Love Letter to Ukraine

Six months ago I hardly knew anything about you. I remember waking up early on a cold February morning. My son stopped at my bedside before he left for school. While he walked out the door he announced without any emotions : “Russia invaded Ukraine, true story”. Initially I thought it was his idea of a sick joke. Since that morning, a country I could hardly find on the world map found its way into my heart, and stayed there.

Now I recognise the colours of your flag wherever I go, I am heartened by the sight of an Antonov flying over, I have developed a fondness for sunflowers, and I only befriend people who support you. Ukraine, the country on the edge, the border land, has become a land marking my own life, and the day you were wrongfully invaded was a day I will never forget.

I am a sucker for coming of age stories. Those where the main character finds her way after long search, or finds her strength and voice to stand up for herself and defeat an arrogant bully. The worst ones are those where a grave injustice is perpetrated and remains unpunished. Those few days at the end of February were the stuff of nightmares. I waited fearfully for the bullies to win, and watched that ominous column of tanks rolling towards Kyiv. I opened my eyes every morning to check whether Ukraine’s wartime president was still alive. I had never heard of Volodymyr Zelenskyy before, but for a while he became my hero. The man who deserves win against all odds. Many world citizens, with no connection to Ukraine, felt the same. Regular people all over the world assembled in city squares, and cried with rage at the injustice of the invasion, while governments just made some noise and hesitated to act. Nobody wanted to shake the world order and unsettle Russia. But the resilience and resistance of your heroes was decisive. You found your strength and your voice, and even those who hated to mess with the neighbourhood bully had to show some support, or risk their image. Nobody dreamed you would hold on this long. And while the privileged complained about what this did or will do to the economy, or trembled in fear of not getting enough oil and gas, one the poorest countries in Europe continued fighting. And yes, it wouldn’t have been possible without foreign aid and huge defence packages provided by western countries, but Ukrainians are still the ones who are offering the greatest sacrifices. They are risking their lives, their safety and the violence of war, because they did not want to swap the future they dreamed of with the bleak reality that Russia planned for them.

And today it has been exactly six month since this unjust war started. It is also 31 years since you gained your independence. You still inspire. You are able to mobilise people all over the world. Your people are showing up for you, picking up arms, crowdfunding drones and technological equipment, and taking your voice to the world. You are perhaps the first country in the world whose war effort is partly funded by individuals, Ukrainians in the diaspora and world citizens who believe.

Ukraine has become a moral refuge and a symbol of self determination against all odds. We are all outsiders, pushed towards the edge in our lives, desperately seeking meaning. And those refugees and outsiders have found a cause to rally around, to bring us all together. We the people believe in the right of Ukraine to all its territory, and the right of its citizens to choose their path. This is the true story

Happy Birthday Ukraine. Slava Ukraini. One day I would love to meet you in person.

Photos (left to write): Anti war slogan and Ukrainian flag at St. Stephan Cathedral in central Vienna. Ukrainian theme at the entrance of the Tiki Bar, Diani Beach, Kenya. .Ukrainian flag ribbon and card at Augarten Vienna today: “1/2 year war: Enough killing, maiming, bombing and lying: Russia out of Ukraine. Slava Ukrajini”

Safety… It is All Relative

Today I read about another school shooting rampage in the United States, and it drove me to think again about the concept of safety in the world.

There are several places in the world where you face danger on a daily basis. These are places with war, civil war, famine, endemic disease or extreme natural hazard. If you avoid these few extremely dangerous places, you can live anywhere in the world, trusting that your safety is a matter of fate lottery. Even in places known for prevalent crime, I think you can still be reasonably safe if you avoid certain locations and use common sense.

I have lived for a few years in Johannesburg, known for its high crime rate, and also in Cape Town, dubbed in some circles as “Rape Town”. I think I survived by avoiding well-known trouble areas and night-time adventures. That does not mean I was completely exempted from exposure to crime. In Johannesburg, I fell victim (along with my then husband) to fraud. The well-planned operation resulted in loss of overseas money but that was a white-collar organized crime. In Cape Town, my precious laptop was stolen from my apartment, and I lost my wallet and its content on a bus, or to a pickpocket, I will never know.  But in general I would say that I got off easily even in the most dangerous places in the world.

