Experiential learning

I’m one to learn (or try to) from situations in which I find myself. Nine years of supporting an education charity in Tanzania on the slopes of Kilimanjaro were eye-openers for understanding some of the conditions the soldiers and carriers in East Africa endured. Travelling on local transport from Tanga to Mombasa soon after a series of bus-hijackings gave an idea of what anxieties men felt when moving through 8-foot high grass expecting an ambush at any time, walking up/down to the market area on Kilimanjaro in the rains provided its own insights into slippery roads and manipulating gushing water, watching as once dry river beds became torrential rivers washing away everything in their way – it made sense why some bridges were built so high above the water line. While most land from Kilimanjaro to the coast line has been inhabited, spots of natural bush gave some idea of the ‘forests’ men spoke of and the struggles of dealing with thorn and overgrowth. Oh, and the dust! let alone encountering zebra and giraffe along the road as the bus sped past. What would take us 40 minutes to drive in a car, took 2 hours by dala-dala or local taxi and all day or two for men to walk. The heat at the bottom of the mountain being 10 degrees Celsius warmer than where we were 8,000 feet up. It was bad enough in a vehicle at the height of summer … something else to have to walk in those conditions.

So with recent restrictions, it’s seemed only natural to see what I could extrapolate to better understand aspects of the past. It’s been fascinating watching social media and speaking with friends/family seeing parallels with internment as shared through the Stobs project which was expanded to Fort Napier in South Africa. More recent history, not quite WW1, are those in South Africa and elsewhere who had to suffer House Arrest. Martial law and curfews are not too different for many of us, depending on which country we happen to find ourselves.

Significantly, I find myself referring to those in Africa who were unable to communicate with family or get news as frequently as the men on the Western Front did. Letters took six months to get to the recipient if they were lucky. Torpedoed ships and poor lines of communication played their part in delaying people linking with each other. Funerals and seeing loved ones in hospital were other aspects of social life which had to be foregone although there are some accounts of small groups of men gathering together to bury a comrade either on land or into the ocean. But there are also many sad stories of comrades having had to be left behind in the hope that the enemy would provide an appropriate send-off. No technology then as we have today to video-link in or to accurately record where the lonesome grave was, which by the time someone got to return had disappeared back into the natural bush.

While many have been stockpiling, there was no opportunity to do so 100 years ago in the African bush. Poor lines of communication and later, drought and famine saw to it that rations were rationed. Accounts of being on 1/4 rations for a day or even going for 24 hours with no food can be found. More often, it’s the tediousness of the diet or eating foods not traditionally known. The latter accounted for over 90% of the Seychelloise falling ill and being recalled. Whilst many today in war/conflict zones no doubt associate with these constraints, many of us in more well-off communities still have quite some way to go before we find ourselves in such constrained conditions.

In contrast with then, we probably suffer from information overload. Newspapers were scarce and likely only in bases when they were available and again, as with letters, months out of date. Reuters telegrams and other snippets passed by telegraph wire perhaps gave an idea of what was happening elsewhere but were never long enough to provide detail. Was it better/easier to cope not knowing as it was then or as we have it now having to wade through huge amounts of detailed info from different countries to determine what is true or relevant?

And despite what everyone is dealing with in their own context, life goes on in many ways, just different, although for some not … while some find relief and opportunity in these temporary changed times, for others it’s hell on earth with no release from their enforced imprisonment. Caught in the open bush could be as restrictive and fear-inducing as being forced to stay indoors. Perhaps that’s a reason many are prepared to take risks and venture out – is it any different to wanting to be on the Western Front where facing a sniper’s bullet was less stressful than worrying about the marauding lion, jigger flea, landmine or potential ambush? How will we determine the impact of the current situation when so far much of the language used to describe conditions are so similar to what others have used in the past across numerous critical events? I used to think the East Africa campaign was unique until I read Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War and realised mobile warfare is … well, mobile warfare and nothing special to World war 1 Africa.

