January 03, 2013

It takes all kinds to make a world

As short as the New Year is, I nevertheless already got a huge overdose of racist and misogynistic slurs on social media. And I keep wondering, why is it that people are so afraid of others being different? What scares them so that they would resort to vile attacks, vicious insults and overall defaming of what they consider to be – not in line, not according to their way of living, not being identical with what they think they themselves are? Why is 'different' so scary and needs to be fought so hard against?

The great Austrian painter Gustav Klimt created a masterpiece in 1907 when he finished his famous "Flower Garden". In looking at this painting I have always marvelled at the diversity of flowers that he strew across the green grass. The painting is full of life and beauty where flowers of different kind and colour come in abundance and where diversity is the name of the game.
How often have I wondered how we would look at that painting and what we would think of it if he had left out the splendour of different colours and just gave us a plain green meadow to look at? I doubt we would have been equally pleased. What makes his painting so enchanting – and is in fact the true thrill we feel when seeing such places in real life – is the multiple choices we have of picking colours with our eyes. Yes, we plainly love that there are so many different flowers to be seen and we would be dulled if this was not so.

Why then do we react differently to people than we do to flowers in a garden? While we treasure the diversity in nature, many are plain scared when it comes to the diversity of people, of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation or religion. But is this not too just the richness nature has to offer? Why then feel scared when you can be enchanted? Would a Daffodil be afraid of a Daisy because it's colours are different?

The little brown boy became my friend

When I was a young boy, there was a time when we lived in a little village on the outskirts of a small German town. In the primary school of the village 20 puffed-faced little kids sat in my class and tried to learn the alphabet, knowing nothing yet about the diversity of the world. Most of my classmates were farmer's kids. We made mischief in the barn, rolled around in the straw or – much to the dismay of their fathers – played hide and seek in the corn fields. We couldn't read papers yet and on television we only got to see children's programs. We were a closed little community of know-nots and happy in our childish ignorance.

One day in the second grade – I was seven years old – the door of our classroom opened and our teacher came in with a little, slim boy. He was brown in skin colour, had black hair and dark eyes and twenty white-faced, puffed up little kids stared at him in amazement. They had never seen anything like him in real life. Our teacher told us, the boy came from India and his father was sent to work in the town nearby. From now on he would be our classmate and we should be kind to him and make friends. Twenty stunned kids looked back at her blank.

"Who would like to sit next to him?", our teacher asked, and you could have heard a pin drop. No one stirred. Only my hand shot up, almost reaching the ceiling. "I would", I shouted almost a bit too exited as I could see the scared look on the face of the brown boy, not understanding what was going on but feeling intimidated by the stares of his new classmates. I wanted this boy. I wanted him to be my friend, I so knew it. He was different! He didn't look like us! He was full of adventures! We would have great fun, I was sure of that!

Since no one else stirred, the decision wasn't hard to take, and a minute later the little brown boy with his black hair and dark eyes shyly squeezed into the bench next to me and hardly dared to move. I shared my books with him and my pencils, he nodded thankfully, not being able to speak the language – but before the day was out we both were proud of our achievements. Who needs language when you are a kid, when you've got hands and feet, when you can draw and paint in the air, when you are willing to look and learn and listen to the sound of a voice that teaches you much about the heart behind it? It took us weeks to communicate in broken German, but until then we had long made friends.

None of the others in the class showed interest. And while they kept their friendship with me, they did not interact with him, as if they couldn't make heads and tails of what he was about. I did. He was about difference in colour and language, in the form of living and food (I loved his mom's different cooking!), about religion and Gods. And I remember how much I enjoyed playing over at his house full of mysterious paintings and figurines, how kind his mother was to me, how she catered for both of us equally as if we were brothers. I never ever felt alien when being with them, and in all differences that could be seen, the friendship we had was a wonderful bond no one could destroy. The summer was heaven, and it soon turned out that he was obviously from a good family, well educated and – as I have to admit – much more well-mannered and behaved than me. We made a funny pair, we two, and never noticed the world around us or the stares of the others when we were together. No difference in colour made any difference to us. To us we were one and enriched each other with the cultural backgrounds we made the other come to know.

When the year was out, his mother told us one afternoon that his father had been called to go to London to work there and for this reason they would have to move yet again. My friend and I just looked at each other and couldn't believe this. And when they left, it broke our hearts, and I was returned into the world of twenty white-faced look-alike kids not bothering about other worlds to explore. But my friend and all the adventures he brought into my life because he was different, I could never forget.

The richness of Africa

Two years later it was my mother who told me that my father now was being sent to South Africa and we would move there. And so before I knew it, barely eleven years old, I once again entered the world of differences and came to live in a country that could not be fuller of diversity. It was still the times of apartheid, and the maltreatment of blacks could be encountered everywhere. But to me this seemed no obstacle that could deter me. The blacks I came across were different to the brown boy I had been friends with. They looked different, they dressed different, the spoke a different language and had a totally different culture. For anyone out to explore new worlds and make new friends, as I was once more determined to do, this was paradise.

