4th June 2000
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Delving into the past

I first met Neil Wijeratne when he was a copywriter at Grant Advertising. That was in the early seventies. He moved over to do law but carried on his favourite pastime - writing. By the mid-seventies he had written three novels and two anthologies of short stories in Sinhala. Neil was always a lover of sport and the nineties saw him putting out two sports publications-'Peradina Kelibima', milestones in Sri Lankan sports and 'Kelibima Muwadora' (The Face of the Turf) - hailed by critics as 'pioneer works in the annals of Sinhala sports literature in Sri Lanka'.

Neil who has also been contributing to the English newspapers on sports, not so long ago published 'Rugby across the Straits' detailing rugby-football links between Sri Lanka and India which have a history dating back to 1909. Reminding us that the British introduced rugby to India in 1871 and to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1879, he records that the first major international tournament which Sri Lanka participated in was the All-India Rugby Football Tournament. That was in 1926 in Madras. Ceylon played without Ceylonese just as India did without Indians. Both teams had Europeans. 

Many may not remember that the first club to play rugby in our country was the Colombo Football Club which amalgamated with the Colombo Hockey Club in 1896 to form the Colombo Hockey & Football Club (CH&FC) which was exclusively for Europeans till 1964. 

Neil refers to the early football links between Sri Lanka and India dating back to 1909 when a Ceylonese (European) team participated in the Madras Presidency Rugby Tournament. It was also the maiden overseas tour by a rugby team from Sri Lanka. Tracing the history of our participation in the All-India tournament regularly from 1926-38, Neil says the 1938 tournament was of historic significance since two teams were fielded from Ceylon - one wholly comprising Europeans and the other Ceylonese, sons of the soil. The latter made history in the first match itself when they defeated a combined Planters team by 16 points to nil. "It was possibly the greatest moment ever enjoyed by the Ceylonese ruggerites with skipper Dr. W. D. Ratnavale scoring the first try in the seventh minute of play thus becoming the first Ceylonese to plant a try in the All-India tournament."

He was followed by F. Kellar, Percy de Zilva and P. Perera in scoring tries whilst A. S. David was successful in two conversions. E. F. N. Gratien was the manager of the Ceylonese team. 

- Ranat

African Diary 

Isaac: colourful man in the heart of Africa

By Fr. Paul Caspersz
Continued from last week 

One of the most colourful Africans I was privileged to know was Isaac Mudzingwe, man of all work, mapostori or member of the Apostolic Faith Church, herbalist, collaborator of the freedom fighters in the liberation war against the white Smith settler regime, called the Second Chimurenga, 1972-80. (The first Chimurenga or Freedom Struggle was at the end of the 19th century against the white colonialists who took the African land.) By pre-planned notes on the African horn, Isaac would warn the freedom fighters in the woods, 'The road is clear; advance!' or 'Smith's soldiers are here: strike!' 

Brian and I visited him in his village home several miles from Hwedza, which is a "growthpoint" country town, directly south of Harare. Anyone going to see Isaac from Harare or Hwedza should go to Goto which is the nearest business centre, and ask for Mukamba. Like the great majority of rural Africans, Issac lives in a round hut, though in recent years some four-cornered huts have begun to appear in the countryside. I believe we never had the round huts in our country. Each hut has a floor area of less than 120 sq. ft. You enter the hut, carefully bending your head, through a small door. The hut may or may not have a window. Isaac's didn't. The roof is of long, dry thatched grass and keeps the interior cool, though in the rainy season, I was told, could spring worrisome leaks. 

Isaac's home has four of these huts: three serve as bedrooms and the fourth is the kitchen. The semi-circle on the right of the round floor in the kitchen is raised about a foot above the floor and serves as a bench about a foot wide. The men sit on the bench, as Brian and I did with Isaac and others, the women in the semi-circle on the left on mats spread on the floor. Western anthropologists (why don't they do anthropological studies of their own societies?) would immediately jump to their feet and say, "There, as we told you, the African women are oppressed by their men." Say this to any one of the women in Isaac's home, and she might hit you in the face. In South Asia the women give the dowry to the man. In Africa it is the man who gives 'lobola' to the woman. 

