately, it lies in the idea of the state, originally laid out in the constitution, but also as amended and reinterpreted over time.

The failure to effect a transition in Zimbabwe stands in vivid contrast to the events in Washington. Clearly the levels of recent incompetence and mismanagement in the United States and Zimbabwe are not remotely comparable, but the smooth transition yesterday in Washington does provide some insight into the problem in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s presidency is the first for post-UDI Zimbabwe. There has never been a transition of power. Other than the armed conflict that established Zimbabwe, there are no norms and traditions to govern the process. Every decision, every procedure followed in Zimbabwe has to be invented, and is necessarily personal. When it comes, the end of Mugabe’s control will be more like the end of the country. Whoever follows him will have to reinvent the idea of the state, and deal again and afresh with the issue of transfer of power.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

of hope deferred

On the last day of 2008, 589 912 matrics received the exam results which would have such an impact on their futures. A staggering 38% of them failed (224 166 young adults) and are likely to add to the 60% unemployment we already have among 18 - 35 year olds in South Africa.

I interviewed some of the lucky few who not only passed, but obtained distinctions and bursaries for their university education.

They were all quick to acknowledge that they owed their success to the tuition they had received. Sadly, that tuition was not at their schools.

The students I spoke to were all part of the Metropolitan Actuaries on the Move Programme which identifies learners in township schools who have a flair for mathematics and science and enrols them in a two-year programme that builds those skills. The programme offers extra English, maths and science training on Saturday afternoons as well as courses in study techniques, computer training, life skills and career counselling during school holidays.

The programme has achieved a 100% matriculation pass rate since 2002, with 2008 being no exception. But they can only do so much: just 177 learners were given the boost they needed to succeed.

As Mamphela Ramphele pointed out in The Times "for all the trumpeting of the matric pass rate, the real picture is one of failure."

The article adds: "For education specialists, the results are seen as a “swindle ... nothing has changed except the complexion of the upper classes ... Patterns of achievement after apartheid mirror perfectly patterns of achievement under apartheid.”

I was struck by Mamphela's comment that "every year about 1.1 million children start grade 1, then why did we have only 589 912 pupils writing matric in 2008? What has happened to the rest of our children?"

Mamphela's comments get even more depressing:

"And we need to remember the low hurdle set for the definition of a pass. A pupil needs to have only three subjects at 40% plus three at 30% to be included in this success rate figure. Where in the world can such a low standard be regarded as adequate preparation for the 21st century knowledge society?"

There's more. Do yourself a favour and read the rest.

The matrics I interviewed were, of course, over the moon with their results, and filled with hope and passion for their futures.

Take Chosen Khumalo who achieved a Matric pass with seven distinctions.

“I'm overwhelmed,” said the 18-year-old orphan who lives with her older brother in a settlement near Umlazi in KwaZulu Natal. “But I know now that anything is possible.”

A jubilant George Phandle earned four distinctions in his matric exams.

“I've seen the results of never giving up. I am the first person in my family to get a matric and it took a lot of strength and courage to do it,” he said.

This young man proved his passion for sharing his knowledge by teaching other learners in his area.

“I was really pleased. All of them improved their results, and of those who were in matric, the majority passed,” he said. “The Actuaries on the Move teachers showed me the way by sacrificing their Saturdays to teach me, and I taught others in the evenings and on Sundays.”

“This programme puts the students on a whole new level,” commented maths teacher Mandla Kweyama. “Its because we teach them at such a high level that they not only cope well with matric, but they are equipped for their first year university as well. Each year, a few of the learners on the programme even achieve 100% marks in their maths exams.”

“The key is the self confidence that the students gain after they have attended extra classes,” said Zwelitsha Magugwana who teaches science on the programme. “Instead of them admiring the criminals with their flashy cars, they come to realise that hard work brings its own rewards. They get an edge over their peers.”

“What would really bring joy to my heart would be if we could increase the number of students. Metropolitan is unusual because it is prepared to invest in the young blood. It's children like these that are going to be at the core of our future.”

Busani Zulu, another of the programme's educators in KZN agreed. “This is just a drop in the ocean of what could be achieved,” he said. “Imagine the future of this country if the programme could reach even more students?”

Imagine the future of this country if our government cared enough to offer this level of tuition to all the children?

working together

I found this amazing video on one of the blogs I read yesterday (not sure which one it was, so sorry not to acknowledge it).

It's the kind of thing that makes you feel that everything will really be ok, and that we can work together to make the world a better place.

It seems appropriate to post it today, as a celebration of the hope (and not the hype) of Barak Obama's inauguration.

