Dad is a quirky English eccentric (check out Basil in `Fawlty Towers'). Mum is a chirpy Irish colleen. The unlikely pair gave birth to me in Wales and I was educated in Scotland. I can only be British. Black cabs, beans on toast, bad weather... I love it. It's home. Yet, as I've travelled the world I've come to realise that `the best of British' have a lot to answer for.
How many of us were taught at school about the way we raped Australia or the holocaust for which we were responsible in South Africa? Not many, sir. I'm not `throwing the baby out with the bath water' but I do think we've got to take responsibility for the uglier legacy of the British Empire. Facing up to the damage we've caused, the effects of which can still be seen today, can be crippling, I find. A recent conversation with a man from North-East India helped me find healing and perspective.
Niketu Iralu has devoted his life to drug rehabilitation and other initiatives for change in Shillong and Nagaland. `I could have a lot of bitterness towards Britain', he said, `but I don't because of those British who have given their lives to work with us for change'. When asked if he has a stronger faith because of the daily dangers and difficulties he faces, he paused before replying, `In many ways, it's more difficult for you. You could so easily say to yourself, ``life is good'' and just focus on your own career and enjoyment. But it's more difficult for you to say, ``I care, I care for the world'''. He concluded that both East and West, rich and poor, are required to work together to bring about lasting change. That set me on a new road.
In this issue, we've asked people how they feel about their countries... the past, the good, the bad, the future. What's striking is how much love we have for our homelands. If as individuals it is only when we love ourselves that we can fully love others, so it is with our nations. As Tim Costello, the Aussie Baptist Minister puts it, `it is about recognising that we each love our own tribe but that we need to reach out beyond it'.
Laura Trevelyan, UK
It was with a sense of trepidation that I agreed to put some thoughts on paper about what being Northern Irish means to me. I find it easy to talk about my experiences overseas, but closer to home the task is emotionally more difficult. There are as many opinions and experiences of Northern Irish life as there are people in the province. I am one voice among many in a divided society where political and religious standpoints are held onto with fierce pride.
My quest for a sense of identity has often been conflicting. It is hard to decide whether I am Irish or British, when these concepts are so culturally and historically opposed. As a young child I remember my mother telling me that as Protestants, we were the settler community. Joining in an Orange parade, which celebrates our Protestant cultural heritage, I asked her why some of the shops were not open. She explained that Catholics owned them and were scared to open up. As the drums beat out their triumphalistic message, I knew there was something wrong with a celebration that was being used to intimidate and denigrate the heritage of our neighbours.
It is hard to take pride in one's nationality when any form of flag-raising is seen as a sectarian gesture. However, we all need a sense of identity to understand and accept our place in the world. In Northern Ireland, religion and politics can define our very being. It was not until a trip to America that I discovered how we were seen by the rest of the world. An older couple looked at me pityingly, commenting on all the bombs I must have to deal with. This was a far cry from the life I was used to in my small village and even as a teenager at school on the outskirts of Belfast. The only violence I saw was on TV, and it was easy to become detached when it was a regular news feature. Apart from `the Troubles', we were experiencing the lowest crime rates in Europe; I did not feel the need to be pitied living in a country where I had always felt safe. Sometimes we would tease our English friends that we went to school wearing bullet-proof vests--it was amazing how many believed us! I did not appreciate being seen as a `child of the Troubles' when I was simply Frances, a girl with the same worries as any young person.
It was easy to grow up without any notion of the lives of the other group with whom we shared the island. Social contacts such as our village, church and school were mainly Protestant. Not being brought up amongst Catholics, it was a shock when I attended a conference for young people run by the Corrymeela Community, a group which promotes reconciliation across the divide. For the first time I heard Catholics speak of their sense of injustice, of being targets for police intimidation, and of discrimination in the search for employment. I had thought I was broadminded and tolerant, but this had been easy within the safety and privilege of my own community. As the only Protestant in my group I suddenly knew how it felt to be an intimidated minority amongst others who were not in the least impressed by my `liberal' views and lack of interest in `the border'. It is uncomfortable to discover how your people are viewed by another community. It was much easier for me to notice the oppressed overseas than on my own doorstep. According to Maurice Hayes, a local Catholic civil servant, the situation in Northern Ireland can be seen as a `double minority problem'. While Catholics feel a suppressed minority in Northern Ireland, Protestants fear becoming an assimilated minority in a united Ireland. Thus both sides have displayed `the arrogance and insensitivity of a majority and the insecurity and lack of self-confidence of a minority'.
