Sunday, 20 July 2014

Don't ask a fish

"If you want to know about water, don't ask a fish."

So goes the Chinese proverb, and I like it. Perhaps this says different things to different people, but to me this speaks of how the fish is immersed in water, it always has been and knows no other way, so it does not have the perspective to be able to explain what water is. I like how this can be applied to human culture and behaviour - we get so engrossed in our own way of thinking that we can't even conceive of any other way.

But I want to look at this from another angle - maybe it's a bit of stretch, I'm not sure. I was thinking about this a bit more literally.

It's fairly obvious that humans think of ourselves as the most intelligent species. When we're not dominating, destroying or subjugating other species, we're simply condescending toward them. ("Oh look at that chimp, isn't he so smart?") So in this proverb about the fish,  I hear a bit of "haha, stupid fish, doesn't even know it's in water."

How very clever of us humans. Of course we'd know if we were in water wouldn't we? Well, consider this scenario. I get a clean cup out of the cupboard and hand it to you, and ask what's in the cup? You have a look and, it's quite obvious. Nothing is in the cup.

Nothing? Are you sure?

In fact, the cup is full. It's full of air.

Don't laugh - for it takes only the briefest analysis to realise that air is not nothing. The air in our atmosphere is made up of a mixture of gases - about 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, 0.03% carbon dioxide, and a list of others in small quantities. Then there's water vapour, pollen, and dust carried in the air. Your body knows this even if your mind doesn't - think how the air can be different temperatures, it can by hazy or clear, heavy with humidity or salty and crisp. Put simply, air is a thing, not a no-thing.

And this is just the beginning. Consider this passage from a book by David Abram I read recently :

The air is not a random bunch of gases simply drawn to earth by the earth's gravity, but an elixir generated by the soils, the oceans and the numberless organisms that inhabit this world, each creature exchanging certain ingredients for others as it exhales, drinking the sunlight with our leaves or filtering the water with our gills, all of us contributing to the composition of this phantasmagoric brew, circulating it steadily between us and nourishing ourselves on its magic, generating ourselves from its substance. 

Air is a magical, beautiful, vital part of our world. We are in it and it is in us. If it's not always obvious - as it is when the wind is rushing by, making our hair dance - that's because we are exactly like the fish in the water.

A little concentration, however, can reveal to our mind the feel of the air coming in and out of our nostrils - cooler as it goes in and warmer as it comes out. We begin to feel the air brushing our skin, and notice the air rushing in to our lungs with each breath, where it exchanges precious molecules with those in our own blood.

In his writing, Abram describes how many indigenous cultures and mystic religions honour the sacredness of air. They understand it is not nothing. A contemplative mind sees wonder in the breath, the way each breath connects us to everyone and everything else. Now that modern society, so clever and so sure of ourselves, is busily changing the very composition of the world's air, perhaps it would do us well to stop to contemplate, to let the wonder of being alive wash over us. Breathe in and breathe out. Let the mind pause and calm its rapid movements. Let the wisdom of the body and the intuition of the soul speak. Breathe in and breathe out.

Have a read of David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal for a mind-opening journey. You'll be exposed to some amazing thoughts! (As well as words like phantasmagorical and chthonic).
Thanks for the lend of these books Danielle!

Monday, 5 May 2014

Night in the Library

So engrossed was I in my search for the perfect combination of books to borrow that I didn't notice the overhead lights being switched off one by one. I didn't hear the jangle of the librarian's keys as they were slid into the lock and turned with a click of finality, I didn't hear the fading footsteps, the car start and drive away, and I didn't notice the dimming daylight.

Still I pored over the shelves, crouching in the Politics and Philosophy corner where the librarian had failed to notice me reading jacket blurbs and admiring cover artworks. It wasn't until I heard that voice that I suddenly stood and looked around and noticed it was night time.

The voice came from over in the Fiction section. It spoke with stately authority and had a distinct Russian accent. I'll never forget what it said, for the words seemed somehow familiar as they echoed around the darkened library. It said "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Quite a statement, I thought. Intrigued, I stalked over towards the voice and sure enough, there on the shelf, with TOLS on it's spine, was a Tolstoy making all this racket.

Before I had a chance to do anything further, the book's neighbour responded.  This time the voice clearly sang, ringing with a shimmer of delight. I thought I heard the sound of pan-pipes in the background as the singing went...
"Hey dol! merry dol! Ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!"