Remember if you're in a low-bandwidth area (like most of the known world) then push pause instead of play and let the video load first so that you don't get driven insane by the breaks and bufferings.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

when service is no longer pear shaped

I've been tagged by Hannah on a photographic meme which is doing the rounds. The idea is that you must post the fourth picture in your fourth picture folder. No matter what it is. Without editing.

Ok... here's where I admit to a little bit of cheating. While Hannah is one of my culinary heroes, and I really, really wanted her to win Masterchef 2007, she had never heard of me. So I asked to be tagged.
And, the second bit of cheating... I first checked what my fourth picture in my fourth folder was to make sure I was happy about posting it.

It's a picture of Aurora in the Western Cape where Greg and I didn't go for our anniversary lunch.

We'd heard about this "really lovely little restaurant". There it is, in that brownish building across the field filled with spring wild flowers. We got there at 12am but it didn't open until 12.30, so we spent the time admiring the views and chatting to some sheep. (I introduced them to Greg and explained that he, unlike me, did not think that a garden the size of ours should have at least one sheep. It's an ongoing discussion in our home, and I'm beginning to think he might not ever change his mind. They didn't seem to care.)

When the restaurant opened, we went inside and admired both the decor (Western, rustic) and the menu (country fusion) and luckily asked about payment methods before we ordered. They don't take anything other than cash and the nearest ATM is 60km away.

We decided that if we had to drive 120km to draw some cash, we may as well eat there too so we had a really good seafood meal at Laaiplek, in a restaurant no more than 5m from the sea.

What really interested me was the idea that someone could open a restaurant in a remote and beautiful town, and not accept debit or credit cards. I'd estimate the population can't be more than 500, so for a restaurant to be successful they must surely need diners from outside the town who quite probably won't carry cash.

Maybe it's got something to do with the town. Aurora is famous for the work of French astronomer Abbe de la Caille who erected a beacon there in 1751 as part of his quest to measure the southern arc of the meridian to determine the curviture of the earth. Due to what seems to be an uncharacteristic mistake, his results conclusively proved that the world was pear shaped.

To get back to the Aurora restaurant and its lack of foresight. I could go on about the general decline of customer service, but just lately I've been finding it difficult to climb on this particular soapbox. Maybe it's a function of the economic downturn, but service seems to be improving. Yes, I know, it's not hard to improve, particularly in Cape Town, but I'm talking about the kind of awesome customer service that has me looking under the desk to check if the boss is hiding there.

On Saturday I needed information about a course of study and Greg needed to check the value of his car for his insurance update. He also needed to check the price of a Harley (What can I say? He's officially middle aged).

My usual response to trying to get service is to go to the bathroom to check in the mirror in case I have suddenly become invisible. Not on Saturday. At all three places we were met with helpful, smiling people who gave us all the information we needed. It was amazing. Maybe this is the silver lining on the recession?

So, to get back to the photographic meme.

These are the rules:

1. Take your fourth picture folder
2. Fourth picture--no exceptions!
3. Post it, and tell about it.
4. Tag four more people.

So, I'm tagging Julie at Moments of Perfect Clarity
Clint at Words and Images
Leonie at Art for the Heart
and Meri at Meri's Musings

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

all that stuff

I don't have a pic of Rooi Els, but the middle of Table Bay is a good place to scream your freedom to the world.

Today I have asked Pete Carruthers of the business support site Pete's Weekly to be my guest and give us his take on what's really important in 2009.

Here's what he has to say:
By now you will have noticed that the entire world financial system is geared towards making you spend more. That's not you in the generic sense - I mean you, personally .

The world economic system is built on the two of us continuing to buy stuff. (That's just you and me.) So what happens when we stop? I am glad you asked, because I've decided to take a break, and that means the entire economic crisis is your fault!

It's not enough that we spend what we earn. Growth means we have to spend a bit more than we earn. And the system will do whatever it can to help you do just that.

But what happens when you lose your job? Or you can't import anymore because the Rand has gone a little too far south? Or your Rand income drops to just enough Pounds to buy three coffees at your local Caffe Nero? (That's the UK equivalent of Mugg & Bean, without the service or the bottomless mug.)

These are slimming times, but I thought I might add a few more words to the subject. This time about the stuff we accumulate when times are good. (The leather jackets, the cars, the doodads, the - as the Brits say - Tatt!)

We become very attached to our stuff. And we get rather anxious when somebody threatens to take it away. (That's how they force us to work harder to pay their bills.)

This past week I received an email from somebody who was legally deprived of all his stuff. (As opposed to that less legal, but much more common method that happens in the car park while you're at the Mugg and Bean, or just sipping a coffee at the Waterfront.)