Some dismiss the conflict as tribalism. The claim that `religion causes wars' is equally dismissive, in a country where a long history of plantation and suppression has dictated that the majority of Catholics are Irish and Protestants are British. Others feel that if people sat around the table solutions would be forthcoming. Some English people believe that if they only had a free rein they would have everything sorted out in no time, after all that experience managing the Empire. It is easy to forget that the history of Ireland is long, complex and painful--people find it difficult to compromise when their nationality and religion are at stake. Centuries of the `divide and rule' mentality, with management from the top down, has left the English with a tendency to see situations from their perspective only, and to look for solutions on their terms. What would really help would be for them to have the humility to truly listen to us, to the issues of hurt spanning centuries and to our hopes and dreams for the future. This needs to be a listening that tries to understand and empathise without automatically giving advice, a listening that is not complacent and dispassionate but actually cares about the long-term welfare of our country. The Republic of Ireland is now flourishing, with the fastest growing economy in Europe. Yet it was only in its freedom to discover itself that its true creativity could burst forth.
I have a great love for my country and am very grateful for my upbringing. In some ways it was a lot simpler and more secure than that of the average British young person. With the strong emphasis on family and community values, and over two-thirds of the population attending church, I did not experience the same angst as those growing up in a more individualistic society where matters of faith are undermined. Although this can bring narrow-mindedness and sectarianism it does provide security and a sense of belonging. Faith takes on a very practical nature, borne out in a warmth and concern for the needs of others. It is tangible--a voice for political affiliation and reconciliation alike, but most importantly a channel of comfort and hope. At the height of the Troubles the suicide rate reportedly went down. Struggle brings reality into sharp focus, strengthening traditions, loyalties and beliefs and leaving no room for complacency. We learn the value of community and nationhood and gain a stronger sense of identity and purpose. Perhaps now we can look forward in hope to a future where the aspirations and cultural expressions of everybody will be embraced, so that we might find unity in our diversity.
Frances Hume, Northern Ireland
Tall palm trees form romantic silhouettes on white sandy beaches in the Caribbean. Throw in a thatch hut, a marijuana-smoking Rastafarian, young Spring Breakers moving to the legendary chants of Bob Marley, and you have the average image of Jamaica ... package and parcel. This scene, widely advertised in holiday brochures, may well exist. True, Jamaica is extremely beautiful. True, the island abounds with lush tropical vegetation and there are palm trees everywhere--from backyards to beaches, on carefully groomed office fronts, as well as growing wild by the roadside. But there is more to it than that.
Music is an integral part of our culture, present in everything we do. There is music in the market, music in the mall, music in the office, music in make-shift stalls. It blasts from the sporty car, and the farmer makes his own as he sings to the rhythm of his donkey's hoofs. The dynamism of our culture can never be summed up in the advertisements. And contrary to popular belief, marijuana is mainly used for medicinal purposes--for example in the treatment of fever--as well as by Rastafarians for religious purposes. It is abused only by a small minority.
I am very proud to be African-Jamaican and feel privileged to have grown up with its traditions. Our biggest problem (as in so many countries) is political elitism and corruption. Many of our natural resources are exploited for the benefit of a few, while human resources remain largely undeveloped. Another problem is that of `New Age Colonialism' by countries who seek to use globalisation (wor!d capitalism) and its puppets--for example, the WTO--to exploit what they see as a market for consumer products and a source of cheap labour.
However, we have much to be thankful for. Jamaica has a rich and inspiring past and a bright future. There is a wealth of talent, creativity and hope which commercialisation and modern proletarianism haven't yet snatched away. People work to live, not live to work, and have a philosophical, unhurried--not lackadaisical--attitude to life. Money is not yet all. There is a high degree of racial harmony and cultural acceptance. As our motto says, we are `Out of Many One People'. To fight against one group is to hurt the entire nation; to be racist is to be un-Jamaican. This above all else I'm proud of. While nationalistic, we are able to appreciate other cultures and are always ready to find out about them. The world could do with adopting, `One Love, One Heart, Let's Get Together and Feel Alright ...'.
