Notre-Dame of the Craftsmen

I’m sitting at my friend Penny’s kitchen island, sipping a glass of wine and catching up on accumulated news and gossip, when news flashes on my phone screen.  Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is burning. I read it out loud, incredulous. Penny turns on BBC News and in silence and shock, we watch the flames destroy the vaulted Medieval roof and spire and threaten the two front towers and the famous rose window between them. Millions of people are having the same reaction, although not everyone is silent about it. Twitter is going mad.  On the TV, people of all ages have gathered by the Hotel de Ville, the Paris town hall across the river from Notre-Dame. Many are weeping, their tears illuminated by the glow of the fire. We watch the spire fall, the roof disappear. We hear commentators saying that it might not be possible to save Notre-Dame at all. We go to bed not knowing what will happen. Will Notre-Dame be nothing but a pile of rubble tomorrow morning?



Wikimedia Commons

Later, I remember my first visit to Notre-Dame, when I was 11 years’ old.  My family and I were spending a few days in Paris. We all love history and art, so Notre-Dame was one of the first items on our ‘Essential Sights’ list. I have a habit of wandering off when I’m in a group, and protected by the beautiful pillars and vaults of Notre-Dame, I drifted away from my parents and little sister. I was staring at the light filtering through the stained glass rose window, when I overheard a conversation a few feet away from me.

“The master of works – what we’d call the head architect today – commissioned masters from the various corporation of builders and craftsmen. Every corporation had its masters, who were the top specialists in their craft.  They engaged other skilled workers called journeymen, as well as training apprentices in their craft.”

An old man was talking to a boy of roughly my age. I edged up to listen and he stopped and smiled at me.

“You want to know how they built the cathedral, 800 years ago?” I nodded vigorously. “Come on, then, join us.” And though I’d been warned more than once not to talk to strangers, I didn’t think of refusing. Besides, the other child seemed OK, for a boy.

“Are you a historian?” I asked.

The boy corrected me. “My granddad used to be an architect specialising in conservation and restoration”, he said. “I’m going to do the same thing when I’m grown up.”

That afternoon, I heard how the stonemasons, glass cutters, carpenters, sculptors had all imprinted their stamp on their work, even though we didn’t know all of their their names. Their skill lived on in the stone, the wood, the glass, the buttresses and vaults, the statues and the carvings. It was as strong as the faith that had inspired the cathedral. Stronger even, as the faith had dwindled from its height in the 12th and 13th centuries, while the beauty and power of the craft lived on.


Villard de Hannecourt, sketches of Notre-Dame carpentry, 13th century.


From that time, I’ve seen Notre-Dame not as an inanimate old building, the legacy of a time of all-pervading faith, but as a complex and vibrant organism created by skilled craftsmen and masters, who poured in their skill, their artistry, their love and their sweat into every chisel mark, carved leaf, every coloured and cut piece of glass. Those who created the cathedral between the 12th and 14th centuries. Those who continued, modified or added to it between the 15th and 17th centuries. Those who wept at its decay in the 18th century. Those who turned what was a Gothic miracle of architecture and engineering into an Enlightenment Temple of Reason during the French Revolution. Those who repaired and restored the neglected church in the 19th century, when they rebuilt the fallen spire and made it much taller than the original Medieval steeple. Thousands of workmen, skilled craftsmen, designers, artists and architects passed on thousands of stories in their sketches, materials and the work of their hands. Before I fall asleep that night,  I can’t help crying for the old architect and for the generations of craftsmen who together built the marvel we know as Notre-Dame of Paris, and whose work could be lost forever.

Over breakfast, we find out that the 400 or so firefighters battling the flames brought the fire under control, having saved much of the structure – including the two towers and the rose window. Notre-Dame would be rebuilt. A new generation of architects and craftsmen would bring their living skill, their art, their vision, their love and the sweat of their hard work and embed it in stone, metal, glass or wood. The old architect’s grandson, if he fulfilled his childhood ambition and followed in his grandfather’s path, must be at the height of his expertise and career by now. Perhaps he’d be involved in the restoration of Notre-Dame? I can’t help hoping that he would.

The Somme of the EU

bloody somme
1st-2nd July 1916 – 1st-2nd July 2016

battle_of_Somme_06This morning a hundred years ago, they counted the dead after 24 hours of the Battle of the Somme. In the British Fourth Army alone, there were just under 20,000 – mostly young men. By the end of the battle, in November, when nobody had won, over a million young men, British, French, and German, had lost their lives, and many more were badly maimed, physically and mentally.

At the same time, between February and December, another battle was fought in Verdun. A little over 300,000 young men died, and a catastrophic amount were maimed.

