Browsing through KLM flights, it was reassuring to discover that a flight to Vancouver could be had as cheaply in 2010 as in 2008. I have been interesting places with KLM.
Twelve years ago this month, I boarded an Amsterdam-bound flight from Belfast; from there it was a long haul flight with KLM down to Dar Es Salaam, landing at Kilimanjaro on the way. It was no tourist trip; rather as secretary of my Church’s world development appeal, I was going with two colleagues to visit partners in Tanzania. I remember the details with a clarity that makes it all seem last week.
There were few bright spots: a country ground down by poverty, burdened with international debt, where there seemed a dreadful air of resignation. One of the brighter spots was in an area where a bit of private enterprise had brought some employment to a remote village and had brought some unlikely characters onto the scene.
A village on the shores of Lake Malawi, reached by road with great difficulty, was the base for an Anglican Mission hospital, but also for a German company that exported ornamental tropical fish to markets in Europe. The fish were caught with great care by local men and stored in tanks; to await the weekly arrival at the local primitive airstrip of the plane that would transport the catch to a point where it was transferred to a long haul flight.
The fish project was a source of hard cash for the local economy and was run by a Czech called Charles. He was an amazing man who had fled to the West from Czechoslovakia at the time of the Russian invasion in 1968. He raged about corruption and inefficiency and dishonesty; he raged at the people who worked for him; and yet he had remained keeping that project running, keeping men in work; keeping cash coming in.
Charles lived in a good house – concrete walls, a corrugated iron roof, windows with glass and mosquito screens, cold running water, electricity for three hours each evening. He had a good sitting room with comfortable chairs and piles of books. You could sit and listen to the BBC World Service on the radio.
This would not be a bad place to be, I thought; the BBC and books to read, I could cope with that. Words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet came to mind though,
“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space
– were it not that I have bad dreams”
The nutshell existence at Charles’ house would be fine; the bad dreams would be the problem: the daily encounters with extreme poverty; with people dying unnecessarily; with children facing a precarious future; with women battered by their husbands; with men drunk on millet beer by eleven in the morning; with the scourge of AIDS, coming to haunt people’s lives, adding itself to malaria and all the other tropical diseases.
Charles’ rages were his way of coping with the bad dreams come true that were all around him. Twelve years on, and those dreams still come back.