It’s hard to sum up what has happened over the past four years, so I’m going to keep it confined to a message of thanks and one general observation. I’ll leave the really heavy self-involved stuff for the pub, it’s the usual cliche stuff, just bearable when listeners are drunk, but vomit-inducing when committed to print.
1) Thanks weirdos
The biggest thanks has to go to the fascinating array of people i’ve had the privilege of working with or living alongside during my travels. Despite all of the goodbyes I hope I can remember a part of what each has taught in some small way. There’s one group that i want to give a special show of appreciation, an often overlooked group who commit their lives to the forces of good in the face of adversity. I’m not talking about people like myself and my mates from the uk who come to parts of africa for 5 minutes and write a blog and make a big show about it. I’m talking about the ones who spend decades dedicated to small projects, who prefer not to be named. It’s the nurses that spend year after year changing the nappies of grown men dying from HIV, it’s the doctors and therapists that spend years working in rural hospitals with no schools for their children, it’s the people who run small income generation projects for women abandoned by their roving husbands. They don’t win prizes and you never hear about them in the world of NGO internet multimedia. When you meet them they are usually a little bizarre, often lacking social graces, commonly rather enthusiastic about a particular ideology, males have beards and both sexes exhibit strange choices of footwear. But they are their own people, inspiring in their originality, peculiar in their habits, and free from the intoxicating effects of ego. My biggest thanks is dedicated to them, for teaching us what’s right.
2) All pretty much the same
I’m often asked, or told rather, how fascinating I must have found it living with so many different people and cultures along the way. But in fact what stands out is a sense of ubiquity. At the beginning of the trip was the thrill and excitement of getting to know people who looked unfamiliar and talked in foreign tongues. This was accompanied by a lot of photographs and emails home and tales told to friends. Coming back to the UK I felt like modern explorer bringing back slides of bizarre peoples and pathology to delight my colleagues in the motherland (obviously too many colonial references in children’s books.)
But after some time I think I became desensitised to what are perhaps more superficial aspects of different cultures, and I began to see more clearly aspects of myself and my friends and my family in the local people that I met. And the generalisations never held true. For instance one cultural group wasn’t more jovial than another group. Perhaps they would appear more jovial on first impressions by their habits, but within the group there would be happiness and sadness in more or less the same ratio as back at home (please exclude humanatarian disasters from this generalisation). Social structures included the same ratios of cocky and shy people. Cultures weren’t dishonest; there was the same spread of petty thieves and moral guardians. And (almost) whatever the situation, rich or poor, educated or not, people would always dig around and find something to both laugh and cry about. Yes there are groups that are faced with greater hardship than others, but I think we should avoid patronising those who we imagine have only their tears to water their failing crops (I think that’s a line from a Geldof Christmas sing along). In fact it’s the sound of open mouthed laughter that will remind me most of life on this fine continent. Anyway, take away the bells and whistles and we’re all more or less the same really, or at least variations on a theme.
So that’s the most important lesson I learnt; that we’re all more similar than we like to think, the human condition runs true, and as a friend once told our class graduating in Uganda, at the end of the day ‘We are all one’. Is that a bit cheesy? Am I a bit late to the party with the whole anti-racism thing? I know I’m not re-writing the textbooks with this point, but it’s really rather important, and a quick look at the world news suggests not everyone’s getting the hang of it.
3) Goodbye Hello
So I say goodbye, at least for now, as I write this post from deep within the savannah. The sun has just risen over the Lobombo mountains and the valley below me, layered with strata of mist, is coming to life with the sound of bulbuls and the scarlet-chested sunbirds that feed on the flowers of aloe. The impala and inyala look to the light, having survived another night free from persecution. It’s a remarkable sight and a fitting tribute to the cycles of danger and positivity that give this continent an enduring beauty that both tests and rewards those that walk its land.
It’s not easy leaving a life that has been so full of adventure, but the feeling of excitement for the next chapter in the UK is managing to suppress the mourning. I’ve spoken to many people who have spent many years traveling the world trying to find that something that’s missing. Most conclude by saying that, after all the fuss, it was there at home right under their noses all along. So I suppose that’s the most sensible place to look next. I can’t wait to be with all my old friends and family once again, I’m eternally thankful for their letting me do what I needed to do. Thanks to everyone, thanks to everything, many many thanks indeed. Big love xx