The arrival time of the flight came by email this morning: Dublin Airport at 1555 on Thursday, 1st November.
If there is a single worst day on which to arrive in Ireland, it must be 1st November – the first day of the Celtic winter, the beginning of the month of the dead; the days short and getting shorter, the temperature cool and getting colder. To come from an African country where the temperature is a perpetual 27 degrees and where rain falls in confined seasons, to travel beyond the borders of the neighbouring east African countries for the first time in one’s life, and to land in Dublin on the first day of November seems cruel.
How does one begin to explain Ireland to someone coming from one of the world’s poorest countries? Where does one begin?
The first issue is the cold. An Indian visitor who spent time with us arrived from Madras wearing sandals with no socks. Although it was April, sleet was falling steadily. ‘Have you no shoes in your baggage?’ The shoes that came from the case were on the point of complete disintegration.
‘Ian, it was forty degrees when I left. why would I spend money on shoes that kept my feet warm?’ We found a pair of suede shoes – he wanted something soft – that were not more than a size too big.
What clothes are necessary next Thursday? Warmth – function definitely before fashion.
But adjustment to climate is straightforward in comparison with adjustment to culture.
How does one begin to explain our expenditure of money? How does one explain that the total annual income for someone from an African village might not cover the cost of a single ticket for a major sporting event or concert? How does one explain how consumer goods become ‘must haves’?
Family life and relationships: how does one explain European patterns of home life and personal relationships? African village life is based on the traditional extended family; the individualism and the isolation of European are altogether alien. The idea of an old person being left alone and lonely would be virtually unknown.
The list of subjects for which a briefing might be necessary is extensive, but cultural misunderstandings are a two way process. How many Europeans could be taken from comfortable lifestyles and put into a poor African village without detailed explanations of how best they might survive?
He will cope. He will cope considerably better in his eight months in Ireland than I would if faced with living for eight months as an ordinary community member in an ordinary house in a poor village in east Africa.