The Flood Part 2

On the following morning, when we went into the kitchen-dining room to have breakfast, I was tempted to ask Francine about Freud.

In our room, there were book shelves and they were crammed. The night before, I had checked the books carefully and noticed quality novels, travel guides, books about psychology and the mind – and a large collection of the case histories of Freud.

I didn’t get around to asking her about Freud though, because uppermost in my mind was to find out more about her father and what happened to him after surviving the flood.

But as it turned out, Freud was a part of that story……….   

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The Flood Part 1

We had arranged to stay at Francine’s place for the night.

We were on a bike ride through Zeeland, a province of The Netherlands which lay west of Rotterdam.

Francine was a member of a Dutch organization called ´Friends of the Bike´ (Vrienden van de Fiets) and so were we. It worked like this: people offered to put up bike riders for the night and provide breakfast the following morning for a set fee of 45 Euros. The bike riders paid a nominal fee to be in the organization and received a book listing places to stay all over the country. Friends of the Bike was an inherent part of a national bike riding culture – and a country with the best system of bike tracks in the world.

Sometimes the people offering the accommodation were themselves also bike riders and felt obliged to contribute to the system they used. Sometimes they liked to meet strangers and talk. Over the years we had met some amazing people via ‘friends of the bike’ and had some memorable conversations – and Francine certainly fell into that category.

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Room of Masks


I went to visit W. and K. because for several years I had done translations for their website, but I’d never met them. I had only spoken to them over the phone or exchanged emails – though they had invited me to come and stay with them often enough.

They lived in the south of The Netherlands near the Belgian border.

They were successful. W. was a surgeon working in a big hospital; K. worked in a medical research organisation. They lived in a big, comfortable home with a roof of cut reeds.

They were running an NGO in Ghana; it administered a series of clinics, schools, medical centres and homes. Twice a year they went out to Ghana to check to see how things were going. They were planning on eventually retiring to Ghana.

 On arriving at their place, they showed me to my bedroom. It was on the second story, at the top of a flight of creaking wooden stairs.

On the way to my room, we walked through a large room filled with masks. They came from different countries; Nigeria, Congo and Mali. They were for sale. Many of them had price tags next to them. The proceeds went to the N.G.O.

The prices varied from 1 – 5,000 Euros.


On my first night there, eating dinner outside in the garden, I began peppering W. with questions about the masks.  

W.’s interest in African artefacts began in the early 1980’s when, after graduating from medical school, he spent several years working in a village in Ghana. Sometimes his patients – they were helped free of charge – gave him carved wooden artefacts as a present. He collected them and back in The Netherlands, began doing some research. These artefacts, he discovered, belonged to a traditional, village Africa – which was rapidly vanishing.

On regular trips back to Ghana, during which W. set up a clinic and school, he collected more artefacts.

By the late 1990’s, there weren’t many of them around, leastways not the genuine articles.

There were a lot of false artefacts appearing on the market.

The traditional masks, which no longer meant much to the Africans, were drawing the interest of the Europeans, who were willing to pay (especially by African standards), enormous sums of money for them.

In the meantime, fake artefacts had become a thriving industry. One had to be careful.

Over the years, W. befriended reliable dealers in various African countries. They alerted him if something turned up.



In recent times however, the main source of African artefacts for W. and K. was not Africa; it was elderly Dutch people, many of them former missionaries, who had collected artefacts during their years in Africa between the 1950 and the late ‘80’s. Their artefact collections symbolised their connection to their past, to another very different Africa: a continent which they were no longer able to visit and not only because of their physical frailty but because the Africa they had known, no longer existed.

They were not interested in selling their collections to private dealers. Their lives had never been devoted to the commercial impulse. They had gone out to Africa to do God’s work and God had meant: helping the less fortunate in the world.

Donating their collections of artefacts to an organization like W. and K.s was a desirable option;

‘We get phone calls from people who say ‘I’ve got a few boxes in the attic, you’re free to come and have a look around.’ 

‘K. and I will go out there and unpack all this amazing stuff…sometimes from around the turn of the century. One old bloke, a former Catholic missionary, had tried to set up a museum in the Congo, but no one came because the Africans weren’t interested in ‘old relics’. He closed his museum and boxed up the artefacts and brought them back to The Netherlands, where they stayed boxed up for over 10 years. Those artefacts were worth tens of thousands of Euros.

When we get a bequest like this, we send the donor photos of how the money is being used, a new clinic or school…. something like that…these people have spent the best part of their lives in Africa and they want to remain involved…’



The bathroom and toilet nearest to my room was at the end of the mask exhibition room. This meant that to take a piss in the middle of the night, I had to grab my torch, navigate my way down the steep flight of creaking stairs, and then find my way through the room of masks to reach the bathroom door.

On my first night, on my to the bathroom, my torch illuminated a row of masks.

I stopped and shone the torch on the other masks around me.

They looked eerie lit by torchlight. It was as if I was in a tomb filled with departed spirits. There was something primeval about it. The carved wooden faces metamorphosed into ghostly forms such as the eyes of a person living in Africa centuries ago might have seen them.

