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African Magic, Spiritual Awakening and CS Lewis, Southern Africa.
If, as CS Lewis suggests, you believe that “…when Jesus said we should be like doves, he meant that we should lay eggs” then this article is not for you and I suggest you read something better suited to your taste.
I grew up in Killarney, my grandparents' boarding house in Port Alfred, where my sister Moira and I shared a bedroom overlooking the lagoon and the sea. As a toddler I had two Xhosa nursemaids – Rosina and later Evelina. Kinder people you cannot find – they left an indelible impression on me. Why? Because, unlike many, they understand the meaning of unconditional love. Years afterwards they would bring me breakfast in bed when I went to visit my grandparents. Even when forbidden to do so by my grandmother. Occasionally they would rescue a bird our cats had caught, put it under a dish on the kitchen table and wait for me to return. Then, with a knowing look, they would tell me that they had a present for me under the dish. In spite of the fact that this happened several times, I never tired of seeing the joy on their faces and squeals of delight when I lifted up the dish to see the little bird.
We regularly attended Sunday school at St Paul’s Anglican Church on the hill above and behind the hotel where we participated in church activities such as the choir, nativity plays and so on. Moira prayed on her knees next to her bed each evening and I remember wondering, at that early age, what it was all about.
I once spent a weekend at the Great Fish Point Lighthouse with John Hart whose father was the lighthouse-keeper. I had bought a pellet gun earlier. I remember shooting a malachite kingfisher – a magnificent little bird with an iridescent blue cap and russet under parts. I picked it up and watched as the blood left its body, the light faded from its eyes and its beautiful body went limp in my hands. Horrified, I rushed to wash the blood off my hands. Ever since, I have had no desire to repeat the experience.
On another occasion in Standard 2 (grade 4) I saw a propelling pencil on my friend Basille Glanville’s desk, deliberately picked it up and put it into my pocket. When Basille noticed it was missing and started searching for it I pretended to know nothing about it. After school I took it home with me. However, when I got home I felt so bad I returned the pencil to Basille the following day and made some lame excuse about having found it in my pocket. And resolved never to that again.
Since then I have had similar “epiphanies” elsewhere:
- Royal Natal National Park: Standing on the edge of the Amphitheatre looking down into Natal.
- Sardine Run, Wild Coast: Watching thousands of Cape gannet diving into the sea after sardines from cliffs north of Port St Johns.
- Zebra and Wildebeest Migration: Watching tens of thousands of zebra and wildebeest migrate from the Makgadigadi salt pans to Nxai Pan southwest of Maun in Botswana.
- Inhassoro, Mozambique: I am familiar with the fish in the Eastern Cape. However, while standing on the beach at Inhassoro watching fishermen pull in their nets. I was amazed by the variety and colours of the fish they hauled in – parrot fish, half-beaks, turtles, etc. And the fact that they were different from the fish with which I am familiar.
- Mana Pools, Zimbabwe: Looking up at the Milky Way while standing on the banks of the Zambezi river on a moonless night with the river and its surroundings bathed in starlight.
- Graaff-Reinet, Karoo: Travelling in the Karoo early morning with the desert a kaleidoscope of colours and the mountains in the distance a delicate mauve. Then watching the sun come up and wash away the colour. The light is blindingly bright in the middle of the day and then, as the sun goes down, the process is reversed.
- Chobe National Park, Botswana: Sitting in a parked Landrover being charged by a huge, infuriated bull elephant which stopped in a cloud of dust with the end of its trunk perhaps 3 feet from the windscreen. It’s only when you get up close that you realize how big they are.
- Mana Pools, Zimbabwe: Waking up in a tiny 2-man tent in Mana Pools in the pitch dark before sunrise with a male lion roaring a few feet from my head. To lie still and not panic under such circumstances takes self-discipline.
- Nazareth House, Pretoria: Witnessing the kindness shown to my mother by Sisters of Nazarene nuns in an old-age home.
- Sunday Service in the Catholic Cathedral, Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines: Attending a service at the cathedral in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines and more recently at a Christmas Service in St Mary’s Church in Dubai.
