In these times of such adversity, I would like to share a special piece of writing that I have always found sustaining. It was shared with me in life-changing circumstances, also close to Christmas time.
After teacher training in London, I took a volunteer assignment in Ghana to teach in the remote Western Region of the country, close to the border with Cote D’Ivoire. This was an extremely poor area in which people relied on cocoa farming. I was supposed to teach English in a new Secondary School, but the students rarely came. Primary education was hardly well-established in the area.
As the only white European for many miles, I attracted a lot of attention, often positive, sometimes aggressive, sometimes just amused. I would get a small audience to watch me wash my hair in a bucket outside my ramshackle home because my long straight hair was just weird for the children in that village. My days seemed endless, extremely hot, often with not much to do but read and wait for the heat to break.
I would sometimes travel around in the School’s white Toyota truck. It was a habit to give rides to people in the back so that they could get around as well. On one journey to the school, the driver kept inviting people to get in the back to the point that I could see we were getting dangerously unbalanced. Then, suddenly, the truck swerved at speed, hit a huge rut at the side and the whole vehicle began to flip.
They say in life-threatening moments, time slows down. The cliche is that your whole life flashes before you. Something like this happened to me. For what seemed like an age, I spun upside down in the cabin and I thought about my family, how far I was away from home, and had a strong sense that maybe this was it. My decisive thought was that if I ever get out of this, I am leaving. Then, with a bone-jarring jolt, the truck landed, cabin first, so the roof crumpled in towards me, stopping one foot from my face.
Eventually, I was extracted from the cab with broken glasses but hardly a scratch on me. Some of the riders in the back were not nearly so lucky.
I was fussed over and treated with great kindness after the accident. Completely shaken, I fumed at this experience and plotted to go home as soon as I could. I was just so angry to have my life put at such risk.
The next morning, two things happened. First, I was woken early by a choir of people outside my door singing thanks for my lucky escape. I just cried with relief when I saw their kindness. Second, I received a blue airmail letter from an old friend. Inside, he had shared a poem from the Nigerian poet and author, Ben Okri. You will see that whatever your faith, whatever your perspective, his words contain extraordinary wisdom and peace that provide comfort in the most difficult of days.
None of us would like to relive 2020. We look forward to 2021 when there are real reasons for optimism that our lives can get back to normal. Yet, it is worth saying we learn the most important things from coming through tough times. We have built resilience and know more than ever what and who we care about.
I hope you have a great holiday with your loved ones. Please be safe.
My best wishes to the entire community for the winter holidays.
“To an English Friend in Africa” – by Ben Okri
Be grateful for freedom
To see other dreams.
Bless your loneliness as much as you drank
Of your former companionships.
All that you are experiencing now
Will become moods of future joys
So bless it all.
Do not think your ways superior
Do not venture to judge
But see things with fresh and open eyes
Do not condemn
But praise what you can
And when you can’t be silent.
Time is now a gift for you
A gift of freedom
To think and remember and understand
The ever perplexing past
And to re-create yourself anew
In order to transform time.
Live while you are alive.
Learn the ways of silence and wisdom
Learn to act, learn a new speech
Learn to be what you are in the seed of your spirit
Learn to free yourself from all things that have moulded you
And which limit your secret and undiscovered road.
Remember that all things which happen
To you are raw materials
Endlessly yielding of thoughts that could change
Your life and go on doing forever.
Never forget to pray and be thankful
For all the things good or bad on the rich road;
For everything is changeable
So long as you live while you are alive.
Fear not, but be full of light and love;
Fear not but be alert and receptive;
Fear not but act decisively when you should;
Fear not, but know when to stop;
Fear not for you are loved by me;
Fear not, for death is not the real terror,
But life -magically – is.
Be joyful in your silence
Be strong in your patience
Do not try to wrestle with the universe
But be sometimes like water or air
Sometimes like fire
Live slowly, think slowly, for time is a mystery.
Never forget that love
Requires that you be
The greatest person you are capable of being,
Self-generating and strong and gentle-
Your own hero and star.
Love demands the best in us
To always and in time overcome the worst
And lowest in our souls.
Love the world wisely.
It is love alone that is the greatest weapon
And the deepest and hardest secret.
So fear not, my friend.
The darkness is gentler than you think.
Be grateful for the manifold
Dreams of creation
And the many ways of unnumbered peoples.
Be grateful for life as you live it.
And may a wonderful light
Always guide you on the unfolding road.