A grand entrance to a grand city

2010-10-07 00:00

THIS is a story that lifts me up and then lets me down gently, wondering. I’m local, but for me the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station is neither a hallowed historical site nor “just the Maritzburg station”.

I lower The Witness and turn to my 10-year-old daughter.

“Have you ever been to the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station?” I ask. Her answer lies in stark contrast to the story that I am reading about the schoolboy dream of India’s Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi. I am enthralled with words that are so seldom committed to print, words that weave connecting threads, a sense of delight, a cherished visit.

I feel for David Gengen and his wife Gloria. It is nice to know her name and that she has a heart for history. I know their sense of helplessness and hopelessness when they see their hard work being trashed by the 9 am passengers who alight and litter with probably what amounts to happy Friday-night revelry.

Perhaps this feeling is a bit like what Mahatma Gandhi felt when he was flung from the train on that historic June day. Perhaps the garbage that now lies about reflects this feeling too. Abused and unwanted. Yet it is from this station that Gandhi made the decision to walk in humble acceptance towards determined change that went at first (like Gengen’s attempt to clean up the litter) unnoticed, until it gained critical mass to move a people. It was an emotional choice to act with

reverence, no matter what the circumstances. It was an emotional choice to lead transformation.

And my connection to the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station? I was 17 when I arrived by train and stood for the first time, at the top of the stairs, in wonder at the grandeur of the scene. From that moment, all my experiences have in some way or another, been caught up in the face of the beautiful city that lay at my feet, comforted by the life-giving green arms that embraced her.

It is these experiences that allow me to share in this story.

And yet, now, for the first time, I look through new eyes at The Witness story highlighting a young boy’s dream to visit our city, to make a pilgrimage to the place of Gandhi’s discardment, the story of our mayor’s embarrassment over the “just Maritzburg station” and the locals’ misplaced sense of place.

It is with these eyes that I look again at my daughter and hear her say, “No, I’ve never been to the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station.” It is these eyes that recall a recent visit to Henryville Primary School where I asked, “Who has had a picnic along the river and along the banks of the Msunduzi River?” and I saw no raised hands.

It is with these eyes that I see Mike Tarr’s hopefulness that a commissioned study to upgrade the station precinct will ameliorate the neglect and abuse which the area suffers at the hands of its locals.

And this is where the story lets me down. I wonder why I have never taken my daughter to see the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station and show her my first view of this beautiful city. I wonder why I have never taken her for a picnic along the Duzi. I wonder why I have not thought to show her how to polish brass plaques and why, as we watch the neglected letters emerge, I haven’t told her Gandhi’s story.

I wonder too if perhaps in this education capital of South Africa, we are missing out on the greatest learning opportunities of all, — the opportunity to collectively and emotively make and maintain a grand entrance, a grand city and gentle green hills.

Let’s not miss the opportunities to realise a future that includes our childhood dreams.

• Pandora Long is an education, training and development practioner specialising in integrating arts, culture and environment.

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