I have been lax in my writing since I came to The Gambia and have begun to think it is time to get back to it. I normally write when the muse visits and compels me. It begins with an idea, a thought or a title, which I let gestate in my head and my heart until it begins to bubble up and words begin to flow out. This one has had a couple of starts before it appeared ready, even then my busy lifestyle delayed it.
One such idea that recently appeared is “the magic of love”. Not romantic love, but basic human love, most evident in children, especially at a very early age. I have two children who spend a lot of time with me, the girl Nyima who is age 6 and the boy, Ebrima is almost 5. I have been basically supporting both since they were born. Nyima was less than two when I went back to Canada and remembered me when I returned. Ebrima was born while I was home, his is a long story for another time. He instantly gravitated to me and is always close.
There are many, and I mean many, kids in the “compounds” near my house. The young ones to age six or seven have been coming for breakfast since I moved here. Three of the smaller ones have been coming from the day they begin to walk and could manage to get to my gate and that’s part of the magic as they run to me when they see me coming hold my legs, or lift their arms for me to carry them. When I walk the streets, kids come to touch my white skin, some run in fear, but not many.
I began writing my thoughts and feelings around the late 1980s. A couple of very special people through their editing and guidance taught me much about writing and I became prolific over the years. My early writing was mostly in the context of community, mostly for reflection, input and challenge from others. This was and is my way of making sense of myself, my work and what I pass on to others.
This journey that led me to The Gambia started about fifty years ago. Graduating from high school (surprisingly), as school for me in its latter years had become an enigma and something to be avoided. This left me lacking focus or direction, much less knowing my destination. Work was a necessity and a myriad of jobs followed that taught me very quickly that I had a lot of learning to do in order to survive. There were many occupations and sometimes three jobs at a time, teaching me many skills, while at nighttime – my only free time – I was completing home study courses by mail.
Electronics was my first focus as that appeared where the world was going in the late 1960s. I married early, as was the convention in those days, which focused my attention that now there was a family. Like many Newfoundlanders, at the time, I set out for Ontario and the promise of a job which ended in disaster, but I found an opportunity to put my home studies to work.
Magic intervened in the guise of an affordable house that needed to be moved and I had bought a plot of land before I left home which was very close by. The draw of family and stability took me back to a place called Pasadena, (in Newfoundland) where new learning was waiting. At first it was a struggle to leave a future for what I felt was a past. But life had many more lessons and much magic for me, and my search of adventure and knowledge had been tweaked. There became many other such times when I had to walk back, and “suck it up” as they say in our world and start over.
The house was moved, and I became a builder for a short time and learned different skills that made the house livable, while working at whatever gave me sustenance to survive.
Then life’s magic stepped in and with encouragement by one of my high school teachers who got me involved in a volunteer effort to save a cooperative that had fallen on hard times as many did at that juncture in history. We didn’t save the cooperative, but I was now introduced into a whole new world which not only contained new learning but encapsulated my heart. I quickly found out that the cooperative wasn’t about a store, but about people, their aspirations, their survival and belief in a better world.
My teacher became a mentor and supporter and he and his family have been life-long friends whom over the years I could count on. This was just a beginning that opened my world to a whole new vista where learning was endless and my thirst for knowledge became almost unquenchable.
Volunteering opened my world in many ways that I could neither contemplate nor dream and lead to many employment, business and travel opportunities as my knowledge and experience grew. It provided lessons that enriched my mind and heart and others that stretched my personal and spiritual limits. There were many pathways, sometimes too many to follow and there have been many mentors and teachers who assisted and challenged me along the way.
Community and its meaning became important, as like the cooperative, it was a construct that enabled people to find the space and support to realize and achieve their aspirations. Community development has always emerged from the margins of society as people attempt to stem the tide of change that threatens their very existence. It evolves from the coming together of people to develop their own solutions for the common well-being of all to stressful social and economic issues during times of transition and change and as a means of ensuring sustainability.
It appears this notion of community is no longer understood in most of the world. Rather than a place connected to the human spirit it is a place based on economics and commerce. “Community”, in our world, has become a concept wrapped in business language that has been packaged and now sold as a commodity in most of the developed world. It has a number of component products which are presented in workshops and marketed by experts and consultants to groups of people, presumably as the foundation of community.
Community and working together, in other times, afforded the opportunity for people to improve their world and to live in relative peace and harmony. Pasadena became that place and space for me and provided the benefit of having so many wise and passionate teachers locally and afforded me introduction to others from many parts of the world. They all understood and believed in this concept of community. They taught me to realize and support the talents, skills and knowledge of ordinary people going about their normal lives and that provided me the insight into my real role in life.
Community appears to have lost its meaning and has been relegated to the margins, as I predicted would happen years ago. It is now the purview of the poorest places where it has been a means of survival for the majority, since time began. These places in the so-called developing and now in many parts of the developed world are the remnants and microcosms of “real community” based on necessity, compassion and a form of love long forgotten in our world of advancement. None of this suggests that this was paradise lost, as human nature and its frailties are not much different anywhere.
