Alison Lockhart is a freelancer and lives in Cape Town. We think this might be the most important message about the water crisis that you read today...
In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, the British government came up with a slogan to raise morale in the face of the threat of air attacks: Keep calm and carry on. It was actually hardly seen in public at the time, but its more recent revival and the endless variations are perhaps a sign that we respond to something it offers, even if has become something of an overcommercialized cliché.
One thing is clear in Cape Town’s current water crisis: we cannot keep calm and carry on. We cannot deny that we are in a severe drought and carrying on (‘business as usual’) is part of what has got us into this trouble in the first place. But change is hard, and we cling to our habitual ways of doing things, to the known, to what we think we can control. Generally speaking, our species doesn’t like change and we often resist until the eleventh hour. We may be feeling angry about the water shortage, we may be feeling afraid, but change we must. If we needed further evidence of this necessity, this water crisis is it. We cannot stop the water drying up, but we can face a difficult situation with courage, with faith in ourselves and one another, with some grace. We can keep calm and care – not only for our own needs, but more importantly, for one another, and for our water, for our city. We ourselves are made of water – as much as 60–70 per cent. Water is not something outside of us; it is us, and it connects all of us, rich and poor, whoever we are, wherever we live. From Birmingham jail in 1963, Martin Luther King kept his eye on the bigger picture: ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.’
While the media and the City have done a good job of keeping us informed about the drought and Day Zero, many people are feeling overwhelmed and worrying about it 24/7. Many people are feeling great fear; many are panicking. As in the days before the 1994 elections, some people are stockpiling, not baked beans and candles this time, but water, and various other things they imagine will save them from the Apocalypse… This is unfortunately what Day Zero implies – Apocalypse – but while it may reach the point that the City has to switch off the water, in fact, Day Zero is only Day One of the ‘new normal’; it is not the end of the world. This is the beginning of a new world, in which we may face many challenges, but we may also come to have more gratitude for water, more appreciation and respect for the natural world, and for each other. If all we perceive is lack, absence, zero, we are missing other ways of seeing this, of feeling it, understanding it, coming through it. For example, Day Zero is also an invitation to care about we are doing to the Earth, an opportunity to examine our own greed and grasping, to ask ourselves what we can do differently. A love of water may grow from its absence, even as we mourn its loss, the loss of our known world. And, as Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forestry engineer, put it: ‘In the end, we will conserve only what we love.’
We live in so much fear: what if the water runs out; what about food and electrity; what about the economy; what about corruption; what about crime; what about education and healthcare; what about nuclear war, etc. We have allowed ourselves to become knotted with fear, living in a world of what-ifs, in which there is always something to fear, something to flee or fight. Our chests and throats close; we harden; we can no longer serve life. There is so much fear, and it’s not doing us any good. The wolf thrives if you feed it, attacks others to preserve its isolation.
But we are more than the reptile of fear lurking in our brains. There are other ways of living this story. Until the late eighteenth century, ‘humane’ meant both human and compassionate: they are of the same root. Denial, fear, panic, hoarding and selfish grasping will not save us. Whatever happens, even if the world does come to an end, instead of turning the fear inward, we can practise acting with calm, courage and compassion. We can use the energy of fear to act, to connect with others. If we can do this, we will find something both obvious and extraordinary: we are not alone in this crisis; we have each other. To give is to receive the gift of community. If we can let the energy of fear drive us towards opening to the world, we can care for our natural resources, for our beautiful city and all its inhabitants, human and animal. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl says:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
As much as we know about the current water situation in Cape Town, it is just that: what we know for now. For instance, we do not yet know what the 2018 rains are going to look like. Even if it’s not enough, we will get some rain over winter and a chance to replenish our supplies. There is more that we do not know, not yet, maybe not ever, and what we don’t know may turn out to be more important than what we do know. We live our lives on a number of levels: the micro – the individual; the macro – family and community; then the social, economic, political, and the nation, and then the world. We are not separate from the natural world; we are of it. And beyond the present moment is time past, eons of life on Earth, in one form or another, and before us the unknown future. And beyond that are the outer layers of the universe, about which we really know nothing. Not one human being has ever understood the whole story, although perhaps poets and other artists, saints, shamans, scientists, and a few others are given fragments of glimpses of the world behind the curtains of birth and death. But the whys and wherefores are unknown; the whole story is a mystery. From that mystery, we are born, from that mystery our lives resonate, into that mystery we die. Within this larger framework, there have always been cycles of famine and floods, drought and plenty. And we have only to look at our individual lives to see the mirror of this larger cycle, the good times and hard times, ebbs and flows.
In The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzō says:
Let us be less luxurious but more magnificent. Said Lao-tse: ‘Heaven and earth are pitiless.’ Said Kōbō-Daishi: ‘Flow, flow, flow, flow, the current of life is ever onward.’ […] Destruction faces us wherever we turn. Destruction below and above, destruction behind and before. Change is the only Eternal […] Through the disintegration of the old, re-creation becomes possible.
Let us be less luxurious but more magnificent. Contrary to at least one international opinion, we live in a country, on a continent, of ‘miracles and wonder’. In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William Kamkwamba, the Malawian who learnt from library books how to build his own windmill, reminds us: ‘Where the world sees trash, Africa recycles. Where the world see junk, Africa sees rebirth.’ The first heart transplant took place in our city, as did the first penis transplant. As June Jordan put it in her 'Poem for South African Women': 'we are the ones we have been waiting for'. It is in our hands: we can embrace the new with humility, creativity, and resourcefulness, and recognize the potential for re-creation and rebirth in the dying of our old ways. Another American once said that South Africans can do anything; ours is the country that ended apartheid legislation. Right now in 2018, we may feel tired and afraid. Life is sometimes very hard. To have the taps turned off, to run out of water, will be challenging and inconvenient, to say the least. But we are not alone: we have each other. Therefore, let us be brave and of good heart, let us choose to act with dignity, with determination, and with generous spirits. Let us inspire ourselves to think the big picture, to do more, to give more, to be bigger. Be kind. 'Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle'. Be hopeful: as individuals, as families, as communities, as a city, as a country, we have survived great trials. And we have come through them. We can come through this: together, Cape Town, keep calm and care.
#Cape Town: Keep Calm and Care
Commit to the five Cs:
(Cover image adapted from original by George Becker/Pexels)