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There are two certainties in life

This evening I had the pleasure of listening to Shirish and Ruweida Soni speak at a meeting of the International Rotary Club of Astana. Shirish is in the last month of his four year long appointment as the South African Ambassador to Kazakhstan and gave a truly inspirational talk about his life growing up in a divided country. He spoke of his time supporting the underground ANC movement and of his fight to regain his spirit after his arrest and months of solitary confinement and torture. Though the support and encouragement of Ruweida he was able to rebuild physical and mentally despite doctors lack of hope. He also talked of what could have been a life ending experience of when he and his wife, awoke at gunpoint as their home was burgled by the very people he had almost given his life to for their right to freedom. Here he was the support for Ruweida nursing her back to health after this devastating experience.

Shirish, a Hindu and his wife Ruweida, a muslim have been married for many years and have united their families through their love and respect for each others religion. Shirish shared how he had been lost for words when had had first asked Ruweida on a date and, certain that he would never find anyone as beautiful and wonderful, asked her to marry him on their second date: they were married ten short days after they had that first date. Now with two grandchildren and another on the way they have come through some very challenging times yet their love and admiration for each other is evident in a room full of strangers.

Both Shirish and Ruweida are both passionate about meditation and a follower of the visionary Ravi Shankar. He encouraged all of us to make sure that at least once a week we make ourselves a VIP – taking time to sit quietly, relax, recharge and take care of own wellbeing. He had at the beginning of his talk said that he would share a tool with us. This tool was about how by taking care of ourselves we would then be in a better place to take care of others. He highlighted the eight areas that he and his wife see as the key areas of their lives they work on to ensure they have synergy:

Spiritual, Mental Health, Physical Health, Career, Finance, Charity, Recreation, Family

All are interlinked and whatever goal you may have, to achieve it fully all eight areas will be involved. Here I am at the start of a new chapter in my life that focuses heavily on my career but I will need to ensure that I do take some time for myself to preserve my spiritual and mental health and make time to exercise for my physical health. As I build a new life here in the city that is my home for at least the next couple of years I need to build a new extended family through different activities for recreation whilst maintaining my close family. Finance is necessary to do enable me to do all of the above to a certain extent but it will be my time that I will give to charity. More valuable than money, time is giving of you personally. Sharing your experiences, supporting others and being involved in making connections to make life that little bit better than it was before.

Shirish refers to the butterfly effect – when we make changes in even a small way to our lives and that of others who know what the repercussions and ongoing effects could go.

There are only two certainties in life: we will all die sometime and everything changes!




Kazakh National Days – a lot to celebrate!

Since 1991 the country, under their first President, Nursultan Nazarbayez either directly or indirectly has been instrumental in making Kazakhstan the nation it is today:

  • First former Soviet state to become nuclear free
  • Country elected to the UN Human’s Rights Council
  • Election of hosting the 2017 World Expo
  • Country became chair of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe
  • Country chaired the Organisation for the Islamic Community
  • Part of the World Trade Organisation
  • First Asian country to earn a credit rating by Standard and Poor’s
  • Pay back all IMF loans in 7 years
  • Nurture an Olympic Team that would win 7 gold medals at London 2012 Olympics


Kazakhstan has every right to be proud of it’s achievements both as a nation and as a part of the global economy and to acknowledge some very important cultural, religious and political landmarks with national holidays:

  • New Year, January
  • Orthodox Christmas Day, January
  • International Women’s Day – March
  • Nauryz, March – also known as Iranian New year this festival marks the vernal equinox and the start of spring. It has been celebrated for over 3000 years in Central Asia and following independence became an important part of the annual calendar. The festival of Nauryz has, since 2009, been on the UNESCO’s list of Intangible Heritage and Humanity events.
  • Unity Day , May – with over 131 ethnicities represented in this diverse nation a day to celebrate those who make up the nation of Kazakhstan is a colourful and exiting time
  • Defender of the Fatherland, May – A time to pay tribute to those who dedicate and have dedicated their lives to protect their native lands
  • Victory Day, May – This day marks the unconditional surrender of Germany in Moscow at the end of WW2 and to remember those who fell in this conflict
  • Day of the Capital, July – A day celebration of Astana, the capital since 1997
  • Constitution Day, August – Marking the day that the independent peoples of Kazakhstan approved the new draft consitution in 1995
  • Kurban Bairam – Islamic festival also known as Eid al-Adha
  • President’s Day , December – celebrating the election of the first president in 1991 and acknowledging his achievements
  • Independence Day, December – Marking independence from the Soviet Union in 1991


Christmas Cracked!

