Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Friday, 22 June 2012

Other Places - Other People

I was at the local branch of the Women's Institute the other day. I have a huge amount of respect for the ladies, who come in and create an enjoyable morning for themselves. They, like me, are old people, the oldest will be a hundred this year. Yet they are not sitting at home with a rug on their knees; they meet, sing songs (It was Jerusalem last week. 'Open the doors to get some air in so, we can sing heartily,' the Chair called out.) take part in competitions, invite guest speakers in, do good deeds. Wonderful!
   Last week the speaker's topic was Sri Lanka. It was sound-and sight and the snapshots of Nuwara Elia (where I spent a cold and bewildered honeymoon), Dambulla, Galle... with brief descriptions, enthralled me. I was notalgic. Must go to Colombo when I am in India next, I decided. What a beautiful country that was before the communal riots made an inglorious scramble of it. I had spent five years of my just-married time there, living in Colombo and in Jaffna, before the North became a no-go area. In the visiting speaker's map of Sri Lanka, a chunk of this end of the country was coloured yellow with warning stripes. He did not go there, he said.
   The surprising thing, for me, however, was that three or four women out of the assembled had been on holiday in Sree Lanka already. Thirty years ago, when I came back on leave from various parts of Africa, most of the ladies I met had never heard of those places. They imagined, many of them, that Africa was a big mass of uneducated, rough people.
   On one visit to England I was invited by my friend Chris, a sometimes tennis partner, to spend the weekend at his house. He had done a barn conversion for his two teen-age daughters and this was house warming.
   At the end of the evening I loped off from the barn, which was rapidly turning into a dance floor for the young, to the kitchen to help with the washing up.
   Two old ladies were already there, elbow deep in soap suds.
   'Can I help?' I asked.
   'Oh, no. You don't want to do that. You've just come for a holiday and you don't want more work of this kind.' They beamed in unison, hands in the sink and backs sideways to me.
   'Actually , in Kampala, the maid does all this for me.'
   'The older one thought for a moment. 'That's all the poor dears can do, isn't it?
   I was about to explode when a strong arm clamped my shoulder down.
   'Out,' Chris said. 'Now  you can shout at me, but not in front of them.'
   I laughed out loud, thinking of the Ugandans I worked with in Kampala.
   A rarefied place that was. As I was the Maths Adviser on a project I worked with the University of Makerere Maths department on many things: Curriculum reform, Teacher Training, Maths Magazine... The boys/ men were awe-inspiring.
   The Head of Department once appeared on Uganda TV with me and I remember his measured answers to the insane journalist who quizzed us without knowing a thing about the Project or Maths.
   Then there was Peter: he had completed a Ph.D in Pure Mathematics at Edinburgh a year before and had worked with my son, Kitta, who was doing similar things there. He was also the chief collaborator with me on the Maths Magazine. In addition to all this he ran a Computer firm, to supplement his income, when the University forgot to pay his wages.
   Francis was another revelation. Francis already had a Ph.D in Applied Mathematics when he went to Bangalore to do another Ph.D. In Computer Science.
   'Why another one?' I asked.
   'The British Council offers a five-year scholarship; why waste it?'
   He did not come home for five years and his wife forgot him - for good. He didn't blame her.
   I met him for the first time in the foyer of Peter's computer firm. He had just been interviewed and as he walked out I could hear a South Indian English accent. When he appeared before me and I spoke to him, he nodded his head almost in a parody of the way Indians are depicted in British Comedies.
   His hobby was writing programmes for computer games, while he created software for banks for Peter and taught Applied Maths at the University.
   How little the British knew then about the Africans. Looking back, how lucky was I, to meet all of these people in Uganda, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Nigeria and Zambia. I enjoyed their humour (Descriptions of shells over their lodgings as Musoveni's army came marching in, sowing AIDS and  driving Amin out of Uganda. They had been playing Cards, so they dived under the card table.).
   I think all young people should be funded to travel widely - that kind of learning cannot be achieved by sitting in a classroom. Not even Google or Wikipedia can stretch quite that far.

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