Alleson Mason, Jamaica
Many people have opinions on the recent war in Kosovo. I feel that Serbia has been unfairly portrayed by the media and is still looked upon as a pariah.
Having lost most of our family, my mother and I fled to England to escape death, where we have started a new life alone. I made friends easily but for a long time felt lonely due to the moral and cultural differences of English society. Life was exciting in some ways but strange in others and it took a while to adjust. My mother and I have settled in well, and I am in my last years of high school. But this will never be home. So far away from my country for so long, I can't help but feel homesick. Some nights I spend looking back on old photos, and I realise more than ever how proud I am of my nationality. Yet I can remember a time--two years ago, during the bombing--when we were persecuted for being Serbs.
This was a war of greed between politicians. The real victims were the ordinary people from both sides, who had no part in the political decision-making. This resulted in hatred on both sides.
I strongly disagree with the nationalism which sets people against each other, as it has in my part of the world. Contrary to people's beliefs, whenever I meet anyone from the former Yugoslavia we bond immediately. The happy memories we share make me feel closer to home.
It is unfair of anyone to denounce us and make us feel ashamed for being Serbian. Attitudes like these create wars and keep them going.
My message to today's generation: as ambassadors of your countries, you represent the future. That future can be great, but only if we promote unity.
Darko Hadzic, Serbia
When I think of my childhood in post-independence Zimbabwe, all I can do is smile. Some of the things we did sound funny now, but we sure loved them at the time. Most of the people I meet today seem to have had the same experiences--we remember the same songs, games and ways of thinking. All these memories, and my feelings now--living away from home--have made it clear that I love Zimbabwe dearly. I hope to plough back the fruits of what I have received from her.
Here in Europe, many things are different from home: the way of life, the people, and the way everyone grows up. One thing I sorely miss is the level of spirituality and an open love of God. I don't know if this is because people here are more reserved; all I know is that I miss it. It is these subtle differences that make me realise it is a privilege to be Zimbabwean.
When I got into St George's College in Harare my grandfather expressed his amazement. When he worked (1940's - 60's) schools like that were only for whites in (then) Rhodesia. Hearing about our past depresses me. The Colonial Era brought many problems and the oppression changed the way people thought. Until the dawn of Independence they had little belief in themselves.
Hate and resentment are harboured in the hearts of many because they feel they were victims of grave injustice. This is one of the reasons why people have been taking over land belonging to white farmers. There was no real healing at Independence and this has been a time bomb, ticking away slowly. People think the Mugabe Regime is behind the farm invasions, as an attempt to cling to power. But I believe there is more to it than meets the eye.
Zimbabwe has done well for herself in a number of departments but there are some things we need to let go of as a nation. Too often we've felt superior to other countries; we need to turn away from this pride. However, I am happy that we've started to make a noise about the unfairness of colonial land distribution. This has been ignored for too long--the time has come for leaders of the former colonies to address this world-wide issue.
As long as we can achieve free and fair elections in Zimbabwe, I am positive about the future. I have my own political ambitions, and in the meantime will pray for our country and its leadership.
Munatsi Manyande, Zimbabwe
Kenya, my country, is surrounded by five other countries, as well as Lake Victoria, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Indian Ocean. Kenya itself is a cornucopia of beauty--from forests containing rare owls to coasts with tropical reefs and beaches, deserts expanding for days, plains with wild beasts, lakes with flamingoes and mountains capped in snow. Situated on the equator, it has the Great Rift Valley flowing through it like the claw of a wild eagle. Its resplendent beauty, however, is nothing without its people.
Kenyans are able to cope in diverse circumstances, some life threatening. Though poverty and drought stricken, they are always warm and welcoming. They have not lost the art of instant joy, as well has having courage, patience, fortitude and a sense of humour. One might even consider their souls to be more developed than those of people living in Western countries. Instead of worrying about the wavering stock exchange, or whether or not to invest in a new BMW, rural Kenyans have more immediate concerns, such as where their children's next meal will come from.
There are certain problems which African countries find difficult to overcome. Our government is corrupt and leaves the infrastructure to rot, pocketing huge amounts of public funds. Kenya is made up of 42 tribes which leads to large conflicts. For example, the tribal group in power does not always give government funding to the schools of other tribes. Our government has until recently been a one-party system with no freedom of speech; those who spoke out were detained, tortured and often killed. This authoritarian regime is slowly changing and hopefully will become more democratic.