Nairobi feels safe to me in comparison to Johannesburg, Cape Town, and East London in South Africa, all of which are places I lived in. But I remember how concerned some of my friends were when I announced that I was moving there. The Westgate Shopping Mall Attack was still fresh then and everyone thought I was walking into some sort of a terrorist nest. I never felt any threat so far, but again this does not mean that the threat is not present. There will be an incident one day, it is not a matter of if, but when.

But even while we know that the terrorist threat is a reality, we cannot escape it in our interconnected world. It could happen in New York, Boston, Jerusalem or Nairobi. The perpetrators could be Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Kenya or anyone else. They could be brown or pale, Muslim or Christian. There are no rules, and nobody knows where it will hit next. Some of my friends argue that if it happens in New York or Boston the authorities there are more capable of dealing with the consequences. I agree, there are horror stories about police looting the shops in the wake of the Westgate Mall attack. But since 9/11 there were numerous other incidents in Western countries such as: London 2005 and then 2017, Brussels 2016, Madrid 2004, Barcelona 2017, Nice in France 2016, Berlin 2016, and this non-exhaustive list shows that both the reach and the means of the attacks have expanded to a degree that makes them impossible to predict. And I have not included any of the numerous incidents happening more frequently in the southern and eastern hemispheres. These always have higher fatalities but are less publicized as terrorism because they occur in places that are already suffering from other types of trouble such as civil strife or extremist activities. Some people also cynically point out that these are rarely publicized because their victims are “brown people” and therefore less important.

Terrorism is indiscriminate and has become universal in its reach. The perpetrators are becoming more complex and more difficult to point out and profile. Therefore it is near impossible to be completely protected against it. Anyone could fall victim to terrorism. I could have easily been a victim or a witness to the terrorist attack in the Christmas Market in Berlin in 2016, as I had planned to go there that evening and lazily opted to stay at home at the last minute. However, the traditional aim of terrorism is to disrupt the prosperous and normal life of citizens and governments who are seen, by the terrorist organizations, as benefiting unfairly at the expense of other nations in an unfair world order. Therefore western countries especially the USA will always be more attractive targets for international terrorism. Even their foreign missions away from home soil become targets. The US Embassy in Nairobi is located across the street from the United Nations headquarters and has the best security in the area, yet its presence does not promote a feeling of safety, but is rather a source of discomfort since it is perceived as a target. Many United Nations staff feel unsettled and unsafe by its close proximity.

Whereas terrorism in other places of the world thrives on chaos and failed governance, in the western world it will most likely spring out of a perfectly normal day or evening, so it is pointless to fear it or to be overly vigilant against it. And when it happens you will be killed by a harmless object like a car or an umbrella, in a normal place like a street market or a city square. None of your danger instincts will fire up in time to protect you, so there is no point in being paranoid.

The tragedy that I see is that most western countries spend a lot of time and money to combat this amorphous and shape-shifting terrorism monster while ignoring the danger within. Any healthy individual will feel fear at the sight of a gun or a machine gun. One of my uncles by marriage used to own a handgun, it was a perk of his elite status as a member of the ruling sect in my native country. When he visited my oldest aunt, his sister-in-law, he always unbuckled his handgun and placed it on top of the piano in the living room. I still remember my distaste at the presence of the object in the room, and I still do not know whether I was bothered more by the fact he carried a gun, or that he wanted to leave it out for us to see. I still do not understand the reasons for this action, but I think my deep dislike of him and his family can be traced back to that gun on the unsuspecting surface of the piano. My apathy to guns runs so deep that I never let my son with toy guns, not even water guns. I know that this is an extreme, I suspect that my son might have a pathological fear of guns, but I think that a fear of guns is less likely to kill him than a love for them.