This jumble of nonsense, sung with the joy of all life, was also familiar to me but I couldn't place it until the next lines made it clear.

"Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:
Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!"

Of course, it was Tolkein! The singing was old Tom Bombabil, that zealous master of the woodland. He and his wonderful wife Goldberry, whose merry dinner table was laden with yellow cream and honeycomb, white bread and butter; milk, cheese and green herbs and ripe berries gathered, where singing came more naturally than speaking, were a happy family quite unlike any I knew of. Tolkein certainly had a point there. 

I was curious to know how Tolstoy would respond, but just then over towards the Ms, I heard the sound of a ghostly wind echoing across the Texan plains and the tormented voice of one who had wrestled demons in the dark slowly drawled “It makes no difference what men think of war. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.” 

I didn't need to see the MCCAR on the spine to know they were Cormac McCarthy's clipped sentences, sharing his thoughts in his characteristic poetry of the damned. A mood of melancholy and the terrible beauty of darkness fell over the library, but then I heard the tinkle of tea cups and the satisfying slurp of steaming tea being poured. An irreverant Scottish voice announced  “It was time to take the pumpkin out of the pot and eat it. In the final analysis, that was what solved these big problems of life. You could think and think and get nowhere, but you still had to eat your pumpkin. That brought you down to earth. That gave you a reason for going on. Pumpkin.”

I had an inkling, but it wasn't until I saw the MCCAL on the spine that I knew it was Alexander McCall Smith, using his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency to give quite a different view of things. 

The tumbleweed blew again, and McCarthy retorted "People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn't believe in that. Tomorrow wasn't getting ready for them. It didn't even know they were there," as though to prove that darkness also has a sense of humour, albeit laced with arsenic. 

I didn't stay around to hear the debate develop because from the next aisle I heard the unmistakable din of working class nineteenth century Britain, and a confident voice proclaim a favourite line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was..." I raced over to see Dickens orating, but as I got there he was interrupted by science fiction master Philip K. Dick  with “A weird time in which we are alive. We can travel anywhere we want, even to other planets. And for what? To sit day after day, declining in morale and hope.”

"-It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness-"
“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”
"-it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity-"
"If you think this Universe is bad, you should see some of the others.” 
"-it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness-"
“Don't try to solve serious matters in the middle of the night.” 
"-it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,-"
“No single thing abides; and all things are fucked up.” 
"-we had everything before us, we had nothing before us-"
“Everything in life is just for a while.”
"-we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-"
“I can see Richard Wagner standing at the gates of heaven. "You have to let me in," he says. "I wrote Parsifal. It has to do with the Grail, Christ, suffering, pity and healing. Right?" And they answer, "Well, we read it and it makes no sense." SLAM.”

Things were getting louder. Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac were trying to out-hip one another, but it was made difficult by the absurd interruptions of Kafka, who thought he was a beetle, a few books down. 

Tom Wolfe was trying to joke with Virginia Woolf but she kept disappearing into her interior monologue, and Coelho was dispensing quaint wisdom to Coetze. 

"Call me Ishmael" Melville proclaimed, and Conrad screamed "The horror! The horror!" while from the Ss came the sound of  “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” 

Joyce chimed in with “Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.” 

Ideas were ripe and flowing, the words were crisp and vibrant, life and love were lived and lost; it was a most beautiful night in the library.   

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

In praise of libraries

With a feeling equal but opposite to the caustic loathing I have for shopping centres, I truly love libraries.

I love the dignified buzz of a building devoted to the attaining of wisdom. I love the sight of row upon row of books, each one a work of countless hours of dedicated research, of late coffee-fuelled nights, of long back-aching days of compiling and composing, cutting out and adding in, editing and redrafting, so that finally this precious volume can be printed and published and delivered to sit here neatly in its allotted place on the shelf. It  pains me to pass any of them by. All they want is a good home to be taken into and a comfortable lap on which to spread themselves; to be admired and understood. I wish I could read you all!

I love the librarians, so peaceful, helpful and quietly delighted to find themselves in this sanctuary every day like happy monks sitting in their shrine of words.