He felt liberated. Nobody could threaten him any more (at least not effectively) because there was nothing left to take. It reminded me of how I felt back in '93.

They can't throw you in jail. They can't take the kids. In fact, after that first cleansing experience, they can't do much at all. It is rather liberating when you realise that it's over.

They can't even stop you heading out to Rooi Els, walking out over the rocks, until that very last ledge, behind the ridge, where all you can see is the sea. (And nobody on shore can see you ripping your clothes off and screaming your frustrations away before taking out a beer and getting a sun tan.)

That water has been crashing onto the waves since forever, and will continue to do so long after both of us are gone. It's very balancing to know how insignificant that debt is in the galactic scheme of things. Now, what was that problem again?

If you're a purist no doubt you'll point out that they can garnishee your salary. (That's when the bank applies to your employer to have a portion of your salary redirected in their direction.) That's sure an issue as long as you have a salary. So don't have one! (One of the many joys of self employment is the structural flexibility.)

The problem, boys and girls, is that when we play the game by their rules, they always win. Time to stop, and play Aussie rules.

At the ripe old age of 50 I realise just one thing. It's not the stuff that's important. Nor is it the income flow. It's the people. It's the woman of my dreams and my children. They matter. The rest is nice to have, but not essential. But the people? They're the reason I exist.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Five questions from Denmark

One of the great benefits of blogging is that you get to meet new friends from all over the world. I get really excited when I check my Google Analytics and discover that my blog is being read by people I'll probably never meet.

It has also led connections with some people I really hope I do get to meet, like Julie from Moments of Perfect Clarity.

One of the blogs she was reading had taken part in an interview game, she followed suit, and now it's my turn.

Like all these blog chains, there are some rules:
1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me."
2. I will respond by emailing you five questions. (I get to pick the questions).
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

So here goes: my five questions and answers:

1. You're a freelance journalist -- what kind of assignments do you get?

I'm not sure if I am a freelance journalist, although that is actually the shorthand title that I use for what I do. My real title is probably media slut (I'll work for almost anyone who pays).

The company I started Of Course Media employs freelancers (including myself) and we do a whole range of creative things (hence the name). I seem to spend more of my time editing and project managing than actually writing. I worked on newspapers for years, mostly as a sub editor (including the FT in London). The assignments we get tend to be for things that interest me, especially science, medicine and poverty and development issues.

2. I've just read Paul Theroux's "dark star safari" in which he postulates (and quotes others who postulate) that aid is causing more problems than it's fixing in africa. What are your thoughts?

I'd tend to agree. There is a definite culture of waiting for handouts rather than harnessing talent in Africa. I think that the needs are huge and that the intentions behind the aid are of the best, but the result has been a continuation of the paternalism of colonialism. And there are many instances where the aid has filled the coffers of corrupt regimes rather than reaching the people for who it is intended. The present situation in Zimbabwe is a good illustration of what can go wrong. The mad Mugabe is able to continue to ignore his dying population because he knows that the "evil westerners" will step in and provide the medical attention and food etc that his regime is not capable or willing to provide themselves.

3-4. it appears from your blog that you haven't been blogging for very long...what coaxed you into the blogosphere? and how do you think it affects your journalism?

You're right, I only started last year (although I did register the blog about a year before I started because I was planning it as a marketing tool). I thought I wouldn't have the time or the motivation to blog regularly enough, but I have discovered that it is totally addictive. I enjoy having a soapbox for my opinions and I love making contact with people i wouldn't normally reach. My office is at home, 100km from Cape Town, and most of my contact with other people is through email. The blog gives me a chance to say "hey! You know what I think?"

I think it helps my writing in general because it keeps me thinking and writing and prevents me turning into an admin drone. the discipline of it is good and I also use it to get a wider audience for some of the things I am writing about as well as what my company is doing. So I suppose it is a marketing tool in a way.

5. will you share some of your paintings and talk a bit about what inspires you?

This is probably the hardest question you've asked, Julie! I don't consider myself an artist, and sharing my work is pretty scary. I was thrown out of art class at school (long story) and didn't think I could draw or paint at all until I went to my friend Leonie's art class. I started painting again last year when Eskom's powercuts were frustratingly frequent and my laptop battery kept running out before the lights came back on.

I think the thing I enjoy about painting is that it forces you to look at the world differently. It forces you to notice light and shadow and nuances of colour. And it challenges the perfectionist in me that is never completely happy with anything I have produced (except my sons).

Up till now I have only used acrylics but I'd like to try painting in oils.

