Sunday, May 22, 2011

Questions from Choctaw High School - Oklahoma

My new friends at Choctaw High School in Oklahoma have sent me some questions about my journey.  Here they are with my answers.

My question is: Do you plan to enjoy this trip, or will it be painful? -- Rachel Baack

I expect the ride to be physically demanding for sure.  It’s a long ride with very little in the way of home comforts.  However, my aim is to enjoy the trip as a civilian tourist. Last time I saw Angola it was as a soldier, and Angola was the battlefield.  This time I’m looking forward to seeing the beauty of the place and its people.

What if the trip isn't what you are expecting, are you going to be disappointed? -- Erica Herman

I guess when we follow our hearts and our dreams there’s always the risk of disappointment.  But I think the greatest disappointment would be not to take the chance in the first place. So yes, I may in some way be disappointed.  But I’d rather be disappointed trying than sitting at home wondering!

How long did it take you to realize that you needed to make this journey, and was it hard to finally make the decision to do it? -- Cassandra Velasco

I think I’ve always wanted to go back to Angola in peacetime.  Even when I was in the bush as a soldier, I wondered what it would be like to see that beautiful landscape without the constant fear and fighting going on.  The decision came naturally.  It just feels like the right time, so the decision kind of made itself.  So it was easy.

Do you have any smaller goals for this trip, other than the main ones you talked about in your blog?
-- Hunter Brodrick

There are several things I’m hoping for, aside from the overall goal of “putting ghosts to rest”.  I am hoping to write about my journey, hopefully in book form, but if not, then on my blog.  I’d like to meet some ex-soldiers from the Angolan army so that I can hear about their experiences.  I’d like to tell them I’m sorry that I contributed in a small way to perpetuating that terrible civil war in their country.  And I’d like to contribute to a dialogue in South Africa that encourages other ex-conscripts to speak out about the effects the war had on them and that they can find their own healing path.

Do you feel like your trip will help put other people whose situation is similar to yours ghosts to rest, or perhaps inspire them to take the same journey that you are about to take? -- Brandon Reed

Sorry Brandon, seems I answered your question above! It is certainly my hope. Everyone’s journey is different.  I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to undertake the journey in a physical sense.  But certainly in an emotional sense.

When on bike you can’t pack as much stuff, what are some of the items you will pack maybe for emergencies, daily life, or recording your journey while packing light? -- Chase Gooch

Well a very good first aid kit is a must.  Including things like needle kits for injections and drips etc.  HIV and Hepatitis can be transmitted by unsterilized needles so I’ll carry my own.  I’ll carry some emergency food in case I can’t get any along the way, eg. If I’m not sleeping in a village.  My camera is very important to me and I can use it for video as well as still photography.  I’ll also need a few notebooks.  I’ll need a Portuguese/English dictionary or phrasebook.  I am debating what shelter to take for when I camp.  Either my lightweight tent or a bivvy bag.  Possibly a mosquito net because this is malaria country.  Wow, this list is growing!  Finally, I will need some spares for my bike.

In one of your very first posts you mentioned that you believe you "fought on the wrong side of a grubby local war" (or so I took it). Is one of your main reasons for going to Angola to put some of your ghosts to rest to go back as a "friend" rather than a "foe"?  -- Rachel Kelley

In short Rachel, yes.  Inner peace and peace with old foes are intricately linked I think.  Governments make enemies out of men and women who would likely be friends if they met of their own accord in more favorable circumstances.

I noticed in Paul's blog he said war is never good. But is that really true? Is it not war that has brought about some of the most powerful technological advances? Is it not war, along with disease, and natural disasters that keep the population in check? War is the only thing that tempers us, and makes us stronger as a species. It is war, and human bloodlust, that keep the species moving forward.  As painful as it is to say it, humanity will never coexist peacefully. War is perpetual.  – Elijah Talmud
I think you may guess my answer to this by now.  I think war requires a culture that supports it.  I think it is similar to a culture of racism and subjugation of one people by another.  Attitudes can change by those of us who disagree speaking out. As individuals we can decide to participate in the changing of that culture to a culture of peace. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Journeys - by Kourtney Lewis (Guest Contributor)

[I feel very honoured that my blog is being followed by a class of students at Choctaw High School in Oklahoma, in the USA.  I asked their teacher Dustin Johnson whether one of his students would like to write something for my blog.  
Thank you to Kourtney for writing this inspiring and insightful piece, and for sharing something of her own special journey. – Paul]

 Hi, my name is Kourtney Lewis, and I go to Choctaw High School in Choctaw, Oklahoma, USA. I am one of three drum majors for our school marching band and I am also a three year cancer survivor. Everyone has their own personal journey and a story to tell.  