And worshipped them and feared them.


Back in bed, I couldn’t get to sleep. It was as if I was in a haunted house.

With the images of those masks in mind, memories came back to me of experiencing magic rituals in villages, especially in remote areas of the Himalaya during the 1980’s. I’d seen whole villages fall under the spell of shamans. Seen animal sacrifices and flagellation ceremonies.

Snippets my conversation with W. and K. that evening came back to me.

The strange faces in the room of masks were the product of an ancient spiritual world which was collapsing before forces such as urbanization, modern communications, nationalism – and the imported foreign religions of Christianity and Islam.

Ghana, like so many of the neighbouring African countries, was becoming increasingly divided between the adherents of these two religions. Traditional African beliefs, based upon the village, which had been passed down through the generations by word of mouth, songs, rituals and dances, were vanishing. In the fast-changing modern times, they were no match for the missionary religions, which had a written text, a doctrine, and formidable sources of foreign finance behind them; they were unable to offer Africans any coherent way of understanding and dealing with the contemporary world.


In W. and K.’s description of what had happened to the traditional village culture in Africa, I noted that there was a certain sense of uncertainty, even fear, mixed with optimism. They were worried about the future.

In many African nations, there was a state of simmering hostility between the world’s two great missionary religions, Christianity and Islam. Outbreaks of violence were not uncommon, though often not reported by the foreign media. With the rapid growth of the population in Africa (the top 20 nations of the global population growth index were African), the tensions between the two religions might intensify. In the nations neighbouring Ghana, there were some grim examples of this scenario – e.g. Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria.

Ghana also was home to large communities of Christians and Moslems. If Ghana went the same way, W. and K.’s work in Ghana, everything they had built up during decades of hard work, might become tendentious – along with their plan of renouncing everything in The Netherlands and devoting their lives to their projects in Ghana. For W. and K., this was an unbearable prospect.



I went to sleep thinking of something I had read in a travel book by V.S. Naipaul.

In ‘The Masque of Africa’, Naipaul had suggested that it was the remnants of the African culture which could provide an antidote to the epidemic of religious extremism.

It was odd notion.

That the ancient past, which Africans had rejected, the past of superstition and witch doctors, might hold the key to a regeneration of African identity.

That in the room of masks, rather than the pages of the Bible or the Koran, lay the best hope for avoiding the descent into civil war.



Mixed Blessings


On a flight from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport to Dubai Airport – 8 hours – I thought about the logistics of modern air travel.

To get my flight out of Schiphol, I had to sit around for a few hours before my flight departed. It was June, tourist season, and Schiphol, even by its own standards, was busy. It took me quite a long time to check in and get through security. The length of the cues and the number of people crowded into a confined space was daunting. Even to buy a sandwich and something to drink afterwards, I had to stand in another long cue.

Schiphol was one the busiest airports in the world. On average, 150,000 people a week passed through Schiphol. There were many busy airports in the world of course. Dubai was another one.

Once in the air and mercifully away from the thronging crowds in Schiphol, I reflected on what I’d experienced.

I was just one person in a vast operation which involved millions.

Every day all over the world, people arrived and departed from airports, some big, others smaller. Planes were constantly arriving and departing, often having to cue before they did so. On a short flight, it could take you longer to taxi into and out of an airport than the time you spent in the air.

Every day all over the world, in a thousand different airports, passengers checked in, their luggage was tagged and put on a conveyer belt, they were processed by customs and security; they arrived somewhere, picked up their luggage and were processed again through customs and security.

In the air, they were fed and used the toilets, were pampered by air flight attendants, amused and distracted with movies and music delivered through headphones, and continually reassured by the captain that all was well.

Mountains of luggage found its way into the holds of airplanes and very little of it ever went missing, no matter that it had to be transferred on the way into the holds of other airplanes from different companies. Bar coding, first developed for use in supermarkets, ensured that luggage almost always arrived at its end destination (and indeed, the comparison between the modern air travel industry and a supermarket was an apt one).

Air crashes were few and far between. When they occurred, they drew a blaze of international publicity. No expense was spared in determining the causes. What was often forgotten was this: air travel was by far the safest form of transport.

The most dangerous was the automobile. If the deaths and casualties from air travel were a fraction of those incurred on the roads, no one would fly.

When you looked at the size and extent and efficiency of the global air transportation industry, you began to get some idea of the truly extraordinary capacity of the modern human race and its technology to solve the most daunting logistical problems.

Every day, 365 days a year.

On the flight to Dubai, a thought occurred to me: just imagine, I mused, if you could apply this logistical brilliance to the task of feeding, clothing and educating every single person in the world irrespective of their race, colour, religion, place of domicile and social economic background?

I suspect that this thought cropped up in my mind because only a week before, I had travelled in Southern Italy at a time when a new anti-immigration government had taken office in Rome. To loud international criticism, this government had refused to allow ships bringing asylum seekers from Africa to dock in Italy. Shortly before I had left Italy, I had spent time walking around the areas of Palermo, Sicily, where there was an overwhelming concentration of immigrants: Africans, Indians and Arabs.