There's excitement in my belly on the day I wake up knowing I'm due to visit the library. I've already checked the catalogue online and have a good idea what is available and what I'd like to borrow. But I've always got one eye open for a surprise. There's a  lesser known Tolkein book I haven't yet read, there's the Booker Prize winner from 2002, and I can't but grasp greedily at that new tome on the philosophy of happiness. When I'm loaded up with more books than I can possibly read by the due date (but boy, I'll give it a red hot go) I approach the counter for the final and most satisfying of all surprises. I take out my wallet, but instead of paying for the privilege of reading these, the thoughts and work of the giants of literature from across the globe and across the centuries, I simply hand over my library card for a quick scan and away I walk. For this, the most frugal of sojourners, this is the ultimate buzz.

In times when everything is becoming commercialised and co-opted, (even SBS has ads!) libraries are a bastion of society's goodwill towards itself, like a healthy tonic to neutralise the runaway diet of crass junk.

I love the different flavours of libraries in the places I've lived. There was Hobart's imposing and efficient modern library with compulsory lockers to store your bag, where I first encountered the machine to auto-check your own books. Compare this with Fremantle's ramshackle atmosphere, where hobos read newspapers in sunny corners and the wide open doorway lacks even a beeper to check for smuggled volumes in whatever suitcase you care to drag in.

My current local is small but packed wall to wall with wonders. It will take time, but I'm getting through them.


Tuesday, 22 April 2014

These are the clouds my friends

In my family, it's my sister Anna who is the cloud expert. From her studies in climatology she knows the names of all the different types, and she knows the science behind how they're formed and how each type behaves. She's even a card-carrying member of some dubious organisation called the Cloud Appreciation Society.

While I don't have any of these formal qualifications, I think that I too am a cloud lover. Not just the big fluffy white ones that look like animals or toasters or things - though these certainly are amazing (I'm pretty sure they're called cumulonimbus). I love too the dark layer way out over the ocean with diagonal lines coming down, where the rain is falling, though to my eyes it appears a stationary grey mass. I love the storm clouds advancing from the south on a summer afternoon; a swirling blackness devouring the sky, their arrival heralded by the mad delight of leaves and litter dancing in the street. I love it when there are two types of clouds in the sky at once - the low lying wispy ones scudding lightly along so close you feel you could grab hold of them, and the higher, more aloof ones which float by at their own dignified  pace. I love the collection of squiggles, lines and shapes stretching away to the horizon that can make a look up to the sky such a wonderfully distracting experience.

And then there's the way the clouds dance around with the sun, veiling and unveiling, changing colour and shape as I watch. Oh, the sunrises and sunsets I've seen made a thousand times more spectacular by the blushing and ever-changing clouds. A sky-show that kings and emperors could not but be impressed by.

Considering how much beauty and diversion clouds bring to the world, I think they've had a rough trot in the English language. The connotations of clouds are always negative. What's all this about people being "under a cloud of suspicion" when they've been implicated in bad behaviour? Why don't you hear of happy people, whose life is just falling into place described as being "under a cloud of contentment"? Clouded judgment- bad. Head in the clouds - bad. I suppose there is cloud nine, which is undoubtedly a good place to be, but that begs the question - are the other eight clouds all evil?

It seems like we've forgotten that clouds are the carriers of rain, a replenishing and vital part of the cycle of life on earth. Maybe it's got something to do with our simplistic black and white view of things. Sun is good, rain is bad, nothing in between. It could be that clouds, in their never ending, always changing complexity and diversity, give us all the shades of grey.

Rain in the distance, Grampians VIC

Wispy goodness, Grampians

A flock of sunset clouds, Grampians VIC

Mallacoota, VIC


East coast Tassie

Sunset on the Nullarbor

Sunset, Lucky Bay WA

Saturday, 12 April 2014

This is what happens when you camp alone.

Just after Easter I went up to Barrington Tops for a few days of exploring. The first day’s hike was all uphill, ascending a sharp escarpment. I went hard, sweating out the accumulated frustrations of a busy day to day life. By nightfall I was exhausted and slept dreamlessly.

The second day was mellower. The sky was clear, the air crisp and the trail meandered along the plateau, passing plains, circling swamps and crossing creeks. There was nobody around and I didn't mind that.

That chilly night after eating I sat by the campfire. The creek was bubbling quietly nearby and I gazed into the dancing flames. My thoughts wandered, following threads of memories, ponderings and whirling dreams. Like the flickering of the fire, my mind leapt from here to there following a course of no discernible meaning. I turned around to get the fire’s warmth on my back and looked up into the night sky, aglow with shimmering stars. Looking into the universe, looking through time.