Technology meltdown

Don’t you sometimes wish technology would just disappear for a bit? But then, as soon as you can’t access your emails or the internet there’s major panic and you can do nothing else until it is sorted.

One of the things I love about travelling is that you can’t have 24/7 access to the world. Well, I suppose it depends on where you go, but generally it can take a little while to get linked up to the new networks and finding that free wireless spot.

I remember being in the somewhere in the Namib desert a few years’ back and purposefully pulling out my phone to check the signal – NONE. Wonderful, peaceful. Since then, I’ve done the same on various other travels and relished the fact that there is no signal. But always, the thought is squashed by ‘what if you need to get assistance?’

What did we do in the ‘good old days’? I recall having to phone my dad from the office before I left of an evening (if I was going to be late) to let him know I was on my way and oh boy! would I hear it if I hadn’t phoned or was later than the time he estimated it would take me to get home. Bearing in mind that this was in the early 1990s in South Africa and the potential for hi-jackings much higher than now (although stories coming out in 2016/7 are suggesting a return to a more lawless society as the wealth gap increases. I sincerely hope not!).

About 6 years ago, I was talking to some teachers in rural Tanzania about computers. They were desperate for at least one in the office as it would be a time-saver! I was told that pressing a button would allow so much to be done. Yes, it would but getting to press that one button would require hours of training and distraction from other work which also needed to be done. Having the internet added would make their lives more fraught. A simple example to test the theory: Before mobile/cell phones, I asked, how many letters or instructions did they get from the District Education Officer demanding their presence in his office? Bearing in mind that today if you own your own transport you could get there in 45 minutes otherwise by public transport it could take 2-3 hours. Compare that to the demands received since mobile phones came in to operation.

Similarly, how long did it take for letters to be typed up, posted and replied to? With the internet, people expect instant response and the time spent drafting, writing, typing, checking and then in the post system is all done away with. My correspondence went up hundred-fold (at least) with electronic connection.

I never heard another request for computers to solve their workload problem. The fact that there was limited electricity, irregular supply where it was available and the need for technicians and wind-free storage space weren’t even touched on.

Why have we become slaves to technology rather than let the technology be our slave? The number of telephone conversations I have to listen to on public transport is annoyingly high. Why do I want to know about your troubles at work or relationship issues etc. People tend to forget they’re in a public space – I’ve even heard someone discussing  an illegal immigrant (before all the current media hype) being at their house: this openly in a tube filled with people they didn’t know. I’ve learnt as an Afrikaans speaking South African – the last language you want to use to say something personal in whilst in a public space is Afrikaans – you’re bound to be understood and I can tell a number of stories where this has happened to the embarrassment of the other person. Similarly, many other languages are spoken and although I might not understand what you’re saying someone else is bound to especially if you’re speaking louder than a whisper. I’ve eavesdropped in French, Swahili, Dutch and German. Oh, for phones not to work on public transport – but then how would I know when to get to the station to pick someone up?  How did we do it in days gone by?

A friend of mine in the US has experienced just the same sort of frustrations with technology in public places and has started tweeting out reminding people of phone etiquette in particular.

In the UK, we’ve managed (just about) for phones to be switched off in meetings and theatres (not on public transport though) but in Africa generally and other developing areas where having a phone is still seen as a status symbol (rather than where not having one is viewed as being in poverty), phones ring loudly, are answered and conversations held in front of everyone else despite all around the table being there for another purpose. How do we break these cycles?

One thing I’ve learnt from my travels in Africa and elsewhere is that it’s alright not to respond to a text, email or other instant messaging system immediately – sometimes you just cannot and, surprisingly, the world hasn’t collapsed. I’ve learnt not to expect an instant response and won’t chase too quickly. I understand you might not be able to.

There is a lot we can learn from each other … if we’re only willing to listen and observe what is really happening around us.