The lockdown exhorts us to stop, think and value our mutual and inextricably bound lives on this planet together
THERE is a popular BBC radio interview that hosts famous people and asks them about their lives interspersed with eight of their favourite musical pieces.
Perhaps more than their personal accounts of their lives, their choice of music tells a lot about the real person.
At the end of the interview the pièce de résistance is the final question: “What three things would you take along with you to a desert island?”
I have always been fascinated by the choice of books or items that each individual lists as his or her essentials. Vicariously, I enjoyed dipping into the lives of others until I came face to face with my experience with isolation – my desert island.
In a Henry David Thoreau moment, I experienced this writer’s well-known experiment with living when in 1817 he took to the woods and retired to the shores of Walden Pond where he lived for two years in a hut that he built.
There he read, wrote and made friends of beasts, birds and fish.
He came to the realisation that:
Nature has no human inhabitant that appreciates her,
The birds with their notes and plumage are in harmony with the flowers,
She flourishes most alone.
Talk about heaven! Ye disgrace earth.
Summoned by a virus and not by a yearning for introspection, I have been forced by the global lockdown to reckon with myself, my surroundings and in the process with my fellow beings.
Devoid of physical contact with my friends, dining out at my favourite restaurants and walks along the seashore or holidays abroad, all of which I easily could forfeit when I assess my singular privileged status.
But what I agonise about is my inability to visit my ageing mother who cannot understand why her children have abandoned her.
How grateful one is to caregivers who have left their families to do the work of angels. If there is anything this invisible little virus has taught us it is humility and gratitude for what we have that others do not.
It has taught us to look out for our fellow human beings across all divides. On my wall I have a constant reminder of the horrors of class and caste. I am surrounded by a group of Dalit men who had come to the world conference on racism and xenophobia held in Durban in 2001.
Their accounts of their lives as “untouchables” would shame any human being and bring down the loftiness of any ideology.
Now as the virus spreads it attacks the so-called high priests and the Dalits of our society in equal measure.
The poem Death the Leveller by James Shirley comes to mind when one contemplates the universality of our current situation.
The glories of our blood and state, Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings: Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
As I meander through this lockdown, so many thoughts and insights engage me.
I marvel at the fact that the whole world has come to a standstill at the same time, and in between the chaos there is a higher order instructing us to stand still and take note. On my wall is a lithograph by India’s Picasso, the late MF Hussain.
The subject is his famous horses which he has depicted as being in a frenzy, their heads and tails are to be found looking in every direction. And yet in the far corner of the top of the work is a hand that is directing the chaos. Could he have anticipated our current predicament, I wonder?
Another message emanates for me through a prominent sculpture in bronze by Zoltan Borbereki, a famous Hungarian sculptor who settled in South Africa in the mid 1950s and produced his major works here. It is that of a family in perfect harmony,Man, Woman and Child.
The woman is the nurturer in the middle with the man leaning on her shoulder and the child warmly ensconced in the body of the woman. If there is any lesson to be learned from Covid-19, it is about the importance of staying home with family.
Sadly, even after 20 years the majority of South Africans struggle to establish a family. The residuals of the migrant system have still not left us. A government that has failed its people in the provision of housing and adequate health care systems has now had to reckon with its failures.
The coronavirus has brought to the fore the shocking inequality that exists globally and locally with the human species. In its wake it exhorts us to stop, think and value our mutual and inextricably bound lives on this planet together.
Over the years great thinkers have warned us through their writings eloquently phrased as in the words of John Donne in his 400-year-old poem:
No man is an island entire of itself.
Every man is a piece of the continent; a part of the main…
Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.
Now aside from great literature that has failed to stir our consciousness, the earth has produced a virus which the behaviourists would say is the best teacher of all: punishment induces a quick reaction and so we will learn through a hard lesson that the coronavirus kills as it unifies!
* Rajab serves on several educational development trusts.