Monday, February 6, 2017

CBC Canada 2017: A Letter from Mandela

What's Your Story

A personal letter from Nelson Mandela to two Canadians who helped fight apartheid

"You have won many friends not only for yourself, but also for Canada."


John and Alena Schram leaf through a book that has come to mean the world to them. The dedication has deep personal significance. (Courtesy of Alena and John Schram)Imagine a museum filled with artifacts of deep significance to living Canadians — a collection that contains the strongest feelings, most personal histories and most vivid memories of our diverse population. As part of CBC's What's Your Story campaign, we're inviting Canadians to tell us about the one object they would submit to our collection of national treasures, and how it connects to their perspective on Canada. Email us at 2017@CBC.ca.
The first story in this series comes from retired diplomats Alena and John Schram of Amherst Island, Ont.


Few Canadians are aware of how Canada helped bring about the collapse of a morally repugnant system. They should be.

In 1988, my husband John and I were posted to the small team at the Canadian embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, with the following mandate: to test the outer bounds of acceptable diplomatic activity in support of South Africans working to bring down apartheid.
John was in charge of the embassy's political work and I ran the Dialogue Fund, a unique instrument devised by then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark.
While John and his colleagues attended every political trial, protest, and rally in those dark days, I delivered funding to anti-apartheid and human rights groups, and the alternative media.

Alena Schram (right) poses with Cyril Ramaphosa, Secretary General of the African National Congress in 1992. (Courtesy of Alena and John Schram)
Before the advent of smart phones and internet news streams, we helped draw the world's attention to the inequalities of the South African health care and transport systems; the suffering of political detainees; the gross injustice of political trials; and the often-murderous excesses of the security forces of the white South African government.
Did you know? The Constitution of South Africa, signed into law by Nelson Mandela, came into effect 20 years ago on 4 February 1997. The milestone came just two years after Mandela — who spent 27 years in prison for resisting apartheid — won the country's first democratic election.
We worked to foster a spirit of understanding, especially among the youth, by bringing together members of all races — usually for the first time.
And later, when the evil pillars of apartheid had crumbled, we funded initiatives to further constitutional reform, women's and workers' rights, education, access to land and housing and a peaceful transition to black majority rule.
Now our memories of those days, and Canada's noble support for a just and multi-racial society, are represented by a very important gift that we received in 1992.

Much more than a memento

It was at the last of our farewell parties, as we reluctantly prepared to leave for Ottawa, that Gill Marcus — then the African National Congress's chief spokesperson — stepped forward with a gift: a large and weighty coffee table book. I looked at it warily, wondering how we'd manage to jam it into our bulging hand luggage.
"I'd like you to read the dedication aloud," she said, handing the book to John and me.
John nudged it into my hands and I began what I assumed was a farewell message crafted by some ANC member of staff assigned to the task. But something about the round, even, determined script and the cadence of the sentences made me slow down. And as I got to the end, I burst into tears.
The beautiful message and the signature beneath were Nelson Mandela's own.

A copy of Mandela's letter to the Schrams. (Transcript below.) (Courtesy of the Schrams)
Transcript:

Dear John and Alena,
During your stay in South Africa we have come to know and respect you as people who care about South Africa, about our trials and tribulations, our setbacks and victories. Through your warmth and understanding and positive contributions, you have won many friends not only for yourself, but also for Canada. You have touched our hearts, and will be sorely missed. Best of luck in your new posting.
Signature
Nelson R. Mandela
1 August 1992.
The book now sits respectfully in our living room, unknown to all those many Canadians who actively participated in South Africa's fight for democracy, and for whom Mandela's message is really intended.
Occasionally we bring it out for interested guests — generally those old enough to remember that odious system of "apart-ness". Then we slip it back into its box for safekeeping.
For us it has value beyond measure, and we hope it will remain a family treasure for generations yet unborn.
Our years in South Africa proved to us that saints and heroes can live alongside evil and expediency, even in the most sophisticated societies. But a brave band of men and women determined to do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost, no matter how dim the prospect of success, can ultimately triumph.
For us it has value beyond measure, and we hope it will remain a family treasure for generations yet unborn.
Canada did the right thing. Our national moral compass, predictably, pointed in the honourable direction, as has so often been the case.
Let us hope we can continue to be a just and ethical nation in this increasingly confused and troubled world.

John Schram stands beside anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela. (Courtesy of Alena and John Schram)
Alena Schram has taught in international schools and written columns and articles for Canadian and overseas newspapers and magazines as well as for international NGOs and UN agencies. She is the author of The Opinionated Old Cow: Ruminations from the Field.

