My guest today is Ian Mathie. I first met Ian just a little over a year ago on Belinda Nichol’s blog, My Rite of Passage. I was struck immediately by this sentence of his:
“But there are stories about people and cultures that, if they are not recorded, might be lost to the rest of the world—people who deserve to be remembered, histories that should not be sacrificed in the name of progress.”
Now here was my kind of memoirist.
Here’s his bio:
Born in Scotland, Ian was taken to Africa when he was three and began his schooling in a mission school, with lessons in the morning and the African bush as his playground in the afternoon.
Growing up with Africa enabled him to absorb the culture from within, so on returning to Africa after secondary school and military service, to work as a rural development officer, he adapted very quickly to life alone in the bush.
Working primarily on water projects, he has worked in almost every African country, spending thirty years there before returning to Europe and retraining as an industrial psychologist. (He insists there’s a logic to that).
When a medical condition curtailed his travelling he settled down to write books and has so far produced six volumes of African Memoirs, one novel and one small book of poetry. He now lives in a small village in the UK with his wife and dog.
Ian has five memoirs from his many years living among the various cultures and nations of Africa: Bride Price, Man In a Mud Hut, Supper With the President, Dust of the Danakel, and Sorcerers and Orange Peel. I’ve started at the beginning, with Bride Price — action packed, yet with fully-fleshed out characters that I’ve come to know and enjoy — and hope to wind my way through the rest of them over the summer.
AND, he welcomes feedback from readers.
WELCOME, Ian. And thank you for the photos that intersperse your story.
The Richness of Cross Cultural Experience — Ten Lessons One Learns
Growing up in the African bush meant that when I returned after my education was completed and I’d done four years military service, I had no trouble settling to life in isolated villages as a rural development officer. Learning the local languages only took a few months, and before long I reached the point where I could discuss matters of cultural interest, beliefs and so on, as well as those issues concerned with the job.
As part of the government’s overseas aid programme, I was to oversee a number of existing projects, and initiate new ones according to a loosely written brief. It soon became apparent that the brief bore little relation to the actual needs to the recipients, and telling them what they needed was not a good approach.
An old man who had never been to school, who could neither read nor write, but who had command of six different languages, and several dialects of each, pointed out that I was equipped with two eyes, two ears and one mouth. It would serve me well, and everyone else, for that matter, if I used them in those proportions. Fortunately I had the sense to listen, and it was one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned.
Soon afterwards I met an old Belgian missionary, a Catholic priest who had come to West Africa over thirty-five years before, with the instruction to convert the heathen and bring them into the fold. On his arrival, Father Bernhardt found that the people in his new parish were destitute. Their farms were meagre and unproductive, and they were all hungry for food, not spiritual guidance. Their own shamans and spiritual men were clearly powerless to change this situation, so he decided that nourishing their bodies was necessary before he could counsel their spirits.
He started a farm school, and taught then to grow good food. He got help teaching the women about nutrition and hygiene; and as he worked with them he learned about their ways, beliefs, and culture. Every Sunday he went to the small church his predecessor had built, it was little more than a cabin, and said mass. In time, the two or three people still living there who had accepted instruction from the previous priest came to join him.
After two years the farm school was going well, and he feltit was time to begin his primary mission. He invited all who were willing to help to come and make bricks with him, as he intended to build a church. On every brick the name of the person who made it was inscribed. Since most could not write, he taught them, and before long the brick makers were writing their own names on their bricks. Soon their children wanted to join in, so he taught them as well. Long before the rains came, he started work on building his church.
During all the time they had been making bricks, Father Bernhardt talked to the workers about God and his teachings, relating what he said to their own beliefs and spirits. When the first part of the church was finished several dozen came to listen when he said mass the next Sunday morning. By the time I met him his regular congregation had grown to over three hundred and fifty.
I learned from many events and many people all over Africa, but these two stand out because they were early in my working years, and greatly influenced my thinking. My whole approach to the job was transformed and developed a consumer focus. It was evident that people generally knew what they needed, and certainly knew what they wanted. If I tried to foist something else on them it would be abandoned the moment my back was turned. So I exploited their wishes, and became a catalyst to help them achieve what they most needed. This, in the early days, invariably revolved around their water supply, which was often precarious.