I kept up this slow rotation, to stay warm front and back. Alternately looking down into the fire and up into the stars it occurred to me that whether you’re looking at the small scale world of the senses –  the here and now of this body walking the earth  – or you’re pondering the big picture of the universe, God and love, this life truly is a wondrous thing. 

Oh, the night sky. (Not my photo. From )

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A trip to the market

With what can I compare the marketplace in Zomba? Perhaps a giant festival, but like no festival to which I have ever been. This festival had no central meeting area, but many hundreds of alleyways, corridors and crannies, all packed with people with something to celebrate. It was difficult to move between them as they chatted, laughed and sang. There was music, loud and crackly, screeching from scratched-up cassette players. A man in a red Liverpool football jersey danced knock-kneed and carefree in front of his stall of mobile phone chargers. 

Instead of balloons and streamers for decorations, the place was festooned with bundles of dangling onions, red, brown and white. There were heaps of crisp green vegetables lined up on concrete benches and a boy walked along the row with a bucket of water, dipping his hand in and flicking water over the vegetables as though it was confetti at a wedding. The water dripped onto the concrete floor below. I walked past piles upon piles of tomatoes, firm and juicy, then baskets full of potatoes. Over there, the fish, I could tell by the smell. On a wooden bench sat the tiny dried fish, scooped into piles for ten kwacha, twenty kwacha, fifty kwacha. On the next bench, the fresh chambo, with scales wet and slippery. 

Up above, from the branches of a tree, hung second hand trousers. In the next tree, perched like migratory birds, were discarded first world t-shirts of all the colours. A lime green Bob’s Plumbing, Ottowa, flapped next to a navy blue I love Adelaide, their slogans marks of their distant homelands. They ruffled their feathers in the breeze.

Up the back, in brick rooms the size of broom cupboards, sat the tailors with pins in mouth, hunched over their sewing machines, busily constructing the flamboyant coloured dresses seen all over town. Next door was the electrical repairman, buried to his neck in the skeletons of old televisions and video players, as though he was slowly turning into one of these mechanical devices. The clanging of metal led me past the pots, watering cans and hoes. Alongside these, within a cloud of flies, was where the meat was cut up and sold. Carcasses hung by a hook, limbs and organs scattered around, and live chickens clucked with rightful concern from inside tiny cages.

My first trip to the market was like arriving at a party where I knew nobody, and I was for some reason wearing only my underpants. People stared. Their eyes fixed on me as soon as I entered their vision, and they followed my path, not looking away until I was gone. Others responded with exuberant amazement, as though they had been waiting all day just to see me, and now finally I had arrived. “Aah, mzungu!” they called, waving me over, “Buy tomatoes? Nice price! Special-special!” Young men crouched in groups talking conspiratorially, old women sat on benchtops, their legs stretched elegantly before them, as they shelled peas and laughed with their neighbours.  It was noisy, but not the way traffic or machinery is noisy. Warm, happy noise.

The market's jumble of wooden stalls was surrounded by a two metre high metal fence, but during the day vendors spilled outside this barrier and filled the surrounding streets. This creature would not be contained. The streets became part of the market itself; like tentacles extending from the main body, they entangled passers by, dragging them against their will into the hungry mouth of the marketplace. 

With practice I learned that this is no 'quick duck out to the shops' shopping experience, but a social occasion requiring handshakes, laughter, banter, bargaining and promises of future visits. Compliments were exchanged, and customer/vendor loyalty was built. 

But what was it they were celebrating? Maybe it was the raw vitality of life itself; the colour and smell, the very feel of this moment in time. In a life stripped back to the basics, where there is no need to rush from here to there (for what is more important than being here, now?), a trip to the market was a fine way to spend some time.  


I don't have many photos from the market because I found that by taking out my camera I immediately felt like an observer rather than a participant in the moment. 