After 36 fulfilling and exciting years in Canada's Foreign Service, John Schram retired to share his experience with students at Carleton. He also lectures at Queen's University, where he is a senior fellow with the Centre for International and Defence Policy.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Googling - My Trivial Pursuit

I’m enchanted with Google. It’s so versatile: You can research your ailments and discover that every one of them is potentially fatal; and you can check on snopes.com and then ignore the warnings that service stations are fiddling with their pumps.

You can also Google yourself. I’ve done that but the results have not always been satisfactory: of the eight pages of entries under my name, 2½ are filled with background checks. I won’t go into detail but they involve a notorious namesake, a Texas Court of Appeals, and a gun.
Google allows me to see whether the person I met at a party is really as interesting as I thought he was. Or as he wanted me to think he was.
Last week, after a wonderful dinner party, I rushed upstairs to the study – yanked off my Spanx so I could think and breathe simultaneously – and hit the Google Search button on my laptop.
"What did I tell you,” I yelled down from what John calls my control panel – the desk from which I issue proclamations, edicts, and orders – “that fabulous young bartender tonight was not the star of Billy Elliot! Must have been Moira’s younger brother. The one that’s always hoping to be discovered by some talent scout.”
"I didn’t notice him, I’m afraid,” answered John, who was still contemplating the conversation he’d had with a guy from the World Bank.
What’s not to notice about a guy mixing martinis in a tutu and ballet slippers, I wondered.
Occasionally, just for recreation, I google superfluous facts. Were you aware that King Edward VIII’s proper given name was Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David? He abdicated more than 70 years ago so you can be forgiven for not knowing. But with Google’s help, I’ve memorized every syllable of his moniker. I just know that one of these days someone that’s seen the recent film The King’s Speech will stop me in the street and ask, “Do you happen to remember the proper name of King Edward VIII?” and I’ll make my public debut by rippling off this useless bit of trivia, insouciantly.
It’s tricky trying to slip such random bits of Google-gleaned information into ordinary conversation. For example, the late Pamela Harriman, America’s English-born ambassador to France, and courtesan extraordinaire, was actually Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, thanks to a number of advantageous marriages and some nimble sexual activity.
Yet inserting these details about Pamela – and her remarkable horizontal ascent – into commonplace discussion requires unique conversational contortions: “According to Google, a bar of soap tucked between the sheets really does stop night-time leg cramps, but I’m sure Pamela Harriman didn’t need such devices in bed…”
It’s not only people I look up, but unfamiliar words as well.
Homunculus!” I cried out late one night recently, yanking off the duvet.
"No. Water softener,” mumbled John from a deep sleep, anxious to allay any fears I might have.
I dashed out of the bedroom, still clutching the book containing that mystifying word, and clicked on Google. Instantly www.homunculus.com, appeared in the search results. I clicked on it. And what I got was ‘The Iconophile: an angry web geek’s multimedia reliquary of the lesser, hard-to-find goddesses and saints of the celebrity pantheon’. The site offered, helpfully, ‘Profane Images’.
"Ohmygawd,” I whispered aloud to myself, “I think I’ve hit porn!”
I slammed the computer shut and rushed back to bed.
"Porn!” I exhaled as I slipped back into bed.
"Yup," murmured John groggily, "and it backwashes every Thursday night.”

And - marvelling at how betwen John and Google - I manage to stay pretty well informed, I turned out the light.



Friday, September 12, 2014

Desperately Seeking a Specimen



Years ago, when you returned from a third-world posting, the government would generally agree to let you undergo a tropical medical examination. This was to make sure you weren’t harbouring anything sinister in your system; that you presented no danger to your friends, family or the public at large; and probably so you couldn’t sue anyone when, twenty years later, you discovered something unfortunate hiding in your liver. 



We’d been living in Lagos, Nigeria for three years. Our daughters, Elizabeth and Katherine, were tiny and vulnerable; we’d had amoebas a number of times (something caused by a microscopic creature that leaves you feeling as though you’d had a bicycle pump applied to your intestines); and John and I had travelled all over the country under dubious hygienic conditions.  We therefore thought it wise to take advantage of this entitlement and the government’s generosity.



At the time, the Toronto General Hospital was the only place in Eastern Canada able to run these tests.  Appointments were generally arranged for the morning, presumably because patients were more likely to produce the required specimens at that time of day.  



We arrived for our appointment at 8 a.m.  The waiting room -- essentially a long narrow hall with wooden chairs arranged in a row on the left, and two doors leading to the all-important toilets on the right – was already full.  There were only two unoccupied seats and John and I each took one, perching a small daughter apiece on our laps.  Within an instant of sitting down we heard our names booming out the length of the hall.



