Some years ago I was at a school linking programme in South Africa discussing with teachers from SA, Malawi and Zambia the possibility of forming a partnership with schools in UK.
During the meeting I asked them to write some statements about their perceptions of what UK was like in an attempt to monitor changes in attitude that might occur once they had engaged with a partner school in another country. None of them had ever been out of Africa.
Among the statements they recorded were:
• Kids don’t drop out of school for financial reasons
• There’s plenty of food
• People are not friendly, they mind their own business and work hard
• Resources are abundant
• There’s a high rate of crime
• Pornography is all over
• Homosexuality is rampant
• People like their pets and cats sleep in beds
• Very beautiful country, lots of mountains and good vegetation
Some weeks later I was with a group of students in Cumbria who had never been to Africa and asked them to write down their perceptions of the continent. Some of the statements they made were:
• People are poor
• They have dirty ragged clothes
• People do a lot of walking
• They don’t have proper tables and chairs like us
• Lots of people have Aids
• There are no white people
• They produce brilliant footballers
• Some white people go on safari there
• There is not enough water to drink
I imagine that these partially true but by and large depressingly negative perceptions were gained from, in the case of the Africans, family members living in UK and reporting back and in the case of the students from Cumbria, the media.
Some of the views of the UK by Africans made me want to scream “No! It’s not really like that.......”
And yet for a devout African Muslim or Christian coming from a community with a strong sense of solidarity, where the community and the extended family genuinely provide support, where there is so much social intercourse and a genuine sense of fun, humour and physicality and where people dress with dignity and decorum, that is exactly how we seem.
So what’s the answer?
Travel on the tube in London any day of the week and you can’t help wondering at the extraordinary diversity of your fellow passengers. I defy anyone to identify a country that is not represented in London alone. And as I ate my supper last night I noted that the lamb and the butter came from New Zealand, the fruit salad came from Spain, the Caribbean and South Africa. Likewise, my shirt comes from China, the cotton in my socks from India and the rubber in my belt from Thailand.
We are a ‘global village’. A recent Christmas appeal for support from Oxfam showed a magnificent photograph of Earth from outer space. Beneath the photograph was the title “Charity begins at home”!
And surely we have a duty to ‘engage with difference’ – and find out how extraordinarily enriching that engagement can be. The exciting journey of breaking down international boundaries has long since begun and must continue. Of course Turkey should join the EU precisely because it is a Muslim country.
But let’s be clear, difference can also be very disturbing. In the context of Marlborough’s relationship with Gunjur, visiting Gunjurians have found our treatment of the elderly totally outrageous. “How can you put your old people in homes!?” “Why aren’t they living with the families that they have cared for through childhood?”
And for us visiting Gunjur: “How can you cut your girls at the age of 8 and deprive them of their sexual feelings and also contribute to infant morbidity and mortality at the time of delivery, years later? Surely this is a human rights issue as well as a medical one?”
It is only through engagement that one can learn, understand, reflect and perhaps bring about change.
In 2007 a group of people from Marlborough’s linked community of Gunjur had the opportunity to speak about the link and the relationships that had come about through the partnership to the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, at Marlborough House in Pall Mall, the Headquarters of the Commonwealth.
His response was “What you are saying is that we are all family! If we don’t hear that message and act on it we are destined for extinction.”