The smaller Mpondabwino market nearby.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

First day as a teacher

Monday morning, my first day as the lone white teacher at St Mary's Girls' Secondary School. I followed at the end of the line of teachers as we passed in the back door of the hall and towards the stage at the front. The students filled the hall, standing in tight rows and leaving an aisle down the centre, through which we teachers walked. The girls, in light green blouses and long, dark green skirts, were singing. And how they sang. Their heads were thrown back, unrestrained and full of vitality, as we teachers solemnly paraded by. The hall boomed and expanded with each note. The five hundred voices were each hurled into the air above our heads, where they instantly combined, binding and harmonising, creating a new and more flavoursome whole. The sound rained down, filling the bare hall with warmth, and resonating within me. That such feeling, so natural and vibrant, could be created only by the simple vibrating of vocal chords made me want to fall down in wonder. The words weren’t English, but the sound spoke clearly to me, so full and earnest. I looked around for someone to share the moment with, but the other teachers just looked bored.

As I passed along the rows of students, I could briefly make out distinct voices, one then another, as each girl had a moment in the spotlight before the chance passed on. It was like unravelling the twine of the song, to see the individual threads of which the fabric was composed. In a moment we had reached the stage and stood looking down on the carpet of black heads and green shirts, as the girls completed the song. A hush fell.

At the end of the regular announcements I stood grinning awkwardly as the headmistress, Sister Kapenda, said “Now girls, this is Mr Geerdo from Australia. He is here at St Mary’s to teach biology and he will be with us for two years. Please make him feel so welcome.”

Immediately the bare concrete hall burst to colourful life with a kaleidoscopic display of cheering, jumping, waving of arms and clapping of hands. I looked for any hint of sarcasm or irony in this, but seeing only joyous sincerity, I felt that some sort of response was called for. I raised my hand in a feeble wave, like the Queen in a passing motorcade, and this was met with a roar of happy laughter and whooping, plus more cheering, waving of arms and clapping of hands. Welcome indeed. 

Friday, 7 February 2014

Helping Is Easy, Part II

Day 2: Reality

I expected to see a happy rabble of kids playing soccer on the dirt field when I walked by in the morning; I was hoping to join them for a kick. But the field was deserted. A couple of kids were disconsolately kicking their old plastic-bag-ball between the houses. They looked up at me then turned their backs and walked off, leaving the ball where it lay in the dust.

Frankie, the organiser from yesterday, was coming towards me.
'Stevie... problems', he said. 'Some boys they took the ball and they came into town and they did sell it for moneys.'
'Oh no' I said.
'And also the girls, they are very mad. They are saying it's not fair the boys get given a football, and yet still they have no netball.'
'Oh no' I said.

My view of myself as the generous visitor suddenly crumbled and transformed instead into an interfering foreigner. The elation from yesterday was replaced with a sick, hollow feeling.

'What have I done? What should I do now, please tell me what you think is best'.
'Stevie, maybe if you can manage you can give a new football and also a netball, and I can keep them with me and make sure they do not get sold for moneys again.'
'Ok if you think that's the best.'

I got the balls and Frankie called a meeting of all the boys and girls to talk about how it would work. He was speaking Chichewa so I could only follow his body language and that of the group. This time there were few smiles, the mood was almost somber. He spoke in harsh tones, like an angry school principal and the kids looked at me from time to time with expressions I could not interpret - what was he saying, and what were they thinking of?

After it was over and the group quietly dispersed I said 'thank you so much Frankie, you helped me a lot.'
'It's ok Stevie. But you know I have no job and little moneys. I have my three kids and wife to look after.'
'That must be tough, maybe there is some way I can assist you. I'm volunteering here though, so I don't have much money either.'
'That's ok Stevie, anything you can do is some help.'

I stayed in the lodge another day or two before leaving for my school in Zomba, sixty kilometres away, and I was afraid to go out and walk past the field, afraid to see those kids giving me that look I could not understand. Two days in the country and I had already been the cause of disturbance in a community and had given a vague promise of help to a family I was in no position to assist. An early lesson (that I was to learn many times over) that sometimes helping isn't easy.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Helping Is Easy, Part I

Day One: Arrival in Malawi.

It was the wet season and there were misty mountains and green fields, and sudden, solid downpours. Wandering into the centre of town, the streets were crowded with lopsided wooden stalls selling fruit and veggies, mobile phone chargers, local artwork and cheap plastic toys. People's eyes watched me, the foreigner, walk by.
"Hi brother" they called out "come see, looking is free." Bewildered, I walked on.

Minibuses with too many bodies crammed inside cruised past, and there was a man hanging out the open door drumming up yet more business. "Hello brother, where to?" he said.

