More alike than we think

Recently, I received a letter from a relative in Zimbabwe. They were having trouble with the borehole that supplies water for the entire farm. Necessary machinery parts were not available. They were having to improvise. A few weeks later, I replied from Prince Edward Island. The pump that delivers the water from our well had broken down. Parts were available, but too expensive. We were extemporizing. but in Zimbabwe, the borehole was running dry. Two years of drought had lowered the water table; rivers that roar down in spate during a rainy season were reduced to a thin trickle in a wide bed of sand; crops were withering on the lands and cattle were breaking down fences in their desperation to find water.

People, already suffering the ravages of war, were starving because the crops had failed and cattle were dying. Here, on our North American island, we had water. Too much of it. Practically every other day, it rained. Storms of wind and rain had flattened the grain; potatoes rotted while farmers waited for a dry spell that would allow them to drive their machinery over the sodden fields.

In Zimbabwe, disaster struck when hail wiped out the best tobacco crop in years. At the other end of the same year, 30 percent of Prince Edward Island's tobacco froze when a major frost hit a week earlier than usual. Like farmers the world over, when crops stand firm and healthy in the fields, they talk with cautious optimism; when they see it destroyed in one swift blow, they shrug philosophically, sustained by the belief that the balance of nature will make amends in the next cycle. In a year of plenty, they feast; in a phase of famine , they eke out an existence, fluctuating with the tides of life.

Friends frequently observe that I must find life in Prince Edward Island very different from my homeland. And on the surface, what could be a greater contrast between the hot African Plateau that stretches into forever, but has no seaport, and the North American island, surrounded and interwoven with water, that can be covered end to end in a single day. Yet, through a strange paradox, there seem to be more similarities than differences. There is the same pioneering spirit; the innovativeness; the challenge to survive; and the sense of community.

Both here and in Zimbabwe there is a strong dependence on hospitality, an automatic impulse to offer assistance to a stranger, knowing that tomorrow it could be you who seeks help. One relies on one's neighbors, not only for assistance in difficult times, but for recreation and the sharing of joys. There is more entertaining in homes; conversation; community sporting events. There are the advantages and irritations of a close-knit society in which you have friends to turn to, yet present their ability to manage your affairs as well as their own.

Each place has the same number of hardships or pleasures -- but of different kinds. If, here, we struggle with ice and snowdrifts and small predators such as raccoons and foxes and skunks, in Zimbabwe their problems are heat and snakes and large predators like jackals and leopards and crocodiles. What could be more relaxing than a day on an island beach, with sand stretching off in the distance and a tingling sea to bathe in; or in winter to strap on a pair of skis or snowshoes and tramp along woodland paths; or to come home after skating on a nearby pond to the smell of wood smoke and soup steaming on the kitchen range.

But then again, how exhilarating it is to come across a herd of elephant giving one another a dust bath in a game reserve, or go sailing year round, or just lie in the sun in a garden bright with tropical flowers. But we all complain of the roads in the wet season, when the red clay sucks your vehicle in up to the axles, or in the dry weather, when amber dust hangs in the air and we clatter over surfaces that are like corrugated iron. We all enjoy the good company of neighbors; magnificent landscapes; mutual inventiveness; and a common bond with nature to survive. Each has a lore that is learned by one generation from the last, and to acknowledge this reality gives grounds for mutual respect for the individuality of both.

So it is that across all the miles, I have a closer communion with my own Zimbabwean people here on Prince Edward Island than I have felt elsewhere, and more of a sense of "home."

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