Community has lost its “magic” or, as my dear friend and colleague Professor Chris Bryant used to say when referring to community and its development, “It’s all a mystery”. Life’s greatest mystery is magic as I have learned through all of life’s lessons. At the times when my life took me to the edge of the cliff with the feeling I was about to fall, magic appeared and gave me the wings that allowed me to fly.
I wrote this originally in the early 1990s and added to it as new lessons were learned.
“Personally, I believe that the essence of community is about feelings. Feelings emanate from knowing and knowing comes from awareness. The more that we become aware of our environment, our circumstances and those who share the world with us, the more our knowledge grows. Expanded knowledge creates stronger feelings, deeper relationships, and an enhanced sense of our inter-connectivity, resulting in stronger communities.
It is my contention that community begins when two people share. The sharing is what creates economy, social well-being, spiritual comfort and subsequently lifestyle. Community development is neither the beginning nor the end; it is the process and the measure of our ability to share. It relates to people, their aspirations, their dreams and fundamentally, their own efforts to bring these to reality. Community truly requires the connecting of individual spirits to share. Thus, each sharing is a new beginning, a new development and a new reality.
Each sharing involves a process of introspection, reflection and perspective. It requires understanding, patience and trust, all arduous activities that are stressful and often encompass real pain: ultimately the real human avoidance issue.”
I spent many years of working with people in communities, sharing, learning and discovering in Canada and abroad until one day I came to an impasse and realized my learning was being stifled by the need to write reports, follow experts-led process and government dictated programs. Once again, the edge of a cliff appeared as it felt that I was falling into a morass of programs, projects and paper (by now computer generated). My knowledge and awareness were being stifled and my understanding of life and meaning felt cloistered.
I sought a volunteer position and after some time magic appeared in the form of a letter looking for a volunteer for Ukraine, where my learning took a leap as I found community there in a much different context than I had known. I did the workshops, the training and the planning, but underlying this there was there was the feeling of something deeper, perhaps spiritual and a different community than the one in my head.
Here were people suppressed, starved and murdered over ages who had such a strong compassion for their space and place, their history and such a strong bond with each other. Not that they always agreed. But most were ready to face any obstacle to reclaim themselves and their lives and the space they loved so dearly.
After four years, I found myself back in Newfoundland, now much older and a little wiser. The edge of the cliff looked even closer when a call came offering me a volunteer placement in The Gambia in Africa. It was an opportunity that deep down my heart had been yearning for over ages. Africa was always deep in my soul, perhaps because my mother’s brother and my namesake had left Scotland to settle in South Africa after WWII (I paid a visit to his family in the early 1990s). Perhaps it was an answer to my deeper yearning to find meaning and community; the feelings shared with me by so many mentors and teachers over the years. My friend and mentor Professor Bryant told me, “I knew this is where you were going to be when I first met you in the early 1980s.
This glimpse of an African community, one of the poorest in the world, opened my eyes to a whole new perspective. After two volunteer stints here, I finally offloaded everything I owned in Newfoundland and moved. The learning has been dramatic and continues. My time here, in total over 5 years, has taught me much about life, coping and about real meaningful love. It’s not everywhere, as there are some not-nice people here, and some who are downright nasty, as exist in every society.
As I am getting older meaning, feelings, love and for me community, a major part of my life, have all taken on new significance, especially as I look at the world and its current malaise. I had spent several years at home and feeling like ‘a refugee with no place’, after being away almost twenty-five years. Home had changed and so had I and while my family welcomed me and cared for me it appeared that I was just waiting to die.
I have learned much in my time in The Gambia about community, people and sharing, when there is very little to share. I have also found a font of true love in the many children who have become part of my life. I have found a source of knowledge both good and bad through dealing with people here that brings me closer to knowing myself. My experience has been exhausting at times, complex and often perplexing.
I have integrated myself into the community, as much as one can, when there are so many differences between the people and myself. I have faced challenges, struggles and frustrations, some of which are not in my understanding. I have been thanked, complimented and blessed by my many and cursed by a few.
But most of all I have been overwhelmed by the love of the scores of children that have come into my life – from the tiniest babies, young children and many in school. This love is so pure, innocent, sweet and uninhibited, unlike anything I have felt before and it seems so sadly lacking in the world of today. If only we could nurture this kind of love into our culture, communities and institutions, consider how different the world might be.
We sometimes seem to believe that love and spirituality are outside ourselves waiting to be found or brought to us by others. We may believe our love depends on someone else, or that our spirituality is vested in a deity, the divine or a God. Some of us spend all our lives searching for the person who has love for us or the “god” that hosts our spirituality. While all the time we have at the core of our humanity enough love to fill an ocean and an everlasting spirit that is fundamental to our consciousness and very being – it is life itself.
Community exists in the realm of the spirit, rather than in the physical and why we know it when we feel it. What is required to build community everywhere in this world is neither workshops, not programs and money, nor experts telling people how. What is fundamentally necessary is for us to understand the depth of our spirituality and love, appreciate our humanity and that of every other individual in this world and reach out and love each other as only a human can.
As I wrote many years ago, but perhaps didn’t fully understand, “Community truly requires the connecting of individual spirits to share. Thus, each sharing is a new beginning, a new development and a new reality.” Therein lies the magic that life and love have to offer.