One of my clients has me coaching individuals in Nigeria at the moment. I know very little about the country’s complexities, save from a short assignment a few year’s back, which brought to light the sheer scale of the problems caused there from ongoing conflict. I had a plane ticket booked to visit at one point, but unfortunately this got canceled.
Without the presence of Covid, I am certain I’d have travelled back to the continent in 2020, for one reason or another. A year of teaching in Uganda, in 1996, still surfaces tingling memories for me, and I’ve visited several times since.
And so I found myself, last night, with familiar Africa “flashbacks”, as I walked through my initial session with two colleagues from local Nigerian organisations. With the merest of warm accented expressions, as they introduced themselves, I was transported back to the colours and sensations I’d lived with as a 21 year old, in the north western province of Kiboga, Uganda. Even as I type these lines I am smiling again.
It will be of no surprise to anyone who has graced these pages (I’ve written about teaching in Kiboga, and Uganda often features in my writing) to learn that I have a soft spot for the place. Or, additionally, that I’ve a soft spot for travelling generally.
That would hardly have been a claim to fame, up until last year.
Although, when you roll back a generation before mine, how quickly people of my age were gifted the opportunity to travel as we did. In 1970, when my Dad was 21, flying to a remote village in Africa was logistically feasible, but ill-advised by most authority figures. A job and a family were deemed the priority for anyone fortunate enough to finish their school careers in 1970, let alone complete a University degree.
How quickly, too, have these luxuries of movement been curbed by the current pandemic. Whilst some of the world’s population will never have many opportunities to leave their home countries, the adjustments being made by those of us accustomed to catching flights on a monthly basis have been significant. Yet, they’ve brought with them significant dividends, too, re-calibrations the world over about how we communicate, co-exist and organise our day-to-day lives.
My eldest daughter Florence embarks, next week, on her annual school trip, comprising 4 nights away down in the Mekong (which, I appreciate, is a ridiculous sentence to share in public, knowing what constraints and stresses so many young people are under in other countries). And it’s got me wondering what types of adventuring she will experience in the Mekong, and how this will shape her independence?
My time in Uganda taught me a lot about independent living. I suspect Flo’s school trip isn’t quite the corollary, yet, to traveling solo in Africa, but I can’t help muse over how independence is experienced by youngsters in the present day.
With technology advances, you’d need to pick a relatively off-the-grid overseas assignment these days to curate the type of raw isolation that my friend, Flora, and me experienced in Kiboga as teachers during our respective ‘gap years’ there.
We used to take one mutatu taxi ride into the capital every 4-5 weeks, along an orange dirt road for four hours, in order to eat in a restaurant, before sending a fax to my parents from Kampala’s main post office.
In our village we had one “wind-up” phone that only received incoming calls, and I’d use the fax machine to arrange the phonecalls. Must have been a nightmare for my parents – more so had they known, back then, that a few tourists had been abducted in the Rwenzoris, just a few clicks away from where we were living, a fact I chose to keep to myself at the time.
I wrote countless letters during that year. Read books. Took photos on my camera that I then posted home to be developed. We used to listen at night to the cicadas, sipping sweet milky tea and buying single cigarettes from the wooden huts down in the village, all of which constituted as a more-than-agreeable set of past times, and the awfully manufactured cigarettes a delicious vice, when paired with a half litre bottle of Nile Special beer.
I couldn’t have asked for more in life during those semesters of teaching.
And, in between, on wildly unplanned and disorganised school holiday trips, I was perhaps experiencing some of the truly “once-in-a-lifetime” episodes where independence, innocence, youth, and adventure were all magically rolled into one.
On one of these trips, we went across to Kenya with our backpacks and not a lot of foresight (it transpired). We were robbed in Nairobi, not physically, but conned by a guy we met in a night-club who we instantly, and naively, trusted. In Mombasa we slept in $2 hotels and survived on a lot of fruit and local fried cassava. And then in Lamu, a muslim island (that still bans cars) we fell hopelessly in love with our daily existence of lying in hammocks and laughing with other globe trotting vagabonds.
On one day, we sailed in a dhow with our snorkels, and joined a local spear fishing group. Fish caught and duly cooked fresh on the beach, with mangos for dessert, I then fell over on the rocks and had to get kayaked to a clinic to have my hand stitched back together.
Not pleasant, but I also don’t recall it being hugely inconvenient for the next week whilst it healed. It was, perhaps, more of a disaster that the first my parents were to learn of the incident was when they developed the film a month or so later that I’d forgotten captured the actual “surgery”. I still feel quite guilty about that.
During our travels in Kenya, Flora and I made our journey up as we went. No internet cafes, just “Post Restante” options where parents could send out letters to post offices in advance, and in the vain hope we’d pass by at some point.
Whilst travelling in Zanzibar I remember, one afternoon, filling in an application to study journalism at Goldsmith’s College, London. Mum had sent me the form to the post office there. In the end, Goldsmith’s wanted to meet me in person, before the end of my teaching post, and I declined to go back for the interview, as it would have ended my time overseas.
The truth was I didn’t want to have the future encroach on my present.
One of the other teachers I’d met in Kiboga, Dominic, had spent a year there before I arrived, and I’ll never forget his leaving drinks, and his wistful and emotional breakdown in front of me, at having to return to the UK. He’d planned to buy land and goats in Kiboga, and set up shop there for life.
My daughter’s Mekong camp next week, I hope, will contain some of these special elements and emotional triggers, setting her off further down the path of independence, at the start of the year during which she’ll become a teenager.
Lockdown, last spring, definitely ignited Flo’s independence. In particular, during the three months that her school was closed and she studied from home, learning how to use Microsoft ‘Teams’ and revising for exams without the need for much help at all.
She’s thrilled at the prospect of four nights away from home with her friends, which is partly her personality and partly, perhaps, because Vietnam’s response to Covid has been so vigilant that life here has continued quite normally. Whilst we can’t leave the country, and no one can visit us, the ease of movement and lack of impact on social circles and socialising has been something to treasure.
That this freedom has been compromised elsewhere in the world remains a stark comparison.
That traversing relatively carefree across continents as I used to do (first as a graduate and then as someone working in international development) might never quite be the same experience in the future, is also now a clear reality. Generational changes are expected, but Covid has smashed into tiny pieces anyone’s sense of what normal looks like, and how change can manifest.
So, as a result of this, independence inevitably could take on new dimensions and new meaning. As my generation’s wave of hungry globe trotters reaches a shoreline, the natural inclination, because of Covid, to focus in on family and loved ones, could be said to be ‘cresting’ in various forms, and defining new social norms and inclinations.
I’ve spoken to many people, locked down for 9-10 months now, whose adjustments to home working and confinement are making them question if they’ve lost the ability to make small-talk, or if they’ll have the drive to be constantly socialising again, once restrictions are eased.
Ironically, I heard that last year, per capita, the Australian botox market outdid its American counterpart, with makeup sales also spiking, alongside Covid increases, because people had spent more time looking at themselves on zoom calls than usual (and, presumably, deciding they didn’t like what they saw!)
I’ve no doubt societies will bounce back, in part because of our natural desires for companionship and kinship, for expressing ourselves and connecting with others. Life and living will adjust, and young people will find their own way and their own form of independence.
The more spiritual outcomes from gaining one’s independence in the future needn’t be any different to my memories of them and current expressions of them.
As Flo might reflect, when she’s 45 years old, the natural ebb and flow and order of things – inside or beyond this pandemic – need never prevent each one of us experiencing our own moments, and the life-altering effects that accompany independence and discovery.
Long may that continue as an arc.