Coming back to the lodge on the first afternoon I saw a group of kids playing soccer on a dirt patch with a ball made of plastic bags scrunched up and tied together. I'd brought a soccer ball from home, so I ran to my room, pumped it up, and ran back. When the kids saw it they stopped dead. I introduced myself and asked if I could play.

Within five minutes, it had gone from twenty kids to about eighty. They came from nearby huts, they came from the maize fields, they popped up out of the ground to play football with the white man and his ball. From about four years old to fourteen, they all played. It was a joyous madness, a wild mob running and laughing and trying to get a foot to the ball. Then an organiser appeared and broke people into teams and there was a competition.

The smallest kids stayed on the sidelines. There was a cheer squad of boys behind the goals who chanted and sung and when a goal was scored they poured onto the field to dance. Girls of no older than six had babies on their backs - their little brothers or sisters, presumably -  and stood quietly, sometimes stealing a glance at the strange white man.

The boys played with skill, with the body language and intelligent passing that comes with a genuine understanding of the game. The goal posts were made of bamboo sticks wedged together and when the ball struck them, the cross bar fell off. There was an agile climber amongst the junior cheer squad who shimmied up to replace it and the singing continued.

The afternoon wore on and I decided I wanted to give them the ball. The organiser told me they were part of a club, and he called the whole mad mob together for a meeting and explained that the ball was being given for them to share. There was an uproar of cheering and dancing and the kind of smiles you never knew existed until you saw them. I went to bed, that first night in Africa, with my heart racing and my mind on fire.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Ten years today

Today marks ten years since I first set foot on the African continent; in the nation of Malawi to be more exact. What followed was an adventure that lasted three years, and which will no doubt will linger in my consciousness until I'm gone. 

To mark the occasion I thought I'd share some stories from those whirling days. A few of these might be familiar to some, but I hope the indulgence can be forgiven as I'm going back through these stories as much for my own reflection as for anything else. 

I'll start with this one, a golden moment that struck me down. It's a bit long, I'm sorry, I'll try to keep the next ones shorter. 



In the back of the open truck were eighty singing girls, two other teachers, and I. The girls were sitting on the floor, hanging off the edge, standing and leaning into the wind, or clinging to the roof of the cab. I was clutching the rim of the tailgate with eight others. The students were the school football and netball teams, as well as the fifty most vocal supporters, who had been up since three that morning practicing their songs. We were off to play Monkey Bay Secondary School.

For the four hours of the journey the girls sang, clapped, chanted, beat drums and blew on a trumpet which they’d borrowed for the day. All this despite being jammed into a space designed to carry a load of sand, and not being suited to so many bodies. . As we sailed along, cutting a path between fields and plains, villages and baobabs, pure ecstatic joy was exhaled with their shouts and left a buzzing trail behind us.

Several trading posts flashed by: crowds of milling people, the smell of smoke and roasting meat, the noise of chatter and arguments. There were weather-beaten billboards with pictures of condoms talking to one another, and a newer one with a sombre picture of the President reminding us that Speed Thrills, But It Also Kills.

Lines of barefoot people trod the muddy roadsides. Bicycles with loads of firewood stacked impossibly high swayed along the edge of the tarmac, and our speeding vehicle came within centimetres of scattering their load over the road and fields. A table decorated with bright pyramids of tomatoes sat in the sunshine while it’s owner napped in the thick shade of a mango tree nearby. In a field of weeds a crumbling building proclaimed to be an International School of Business.

Over bumps and around corners I feared for my safety and held on tight, but I appeared to be the only one concerned with such trivial matters. The girls waved their arms around, they let the sun warm their backs and the wind cool their faces. Their light green school blouses had been swapped for t-shirts and were now being whirled in the air above them, or wrapped around their head as a scarf. They sang traditional songs, radio hits and hymns, and when they ran out of songs, they sang them all again. They leaned over to beat the side of the truck, they stomped and clapped. People on the roadside stopped to stare at this circus, these travelling loonies who announced themselves with the blast of a trumpet and then sped by with a cloud of music hovering overhead.

It was a day out, African style. Part of the reason for the girls’ excitement was that this trip was a rare taste of freedom. The compound at St Mary’s Girls' Secondary School (like most Malawian secondary schools, it was a boarding school) was fenced in, and the students weren’t allowed out for the whole term except on special occasions. These included sporting trips, religious gatherings and perhaps they will be allowed out for a few hours on a public holiday (when they race to buy greasy hot chips and have discreet meetings with boys from Zomba Catholic School). Most of them will set foot outside the school only once or twice a term, so when they do go, there’s reason to celebrate.