- Christmas Day in a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio: I once spent a day taking care of a 47 year-old woman with multiple sclerosis to give the nursing staff an opportunity to go to church.
Such experiences all made a deep and lasting impression on me. But "Africa is not for sissies" -- it has another side – poverty and ignorance, the cruelty, heat, dust and the lack of rain. It is not pretty. It is both ugly and beautiful, happy and sad, kind and cruel, attractive and revolting – all juxtaposed upon each other. It is this duality that makes it so interesting, so magical.
It stirs in me inarticulate feelings – similar perhaps to what one feels listening to Beethoven’s piano concerto or a beautiful aria. Such moments have left me with a jumble of emotions I am unable to explain. I now accept that such things cannot be explained – not by me anyway. I accept because, as Oom Schalk Lourens said of the Marico: "I have seen the moon in many other places. But it is not the same..."
One may argue that one need not introduce God into the argument to explain the above. Which is true but ignores the fact that the observer (me) was a part of this “experiment.” I am conscious that I no longer look at the world in the same way. I am changed but unable to explain how or why. But that is not unusual -- nor can I (or anyone else for that matter) explain Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, what happened until a few milliseconds after the “The Big Bang” and so on. In other words, I stand humbly, in awe of the Creator. Cynics might argue that such beauty is merely a question of chance and may choose other words to explain what I feel -- I will stick with CS Lewis’ interpretation. "All things bright and beautiful..."
RIGHT AND WRONG
A few years ago I began wrestling with an apparently unrelated issue, namely how do we know the difference between right and wrong. Where did we learn the difference? Was it at home or at school, nature or nurture? Are our perceptions of right and wrong the same? When I asked my children they deemed it a trivial question but I wasn’t so sure. I happened to be at a particularly low point on one occasion when I went to spend Christmas with my sister Deirdre in Howick. She was out when I arrived so I looked around for something to read. On a table next to the chair on which I was sitting lay a book entitled “Mere Christianity” by CS Lewis. I opened the book at the table of contents and was astonished to find that the first chapter is entitled “Right and Wrong as Keys to the Meaning of the Universe”. In other words, the very question I had been wrestling with for years.
I came to realize that right and wrong are something we "know" -- i.e. we feel rather than think. CS Lewis concludes that this "feeling" is evidence of the existence of God within all of us. There is no doubt that I feel strongly about such matters – they are very real to me. To deny such feelings would be to deny my very existence.
Thirdly the fact that all of us occasionally do things (conciously, unconciously or subconciously) that we "know" are “wrong”. This is best illustrated by the fact that one must occasionally choose between two (or more) mutually exclusive alternatives, both of which are "wrong". If we choose one, we fall foul of the other. Which does one choose? One might be inclined to think that such choices are, again, trivial. Not so – I am aware of instances where good people have struggled with the consequences of such choices for years. Incidentally, such choices lie at the heart of many dilemmas facing modern society. For example:
• Winston Churchill's decision not to warn the citizens of Coventry of the impending attack by German bombers.
• Bombing of Japan: The decision to bomb Japanese cities with nuclear weapons.
• Death Penalty
• Gay marriage
and so on. Having made such a decision, how does one get off the hook so to speak? Fortunately there is a way out of this dilemma:
1. Firstly one must acknowledge that, regardless of which option one chooses, one has done wrong. No dodging this bullet.
2. Secondly one must promise never do it again, and
3. Thirdly, beg God’s forgiveness for the things we have done (and not done) and those we have wronged.
Then and only then can one get on with one's life. If you know of another way, please let me know. However, denial is not one of them. Neither is getting third parties such as the government or the courts involved.
I have tried to explain, albeit awkwardly, what happened to me during my journey through Africa. It’s a journey that has taken 60 years but is not yet over. However one thing is certain – Africa changed me as it has changed many others. You might experience something similar if you pay us a visit. I hope you do, in which case you too may be forever changed.
Alan McIver, Cape Town, April 2012
PS I suggest that anyone struggling with issues such as those discussed here read "Mere Christianity".
4281/4%Last update: 2014-03-10 11:21
Author: Alan McIver
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