Latvia is a country, right?

Imagine if I had to pitch an advertising campaign congratulating Latvia on the  successful  conclusion of its maiden Presidency of the  European Union (EU) in June this year, since it joined the union in 2004. If someone randomly came up to me and asked what my concept would be: it would be exactly  what you just saw:  The title and picture saying: Latvia, your flag is on my lips, Congratulations!

But to do that  I would have to assume that  you know what Latvias’ national flag looks like  and why  it would be significant  for me to wear it on my lips. Since I myself was simply clueless about Latvia less than ten months ago, I thought it might be cool to let you in on the thinking behind this fictitious advertising campaign of mine which no one has asked me to do by the way. I do it just because its fun to learn new things and to travel, even virtually. So my pitch is all about current history as you may have guessed so here goes:

First a disclaimer: I have never set foot in this country

So those of you who watch the news beyond your borders might be wondering why I would even bother congratulating Latvia on its EU presidency when the EU itself  is faced with arguably more pressing matters to resolve. First among them being the question of sanctions against Russia and Ukraine, should they be lifted or not? The second is the issue of  EU reforms brought forward by the United Kingdom, which wants a package of changes including tougher rules on migrant benefits and fair trade with the Eurozone.  Britain has a planned referendum in 2017 to decide on whether to stay in or out of the Union. So in light of this and many other issues concerning the EU such as Greece’s increasing financial delinquency, including an increasing wave of migrants from Africa into Europe, Riga – Latvia’s capital city’s role in the EU’s drivers’ seat for the past five months may seem well… inconsequential at best.

Think about  our younger years

I was actually quite shocked to discover that I share more in common (politically) with the small republic in North-Eastern Europe than with the rest of the  27  European Union member states combined. It was a strange feeling indeed. How was that possible right? I mean my  knowledge of Latvian history and politics was until recently, non-existent. And if on the very rare (unidentified flying object) occasion that it came up in conversation I would have automatically lumped it in the larger pool of Russia’s  (USSR) former conquests and basically left it at that.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong

Over the last couple of months, through intermittent and sporadic research prompted by a desire for something new, I found out that I do in actual fact share much more in common with Latvia  than with many of the countries in Europe I have visited or wished so fervently to see – I gave it my best shot Paris! Latvia’s history is complicated even for me,  I couldn’t keep track of the many, many conquest that took place there. But just to simplify a long story. Because of its strategic geographical location, Latvia has fought many wars with four main enemies at different times and simultaneously in its very tumultuous history: Germany, Sweden, Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. They’ve all pushed, pulled, killed and, manipulated in order to gain control of this  94 square kilometer of land.    For one Latvians are a brave and persisted lot who fought valiantly and tirelessly, with, for and against their occupiers, Russia and Germany who alternated possession of Latvia as if it were a ball in a tennis match. In fact I think at some point in history Latvian soldiers were fighting from all sides both with and against the Germans and Russians who were in turn fighting other Latvians to gain control of the Baltic nation. I never in a million years thought I could encounter a country whose history is more complicated than my own and as far as Latvia goes – it’s complicated and that’s not even an understatement.  Though Latvia gained independence in 1918, it took another 72 years of fighting off the various factions before it regained its independence again in 1990 on the fourth of May, despite having lost its independence formally to Russia in 1940.

Puts independence into perspective right?

In 72 years (and perhaps even to date) Germany and Russia could not leave Latvia alone which meant that Latvians not only had to learn to  hold on to who they were and their identity they also had to learn how the Sweet and honest Swedes, Precise and Competent Germans, Passionate and Strategic Russians and the Cynically pragmatic Poles were like and then use that knowledge to attain what they desired most of all: a right to self-determination and sovereignty.   They had to ultimately win not only just a physical, logistical or geographical war against the Germans and the Russians et al, they had to win the most important war of all:  The psychological war. Learning and understanding how the opposition thinks.

