for the 2006 Boissevain-Morton history book
Perhaps it was the poetry I read to her on the train travelling from Waterloo (where we were attending University) to Toronto (where I was catching a plane to go to South Africa) that convinced her on the benefits of marriage and an eventual trip to Africa. It was 1981 and our lives were budding with promise. Our friendship was taking a turn and we liked the new scenery this offered us. We parted that day not knowing when or how our paths would again merge, she to finish her degree and I to encounter a continent I knew next to nothing about. Within a year, I having returned for a few months of official courting and she having nearly convinced her father that I was not a thief in the night, we were traveling to Africa together.
Mennonite Central Committee had proven its flexibility by facilitating our reunion and renewed commitment to the work I (and now we) had been sent to do. And a fascinating time it was – adjusting to a beleaguered yet resilient rural society and adjusting to each other’s peculiarities. Our work in South Africa was to assist a cluster of Xhosa (Black African people related to the Zulus whose homeland is the dry, rolling land next to the Indian Ocean) villages in their efforts to improve their lives.
The churches in the area (all under the South African Council of Churches led by Bishop Desmond Tutu at the time) were tired of waiting for a distant God or Government to offer them a reprieve from grinding poverty and powerlessness. We were part of a new movement to train village community workers. Our job was to help implement projects our neighbours identified as being their priorities. We got involved in fencing and organizing community gardens, trenching in water from distant springs, communally buying fruit trees, seeds and fertilizers, building and managing a preschool and health centre, making shoes and sandals, and collecting water in homemade ferocement tanks.
Over time more communities caught the vision and soon we had quarterly community worker meetings in which we (the foreigners) became the listeners and the locals became the teachers. We, after all, were there to help a process take root, not to remain the focus of anyone’s attention. We told stories to each other about the communities we lived in and helped each other find solutions to barriers. We studied the causes and effects of poverty and encouraged each other to find homegrown ways of becoming rich with cooperative spirit and sustaining, practical visions. We learned, and we learned again how divided the world is and that it is we who are rich who need to learn to be poor before there will be greater equality and promise of health for all.
Being in South Africa during the final decade of Apartheid, working for a highly politicized organization, and being the only Caucasians for many miles in any direction propelled us toward a justice and liberation oriented way of viewing the world. We felt keenly that if we were not obviously part of the solution we were definitely part of the problem. And so we challenged ourselves to fit in emotionally and spiritually – to be positive and affirming in all encounters, to visit our neighbours for no reason to drink tea, to find humour even when cruelty and suffering were close at hand. When we took our leave to return to Canada, we were praised for having learned the language (at least to a respectable proficiency), of having given ourselves to the seemingly never ending labours – whether it be digging a grave or cleaning out a cholera infected communal water tank or taking the time to walk an old woman up the hill – and of simply being who we were. Nobody praised us for helping to organize a communal garden or a seed buying coop or a preschool. What mattered was that we had been (what they considered to be) good neighbours.
Around the Continent
About 15 years later we again found ourselves travelling into the great unknown. The challenges, though, were not so much in adjusting to the world around us as to the world created within our home on wheels.
I suppose it was the imposed intimacy of our living space, a family of six travelling for eleven months in a truck and camper, that encouraged us to figure out what made each of us laugh. Perhaps it was also our tendency to schedule much less and write fewer task lists that helped us to ease up on each other. After all, we had very little property, no phone and nearby friends or relatives to distract us. The laughter was triggered, as well, by being part of an adventure every day; of not knowing what lay around the corner. Our senses were peaked and so we lived more ‘in the moment’, the place where joy, playfulness and forgiveness happen. Much of the beauty of the trip was the way in which we enjoyed being together, well, most of the time.
We were often asked, where the idea for this trip had come from. I remember the inspiration coming while I was at a friend’s business. The poster on her wall asked a familiar question, `What would you do differently if you had this life to live over again’? `Ahhh,’ I sighed, `I would be more playful. I would enjoy our family more, now, before the kids leave home to make their own ways in the world.’
