By Roger G McDonald
On March 30 2010, as KasCare founders, Sandy and I were standing on a dusty football pitch in a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa.
We were there meeting volunteers of a British-based charity, Oasis. They had accepted our offer of knitted squares for blankets for their housing program for poverty stricken squatters.
Some of our volunteers took packs of squares and ran a blanket sewing workshop. It was very moving.
Orphans on today’s scale were scarcely imaginable
As a journalist in Africa during the 1970s Zimbabwe independence war, I had seen some pretty awful things. But AIDS was still unknown then, and even in a bloody, modern war, orphans on today’s scale were scarcely imaginable.
On last year’s trip I gained a sense that a bigger story was forming. KasCare’s Knit-a-square project was successful, and growing. Thousands of knitters around the world were sending tens of thousands of 8”/20cm squares to South Africa. There, more volunteers sewed them into blankets for AIDS orphans and abandoned children.
Like the aftermath of a flood or other disaster, the project addressed one essential and immediate need—warmth. And it did it visibly, colourfully and emotionally for both giver and receiver. But it didn’t tackle the root of the problem, or propose a solution.
I began to see that KasCare, as the umbrella organisation, had a bigger job to do, over years, even decades. I tried to break it down into logical steps. They looked like this:
1. raise awareness—what’s the problem?
2. translate awareness into information—what are the facts?
3. convert information into knowledge—what’s the strategy?
4. galvanise knowledge into action—what do you want us to do?
5. guide action into change—who can we influence?
6. transform change into wisdom—see what we can achieve, together.
I took notes. And because the subject is such an emotional one, the thoughts behind my notes gravitated into verse.
Verse, rhyme and music are traditionally favoured as a means of memory. In the age before mass literacy, they were often the only method of passing on oral and aural history. Think how easily we retain nursery rhymes.
For me, good poetry is a glorious distillation of language. It is a deliberate way of zeroing in on a topic and, in as few words as possible, enriching and refining the subject till it sings in the ear and slips off the tongue.
Good poems are like a degustation meal—morsels of intense flavour that leave you with a sense of completeness; a meal in themselves. Or like harmony in music. Your brain needs no conscious effort to know that sounds work well together. Poetry does this for us too.
What’s the point of rhymed verse?
Robert Frost famously described free verse—poetry largely without regular rhyme, rhythm or metre—as like playing tennis without a net. Whether the contemporary preference for free verse reflects an eye for post-modernism, poetic bankruptcy, or simply a lack of talent, is not for me to say.
I can say that poetry was invented to be heard. It was a recited art. Lyricism—having a musical feel while relating personal feelings—was highly regarded.
As it evolved, distinctive styles formed according to that mystical confluence of supply and demand. Popularity or the pits. Those who came up with innovations, or twists on existing formulae/standards, thrived. Those who didn’t, dwindled.
Rime ain’t a cryme
Song lyrics today, even in songs apparently bent on the destruction of all musical conventions, still overwhelmingly rely on end-rhymes.
All I ask of a poem or lyrics is that, after I’ve read it, they leave me with a better feeling for, or understanding of, an aspect of our lives.
On our return to Melbourne, we gave away the family business to concentrate on KasCare and the Knit-a-square program. Our long planned African family reunion, saved for cent by cent over many years, is now a year-old memory. How fateful that we could combine it with meeting and helping KasCare at the coal face, and seeing the extent of the problem at first hand.
In the 1930s, the poets W.H. Auden and Louis Macniece, journeyed to Iceland. Their reasons were various but their outcome unique: a remarkable book, Letters from Iceland.
The book is less widely known than their more distinguished works. But it offers whimsical, wry and sometimes funny observations on many aspects of the country, the people and their relationship with place and time.
Much of it was written in verse, their favourite metier, and in the form of a journal.
A small book over the coming months
I’ve written something similar though smaller and want to share it with you. Rather than torture you with a small book of verse, I’ll dribble it out a little at a time over the coming months.
These lines are my small tribute to every single KasCare volunteer. They pay homage to anyone who has picked up their needles or crochet hook, posted a parcel of squares, raised or given hard-earned donations, posted to our website, or simply given us encouragement.
They tell the story of our journey from our home in Australia to meet our family and KasCare volunteers in their work for AIDS orphans and abandoned children in Africa. I hope they do so with love, affection and humility.
Our Qantas Jumbo squats on Melbourne tar.
Mechanically, it wouldn’t be aware
Of jumbos where we’re going, nor know how far
its metal wings will carry us to where
our knitting waits in judgement on us there.
It wouldn’t know that Africa will be
our destination. All it knows is air,
and thrust and lift, but not the poetry
of yarn denied its alloyed brain. We stare
at its unlikelihood. It doesn’t care.
(to be continued)