I was still living in the USA when the Sandy Hook shooting happened in 2012. It was near the Christmas break, but when I took my son to his elementary school in the wake of that shooting, I remember a cold shiver of fear running down my back as I led him through the fortress of doors and dark corridors to his classroom. I remember thinking that there was nowhere to hide and no way to get out if someone decided to go on a shooting rampage. It is a different story at his school here in Nairobi with its open spaces and huge grounds. A healthy instinct could save him here, where it will be of no use in a closed and overly secured environment of his former school.

Yes, I do feel safer in Nairobi than I did in New York. And while we can easily agree that the concept of safety is relative. The feeling of safety is hugely subjective. A person with chronic fear of flying understands fully that she is more likely to get killed driving to and from the airport than on a flight, but she will still battle her phobia on board and feel perfectly safe in the car.  You see, if something goes wrong on the aircraft you are certainly doomed, while if you were in a car accident you might have a chance.

Using similar logic, I think living in troubled area we are more likely to sense danger and run for the hills, we will have a chance. While if we fall victim to danger in the West we will get a big machine gun in a school or a speeding lorry in a crowd, something so unexpected that will dull our instinctive ability to anticipate danger and survive.

It is always safest to keep a sound instinct. A properly licensed gun has no limitation on its ability to take the life of an innocent victim, so it is best to avoid all guns as lethal and dangerous. A bullet will kill first and answer questions later.

Thoughts on South African Politics

This weekend was a busy weekend for us here in South Africa, because we witnessed the inauguration of our fourth democratic president, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. Some radio stations called him the fourth democratically elected president, which in my opinion was slightly inaccurate since the third president (Kgalema Petrus Motlanthe) did not come into power as a result of a national election.

I was part of the election process on the 22nd of last month.  I voted for the first time in my life.  In my country of origin there was no point taking part in a referendum – it is a one party state with presidents chosen for life (and then passing the presidency on to their progeny).  So I had a certain pride in making my mark here in my adopted country.

The process went on as expected with our ruling party the ANC (African National Congress) taking over 66% . Further results show that opposition parties are a fragmented lot in this country; the biggest is the DA (Democratic Alliance) receiving 16.75% of the votes followed by the new party COPE (Congress of the People) which took 7.5%. The latter party was formed by disgruntled members of the ANC who did not approve of the current leadership and went into opposition attracting a few Mbeki loyalists.

In this fourth democratic election there were only a few surprises. The ANC has lost some votes to the opposition (they came just short of a two-third majority), and the DA won absolute majority in the Western Cape Province. We now have a new Premier in the Eastern Cape : Helen Zille , leader of the DA, who was previously the mayor of Cape Town – I only found out recently that Ms Zille was an anti-Apartheid activist during the seventies, and  famously uncovered the circumstance of Steve Biko‘s death when she worked as a journalist for the Rand Daily Mail. The victory of the DA in the Western Cape is important because it is the first time any party manages to wrestle an absolute majority from the ANC in any of the nine provinces.

The elections had their serious moments and their really strange ones. Here in the Western Cape I saw election posters for the Cape Party, whose major objective was to declare the Cape independent (A republic of the Western and Northern Cape) – They got 2552 votes in the provincial elections, according to these results,  accounting for 0.13% of the provincial votes.

For me these elections and the subsequent events threw my adopted country in a positive light.  Despite all the negative hype about corruption and rape charges and the controversy around the person of Jacob Zuma, he has made all the right noises so far throughout his inauguration and cabinet selection. He is reaching out to South Africans of all races, and vowing to build the economy and combat poverty and disease.

Yesterday I listened in to the President’s announcement of  his cabinet selection. I noted that he formed a new ministry for Women, Children and People with Disabilities. To lump women and children together with the disabled may seem strange in other parts of the world, it may be b even unusual to single all these out as a separate category from the general population.  However, this is a testimony of how much work is still needed before real equality is achieved in society.  Our new president has charmed the majority of the population in this nation, and he is working on winning even his most bitter detractors, but how much he will achieve remains to be seen.