When the First World War ended, everyone said ‘Never Again’. But they put no mechanism in place for ‘Never Again’, it was all just fine sentiments. Instead, Germany was imposed punitive war reparations and conditions that beggared it and led its people straight into the arms of fascism.

It’s hard to credit it, but the Second World War, fought within what would have been the lifetime of the 1,3 million young men who died in those few short months in 1916, made even more casualties – three or four times as many as the whole First World War, civilians and soldiers.

At last, between 1945 and 1958, the European powers came up with a mechanism for ‘Never Again’. They decided to replace rivalry and war with trade and political union. “Better bickering over bananas than killing each other”. “Better work together, in each other’s countries, than kill each other, in each other’s countries.”  In the Preamble of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, they put it like this:


“Determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe,

Resolved to ensure the economic and social progress of their countries by common action to eliminate the barriers which divide Europe…


It was Britain’s huge misfortune that despite the encouragement of Churchill, the man who got Britain through the Second World War, its Labour government of the time turned a cold shoulder to the project. By the time Britain asked to join in 1962, De Gaulle vetoed its entry (in passing – he was a bloody ingrate!). But eventually, in 1972, we were admitted, and welcomed in to take part in this great enterprise of trade and political union.

Now, after 44 years during which many of our British politicians kept up a fence between ‘them’ and ‘us’, years that nonetheless delivered cooperation between old enemies and mutual economic benefits, we are leaving this union. We are turning our backs on the longest period of peace our continent has ever known. We are turning our backs on the idea that it is better to work in each other’s countries than kill in each other’s countries.


Yesterday and today, all over the country, and in France and Belgium there have been commemorations for the million dead at the Somme, and the 20,000 young British soldiers who died in its first 24 hours. Official speeches, unofficial events in public places, flash mobs, readings on the radio, documentaries on television. We remember them. We say we honour them.

The_Battle_of_the_Somme,_July-november_1916_Q1540But do we honour them? I am no longer sure. What honour are we giving these young men, who fought for a better world, a world where cooperation replaces bullying and militaristic flag-waving? How do we honour them, when we are leaving the European Union, an organisation specifically founded to replace war and nationalistic rivalry by trade and political cooperation, and leaving because there is ‘too much immigration from Europe’. “Too much immigration from Europe” implies both that we are not a part of Europe — that we are, somehow, not European — and that this foreign, non-British ‘Europe’ is sending us foreigners we don’t want, we who sent our young men to fight, bleed and die in that very Europe.

For the 20,000 British young men who were killed on the first day of the Somme, for the million who died during the whole battle, for the many more that died during those 4 awful years, and, 23 years later, during the 6 years of the Second World War, I am in deep mourning. In mourning for them, and for our having left the European Union, a project for peace and unity – made not only with words and sentiment, but with action.

I doubt our leaving will lead to war. It is already leading to recession, and the Bank of England anticipate a 6% contraction of our economy, which is catastrophic. But no, not war. Not yet. What it will lead to is our European partners never again trusting us, and that is the beginning of the slippery slope towards war. We have let them down, we have let ourselves down, and we have told them – “peace doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is keeping Polish, French and Romanians out.”

And controlling our own future, you might ask? Leave voters voted for that ideal. Well, to give George Bush Sr’s answer back in 1992, when he lost to Bill Clinton: “it’s the economy, stupid”. Our ability to control our future has taken a nose dive with the pound.


Never Again

A true story

Lake Malawi
Lake Malawi

Even from the air Malawi is a lush country, especially now in the rainy season, when it thickens with growth, undergrowth, and mirages of plenty. As far as I can see, small fields laid out like patchwork cover the land. Trees grow densely, in every shade of green – cassava, pumpkin, banana, baobab.

I think of the children I would meet tomorrow, all refugees, and the endless questions they would cast at me, desperate challenges for which I would have no answer. The modest would ask for more food, medecine, pencils. The bold would want visas for the developed world. The frantic, a passage for “anywhere outside this accursed continent”. I could only offer them messages to a faraway relative, leading, perhaps, to a reunion, perhaps – miracles do happen – in Paris, London or Montreal.

The next day I drive to a small refugee camp called Dzaleka with Anthony, an NGO official. He is easy-going, sings as he drives, and recounts stories of his grandfather, the witch doctor, who would fly from Nyasaland to South Africa in a minute. Like all of Malawi in this season, the camp is half hidden by solid stalks of maize and banana groves that hide the concrete administrative buildings and mud houses. Have I come to a garden, where I expected a refugee camp? But here is the Malawian administrator in his bare dusty office. Here are the UNHCR posters on the cracked wall – so they do visit here from time to time! – and the Red Cross table calendar on a plywood desk overflowing with yellow papers.

