Encounters – of different kinds

Standing in a coffee queue recently a discussion regarding work practices led to cross-culture discussion. He was German, me a South African living in London. He a lawyer, me an historian. He an employee at the university, me attending a conference at the same venue. Despite, or because of, these differences the fifteen or so minutes it took for the queue to subside passed rather pleasantly and quickly. It was one of those chance encounters where common ground was found and new insights gained – Africa and World War 1 being the common denominator.

With this uplifting start to the day, the conference too proved a setting for rich encounters. Elizabeth Edwards set the scene. Presenting a photograph of a gathering on a beach she set out to explain the relationships between the British sailors and local men posing in the photo. Significantly, the encounter was not just between the people (‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’; ‘West’ and ‘East’ ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’, ‘clothed’ and ‘naked’) in the photo but between individuals – us (viewers) – and the photo. We all brought our own experiences and interpretations to what we encountered in this and the other presentations during the day. Jay Winter brought proceedings to a close with a paper on ‘Photographing War’ exploring how photographers engaged with what they encountered.

Another moving encounter I had was reading A fortunate life by AB Facey. In this autobiography, Facey tells of his growing up in Australia with no education. The experiences he had, the challenges, betrayed trust, the separation and loss of family resonate with experiences refugees (most notably from the Middle East and parts of Africa today) and exiled must experience. Yet, despite all hurdles Facey had to face, he succeeded and learnt to write. What an accomplishment and what a life! A testimony to him and others who’ve overcome similar hardships. And here, I think of friends now back in Rwanda as well as all those injured and damaged by war who are fulfilling, and have fulfilled, their dreams.

And in all this, one should not forget the encounters we have online – I’ve met so many amazing people through the internet who have in turn led me to other incredible encounters both in researching the past and in moving forward into the future – some of which I share through these ramblings and writings. And the common denominator? Africa!

That ‘little’ place so many refer to as a country has a magnetism hard to avoid. This morning, in London, buying a suitcase suitable for a plane cabin led to a discussion about travel. I was about to head to Senegal for another conference, the cashier had been born in Kenya, her husband in Tanzania. As we walked off my husband casually said ‘Asante sana’ (Thank you)… well, what can I say but that our leaving the shop was delayed for another few minutes …

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