The girls of St Mary’s didn’t have an easy ride through life. They had seen more than they perhaps should have, and lost much of what was rightfully theirs. Once I had asked Patience, a fifteen year old, how her holidays had been.
“Not fine” she replied.
“Oh, why not?”
“My father, he was sick and I spent the whole time caring for him.”
 “But he’s better now?”
“No. The funeral was yesterday.”
With HIV/AIDS the way it is, she was hardly the only one in such a situation.

Our truck crawled up the hills and sped down the other side. The highway going north from Zomba was well-made, and easy travelling. We passed the police roadblock at Liwonde, then crossed the Shire River. The girls paused in their singing to admire their country’s largest river. The water from here flows south through the steaming lowlands, where hippos and crocs lurk in the shallows, and mosquitoes hover in droves, and further south still into Mozambique, where it meets the Zambezi and eventually enters the Indian Ocean. But that was a world away; none of the girls had seen the ocean. Half of them had never even seen Lake Malawi, only a hundred of kilometres north from here. After Liwonde, we turned right, onto the lakeshore road and immediately entered tropical lakeside territory. Baobab trees, old and gnarled, sat like stationary elephants by the road. Palm and banana trees lined the water’s edge. Mangoes were for sale in baskets, and paw paws and fresh fish. There were stalls selling large woven mats, round or rectangular. The air was hazy and the hills to our left were almost obscured from view.

“Mister Giddo, can you swim?” Rose, perched next to me on the tailgate, asked. She had to shout to be heard above the rushing wind, and several others turned to listen.
“Yes, most people in Australia can swim” I replied.
“What if the water is deeper than your head?”
“No problem.”
“What if the water is ten metres deep?” she asked.
“Sure” I said, which was met with oohs from several others who’d been listening.
“What if the water is one hundred metres deep?”
“I reckon I still could.”
There was scoffing of disbelief, and one voice said “Eeeh, it can't be true. One hundred metres, habali!”

When they arrived at school at the start of term, the girls carried on their head a suitcase containing their bedding, uniform, and a couple of changes of clothes; and in their hand a bucket for their washing. They had no phone, no magazines, no radio and no tv. Some had no pencil to write with, and no soap with which to wash. What entertainment existed was largely up to their own invention. They sang, danced and prayed together. Their favourite hobby was chatting. But once they had scrounged together the school fees, they focussed on education and worked with tireless ferocity to pass their exams. If I walked through the school late at night, I saw them hunched on the cold concrete footpaths, memorising pages of notes from their dog-eared notebooks. There was one girl beneath each of the bare light globes, so they were evenly spaced like marker beacons. In class, they listened with devotion to the words of their teachers and followed instruction to the letter. My job as a teacher was made easy by their self-regulation. If one of them happened to murmur while I was speaking, half the class would turn around and silence the delinquent with an exaggerated shhhhhhh.

In the weeks before the Monkey Bay trip, I had been weighed down by questions that surely come to any visitor to Africa. How is such poverty possible, when others in the world have so much? What does this say about human beings, how can we allow this and believe ourselves the clever species? And what is my place in all of this? I came here to help, a gesture of goodwill, so why do I now feel more guilty than ever? By being here, am I simply reinforcing stereotypes - I am the white man, all wise and caring, let me assist you poor, helpless people? I was collecting worries, filling my pockets with them so they came with me everywhere, and every day I stuffed more in. When my pockets were bulging, I shoved still more under my hat, so that even sitting quietly I was sweating, and had a pain in my head.

In the truck surrounded by raucous singing, looking at the many faces gleaming with smiles in the warm sun, I had an unexpected glimpse into something beyond. Like a thought that flits in during the moments before sleep, this knowledge didn’t have sharp edges or a definable shape, but it left a lingering feeling of goodness and warmth.

I saw that amidst the chaos of life, within the tumble and the uncontrolled falling of events, that there is order, there is a reason, and above all else that everything is going to be alright. Just for a slippery moment, the problems of the universe, the worries of this life, all were gone. 