Dzaleka is considered a small, back-water, forgotten camp, for most refugees a way-station or a hiding place. The camp population has grown steadily to accommodate the flow of Congolese refugees. The administrator says that the Congolese are the first to go back. “As soon as there is a lull in the fighting, they rush back, unless they have personal reasons not to, or they are waiting for resettlement abroad. We have great trouble persuading them to stay while danger persists. The Congolese are crazy. They are not allowed to work here, but they still do business. Some have come with bicycles and cycle to Blantyre every week to sell goods!” There are older refugees in Dzaleka, too Rwandans, Burundians, even Somalis, each with their own desolate memories.

Anthony tells me that in the old days, under the dictator Dr Hastings Banda, Dzaleka had another name and was used as a political labour camp. It was a place so notorious that those people who emerged alive used to swear, upon leaving, “dzaleka!”, which means, “never again!” in Chichewa. Now the camp hosts people who have fled other horrors and have in turn sighed, or screamed, “never again!” in Lingala, Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi.

I spend the day speaking to children and young men. We sit together in a small school room. No class today, it seems: they have morning or afternoon school twice a week. French and English pratice sentences decorate the classroom. “La porte est fermée. The door is closed”, “The bird is flying. L’oiseau vole”, with drawings of a blue door, a sparrowhawk soaring. The benches creak under the weight of so many people. The arrival of a Red Cross musungu kazi, white woman, is news that has spread throughout the camp as fast as Anthony’s grandfather. I haven’t been in a schoolroom for 15 years. I crunch myself on on one of the tiny desks – they didn’t used to be so small, did they? Anthony sits at the back. He does not understand the conversations in French, but smiles gently, unperturbed by the waves of passion that overtake the classroom periodically. Only once does he intervene, when a row erupts between several boys vying for attention. I don’t know if they understand his scolding Chichewa, but his tone calms them.

Men and boys have gathered around me, with only three girls amongst them. I am told the other girls and the women are cooking and working their small vegetable patches. I ask the assembled refugees a few questions to which many answers fuse all at once. What energy is there! The energy of survival, of anger, but also a life-force that not even war has dimmed.

Il ne fait pas bon être nègre” , Papy says, a thin twenty-five year old, who still bears signs of Congolese panache – la Sape – in his swagger and his well-kept purple jacket, a size too large for him.

“How can you say this? how can call yourself that? ” I ask, the brutal colonial word screeching against my nice liberal mind.

“But it’s true, isn’t it?”, he answered, “isn’t Africa called le continent nègre? Who cares about it? There’s a generation of young growing up illiterate in the Great Lakes because of the war, we live in insecurity at home, the girls are raped, and if we leave, we are corralled in camps, underfed, just kept alive. A kilo of beans a month! And for what?”

“Everyone wants you to go home.”

“I have no home left, he says bitterly. The Rwandan army burnt it down, and occupied my town, they’ll pick me up if I go home because I took part in student protests. And now, we are kept away from your countries. You can visit Malawi, Zimbabwe or Congo. But can we visit England, France, Canada? You have studied, haven’t you, to get this job? Can we go to university, buy books, earn a decent living in an interesting job? Or any job? Can we even eat a decent meal? What have you come for today? Africa is dying and we les nègres are dying with it. But you did not come for that. ”

He is deliberately baiting me now, using that word as a weapon, daring me to resist him, to place my reason in the way of his anger. I search for words, and see myself, instead. My clothes are new, I ate breakfast this morning, I use a reasonable voice which keeps a proper distance between the refugees and me, the way I was taught when I took this job. Then as fast as the storm erupts, it shifts, whirling me along: “How do I get some books? We are setting up adult classes with some refugees that are teachers – we have no paper, but we can always write in the dirt, Africa has plenty of that.” “I want to join my brother in Spain, my uncle in Brussels. I want to go back to Goma, to Kisangani” (How did someone from Kisangani land here? I wonder). “I want to find my wife before I forget what she looks like.” In another change of tone, they cajole me: “Are you married? how old are you? Will you ever marry? But not a refugee. We know that! None of us have anything to offer you.” They are daring me again.