Often inspiring and admirable, they’re also life-changing. A journey is defined as traveling from one place to another. In our journeys our inner selves learn to change and overcome what our past selves had not been able too. We are able to find out who we are and what we are meant to do with our lives. For example, had I never been diagnosed with cancer, twice, I would never have been so inspired to make a difference in my life and in the world, to take that one small step towards change for the better. And so I admire Paul for going back and making a journey to settle his past and see the beauty in Angola.

 We often pass life by without stopping to see the beauty surrounding our entire lives. Therefore, we often take for granted what we have until it is at stake. Paul is admired for going back to settle his ghosts. It’s not an easy task. He has determination people can only dream of. Journeys cannot be accomplished without that. One quote caught my eye.

“ The journey between what you once were and who you are now becoming is where the dance of life really takes place.” -Barbara DeAngelis

Journeys can overcome fears or change our entire outlook on life. They can change us, and let us see what life has to offer or possibly even to see how everyone else views the world. We can learn so much from journeys and actually going through with them. Fulfilling a journey is one step towards an ultimate goal, which we may or may not know what that goal is. Maybe that’s the fun in it. We may come across something brand new and different, take it all in, learn from it all, and grow from it. This quote for example:“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”- Robert Frost.

So to Paul Morris, I wish you all the best. Everyone in our class is cheering you on. I am thrilled to hear more about your journey and how it goes. You are an inspiration with your determination and strength. Your journey is sure to be admired all around the world.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Learning lessons

There are a group of students studying my blog this week, I’m told.  They’re in the USA so that could mean they’re in school, in the South African/British sense of the word, as in High School, or at University or College, which is also called school in the US.  I don’t know, I didn’t think to ask.  Twitter is limited like that.

I don’t know why they’ve chosen my blog over the thousands of others.  I don’t think it’s because it’s a bad example.  I don’t believe that to be so.  What I do feel is honoured that they are taking the time.  And I hope they learn something from it.  By learning, of course, I don’t mean what the teacher hopes they learn, which in itself may also be worthwhile, but something that they will remember and use in life.  One of those lessons that was all too rare in my own schooling – and here I refer particularly to High School, that apartheid state controlled institution that was so narrow and conservative and tried to ingrain the doctrines and prejudices of that regime into our young minds.  There were teachers, sometimes quite brave, who planted seeds of questioning and thinking in us.  Those are the teachers and lessons I remember to this day.

I’m writing this because I found myself wondering about the students so far away on another continent.  And I wondered: “What would I want them to learn from reading my blog?”  Of course, I’d never be so presumptuous to think that they’ll learn any of this;  it is, of course, an entirely hypothetical question.  Here are some of the things I wished I’d learned at school:

  • Read, read, read.  It was the advice given to me by a concerned teacher when she knew I was going into the army (thank you Helen Robinson).  I did, and it helped me keep perspective when the military was trying to brainwash me.  I read books they disapproved of, and they called me a kaffir-lover. I read them anyway.  I read any newspaper I could get my hands on and read Time magazine even when the South African censors had blacked out passages they didn’t want us to read.
  • If you read widely, seek out views you don’t agree with, that challenge you as well as those that back up your beliefs, you’ll keep balanced.  It helped me survive the intellectual wilderness that was the SADF.  It helped me survive its aftermath.
  • Know that you have prejudices and know that you probably don’t know what most of them are.  Sometimes it hurts to find out.  We all have them, and we are better people when we accept that we have them.  We grow by both that acceptance and by working to overcome them.  My own journey in this regard continues, and will do so until I die.
  • War is never good.  Ever.  The scars are always deep and effects prolonged.
  • Life is a journey and journeys can be hard work.  The most rewarding, exciting and often difficult journey is the inner journey of self discovery.
  • All people are trying to get through their lives the best way they can.  Even the ones shooting at you.  I’ve met the enemy recently or rather the ex-enemy, in the form of an ex-Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier (ANC’s military wing).  We like each other.

As I read this back I realise that this is really a little bit about what I’ve learned so far – and I hope a bit more too! 

To the students in the States: My apologies if this reads like a sermon!  I wish you well for your studies and your lives.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Talking at the Grahamstown Festival - July

I will be co-speaking with author James Clelland at Wordfest at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in July (barring any last minute objections from the organisers!)

James Clelland and I met at the launch of his novel, Deeper than Colour (published by Jacana), at the Book Lounge in Cape Town last year. He won the 2010 European Literary award for the work.

While the book is not about the Bush War, the main character was with a special forces unit in Angola.  The difficulties he is dealing with in middle age have a strong thread of post traumatic stress disorder running through.  It’s this theme that got me interested enough to attend my first ever book launch (I’ve since been to others organised by the Book Lounge!).

I will be with James to provide an “I was there” aspect to the talk in relation to novel’s war back-story.  However, the book has much more to it than the war theme.  It is told through the conversations the characters have with a psychiatrist.  It also has the intriguing idea of someone recording and reviewing his own life using webcams.  I highly recommend the book.

Read the book and come and join us in Grahamstown!