I had access to all sorts of gadgets for finding water and for working out how deep below ground it was. But it seemed wiser to let their own diviners identify these places, and merely to confirm them with my instruments. Then, if the water was either deeper than predicted, or less plentiful, they couldn’t just abandon the well and say it was my fault there was no water. When they had chosen the site themselves, people always worked more willingly and more enthusiastically. They would keep digging until they found water. On one well in Togo this took us to a depth of 72 metres! But we found good water, and that well is still in use today, forty-two years later.
Tribal Africans do not separate spiritual life from the mundane physical daily grind. When people die, even though their bodies decay, they do not depart, but remain present as ancestors, who should be consulted whenever decisions are made. Shamans, sorcerers and witch doctors provide the interface between the physical and the spiritual worlds through which this can be done.
They also serve to speak with and propitiate all the other spirits and gods that inhabit the world and which influence the people’s daily lives. Their contribution is often essential for any project to succeed. Whilst there are undoubtedly some who are in it for their own benefit, they can exert an inordinate influence over people’s attitudes and willingness to contribute and participate. So offend them at your peril; sometimes literally, as the use of poisons, let alone magic spells, is far from uncommon.
As well as practical and working lessons, I discovered an extraordinary wealth of interest and wisdom in the varied cultures of people in the bush. They inhabited very different environments, from the searing heat of the desert; through broad, grazing savannahs; to rich cultivated parkland, growing grains, groundnuts and sugar cane; mountains, where two crops a year could be harvested as long as the monsoons didn’t fail; and deep tropical forests, whose people harvested the jungle’s bounty whilst living in a permanently soggy, dimly lit environment. There were exciting cultures, with tremendous diversity of beliefs, customs and traditions. Living alongside these and being allowed to participate, and even, on occasions, being initiated into their fold, was a rare privilege that offered a level of understanding not available to most outsiders, or to tourists.
These experiences, and many of the wonderful people I met, now fuel my writing. Since truth can so often be stranger than fiction, and Africa offers such variety of extraordinary truths, I have discovered that telling their stories in memoirs can make gripping reading, every bit as exciting as any novel. And it has the advantage that I don’t have to make anything up.
The old adage says you can only get out of life what you put into it, is most emphatically true. Being willing to meet others in an open, friendly and co-operative way is essential; and to understand that you can only achieve things through your own efforts.
Africa thrives on proverbs. The first I ever learned has lasted me a lifetime and proved itself time and time again. So I’ll offer it to you now: Kila ndege hurukwa kwa bawa lake – Every bird must fly on its own wings. Think about it, and then stretch out your own wings.
- Look and listen more than talk
- Exploit people’s desires
- Let people choose; then they won’t give up
- Put ideas in contexts people understand and value
- Learn the system and get involved
- Use the local talent (including the sorcerers!)
- Choose your timing carefully
- Always be open, friendly, and co-operative
- Let people fly on their own wings
- Always be positive and avoid “don’ts”
Thank you, Ian. There are so many avenues to persue in what you have written.
I love how you’ve summed up your experience with these ten lessons that we can all pay attention to. I particularly like “Exploit people’s desires.” And I love that you’ve used a word, exploit, which we ordinarily think of as perjorative, in a very positive way; to describe, quite aptly I think, just what it is you’re doing: making the most of their energy around what it is they already want. To do that you have to listen. That is just what the Peace Corps is about as well.
To do that, it seems to me, we have to let go of that “my way is the right way” mentality that pervades so much of any culture. And that’s not always easy to do.
How about you? How hard would it be, or has it been, to give up your way of doing things, to try on a different way of being in the world? Have you found it exhilarating or quite frightening? Both? Or something in the murky middle? Do tell us your story.
Ian has graciously offered an eBook copy of any of his books to one of our Commenters (Drawing on Sunday). And, he’ll offer a free paperback if you’ll go to England and pick it up.