After joining the European Union in 2004 it took 11 years before the chair of the EU chairmanship  could rotate to their corner, which for them is a huge milestone. Even though the EU presidency rotates every six months to each of the member states, it shines a spotlight on the host country which is probably equivalent in my case to South Africa being included in the UN Security Council for the first time in 2007 (it was also the first time an African country was included in the SC in the UN’s history!)  So it’s a huge deal and milestone for Latvia. This is a time for them to flex their muscle and see how far their influence(if any) goes with the big boys. The country has made many gains and losses since its independence 25 years ago, but is today a largely stable country with a rapid economic growth of about 10 percent a year before an economic crisis and recession in 2009 reversed these gains. The country quickly recovered though and attained an annual growth of 5.5 percent by 2012 making it the fastest growing EU country to date.  Even so the rate of unemployment is very high (9.1%)  in a country of about 2 million people. Virtually all the previously state-owned small and medium enterprises have now been privatized with the exception of three. ( energy, oil and telecoms) two of which the country is planning to sell. With the second fastest  internet  speeds in all of Europe after Romania, it’s service sector provides about 24% of jobs in the country.

I see you, Thank you for the compliment

So my campaign which is basically this picture of a black woman is exactly what Latvia is not – on the outside. But I think if you were to look deep into the heart of Latvia ( conflicted and controversial as they may be) you will find that they look just like the pictured black woman. They have a level depth which is as frightening as it is exciting. They have penetrating black diamond like eyes: mysterious, curious, playful, visionary and sad all at the same time. They are wildly free and are connected to nature ( half of Latvia is made up of forest)and most things natural. They are intuitive, compassionate and sensitive. A people of legends, myths and numbers. Practical and wildly creative.  They are not  only strong and can whether tough storms but  they are also resilient and still maintain a youthful maturity, exuberance and just a little touch of innocence or  maybe some naivety.  And finally they are passionate people: their flag is the colour of dark red  on either side representing an ocean of blood spilled for independence (the exact colour of the lipstick, a mix of browns and purples) with a strip of white in the middle (represented here by the biting pearls or teeth). And since Latvians are not known for their wide beaming smiles – the only way to wear their flag on your lips is to do exactly the opposite and yes you guessed it: smile. ( this effect also works with red-wine stained lips).  So for what it’s worth, congratulations Latvia, Paldies, for the inspiration.


The Girl From Addis…(an unlikely book review)

Cover of "Girl from Addis"
Cover of Girl from Addis

Heaven for me is: A world full of books, and I’ve been buried under mounds of them here at the Kliptown Youth Center (SKY).   What I’m doing here is volunteering, assisting the volunteer staff to take stock of how many books there are in the learning center, with a view to eventually creating a data-base for a functioning Library.  My job is to clean up. I’m  in the  library every day and it takes all of my willpower to focus on the task at hand which is:  packing books, cleaning shelves, rearranging the furniture and shelves, cleaning, moving rubbish, shooing children who’ve so far used it as a playground, which would be great if they actually read the books in the learning center instead of destroying them.  It takes all of my willpower to look over interesting  and inviting books and titles and I just couldn’t resist reading….

The Girl from Addis by Ted Allbeury.

Suddenly I am lying on the black leather sofa and travelling to 1960 Ethiopia, with author Ted Allbeury, a former British M16 operative – or more officially, a former  Lieutenant-Colonel in the Army Intelligence Corps during the Second World War. Allbeury worked in Sales , advertising and radio ( at the BBC), after the war before writing his first novel. He has  written an estimated 20 novels under different names since then.

I was drawn to the book because Ethiopia has been on my lately for a number of reasons, I’ve never been to that land. And it was for me a great escape from Simone de Beauvoirs’ Second Sex , I felt rebuked, chastised from all sides by the author. I could also run away from the  rows and rows of books which seemed to be calling me to read them … though in actual fact they just needed a place to stay.  Besides the book  was so thin I could be done in a few hours.

In a sentence the story is about an ex-MI6 operative now working as a photographer, who returns to Ethiopia, where he finds both romance and danger waiting for him.