I remember a class trip we took when I was twelve, when we drove hundreds of kilometres to plunge into the vast, majestic landscape of Zululand that was dazzling to the eye. In a very small village, barely comprised of more than a few huts and a small church with an adjacent little building, practically in the middle of nowhere, we were shown how the women of the village learned to work with sewing machines to make an easier living. Our teacher, who had organised the trip and was fluent in Zulu, asked the lady in charge if the women could sing something for us. And before we knew it, the women got up from their places, gathered at one side of the little hall and without any hesitation started to sing a-cappella the songs they sang in their kraal. It blew my mind away. The intensity of their voices, the volume, the harmonies I had never heard before - all this was so strong that I felt it tore down the walls and barriers around us, flinging the window panes out into the valley below and allowing these amazing voices to fly out into the vastness and grandeur of Zululand, filling the space easily as if it was nothing. There was such an unbelievable richness in what I encountered, I could never after that understand how anyone in his right mind in that country could not see what treasures they had with the diversity of the cultures. Where they only saw black and white, I saw colour. And to this day, decades later, when I travel through South Africa and see the treasures of it's nature, I hear the amazing voices of those simple clad women, beaming with shy pride to show us what they knew to do so well. And the volume of their singing opens up the sky above the majestic Drakensberg mountains telling us there are no barriers for voices that are free.

South Africa had plenty to explore for me, as there were more than 50 peoples living there with different backgrounds, beliefs, customs and languages. They had different ways to build their houses, used different motives to paint their walls, they dressed in different ways and practiced different rituals. For anyone seeing the richness, this country was overflowing with it to make you dizzy. And then there were of course the neighbouring countries to visit, with yet again different peoples - Botswana and Zimbabwe, the wonderfully friendly locals of Malawi and the once again different looking inhabitants of Mozambique. Later I moved to Namibia and met with the proud Hereros and clever Bushmen, again so much different to what I had encountered in South Africa. And on visits to Kenya I learned about even more tribes and peoples and cultures and rituals. Africa, it seemed, was just endless in being different and wonderfully enchanting, like the rich flower garden Klimt presented us with in his painting.

The barriers are gone

Many years later, when we came to live in Cairo, I again was confronted with differences. I learned that there was not the Egyptian, but that there were people from Upper and Middle and Lower Egypt, diverse and enriching the country. And I also learned that there was not the Arab, as Arabs from all parts of the Middle East travelled to Egypt to mingle in what was deemed a more free atmosphere in Cairo. And hardly one was alike, coming from different nations with different backgrounds. Diversity never came to an end. It was as if someone had offered me a huge silver platter piled up high with fruits of all forms and sizes, in red and pink and yellow and green. One as enticing as the next and never of the same taste. If that is not richness, what is?

When I travelled across America, there was yet more diversity to explore. And once again, with the many different cultures of the Native Americans, I saw the treasures of a country that so many simply wanted to ignore, shying away from embracing the 'otherness' and not understanding what jewels of different inspirations and customs were offered to them freely to have and to hold, to learn from and to be enriched by. I have never seen anything scary in 'otherness' and never felt anything bad in people being different. On the contrary. My life could not have been richer to this day than it has been with so many encounters with people and peoples being different to me. The era of internet and modern communication after all teaches us how silly it is to build borders and walls, especially if it's in our hearts. And when once, after having spent four weeks on Aruba, a dark skinned local lady we had befriended looked at my almost equally dark tanned arm and said in joyful surprise: "You're one of us!" - she couldn't have paid me a nicer compliment. She meant much more than just my tan. I was still me. But the barriers were gone.

Don't be afraid

Some say, I have been privileged and blessed with such a rich life so far. And of course they are right. Yet I think about the twenty white-faced kids back then in that little village school and know, they all could have grabbed the treasure when it was offered to them. Because they turned away and I did not, I was blessed with the friendship of that little brown looking boy. Often these days I think of him and wonder if he still remembers his little white friend. At first of course we were shy, and when we looked into books together we couldn't help notice that his arm on the table was brown and mine next to it was white. But as unusual as this was for us kids at that time, the colour never made a difference but for the excitement that there was something different there to be explored. Would we still be able to talk today as adults? Could I discuss with him the perils of modern India, where women are still subjected to horrific abuses just for being 'different' to men? Knowing that he too was confronted at an early age with diversity, I would want to believe I could. While our arms were of a different colour, our hearts definitely were not. We had become friends. Despite the differences.

To those, afraid of anything different, I can only say: don't. Don't be afraid to tackle something new, don't be afraid to learn about other peoples ways, their customs, their beliefs. The diversity we enjoy in the painting of Klimt is the richness of our world. We could go out there forever learning and listening and discussing, and not a dull moment in sight. Why anyone would not want that, why anyone would prefer the look-think-talk-alike version of life, is beyond me. There are treasures out there to be found, if only we are willing to take the risk. But taking it will enrich us in a way we could never imagine. After all, it takes all kinds to make a world. And in the end, at least for me, thinking about my Indian friend and the many other friends of different colours and races I later made, the truth is really pure and simple: If everyone on this earth would be like me, I'd be bored to death.


  1. Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing you story,

    "...there are no barriers for voices that are free." stunning.

  2. This is beautiful in every possible way.. I'm totally hitting that share button!