“MR. SCHRAM!  MRS. SCHRAM!  COME HERE FOR YOUR VESSELS!”   



Nonplussed and with considerable embarrassment, we headed in the direction of the voice.  There, at the end of the long hall, behind a desk, sat a grim looking nurse, an array of what looked like Chinese restaurant take-out boxes arranged before her.



“TAKE ONE OF THESE VESSELS EACH AND GIVE ME A URINE SPECIMEN,” she announced to everyone in the room, her voice echoing off the walls.  Thirty pairs of eyes seemed to follow us as we made our way back to our seats.



No problem.  The girls and I walked through the door marked “Ladies”, did as we were told, and walked out again triumphantly, lids on our little boxes.  We handed in our specimens and sat down again. 


Then we waited.   And we waited.  And we waited, as John sat quietly with his own lidless box on his lap.  Five minutes passed.  Ten minutes.  The box stayed put.  We were prepared to sit there all day if need be, but clearly the nurse wasn’t.



“MR. SCHRAM!  MR. SCHRAM!  IF YOU CAN’T GIVE ME A SPECIMEN, I’M GOING TO HAVE TO SEND YOU TO THE COKE MACHINE!” she bellowed, accusingly. 



Heads turned.  John’s ears went pink.  A sense of failure seemed to surround him.  And another five minutes passed.



“ALRIGHT, MR. SCHRAM!  THAT’S LONG ENOUGH.  YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO GO TO THE COKE MACHINE NOW!”



John got up, walked miserably the length of the hall, past the nurse who seemed to be smirking, and off to the soft drinks machine.  He returned a few minutes later, presumably better prepared for the task.



In some seven minutes the Coke had worked its magic and John too was able to produce a small, lidded container for the insufferable nurse.  Even Elizabeth and Katherine looked relieved.



Next the crucial stool specimen.  Don’t ask me how, but the girls and I were somehow –inexplicably -- able to produce something on demand.   Once again, within moments, we emerged from the ladies’ room victoriously, our boxes sealed.   You could see the pride in our steps as we marched towards the desk and plunked our boxes down.



But John was neither so fortunate, nor so glib, and again we sat there, expectantly and supportively, together.  Once again long minutes passed.  And then the inevitable reproach:



“MR. SCHRAM!  MR. SCHRAM!  IF YOU CAN’T PRODUCE SOMETHING FOR ME IN THE NEXT FIVE MINUTES, I’M GOING TO HAVE TO GIVE YOU A SUPPOSITORY AND A RUBBER GLOVE!”



Now if there’s anything that’s going to produce constriction of sphincters in a patient it’s this ultimate and public humiliation.  Unable to endure another, John submitted immediately and, like a schoolboy going for a failed test paper, he approached the gorgon in starchy white, wordlessly took the two items she seemed to be waving about, and with his box and lid, entered the Gents’.  The waiting room seemed to go silent.  An air of expectation hung heavily.



Let me just say that he eventually appeared looking mortified, furious, but noticeably pleased.  The girls and I waited for the round of applause we were sure would follow. With something of a swagger, John carried his contribution to the desk, set it down resolutely, and strode out of the room.  In fact, he strode right out of the hospital.   

When I eventually managed to catch up with him, he turned and snapped, “Alena, you and I eat together, drink together, and travel together.  Whatever I’ve got, you’ve probably got too.  So next time we need one of these things, YOU go alone and bring me back all the same medicine!”  And, of course, we’ve never been back.


Coming soon:  "The Opinionated Old Cow:  Ruminations from the Field".  It will be published in paperback the end of October and available simultaneously as an eBook from Amazon.


AN EPHRONESQUE OBSERVATION OF LIFE:  FROM THE PERILS OF FACEBOOK, THE ANNOYING TENDENCIES OF HUSBANDS WHO CO-SHOP, AND THE DEFECTIVE REARING OF GRANDCHILDREN, TO SPORTS CARS FOR THE MENOPAUSAL, BRAS THAT WINCH, AND CHIN HAIRS WITH MINDS OF THEIR OWN.

TO PURCHASE A PAPERBACK IN KINGSTON, VISIT NOVEL IDEA;
AND IN OTTAWA, TRY BOOKS ON BEECHWOOD ($20 + TAX);  
OTHERWISE ORDER FROM WWW.COWDYHOUSE.COM
ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN EBOOK FROM THE USUAL SOURCES.

 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Throwing Off the Kitchen Shackles



After a lifetime of preparing meals, I've reached my threshold. John is going to take over in the kitchen.

"I am?" he said, startled, when I told him.

