The happy hermit
New African Editor Anver Versi (pictured above with his daughters Jamila and Yasmin) was born in Kenya and has been a journalist and editor for most of his professional career. He started with the Nation Group of Newspapers in Nairobi and had stints with some quality publications in the UK before settling on reporting on Africa from the IC Publications stable. He has also written a best-selling book on African football which he is inordinately proud of. In this personal essay he reflects on what he has learned from life under lockdown.
As I write this, the UK government has announced the lifting of most Covid-related restrictions in England, although with caveats. Face masks will no longer be compulsory in schools and some other places, people will no longer be required to work from home and the expensive sequence of testing before and after travel is being scrapped.
There is a feeling that the worst is over and normal life can begin again. Even the WHO sounds cautiously optimistic, saying the less damaging Omicron virus is rapidly replacing the lethal Delta strain, but warns that it is too soon to drop all precautionary measures.
Most of us will be able to heave a huge sigh of relief and thank our gods for helping us survive the terrifying march of the virus over the past two years as it stalked the world, relentlessly reaping its harvest of death.
These were two years in which virtually everything was stood on its head – habits honed and polished over a lifetime had to be abandoned, well-grooved patterns of work, play and socialising were outlawed; homes became our safe castles, not to be left as the dangerous eddies of the virus swirled outside; and cut off from our families and friends, we were forced to look inside ourselves and define our values of what was and what was not essential.
Before the pandemic, travel had been a way of life for me. I always had a suitcase packed with my travel clothes ready, so I could leave at a moment’s notice to attend conferences or launches, to interview people or write up reports.
I also travelled regularly to Denmark to be with my daughters Jamila and Yasmin and their mother Assia who live there and to Kenya to catch up with my sister Fakhri and old friends. Then there was the commute to work in London, visiting contacts and events, going for dinner parties, attending some ‘essential’ sporting events such as Test cricket at the Oval ground and so on. I seemed to live for movement.
Suddenly, the shutters were coming down. Country after country were closing their borders, airlines were being grounded. But in the meanwhile, my daughter Yasmin had meticulously planned a two-month trip to India and Nepal with her friends and the virus struck one month into their tour.
They had had a wonderful time, making friends wherever they went and being invited to people’s houses. They were having such a great time that when we asked them to get the first flight out of the country before the borders were shut, they dismissed it as the usual parental over-protection. “No, we are staying!” was the firm answer.
We were frantic with worry. Then they sensed that something was indeed very wrong and just in the nick of time. With lots of help from their Indian friends, they managed to get the last flight out of Delhi airport to Istanbul and the last flight out of Istanbul to Copenhagen!
Many others were not so fortunate and found themselves stranded in various parts of the world.
At a loose end
Without travel, which had run like a unifying thread in my life for the past three decades, I was at a loose end. I had been cut off from my beloved Africa and I began to miss it terribly. It now seemed as distant to me as the moon. I realised then that Africa was much more than a place for me on which I wrote and reflected, it was my spiritual motherland. My trips back were like journeys to a well of elixir, refreshing me, filling me with hope, grounding me and giving me a purpose.
Working from home, I also now had lots of time, as this had freed me from the time-consuming ritual of commuting. What to do with it? The social life was dead (except on Zoom and Whatsapp); events, film screenings, book launches, lectures, exhibitions were totally taboo and carried stiff fines if you chose to break the rules.
Thankfully I had New African and African Banker magazines to edit, contributors to commission and production to discuss – albeit on the internet rather than in person.
This kept me connected with life and developments beyond Covid. Although I missed the camaraderie of the office, especially my monthly sit-down with our meticulous sub-editor to hunt down stray commas, clumsy syntax, wayward grammar, misbehaving spelling and suspicious ‘facts’ as we gave the magazine its final read before publishing, working from home also freed up many hours.
This meant I could spend more time talking with my network of readers – who always give me their verdict after each issue – and also, interacting more with my correspondents across the world.
It was great to welcome Mike Renouf and Gail Collins, an English couple based in Mexico, to the team. Mike’s profiles of African soccer stars, beautifully presented by our talented design department, brightened up many readers’ lives – some, like my former driver in Ghana, said they cut out the profiles and stuck them on the walls of their homes, where friends admire them. Gail plunged into the exciting world of African creative talents and carried out exclusive interviews with the likes of Netflix showrunners.
The lockdown took a heavy toll on all commercial activity worldwide and we suffered like so many other organisations. Somehow, our CEO Omar Ben Yedder kept the show on the road when many others had thrown in the towel. Our reward was that so many readers called from virtually all over the world to thank us for keeping the magazines running during this difficult time, which kept them informed, engaged and entertained. One reader wrote to say: “I have been reading New African for 32 years without fail. I believe that as long as I get my copy of NA, everything is well with the world.”
Source of great joy
I also rediscovered what had been a source of great joy for me for most of my life before the pressure of work constrained my time – reading for pleasure. I realised that I had hardly read any fiction for years, or for that matter non-fiction that had no immediate application. The world of books now opened its doors and I went and wandered about with unmitigated delight.
Books now filled those hours when I was not at my desk. I also began to write for pleasure – another source of joy that I had virtually forgotten. Each book opened avenues for other books and the deeper I went, the more wondrous became the worlds created by some of the most talented writers in the world – including our African ones.
Then one of my friends, Jayant, a former classmate who I used to meet regularly, came down with Covid. He was placed in intensive care and looked after royally by the wonderful NHS staff. This really brought home the dreadfulness of the virus. Fortunately, he pulled through and when the regulations allowed it, we met to celebrate his recovery.
I realised that when the chips are down, what really matters are one’s family and one’s friends. I called all the friends I had neglected to ring because I had been ‘too busy’ and re-established contact. I resolved to hug my friends and family with ‘hoops of steel’ as Shakespeare suggested.
I also realised the value of neighbours. My Greek Cypriot neighbours were always solicitous and helped me with my shopping as I don’t drive anymore. They also kept sending me delicious food – and to return the compliment, I learnt to expand my culinary range. I let my hair grow – something that I had always wanted to do since childhood but never allowed and took up vigorous exercise. I became a hermit but a reasonably happy one.
So while I welcome the return to ‘normality’, I hope I do not forget what the lockdown taught me – that we can live and thrive in most circumstances and that what we call normal is nothing more than a series of habits – it’s always possible to ditch old habits and acquire new ones.
The question now is whether I will seek to get back to my old lifestyle or find comfort and fulfilment in the interior world which the pandemic opened up for me?
Reflections on a time of change
Fingers crossed, we may be entering the end-game of the coronavirus scourge and life may soon return to pre-pandemic normality. The last two years have been like nothing else in most of our memories but somehow, most of us managed to survive with health and mind intact. This is a good moment to take a breath and look back on what has been a period of great change. What did we learn about ourselves? In our Reflections on a time of change series, some of New African‘s regular writers present their personal essays on what this period has meant to them.