This is my first attempt at painting an animal. It was from a photo I took when we were at the Addo Elephant Park in September 2007. What inspired me? I'm not sure... just the challenge of painting an elephant! It looks ok from a distance.

This is a painting of my friend Greta's favourite sand dune at Melkbos, with Table Mountain in the distance. She asked me to paint it for her and I was so flattered that she thought I could, that I did. There are lots of things about it I'd like to change but I'm happy with the footprints.

So that's it. Now its your turn. Anyone want to be interviewed?

reading the signs

I know today is almost a third of the way into January, so you may think its a bit late to start talking about new year resolutions. Most people have probably broken their resolutions by now anyway. I wonder what the problem is? Is it that we make resolutions that we don't really want to keep (so we can justify ourselves by saying "At least I tried") or is it that the new year is the worst possible time to make resolutions about anything?

Why do we bother with resolutions at all? My theory is (do I sound like Ann Elk?) that it's just another attempt to control our futures. And so few of us succeed because we don't clear out the spiritual, emotional and physical clutter in our lives that gets in the way of us tapping into new opportunities.

In the Dogon country of Mali, the villagers consult diviners like the one above to get answers to the questions that are concerning them. They ask about their health and their families, their crops and their futures. The position of diviner is usually passed down from father to son, and training only begins when the young man is at least 29 years old and considered mature enough to hear and keep the secrets of the people.

The legend is that the foxes (jackals) know all the answers to the questions that trouble humankind, and years ago they used to come into the villages and tell the holy men everything they needed to know. The one year there was a terrible drought and when the fox come to the holy man, he was overcome by hunger and tried to eat it. The fox was so offended (as one would be) that he swore that he would never enter the village again, Now the diviners have to go well away from the houses and scratch their questions with symbols in the sand. The foxes come at night and provide the answers in the directions that their footsteps have taken and the ways that they have disturbed the patterns.

It interested me how many questions the diviners asked of the people who came to consult them. The women in our group who asked for their futures to be told described it as being like a visit to the psychiatrist.

And that brings me back to clearing out the clutter. I don't believe that any resolution can succeed if we have not made room for the new by facing and discarding the things that are holding us back.

New beginnings are never easy. In any new beginning there will be darkness, emptiness and confusion. Sometimes all that is needed is to acknowledge the darkness in which we find ourselves and follow the light we are given.

TS Eliot in Little Gidding sums it up best:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

and, later,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It seems that 2009 is going to be a year of choices and changes, and a year when great courage will be needed.

We will have a general election in South Africa this year, and as the ANC and the new opposition COPE square up, we have already seen the effects that having some choices has made. I remember feeling totally liberated in the 1990s by declaring my distrust of Winnie Mandela, Alan Boesak and a few others.

Letting go of the sensibilities of the past (where struggle heroes are beyond reproach) is a big part of what is happening in the South African political scene at the moment. My wish as we enter 2009 is that we as a nation will have the courage to make the choices and changes that are needed to see us actually fulfil the promise of 1994.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Unconditional love

I was reading an article (somewhat bizarrely, at about one of the less publicised killers in Dakar, and it got me thinking about work and desperation and hunger and ignorance and unconditional love.

And how, for good or evil, we are all linked together.

"First, it took the animals. Goats fell silent and refused to stand up. Chickens died in handfuls, then en masse. Street dogs disappeared.

Then it took the children. Toddlers stopped talking and their legs gave out. Women birthed stillborns. Infants withered and died. Some said the houses were cursed. Others said the families were cursed."

As people all over the developed world become aware of issues of global warming and sustainability, and as we learn to "do the right thing" and recycle, there are unintended consequences. I've handed in my share of old car batteries, but after reading this story, I'm wondering how I may have contributed to this tragedy.

I thought of the mothers who carried that lead-laden ground back to their houses to sift. It must have seemed like a dream come true: money from the ground, and no need to leave the children alone while they worked.

I wonder if they would have taken the chance if they had been made aware of the risks? Somehow I think they may have. On the one hand there is that universal belief that bad things happen to other people. On the other, if you are desperate and hungry, or your children are, you'll do anything.

Imagine the terrible choice faced by parents in Zimbabwe watching their children die of thirst or risking their lives with untreated water scooped from roadside puddles?

Actually, it doesn't take much to imagine it. I know the righteous anger I feel if I think anyone has said anything out of place to one of my sons, or hasn't given them the recognition they deserve. I know how I feel when they have hassles at work, or struggle to find jobs, and I know that I would do and give absolutely anything to see them both happy and fulfilled.

And if it came to their survival? I'd be right there, sifting the lead.