The girls clearly knew this already; they had a grasp on something I struggled to understand. They knew that life is hard with misery never far away, but there are undoubtedly sweet things to savour on the journey. These are not necessarily big, complicated things – an old friend to chat with, a green avocado to eat, an afternoon free of classes - but that couldn’t diminish the delight of the girls. They understood that the more simple the things you’re delighted by, the greater your chances of being delighted.

They had food. They had friends around them. They had hope for the future, and now there was this day of sunshine and freedom. Theirs was a life unfiltered, and they knew how to show delight.

St Mary's girls. Form 2, 2006.


Sunday, 19 January 2014

Even as I was writing the previous post, misgivings were forming in my mind. While my main point, about observing and appreciating all sorts of weather, was valid enough, my privileged position in the world was made apparent and I now want to add a few further thoughts.

Only someone living in the developed world, with the means to buy anything possibly needed, could have the luxury of seeing the weather simply as a phenomenon to be enjoyed.

There are many in a less fortunate position who know that the weather, in all its merciless forms, can have greater consequences, even being the difference between life and death.

In Malawi 85% of the population are subsistence farmers. A wet season which does not deliver enough rain will mean the family, the region, the whole country, will not harvest enough maize for the year, and before the next harvest is due hunger will take hold. Famine lurks that close.

Even rain at the wrong time can spell disaster. If the rains come early, before the crop has had time to dry, it will be ruined and there will be shortages.

I read recently about the Sundarban Wetlands between Bangladesh and India. The largest river delta in the world, it is home to four million people. During cyclones the area is inundated with salt water, rendering the normally fertile soil barren. Suddenly, four million hungry people.

Image from

We in the developed nations rely more heavily on the natural world than we may perceive. From where does our food come? Our fresh water? If there is drought, if there is flood, then where will our food come from? Bushfires in Australia, unprecedented snowstorms in the north of the US, floods in Europe - they all show us that even the rich world's technology and infrastructure may be swept aside by the might of the planet's changing weather.

With the terrible spectre of climate change looming, it seems a little glib to write about loving and appreciating all sorts of different weather.

Instinct tells me there's nothing wrong with observing and enjoying the weather I wake up to each day, I think it's in my nature to do so. But herein lies one of the the paradoxes of living. How to hold a joyous wonder at this world of beauty, while remaining in unflinching awareness of the injustice and sadness that is everywhere, every day?

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

One of the things I love about being out in nature is how the same place can show so many different faces, depending on its mood at the time. Think of a beach on a lazy summer evening, when the sea breeze has calmed to a whisper and the last of the orange sun glistens off the water as breakers tumble in, inviting you to splash and dive in their healing playground. Then think of the same beach on a blustery winter’s day, with a sharp southerly wind whipping the ocean into a foamy whitewash, as seagulls squawk and struggle against the bitter wind, and an icy rain stings your face as you lean into the gale, hands in jacket pockets and eyes squinted.

I love both these scenes. Not for me is the complaining about the ‘bad weather’ any time it dares to rain. Give me variety. Give me roaring wind, give me thunderstorms, give me a week-long soaking. Give me a hot westerly, a cold southerly, give me sunny cicada-drenched heatwaves. Lay it all on me and let me notice and appreciate it all.

Different times of day can reveal different moods. Sunset near Lucky Bay, WA. 

On that Barrington Tops trip I had the chance to see a couple of different places in a couple of different moods...

On the way up the scarp there was a gap in the trees enabling a view over a deep valley whose curves and clefts wound around, their dense green walls rolling off into the distance. I sat to rest and admire the blissful view.

On the descent two days later I passed the same place. A grey mist shrouded the landscape. I could see the shadowy outlines of two or three of the nearest trees but apart from that, nothing. A mysterious blank slate. The only thing moving in the smothering stillness was the mist itself, gently wafting up towards me. From within came the melancholic screech of a single black cockatoo, like the Australian kin of Middle Earth's Nazgul. Better move on, I thought, before I'm turned to stone to pass the ages locked in stillness.


A sunny afternoon lying on the grass by a bright bubbling creek. Hiking boots were off and feet dipped in the water in the afternoon warmth, as I read and dozed, listening to birds call and leaves rustle.

In the morning I woke up and saw my breath coming in thick clouds. The tent was covered in a thin layer of crackly ice, the grass was frosted white. As I waited for the water to boil I did star jumps to warm up. The sun finally emerged and glistened off the icy landscape, bringing the promise of life after all. 

Warm afternoon campsite

The creek in afternoon sun

Icy morning view