It is difficult for Africa to develop as the West has. The colonialists forced borders on African soil that brought some tribal groups together and split others up. This has caused bloodshed in Rwanda, for example, where two ethnic groups were unable to manage together. Perhaps Africa would have been best left on its own, developing in a way that suited its true character.
If the diverse tribes were able to look beyond their differences--accepting each ethnic group as a brother--it would enable the political parties to focus on more urgent issues. To overcome poverty and corruption, Kenya needs to recover the `African' way it was following before colonialism.
International organisations like the IMF and the World Bank need to be more careful to whom they give aid--very often it falls into the wrong hands, or does not help Africa develop on its own. It would be wonderful if the debt owed to developed nations could be dropped so that African states could invest their money in domestic issues like the development of infrastructure.
Kenya is a land of unending beauty, and although the life may sound simplistic, it is what I have grown to love.
Mairo Retief, Kenya
In the communist past I hated my country. For me it was the embodiment of evil. I couldn't hate the communist ideology alone--all around me were people who whole-heartedly supported it. I hated them too. However pure hate was destructive. It was turning me into a lonely misanthropist who viewed everything with disgust.
That's why I started to look nostalgically at Russia's past and found a lot to be proud of. Mostly, it was Russian classical literature (which I hated at school because it was forced on me) and Russian religious philosophy. The names of Vladimir Soloviev, Nikolai Berdyaev and Pavel Florensky became household names to me. I found myself in a mysterious kingdom of great theological thoughts. It was bliss and I immigrated there. I suspected all along that this `Russia' didn't exist, but I was happy to have it in my mind. In a sense I became a Russophile and it helped me survive.
When democracy unexpectedly came to my country I briefly entertained an illusion that my `dream Russia' might come to life. Soon I realized that the new life was no better than the old. Communist dictatorship passed away but the economic version (ie. poverty for the whole nation with the exception of a few `legalized' criminals) came in its place.
I had two options--immigrate to my beloved past again or try to make it a reality (fearing this was an impossible task). Many of my friends chose the first option. Not a fighter by nature, I also tended towards it. But my teaching job, as Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Moscow University, gave me a chance to at least share my dreams with the younger generation.
I'm not sure about the results. Frankly, I'm rather pessimistic about them in the short term. If the dream cannot be instantly realised, it should at least be passed on from one person to another. It helps us survive in ruthless times and provides hope that in the long term there's still a chance for my country to achieve its full potential. Sounds utopian? Agreed. But utopias play an important role in human history.
Boris Falikov, Russia
I am French... because I come from France. But I feel more like a `person' than a `French person'. Of course I like champagne and red meat. Of course I am proud of having the same nationality as Proust, Flaubert, Camus and Baudelaire--in the same way as an English person is proud of living in the same country as Shakespeare did! But being a person is far more important than being a person from this or that country. When they are abroad, many people make comparisons, say this or that is disgusting, that it is not like that at home... This is such a pity! When I go abroad I want to feel like the people living in that country. Meeting different kinds of people, learning how they live and what they think, is one of the most interesting things in life for me.
My friend and I have just come back from Scotland where we spent a week staying in youth hostels. I met as many interesting people in that one week as I have in several years! Because many young people travel with the same wish in mind--meeting people and speaking a different language--we are very keen on exchanging our points of view on everything, including how we see our own countries.
When asked about France, I cannot help saying that some French are far too worried about what is happening at home and not interested in what is going on elsewhere. I feel sad for them; they don't know what they're missing.
Concerning the past, some French did awful things during the Second World War. At the same time, some--like Charles de Gaulle--became the pride of our country. I think it is wrong to judge the people of a country on what happened in past generations. Although it was terrible, my generation should not have to feel guilty for what was done under the Vichy government, just as my German peers are not responsible for Hitler's actions.
France's future? I really wonder what is going to happen since a key element--education--is falling to pieces. Many areas surrounding our big cities are now cradles of juvenile delinquency, as poverty leads to a lack of motivation, petty crimes and violence. I want to be a teacher, and am particularly concerned about this. It seems that we can no longer control it. But I am determined to do my best to open the eyes and minds of French students, and to encourage them to travel to other countries.