I talk, I laugh, I battle with them for what I will and won’t do – “just give us the means and we’ll do it for ourselves”. These are not the aid degenerates dear to the armchair critics, nor are they victimised losers. These are gifted, truculent young men who would be an asset to any country, in bright curiosity, in bravado, in impudent sexiness, now intense and rimmed with sadness, because it’s practically all they have left. Perhaps it’s true that hardship concentrates the mind, sharpens the talents. In European and African towns, Congolese refugees prosper in many ways. Some become law professors, writers or musicians. Some sell Prada bags – fake and genuine, as long as it has a label – or set up smart scams. None sit down and weep about their fate for longer than a Koffi Olomide love song.

And the children? After all, I came for them. There are still many Rwandan children, left over from the great flight of ‘96, when the refugee camps in Zaïre and Tanzania were dispersed by the Rwandan Pariotic Army (RPA). A few refugees ended up here, in Dzaleka, after thousands of miles of walking, from forest to forest, bush to bush, camp to camp. Dzaleka is just a stage on an endless journey. Some still limp. I can hardly imagine what they must have seen, the memories they heave silently about like bundles on their heads.

Dzaleka Refugee Camp

These Rwandan children in Dzaleka have had no real carers for years. Most can’t read or write, because they haven’t received any regular schooling. How can there be education where there is no continuity or discipline? Somehow they are surviving. They are hard, unripe fruit. I give a handful of sweets and receive a smile. A few words in kinyarwanda, and it is a laugh. But I have no idea how they live, nor what future there is for them. They live without any sense of time. There are those whose parents we have traced and whom I’d like to send home. Suddenly thrown back in time, they take fright and refuse to look beyond Dzaleka, prefering the safety of the half-life they know to the uncertainty of going home and settling down with a family they have forgotten. Several children do not believe that their parents are really alive. They remember seing them killed. “But look at the photo. Do you recognise your mother here?” Twelve-year old Ephrem looks on silently. He nods, tears pour down his cheeks. Embarrassed to be crying in front of me, he moves to a corner to compose himself. He murmurs something to his cousin, who speaks some French. “He has recognised his mother. But he is still not sure it is safe to return.”

Many of the other children and teenagers are traumatised. Congolese war, Burundian war, Somali war, all have left scars. Jean-Pierre from Bukavu in Eastern Congo can barely see, he closes his eyes downwards and refuses to look at the world. I learn that two months ago, he saw his family sliced up by the rebels, because his father wrote a letter of support for the government in Kinshasa. He was outside the house when they came, and hid in the hen coop. Calliste, a thin young Burundian, streams sweat and shakes like a blade of grass. His mother is Tutsi, he says, and his father Hutu, and both communities want his blood, even here in Dzaleka.

Some should be traumatised and are not, another mystery. There is a calm, slightly worried-looking seventeen year-old Congolese boy who has been father and mother to his four little brothers and sisters since the age of fifteen. Two years ago, their parents were killed by the Mayi-Mayi, naked hunter-warriors who started off as resistance fighters and ended up perpetrating massacres, like most participants in that dirty war. He and his siblings fled their home town, Uvira by Lake Tanganyika, returning after three months. As they grew older, the Mayi-Mayi renewed their threats. One day, six weeks ago, he came home and found the death-sign of the Mayi-Mayi daubed on the front door. He picked up the children and ran, this time from the country. “I am worried, because I have no money for the little ones. My elder brother is in Canada and could help care for us. We can’t go back, the Mayi-Mayi want to wipe out our family”.

There’s a story in that, but I’ll never know it. His eyes give nothing away but immediate concern for the future. All he wants is help in getting organised. He writes a Red Cross message for his brother in Canada, gives me the latter’s email address and takes down the address for the nearest Canadian High Commission. Some of the Congolese laugh around him, one boy drums on his desk, one gets up to dance the ndombolo. The Rwandans and Burundians look on, immobile.

Anthony and I drive back to Lilongwe exchanging impressions. Some we can help, others not. Some will find their own way, some will compromise their dreams, some will give up. Many will refuse to give up, and shout out “never again!” Dzaleka. I am angry at the neglect, the waste. The North expresses guilt about the oppression of Africa: but what is killing Africa now is not only oppression and exploitation, it is indifference. L’abandon. That’s what they call it.

Papa Wemba
Papa Wemba

Back in Lilongwe, Papa Wemba, rumba king from Congo, is singing Le Voyageur (the Traveller) on the radio:

Bolingo Lingo Eponi Ekolote

Lingo Lingo Mboka Te

Lingo Lingo Mundele Te

Lingo Lingo Moyindo Te

Love has no country

Love has no village

Love has no Whites

Love has no Blacks

When I left the camp, not one person forgot to wish me a merry Christmas and happy holidays. A year later, sitting in an office in Kinshasa, I received a letter from the young man who looked after his four brothers and sisters. They had reached Canada.

For reasons of discretion, names have been changed.