Actually, when we started dating I couldn't cook at all-- unless you consider Jell-O with fruit cocktail floaters a repertoire. It didn't take John long to notice what a useless culinary wretch I was. One afternoon several months into our courtship, he passed through the kitchen of his flat where I was struggling to prepare corn on the cob – the centrepiece of my gourmet dinner – and spied four ears bobbing about upright, in a small pan of boiling water.

"What on earth is that?" he asked.

"What does it look like?" I answered, wondering what he could possibly be referring to.
And with those five ill-chosen words, our wedding was put on hold until I could get a grip. Fortunately, I had a couple of redeeming features, like big hair and legs that looked good in a mini-skirt -- important attributes for a girl in the '60s.

Once married, I quickly made up for lost time. Wine sauces were my deliverance: I smothered meat dishes in red wine sauces; poultry and vegetables in white; and poured brandy or rum over desserts. Some evenings I served all three. I was so soignée.

In those days, it was easy to appear sophisticated. If you brought out artichokes, the room fell silent. A friend who concocted a vile little first course Рa mound of jellied consomm̩ topped with a globule of sour cream and a spoonful of black caviar Рwas the talk of the town for weeks. Even gazpacho was considered urbane.

"Jeepers, what is this stuff ? It's got the consistency of a marsh floor!" exclaimed my friend Sally the first time I served it. But after that initial gagging incident, she was charmed by its pungency.

To be safe, I always began cooking supper at three in the afternoon. This gave me enough time to prepare a second meal if the first didn't turn out, with an hour left over to shower, change and tie a velvet ribbon in my hair before John came home.

There were disadvantages to this system. For one thing, the meat would turn to porridge if left simmering for four hours; for another, the sauces would dwindle away, requiring extra lashings of wine to perk them up. Often, by the time John got home at 7:30, the food was wine-logged and so, of course, was I. There I'd be, my little hair ribbon all askew, blowing welcome-home-honey kisses up at him, horizontally, from the couch.

Naturally, there were regrettable episodes in that first year. Here are three of the lessons I learned from them: First, cayenne and paprika are similar only in colour. Second, if you've never poached fish before, you'd better like gumbo.  And, finally, it's better to be known for your salmon than your salmonella. This I discovered the evening John's epicurean boss, Frank, came to dinner and our oven would only preheat.

"What exquisite salmon!" gushed Frank extravagantly, drawing a mouthful over his famed palate. "Scottish or Norwegian? Baked, right?"

There was an audible suck-in sound from John's end of the table. His promotion seemed in jeopardy.

"Close," I burbled. "Chicken. Half-baked."

But that was 13,000 meals ago. Now I was about to be liberated.

Over coffee the other day, I told my friend Lesley about John taking over in the kitchen.

"Wow," she declared, "you're brave. When I let Rob have the run of the kitchen, the first thing he served was barbecued calf’s tongue with a mustard sauce. It made me heave. The next day I was back in the kitchen."

"Sounds like a ploy to get out of cooking," I replied. "John loves a challenge. I'll probably walk in tonight and find beef tenderloin with mixed peppercorns, and something spectacular for dessert."

Pumped with anticipation, I headed home. John was in the kitchen, surrounded by every possible pot, pan and utensil, his debut meal nestled nearby on a warming platter.

"You'll love it," he enthused, grabbing some plates. "It's barbecued calf’s tongue with mustard sauce..."

Personally, I think something that's been in a calf’s mouth for a year has no business being in mine. It took me an hour and a litre of water to get the thing down. Then, I explained to John -- admittedly 18 decibels above my normal range -- that if he truly loved me, he'd prove it by learning to cook good things. He agreed.

But later in the evening something happened that gave me pause: John was sitting in an armchair quietly studying the salad section in The Joy of Cooking. Suddenly and without any warning, he jumped up and yelled, "Arugula!? Holy cow, all this time I thought it was something you blew into a handkerchief!"

Can I really entrust the next 13,000 meals to someone so daft? 


© Alena Schram

alenaschram@gmail.com

AN EPHRONESQUE OBSERVATION OF LIFE:  FROM THE PERILS OF FACEBOOK, THE ANNOYING TENDENCIES OF HUSBANDS WHO CO-SHOP, AND THE DEFECTIVE REARING OF GRANDCHILDREN, TO SPORTS CARS FOR THE MENOPAUSAL, BRAS THAT WINCH, AND CHIN HAIRS WITH MINDS OF THEIR OWN.

TO PURCHASE A PAPERBACK IN KINGSTON, VISIT NOVEL IDEA;
AND IN OTTAWA, TRY BOOKS ON BEECHWOOD ($20 + TAX);
OTHERWISE ORDER FROM WWW.COWDYHOUSE.COM. 
ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN EBOOK FROM THE USUAL SOURCES.