A while later, we were sitting around our kitchen table talking about our friends who were vacationing in Mexico. `How far south could we drive if we wanted to?` one of the children asked. Well – we got out the atlas. We estimated the distance. And somebody said, `Let’s go!’ We laughed at the absurdity – that we might take a year off as a family and do some travelling – with four pubescent children no less. I remember Magdalene giving me that sideways look that means, `This is fine as a joke, but you’re sounding a bit too serious for my liking.` But, bless her soul, she loves an adventure too.
A few years later, our `83 three-quarter ton truck `Bruce` with a camper on the back were packed and ready to go. Our plan was to head across to the Maritimes, then down the east coast of the continent all the way to the Panama Canal before turning back north up the west coast, maybe all the way to the Yukon. Sound crazy? Perhaps it was. We’d lived with this dream, saved the cash and made preparations to leave our place in caring hands. It was a good time, no, the right time, for us as a family to do this. We called it our sabbatical, a year off to live each day without a set plan. We love everything that ties us down: our quarter section of bush land, our animals, our community and friends. These are our roots. We knew (or at least hoped) we’d come back to it all, maybe even with added enthusiasm. But for a time we were going to be living on the road.
Like most farm boys, I’m a bit driven to keep myself occupied. So I took a sabbatical research project with me. The question I wanted to ask folks along the way was, `How are you preparing the way for the next generation of farmers?` We get a lot of young people through our place wanting to learn about organic greenhouse and gardening methods. A good number of them would love to grow and raise food for a living, but haven’t any idea how to finance land or compete with cheap food coming in from, God knows where. I looked at the squeeze our community is in; how discouraged some of the established farmers are getting and how little ownership there is in the overdue assignment of raising the next generation of farmers. It seemed and still seems that we, all North Americans, are in denial. With the average age of farmers at nearly 60 years of age, the picture gets looking pretty bleak.
At the same time, I knew that all is not lost. There are encouraging stories out there. And I was going to look for them. I wanted to talk with people who are finding joy and freedom in farming. Because, it seems to me, few young people will choose a profession that is depressing and restrictive. Some people I thought would be taking the struggle on at an international level. Others would not even be worried about the whole global, corporate stew agriculture seems to be suspended in. That, in any case, is what I needed to hear: encouraging stories. I wrote (and spoke) a travel story every two weeks for CBC radio – designed to communicate something about what we were experiencing directly to our friends and neighbours.
But I digress. The real show was inside those four moving walls of family drama. Some of us, quicker with our tongues, were more often the teasers and some of us, purer of heart, were more often the teased. In a library in New Brunswick, Ezra came upon Teyana in a peculiar position. She had curled up and stuffed her gangly limbs into a half-empty bookshelf where she was reading kid’s storybooks. As he passed her, he quipped “If books are judged by their covers, you might be there a long time.” A bit of brotherly cruelty perhaps, but Teyana took it well and enjoyed the chuckling along with the rest of us.
The question we’ve been asked most often is: “How did you manage to get along – all six in such a small space?” One of the questioners went on to add, “Our family would have torn each other apart by the time we got a thousand kilometers down the road.” ‘By learning to laugh with each other’ is one of our answers. As you can imagine, there’s more to the story.
The other question we most often hear is, “How could you afford it?” We couldn’t afford to leave when we started thinking about it. We sold some land we needed to let go of, we had no debt and we saved money for a couple of years. We’re also part of a friendly small town Credit Union that happily collects payments towards the modest overdraft we acquired on the trip. Probably most importantly, we set up a budget that forced us to be frugal. We parked in people’s back yards, in fields, on beaches and in town centres whenever possible. We couldn’t afford to eat out much and we had to be resourceful about the entertainment and educational experiences we chose. One stroke of genius was Maggie convincing the kids to keep the books. They rose to the challenge and became involved more viscerally in decisions about money use.
These self-imposed limits, rather than making the trip more difficult, actually helped us to touch people’s lives more profoundly along the way. Our time living in poverty-stricken areas of Africa for eight years had taught us some low budget travelling skills. Those experiences and our modest savings compelled us to visualize an interrelated world in which everyone can afford to travel, not for pure self-interest but in order to enter and be touched by other cultures and worldviews. This ‘solidarity travel’ is the form of travel we find most meaningful.