2002 did not begin well. My darling mother was dying with cancer for the first six months: her final days I recall as an unending battle to stop her smoking. Not because it would do her any good, but because she was on oxygen... . "She'll blow the whole bloody street up!" The doctor protested, having decided, somehow, that this was my fault.
I managed to persuade dad to remove the oxygen from the room when matches were being struck and cigarettes smoked.
I lost my mother to nicotine. Mum had no lungs left with which to inhale at the end: her craving for the drug robbed us of her - dad tried desperately to help her, but to no avail. Those distressing scenes would be the most effective anti-smoking propaganda going. I missed her final hours because I couldn't bear to watch any more.
Two months after her funeral I flew to South Africa to take up my assignment at Lower Kroza Junior Secondary School as a Global Teacher. I used to joke that The Great Millenium Extravaganza produced two monuments to foolishness: the Millennium Dome - and my incarnation as a Global Teacher.
The drive down the N2 from Durban to Umtata, at 15 hours, was longer than the flight fromthe UK. Skirting the Drakensburgs, it was actually snowing. "Looks just like Cumbria!" I heard from a native of that county.
The Eastern Cape in winter is vast, brown, veldt. These grasslands are dotted with villages growIng out from water sources towards the roads - certainly Lower Kroza was. The main occupations were cattle ranching and cattle rustling, though car-jacking was on the up, back then.
A year of preparation through LINK International Development, who managed the scheme on behalf of the Millennium Commission, had me well primed.
I was looking forward to a smoke-filled rondaval, an oil lamp for light, and a bucket as a toilet. I would subsist on semp mealies and would make the most of life with a pit latrine. I had taken to heart the medical advice, "Don't sleep with anyone, and keep away from the pets". I submitted my immune system to every vaccination going, except rabies. (Which with hindsight, was a serious omission). I had been taught how to teach workshops on, 'English as a Second Language', 'Sexual Health', and, at the behest of The Eastern Cape Education Department, 'The Role Of Women in the New South Africa.' I had been facilitated, inaugurated and orientated. I was ready.
But not for a five-bedroomed bungalow, complete with satellite TV. comfortable, well furnished rooms and a fully functioning kitchen. Pre-and Mis-conceptions flew out of the locked and barred window of my beautifully appointed bedroom. My African home is more English vicarage, than Tribal homestead! Indeed. Mrs Nomantobi Mlombile, my host, was the widow of an Archdeacon in the Anglican Church. He had Archdeaconed: she had built up the Kraal and raised the children there. She now raises her great-grandchildren.
The masterly project proposal I had contrived that had won me a 'Millennium Award' and this placement, envisioned me sitting round the cooking fire and listening to my hosts telling me their traditional stories, which I would capture for posterity, and retell them to English audiences. Not a chance. I spent my evenings in front of a colour television, wrapped up in a 'wearing blanket' with the kids, watching, 'Days of Our Lives' - the most appalling American Soap ever. (Now THOSE tales are worth telling! Rocking Madonnas, evil twins, babies switched at birth - the lot!)
Towards the end of my stay, I asked Mrs Oriana Ngai, who had taken it upon herself to help me out with all things relevant to Xhosa culture, to PLEASE tell me some stories. ( I explained my predicament...) "Oh!" she breezed, "We don't do that any more - you need to talk to those Zulu guys!" I pleaded with her - there must be SOMETHING she could recall! So she racked her brains and came up with a tale of two sisters, one of whom dutifully did everything her father asked of her and married a chief, the other, who sounded a lot like me, came to a sticky end in the jaws of a monster. Umm. So much for the seminar on, 'The Role of Women in the New South Africa.'
I did return to England and visit schools and village halls to tell traditional Xhosa tales - all of which, I b,ush to admit, came from a book I bought in Johannesburg Airport on the way home.
Funerals were occasions for sharing. There were five deaths in this small community during the five weeks I was there. Although I didn't attend any interments, I was a guest at a funeral meal, and I did the traditional funeral visiting with Mr Landalisa Mximwa, the school's principal. The bereaved family sits on a mat on the floor of their home, with a blanket around their shoulders as a sign of mourning, and retells the life story of the deceased. Naturally the proceedings were in Xhosa; my role is to sit still and look solemn - or so I thought. Until, following a speech of condolance, of which, naturally, I understood not a word, Mr Mximwa looks at me and announces in English, "And now Mrs Mary will will address you... !"
"I do not speak your language, I do not understand your culture, but eight weeks ago, my mother died:I know your grief."
Today, I listen to news of the slaughter in Syria, and in The Democratic Republic of Congo, and I think of the Palestinians walled in, and captive, in their own land, of the Israelis living under continuous threat of annihilation, and of the unfinished and unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I have nothing to say.
All I can do is to allow the grief of suffering peoples to touch my heart, and hope that this year, next year, sometime, SOMETHING will change.
What if, in the never-never land of hope, tribal politics were to be put to one side, just for a day, and the protagonists were look into each other's eyes and say, "I don't understand you, but I know your grief." Would that perhaps, be the beginning of an ending?