The book is set  shortly after  the  Ethiopian  war.  Which  began on 12 September 1974 when the Marxist Derg staged a coup d’état against Emperor Haile Selassie, whom the main character in the book was an advisor to, before his cover was blown. The civil war lasted until 1991 when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front(EPRDF)—a coalition of rebel groups led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—overthrew the Derg government and installed a transitional government in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa The Derg government had been weakened by their loss of support due to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The book is about how this guy was used a pawn in an intricate chess game between, Russia, Britain, and to some lesser extent the US and Italy.  he was tasked to find and blow up military arms bases from Cuba and Russia stored on the border between Ethiopia and Somalia. Russia’s’  plan according to the Somali revolutionary army, was to destabilize Somalia, and take over the rest of East Africa including Kenya. The British seemingly had no real stake in the matter but were interested to know what their  enemies in this case Russia and Cuba were up to.  They eventually blew up the military arms base (triggering war  between Somalia and Ethiopia ) under the guise of helping the Somali revolutionaries, as a way of stopping russia from its planned takeover of the indian ocean, and East Africa. The Russians were using the Derg in Ethiopia and using the country as a base to occupy all of East Africa – which would mean control of the Indian Ocean etc.  The photographer and his love affair got off lightly from the ensuing espionage, but it was an invaluable read ( and snap-shot ) back in history especially in light of the recent terrorist attack by the Islamist Somali Group Al-shabaab , who have killed at least 60 people at Nairobi’s West Gate mall, in an effort to force Kenyan troops out of Somalia.

When I put the book back on the shelf,I felt like a naughty child who has just opened his present a day before christmas, or stolen a cookie from the cookie jar. it was a lovely trip. I am learning again and again, that we can learn from everything, and every situation and any book – Simone De Beauvoir says in her Seminal Book The Second Sex “Mystery is never more than a mirage that vanishes as we draw nearer to look at it”.   I  laugh at myself and think I do like punishing myself, why choose a book-worm to re-organize the library?

But the learning center – Library has been in disarray for some time now, and I feel even just a little order, a bit of cleanliness can restore some respect from those who use it.  Working in the Library, or learning center took me back to my college days when I would often go to the library on campus after lectures to read and watch documentaries then take a taxi to Pinetown where I lived and would spend the rest of the afternoon at the library reading books – mostly autobiographies, some romantic novels, and then hire out more BBC dramas which brought to life – such books as Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two city’s etc.  It would be a game of trying to figure out, if the characters on television would be the same as the characters you imagined while reading the book. As a family, my siblings and I loved the BBC dramas because they were long and we could stay in at home for an entire weekends without venturing outside, as long as we had enough movies to watch,  our parents didn’t encourage regular television. We had little access to TV1,2 and 3. Movies on the other  hand were encouraged, because my parents could select what we watched, and we used to look forward to holidays because my father would bring loads of them for us to watch.   I enjoyed the comfort of a library and it was the main reason I volunteered to work in the learning center, because it looked so lonely and without love, in the hope that  I could somehow re-create that same atmosphere at the center, which soothed me so as a teenager and young adult. I would love for them to enter into a quiet, safe space and find joy in travelling to other lands, spaces, places and experience a different life from the daily every day of their physical environment. That is what books did for me and movies.

Paradise for me is….

So here at SKY there are books on almost every subject under the skies and in different languages too. The children’s books are the best kind. There was one with a title “Chicken or Egg ?” which caught my attention and I started reading it mid-packing. The book described different types of chicken, what they are called etc and ended with this statement that got me chuckling  -“ So if someone asks you which came first the chicken or the egg? you can say the egg, because we eat eggs in the morning and chicken for  dinner” Now that’s an answer  I never considered. But yes to answer the question of Paradise: Paradise  for me would be – a time when we all can use this knowledge in decaying and neglected dusty book shelves to solve our problems, now – today. To create  sustainable livelihoods, to bring up positive, creative and loving people – to create a world where we can combine our experience, our talents and passions with  knowledge to break the chains of poverty,  disease and lack. The knowledge is there, but how do we apply it in our lives so that it brings about meaningful change? locally and globally?  This question haunts me a little because I fear books are fast becoming so unfashionable,  life happens online – a new way of travelling, seeing the world and meeting people, books are heavy, wordy, with few pictures, you have to use your imagination. Social Networking means people don’t have enough focus to read large heavy texts and fully spelled out words. I don’t object to technology at all, I am a fan.  Information is King, but what use is all this information or knowledge if it can’t be used to alleviate poverty, to create a better people, better homes, better relationships, working environments. What’s the use of having a lot of information about things which cannot help you to get out of a sticky situation, improve your own life. If I were able to do that – then I would not only be in heaven, my world will be paradise, because my heaven (books) would help me create Paradise on earth.