The humbling life lesson that I brought home out of Africa
In the fast few weeks I have been privileged to travel widely on holiday from Belfast to Atlanta, New Orleans, New York (unexpectedly) and back again.
Shortly afterwards I was travelling again, this time to Johannesburg and other parts of South Africa on a reporting mission for Christian Aid, which is helping, with local partners, to tackle poverty, injustice and inequality in that large and beautiful country which has such contrasts in living standards.
I recall the many people I met who were HIV positive, as well as rural women helping to generate income for themselves and others through craft work, and also many poor families living on dangerously contaminated land near Soweto and other areas near Johannesburg.
It is hard to forget, in particular, the young children who are poor, hungry and without education, and who are more likely to develop severe health disorders because of the radioactive residue of the local mines near which they live.
After such a long and varied series of travels among the very rich and the very poor, it is not easy to try to come to terms with such huge contrasts, disparities and, in many cases, despair.
By comparison, Northern Ireland – with all its woes – seems a paradise, where the vast majority of us have enough food, shelter and essential health services.
I am aware, of course, that there are still many examples of poverty and need in our own society, but nothing compared to the enormous suffering I witnessed in South Africa in the past few weeks, and similarly in my travels over many years in the developing world.
There are so many things in Northern Ireland for which we should be so grateful, and which some of us may be taking for granted.
There are the enormous strides in material improvements which I have witnessed here in my lifetime, and not least in the supply of food – to the point that many of us are obese and endangering our health, while two out of every three people in the developing world are dying from hunger and illness. Then, there are also improvements in our political and social life. Yes, there are still huge problems when it comes to battening down the peace process, but at the very least, the violence has subsided.
Compared to the horrendous suffering in and over Ukraine, in Gaza and other places, which I can hardly bear to watch on television, we are now a stable, relatively prosperous and, dare I say it, hopeful society.
We ought to give thanks not only for the major improvements of recent years, but also for the simple, and yet profound pleasures that make life worth living.
During this wonderful summer I have enjoyed, with my family, the glory of Portstewart and the North Coast in a heatwave, and much else, and from my own study, where I now write, I have seen beautiful dawns across the Irish Sea, and equally beautiful sunsets over the Cave Hill in Belfast, which is just as striking as Table Mountain at Cape Town, which I visited two weeks ago.
I hope that you, too, have come back from your travels equally thoughtful and refreshed. Despite all our challenges in this still troubled province, we should count our blessings, thank God for what we have, and together try to make Northern Ireland an even better place for everyone.