The Easter Eggs are on the shelves and hot-cross buns are back in the bakers despite it being 12th Night so I guess that we are now in the run up to Christmas!

So as we count down the 360 days until Christmas I thought I would do a little research into the myths, mis-truths, history and facts that make up the festival that never seems to end.

“Four calling birds” from that very popular Christmas song is a misquote – it should read “Four colly birds”. Colly birds are another name for blackbirds. The song can be traced back to the times of Henry VIII when it is said to have been sung by Catholic children in Protestant times. Each verse is said to be code for different religious messages.

The Twelve Days of Christmas themselves are the days from Christmas to Epiphany so from sundown on 24th December until sundown on 5th January. The feast of Epiphany is said to mark the arrival of the wise men from the East and is celebrated on 6th January.

It was  Pope Julius 1 who, in the 4th century, declared 25th December as the date of the birth of Jesus. This date coincided with Winter Solstice and return of the sun Pagan festivals and it was hoped that it would replace previous celebrations.

In 1752 Great Britain and America moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar despite many other countries had been using this calendar since Pope Gregory XIII introduced it in 1582. Today some Christians still celebrate Christmas as it would have been in the Julian calendar – around 7th January.

The very popular Christmas song Jingle Bells was written for Thanksgiving in 1857. On 16th December, 1965 it became the first Christmas song to be sung in space thanks to the crew of Gemini 6.

It is commonly said that Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in 1647. However, it appears that it was the excessive feasting, frivolity and merriment that he banned considering it immoral on a Holy Day. This ban was not removed until 1660.

There is another law that has not been repealed, that of the Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551. The act states that all must attend a Christmas service and that no vehicle must be used to get to the service.

The abbreviation of Christmas to Xmas is common and often thought to be disrespectful. The letter X is the Greek abbreviation for Christ so perhaps not so disrespectful after all.

The first Christmas cards were commissioned by a civil servant, Sir Henry Cole, in 1843. The picture on the card was that of a family drinking wine. It was not until 1915 that Hallmark begun producing Christmas cards commercially.

To date, the best selling Christmas song is White Christmas written by Iriving Berlin and sung by Bing Crosby.

Christmas Pudding was originally a soup made with raisins and wine.

Boxing Day, the day after Christmas Day is so called as it was the day when money collected in church alms boxes was given to the village poor.

The average Christmas Tree is 15 years old.

Christmas Dinner in Early England was a pigs head smothered in mustard. In the Middle Ages swans and peacocks were the choice of the wealthy and were part of a lavish meal. The birds would be basted with saffron and melted butter.

There are two sets of Christmas Islands: one in the Pacific Ocean, the other in the Indian Ocean.

Mince pies date back to the 16th century. It is thought that the original filling recipe of meat, dried fruit and spices was brought back by the Crusaders. One a day should be eaten during the 12 Days of Christmas to bring good luck in the next 12 months.

Postmen in Victorian Britain wore red uniforms and were often referred to as robins. This may be why the robin is such a popular feature on Christmas Cards.

…must be time to get on with the Christmas shopping now!











Whakatane is the kind of place where people out walking along the river greet you and when the fire siren sounds everyone stops, looks at each other and scans the skyline quizzically. It has only one ‘dollar’ shop (which is having a sale) but more coffee shops, hair and beauty salons and clothes shops on it’s high street than I have seen in a very long time.

According to Maori oral legend the area around Whakatane has been a fortified village since the first Polynesian settlers arrived around 1200. It was an incident which happened some 200 years after these first settlers arrived which gave the settlement it’s name. When the Mataatua waka (sea faring canoe) arrived bearing the first kumara the canoe was left on the shoreline but began to drift in the changing tide. One of the village woman had gone against tradition and lead the other woman folk in paddling the canoe to safety calling out ‘Kai whakatane au i ahua’ – I will act like a man.