It only required a cursory look at the modern air transportation industry and you realised that the task of combatting global social economic equality was, in principle, was well within our means; it could be done, nothing was surer.

It was an exciting idea. We had this enormous logistical potential at our behest. It could be used for other purposes besides transporting millions of people in luxury from one end of the globe to the other.


After a two hour stop in the early hours of the morning in Dubai, I boarded a flight to Adelaide, South Australia: a 13 hour flight.

It was a turbulent flight (it was monsoon season in Asia) and several babies howled the whole way there.

In the process, the idea of fixing the world’s social economic problems, began to lose its allure.

Running the world was a lot more difficult than transporting millions of people safely through the air.

There was a lot more involved than logistics.

The problem was, the world was organised and run on the basis of nations. And national governments, especially those in the areas of the world where poverty, underdevelopment, overpopulation and gender oppression was the worst, would resist any kind of meaningful attempt to minimise global inequality.

Corrupt, self-serving dictatorships, would resist any kind of international campaign to organise assistance no matter how objectively it was organised. They would talk about about ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’. The only assistance they wanted was the kind which could be milked and fed into off shore banking accounts.

So there we were.

We had the means to solve just about any problem in existence: the modern air transport industry was overwhelming proof of that.

Yet we had no hope of applying our know-how to the problems which really mattered.

Barriers were coming down as more of us travelled and experienced other cultures and other people.

Yet nations and national borders were stronger than ever.

So we were flying into a future of mixed blessings.


‘A Song to the Lord is Worth Twice a Prayer’

See also preceding blog:





When she left the village and went to join her husband in Rotterdam, together with her 3 children, Anya’s mother didn’t have much to take with her: clothes and some plates and cutlery.

Her prized possession was a bible.

Not that she was religious. By then, that was all behind her. During the Nazi occupation, she was a believer and even got baptized. Understandable. You sure as hell needed something to hang on to during those terrible years.

After the war however, she lost her belief. If there was a God, she asked herself, then why had he allowed the Second World War to happen? For 6 million Jews to be gassed?

The bible was precious to her because of what it represented: history, family.


It was very small; smaller than a pocket- sized novel, although a good deal thicker. It had a black leather cover and a silver clasp. The ends of the pages were dark yellow. She inherited the bible when her mother died and she in turn, had inherited the bible when her mother had died. The rule was: the bible was passed on to the eldest daughter in the family.

It was a link between generations of women.


For years the bible lay on a shelf in Anya’s parents’ apartment and later, after her father died, in her mother’s apartment. I saw it countless times but never once tried to pick it up and examine it closely.

I regret that.

In the autumn of 2011, it suddenly appeared in our apartment when Anya’s mother died.  

Shortly afterwards, I picked it up for the first time and looked inside.

I was surprised by what I found.


On the opening page it stated the bible had been printed in ‘The States General of the United Netherlands’. The publishing date was 1835.

The bible was 176 years old.

Inside the front cover, on two blank pages, were the names of the women who, over the years, had inherited the bible, along with the date they had taken possession of it. The names and dates were written in an elegant cursive and in ink.

I found the bible difficult to read. The print was very small, the letters were gothic, and the Dutch was very different to the contemporary language.

1835: images flashed through my mind of what the world looked like then. In Europe, most people lived in villages and a stranger was someone who came from another village a kilometer away. In 1836, a year after that bible was published, British settlers departed London and sailed in wooden ships to the southern coast of Australia to establish a new colony called South Australia. A pitiless destruction was unleashed on the original inhabitants, who had lived there for well over 20,000 years.

Turning the pages of that old bible, I wondered too about all the women who over the years had used that bible before passing it on, baton-like, to the next generation. None of them had come from a wealthy or privileged background: on the contrary. Yet they had been able to read Dutch and they had been able to read music too: the bible, in a strict sense, was not a bible. Less than a half of it consisted of the New Testament and the rest, psalms. There was no Old Testament; no fire and brimstone, no authoritarian, sexist, vindictive Jehovah but instead, the message of Jesus: love, forgiveness, tolerance and non-violence.

The psalms consisted of long horizontal lines of bars and notes and beneath them, the words.

This was a book meant for singing. It was not designed to be left on a shelf inside a home; it was meant to be a ‘portable bible’ which could be taken to church on a bike.

Inside the back cover one of the women who had inherited the bible had written in fine cursive:

‘A song to the Lord is worth twice a prayer’.

And then I remembered it: during the last weeks of life, as she was being injected with ever higher doses of morphine, she sang.

No one knew what she sang, no one could identify it.

I’ve got a funny feeling that the songs she was singing came from that little portable bible.

To endure the horror of the Nazis, she sang.

And as she departed this life, those songs came back to her.

‘A song to the Lord is worth twice a prayer’.

Even for a woman who didn’t believe in God.