There is somewhat more open haggling about the lobola, I suspected from what I heard, than there are wry comments on the dowry in South Asia. In the centre was the fire on which a kettle of water is always on the boil while on the embers or hot ashes, tender pods of maize are roasted, as we do, or used to do, when life was simpler, with jak seeds. In the middle of the conversation in which all have an equal voice, someone comes round with a basin of water and a towel slung over the left hand, for it is a Shona custom that guests are invited to wash their hands before every meal, indeed before every part of the meal. Little trays of large boiled peas are then brought in. These and the roasted maize go round and round the party. These are shorteats. When all are ready, the wash bowls and the towel are taken round again and the sadza or maize cake (looking like our kiribath) is brought in, whole mounds of it served on to each one's plate. 

"This is far too much to me," I said. "No matter. Eat what you can. There'll always be someone to take off from where you left," was the reply. The sadza is eaten with fish or chicken or spiced vegetables or, if the family is very poor, sometimes with a little sugar. I liked sadza and its accompaniments and rather miss it even now. 

Isaac is irrepressible. Now he is in his plot of land tending his crop of maize, then he will be digging the pit for a hygienic low-cost toilet (he has modified, and he thinks improved, the Blair model of the fly-free pit toilet, now very common in Zimbabwe), soon he will dash off to pray over a sick friend, returning he will help his wife and her sister to cook, and constantly repeat, 'Baba Paul', which means 'Father Paul', remember that from now my home is your home and Baba MacGarry's home', or 'Baba Paul, remember that all that matters is Jesus'.

Faith of the people

Isaac is a strong believer. He knows no church and wants to belong to none. He knows only Jesus. He is one of the millions of vapostori whom the English papers call the members of the Apostolic Faith Church. There are ten thousands of them in Zimbabwe and several millions in Africa. Every group of vapostori is not at all, or is only very loosely, connected with all the others. Some vapostori groups are polygamous; others, like Isaac's, are not. The vapostori have no hierarchy. 

The elder becomes the pastor whose duties are only to be the senior of the group. There is no ordination, no sacraments, no rules or regulations, "but every time we meet", says Isaac, "God is with us. So we pray to God. We read the Bible. We sing loud our songs to God". As we entered his round but for the first time, he asked Brian and me to bless the group, who then broke out into a loud, long and lusty singing of praise to the Lord. It was only after the song and prayer that we sat on the raised right semi-circle meant for men, the women sat on mats on the other semi-circle, the wash bowls were taken round, and we started on the boiled peas, the roasted cobs of maize and to talk on all manner of things. 
Isaac is a herbalist, who knows the curative properties of local herbs, leaves and roots. He told me that in a dream he learnt about some herbs that can cure several diseases, even AIDS. A doctor had come to know Isaac and so arranged with Isaac to give us some of the liquid he made with his dream cure. Brian and I took a small bottle of this liquid to her. She said she would try to analyze it in the laboratory but I did not stay long enough in the country to know what she found. 

AIDS and poverty

AIDS is no longer an epidemic in Africa. Over large swathes of the continent it is now a pandemic. In Masvingo, a growing city in the south of Zimbabwe, I read in the newspapers a few days before I left the country, 30 per cent of the women attending a pre-natal clinic were found to be HIV positive. In a country whose population is around 11 million (the last recorded census of 1991 gave it as 8 million) there are said to be 600,000 orphans. After two or three years of marriage, both parents sometimes die of AIDS and so a large number of children are infected. 

I visited an orphanage run by some Christian Sisters not far from Harare. Of the 90 children there, girls and boys, as many as 50, are infected with AIDS. Among them were two sisters, both very black and very beautiful. The younger and taller is in Form 3 and has no AIDS, the elder is in Form 4 but has to be in and out of hospital because of diseases induced and rendered intractable by AIDS. The elder sister could not remain standing for long. After a few minutes of conversation with me she reached for a chair. The younger dearly loved the sick sister and wore a look of infinite sadness on her face. 
As I left she touched my hand lightly and said, "Ask God to let me die with my sister, for I will not be able to bear living without her." I confided both to God and walked away tearfully. 

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