Caroline Battut, France
Earlier this year I went to see my driving instructor at his home in Hampshire, England, to drop off a cheque. He invited me to have a cup of tea. Originally from Yorkshire, Ray has that no-nonsense `a spade's a spade' approach to life which is both refreshing and funny. A typical Englishman, you might think. However he and his wife, Peggy, have a passion for somewhere thousands of miles away: America.
That evening Ray dressed up in his `country' outfit and excitedly showed me his replica guns from the Wild West days of Wyatt Earp and Jesse James. By the hi-fi was a collection of country CDs and line dancing albums. Ray had told me many times, during lessons, of their line dancing evenings, and the amount he has spent on regalia and books on Native Indians.
I experienced one of these country evenings when I took my sister to a concert by singer Gail Davies, near Bournemouth. Middle-aged couples mostly, dressed up with Stetsons, spurs, replica guns (men) and the women in traditional country dresses--dancing and imagining they weren't English but belonged to another country, another age.
How odd you may think, this desire to be American, as you read this in your Nike trainers and Tommy Hilfiger top, sipping a Coke, munching a Big Mac, with Britney Spears in the background... I would agree with you, except I was once `Americanised' myself.
It started when I met this American girl at uni (isn't there always a woman involved?) and although nothing came of it I soon became an American culture junkie. After buying a Yankees cap, I got into baseball. Then it was all American sports, music, movies, slang. It started to have an impact on what I said; autumn became the fall, petrol became gas. A brief foray into gangsta rap had me fearing a wetting by some `G' in a driveby when I was hanging out in the hood with my homies...!
America was the ultimate for me. Everything seemed to be done better over there. They seemed to have more of everything over there. Oh to be in America! It was my promised land.
It was only a matter of time till I `crossed the pond'. I have been there a couple of times now, but it was the second visit that really hit me. I was staying near Chicago and was the only `Brit' around. People seemed fascinated by my accent. I lapped it up, putting in as much English slang and as many Hugh Grantisms as possible. For once, to be English was special.
It was then I realised that coming from the UK is not so bad after all, and that I do love my country. When I went home, I began to appreciate English sports, food, and culture more. Besides, if I lived in the States, would I ever get a decent cup of tea?!
Chris Hall, UK
People have strong opinions about my country. To some, it's the greatest nation in the world and the land of freedom and abundance. To others, it's the bossy superpower that sticks its nose and military might where it's not wanted. Figured it out yet? I'm American. Not once have I been unhappy about that or thought that the grass might be greener elsewhere. However, my patriotism doesn't restrict me from loving other countries or from seeing the shortcomings of my own.
On its good side, America has often been quick to come to the aid of countries in need. I know little about politics or history, but I do know we have offered help and, to my knowledge, have not expected that this help be reciprocated. Currently an essay is being emailed throughout cyberspace. In his `Tribute to the United States', Gordon Sinclair, Canadian Television commentator, argues that Americans are generous and under-appreciated. `When earthquakes hit distant cities, it is the United States that hurries in to help. This spring, 59 American communities were flattened by tornadoes. Nobody helped.'
The flip side is the fact that other countries do not always want what we consider to be help. The recent war in Kosovo is an example. The American government played a large role in NATO's decision to bomb the region. While some felt this was the right thing to do, others were fiercely opposed and contended that NATO's actions only made things worse.
Whether I agree or disagree with my country's actions in such situations, I still get defensive if non-Americans criticize America's decisions or policies. The way others see the United States has been important to me, and I gained perspective on that by living in another country.
Those I met while abroad were often kind and receptive, and yet I was sometimes worried that when people heard my accent they'd think I was just another loud tourist from the States. Once I became incensed when a man in the street rolled his eyes and shouted, `American, go home!' I don't remember his exact words, but I do recall that they were full of profanities and sincere hatred. I was shocked and enraged, and at that moment wanted to return to America and never bother with other countries again. But it's through bothering that I learned how similar we all are. For a long time my best friends were Russian, British, South American, Indian, Australian, and African. Take away our language differences, and we could have been from anywhere. We could all relate to having countries with pasts tarnished by war or mistreatment of our own citizens. We all knew how it felt to love our parents, siblings and friends. We all liked days off and laughter. In so many ways we were the same. Each of us cared about our countries despite their weaknesses.
When it comes to America, I am proud of her greatness and sad about her problems. I bet people around the world have the same feelings about their own homelands.
Christine Kenny, USA