I can already see one bright spot though. News readers around the world will no longer have to wrestle with the name of our new president.  Although former president Kgalema Motlanthe is not completely out of the picture, he is now our deputy president.

Yes We Can

The Web of Language dealt extensively with the Obama inauguration from a linguistic perspective,  citing in detail the incident of the flubbed Presidential Oath.

In addition to the discussion around language and the hyper-correction instinct of the Chief Justice, which probably led to the hiccups of the Oath. There were a few facts that I found quite interesting:

The Presidential Oath was administered again, correctly this time, to satisfy constitutional requirements, and for this repeat performance President Obama did not use a bible.  A bible is not required in the US constitution, but the gesture can be also understood as another nod to nonbelievers after they were mentioned in his speech alongside all other religions.

President Obama is a lefty. Wink to ex husband : No more talk about some deficiency in the brain that leads to being lefty. We are among the smartest and the best, and now we have a president ! Yes We Can !

Note about left-handedness: The writer on the Web of Language said that Obama was writing using the lefty hook. Apparently teachers in the western world taught students to hook their left hand towards them so they can better imitate right-handed writing.  Most lefties I know here in South
Africa use this method of writing, which strikes me as completely unnatural. I grew up in the Middle East, and therefore my teacher tried to suppress my left-handedness and direct me to use the “right” (correct) hand. When it was established, however, that my handedness was a fixed matter, I was abandoned to my fate, and to figure out how to hold the paper and pen. I do not hook my hand, I just tilt the paper to suit my dominant hand. Now if for some reason the writing surface cannot be tilted, I would have a problem.

South African Cynicism

Our own Cape Times came out today with a full transcript of President Obama’s Inaugural Address, so now I have a record for it. Later I found a blog with embedded segments of the speech and its transcript, so I got to watch it, long after the excitement about the whole thing subsided, but I cannot complain since my time is not my own.

The Cape Times opened with the headline : The Age of Obama Begins, and the picture was of him taking the Oath of office. The thing that gave me a chuckle, however, was a tiny cartoon near the bottom of the first page.

Here it is :


For more hilarity visit the Cape Times website.


Whenever I think of Gaza I remember a cartoon I saw many years ago when I was still a citizen of the troubled Middle East.  The cartoon could have been by the late Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali, but I could not trace it on his official website.  In the cartoon the Arab nation is depicted as a wounded woman; a knife had just stabbed her chest. An arrow points to the bleeding wound, proclaiming it as Gaza غزة . The cartoon works best in Arabic and particularly for those of us familiar with the Eastern Mediterranean version of spoken Arabic, where غزة (Ghazzah) means a stab, and is perhaps a derivative of غرزة a stitch, usually made with a sharp needle or similar instrument.

In my mind Gaza is still bleeding, and it is a wound in the heart of the whole world. I feel sorry for those who are forced to endure life within its borders, because I know that most wouldn’t want to live there if they had a choice.

Gaza is worse than a Bantustan. It is one of the most densely populated regions of the world. The living conditions of the people there are among the worst in the world. Now they are living under the shadow of death,  destruction and war. I have nothing but sorrow and sympathy to offer them.

This blog is not about politics.  I do not want to stand for a cause or declare myself as a militant supporter of one side over the other. I will not write from the viewpoint of an Arab, although I spent the best part of my youth in the Middle East, and I am familiar with the pain, the disappointment and their by-product of extremism.  I am writing because I do not understand how some South Africans Jews who have never been to the Middle East and know nothing about the conflict, choose to support the attack on Gaza.

I performed a google image search on Gaza and came up with over 15 million pictures. They are mostly of death, destruction and misery without end. Gaza is still a wound that is bleeding the world. Nothing has changed in the last two decades; violence breeds extremism and then more violence. So the the bloody history is poised to repeat itself again and again, as long as radicals on both sides of the divide keep calling for each others blood. It is never going to end.