A Dog won’t bite if it’s busy chewing

There are two containers situated on a piece of land in a place called Besters in the sprawling urban and peri-urban surrounds of Kwa Mashu in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa. On reflection, there are countless more in these areas which double as workshops, cell phone outlets, storage facilities and roadside tuck shops, but these two seem to stand out from the others. They are painted blue, and they have a recently planted and healthily growing vegetable garden on the slope going down towards the road.

For many years up to sixty women and one man met here on Saturday afternoons. They still gather here, but there are a few more men, and there is a youth group now. The physical space has not changed too much for some time, but the possibilities which have emerged from these containers are so radically different to what they once were. There is still the sanguine singing which reverberates out of the tin tympani and across the Zululand valleys, but there is a bit more baritone and bass to the song and to the prayer.

They are here to save money.

Little by little their single South African Rands turn to boxes of washing powder and multiple birthday blankets. Educations have been paid for and houses have been renovated or even built, and if the name of their savings scheme ‘Lethu kuhle’ is anything to go by, then good things are indeed coming. Not just the men who are more often seen in the taverns, and the youth, but also the ideas, the support and the hope. Perhaps those three things – ideas, support and hope might be enough to build a community. For that is what greets here, meets here and eats here.

As we cram into the already packed containers to learn from their leadership, a young man with the fire of hope in his eyes calls out in an excited voice:

“Inja ayilumi uma isahlafuna”.

Had this been in 1879, and a couple of hundred miles North and inland, I might have thought I was about to receive a disemboweling at the hands of King Cetshwayo’s victorious Zulu army on the battlefields of Isandlwana. There was both power and passion in his voice, and a response from Gogo’s and Grandkids alike that they were in agreement and were ready to follow him into battle.

And they are in a battle. An economic battle for survival where they have learnt that their only weapon is themselves. Themselves and each other. Battles turn to wars, and wars demand war cries, and a call to arms. They are arming themselves no longer with political power, but with money and knowledge.

“A dog won’t bite if it’s busy chewing”

This rallying cry rocked me in its raw rurality.

The Fourteenth Century Father of English literature and writer of Olde English classics, Geoffrey Chaucer, had something to say about this in that “idle hands are the Devil’s tools”, and he probably interpreted this from the Bible’s Book of Proverbs 16:27, and the Turks have a wisdom that everyone is tempted by the Devil, but idle people tempt the Devil.

The Zulu version cut me to the core in the word ‘bite’.

When I am busy in my own life I don’t have time to bite. I have no interest to harm others when I engage in my own meaningful work. I don’t bite into the meaningless universe of remote controlled channels of repeated reruns (unless the Golf is on), and I don’t bite at my children out of boredom. When I am busy chewing, I don’t sit too long tippling at the tavern of travail and temptation or banging on the bar of boredom and blame. I get off the couch of slouch and I go for a stroll in the suburbs or a swim in the golden light off the sea. When I am detached I look for inspiration in a device, but when I am engaged, my inspiration is right across the table in the unasked light of my children’s own chewings.

What was the best thing that happened today? And the worst? And if I stop long enough to listen to the stories of the tennis or cricket, or water polo or dream dress, I stop biting at the blank spaces of an uncertain future, and I fill the present with presence. I enjoy the conversation even more than the meal, and I don’t rush off to the same looped CNN latest update.

I phone a friend in the traffic on the way home instead of biting at the next taxi driver, and I turn off the TV to read something far more meaningful.

When I am bored, I bite. The bite does not always show up as a violent temper tantrum, it could be far more painful and poisonous in dismissive disengagement or snide cynicism. What could be more damaging to a child’s view of the world than the negative reflection of someone they look to for guidance?

When our global level of employee engagement is dismally low and trending downwards, and the unemployment of our youth in South Africa hovers on the wrong side of half, something will bite. And it may bite at the coffee stations and water coolers in the passages of perceived politically correct politeness, or it may bite in the next rock thrown in a protest against poor service delivery. While it may look like life giving water from afar, the acid of anger will eat us from the inside, unless we have something else to get stuck into.

Interesting phrase that: “Get stuck in.” Perhaps it is the quickest way of becoming unstuck?

While the Youth at Besters are here to save money, as they do so, they also find meaning and purpose. They share stories of fear and excitement, of despair and hope. They have a community to eat with and there’s less time and reason to bite.

They save themselves in this way, and nothing is more dangerous than the venom of our own vindictiveness towards our very own selves.

Maybe I need to chew on that thought for a while myself?

Steve Hall

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