After European settlers arrived Whakatane became an important centre for ship building and trade in the 1880’s. In the 1930’s a paper mill opened which along with beer production is still part of the local economy alongside agriculture, forestry and tourism.

In the 1990’s a few North Island brown kiwis were found in the scenic reserve on the hill. The Kiwi Project was set up to protect these endangered birds leading to Whakatane being more recently known as the Kiwi Capital of the World.

Russian Banya experience – Moscow August 2003

I came across some travel notebooks from previous adventures. This is the second from a trip to Russia visiting an old school friend who was working there.

Gypsy cabs – Lada car owners making extra cash.

400 roubles gets you a cubicle for clothing – all 5 of us in one. Into main area – marble like benches, large plastic bowls. Towels and modesty off and shower. Into hot room lined with pine, pine steps and staging – heat rises. Varying sizes and shapes – many with super tans. Women in charge opens metal door in the wall to the fires of hell and adds water to raise the temperature and humidity. She throws essential oils at and around us. After a while more water is added to the hot coals and the humidity soars – all bar the most hardy exit fast. Head to the ‘pool’. Very cold, a shock but welcome exhilarating experience after next hot session. In main hall pampering begins. Body scrubs, face masks, hair conditioning, scrubbing. Option to gently and not so gently hit all over with ‘bring your own’ birch and juniper branches. Silky smooth skin and clear nasal passages. Must be a welcome escape and relief from the bitter winter cold. Fur coats and jackets abandoned for towels and tea-cosy hats. Coming out would be awful.

A vignette from a train – Moscow to St Petersburg August 2003

I came across some travel notebook from previous adventures. This is the first from a trip to Russia visiting an old school friend who was working there.

Triple glazing

One half of carriage faces backwards

Two seats on each side, 64 in all

Carriage 11 – many more!


AC took a while

Man with crisps and drinks

Smelly, undesirable toilet

Plenty of leg room

Table pulls up between chairs

Window blinds

Non-opening windows

Wooden houses amid small allotments

Varying in size and style

Larger the further out of Moscow

Trees, lots of trees!

Silver birch

Scots pine?

Cloud cover, full

2 ½ hours from Moscow

Houses seem to have double windows

Its summer

Green seats covered with blue swirly patterned stretch covers. My water bottle tucked into the seat pocket along with an empty crisp packet. The air previous filled with acid toilet smells is tainted with strong, sweet perfume as a passenger returns to her seat. Two older ladies in front: one blond, the other dark wearing a hair bun net and frill. Across the passage what seems like a family. Dad sleeps with chair fully back. Mum in seat behind dressed in pink is petite, phone around her neck, heads to the toilet. Waves of previous smell wafts back. Her daughter, equally petite sits by the window reading a very old book and making pencil marks at foot of page. She has and still is eating small orange coloured fruits – slightly larger than a marble. Splitting their apparently soft flesh with her nails showing a small stone. She sucks away the flesh and moves on to the next one. Mum has returned to her seat now in different pink clothing. No other travellers are visible. Ruth dozes rocking with the jerky movement of the train. Two guide books lie on the table promising delights and sights.




Year 6 Graduation proud to have been part of these young people’s lives.

One of the many traditions which have become embedded in the culture of the school I opened in 2004 is the Year 6 Graduation. This year’s was at the Westin and, like every other year, featured speeches made by Year 6 students. Awards were given for academic and personal achievements and the evening finished with the Headteacher’s awards. This was the speech I gave this year before announcing the recipients of this year’s Headteacher awards:

As I look around the room tonight I see a sea of purple. You may be in any colour of the rainbow but because you are part of our Safa family you are, without any doubt, always going to be purple. And it is the same shade of purple that I see, so it does not matter how long you have been part of our family – you are still purple!

And now the serious bit, where I try and give you some advice for living the game of life:

There are times in all our lives when we face crossroads and have to make a decision. There may be only two choices or there may be many and we will take time to weigh up the pros and cons of each option. We may take the road which most of our friends will take so we will not be alone on the journey. Sometimes we are either persuaded by other people or by what appear to be better options to take a different road, perhaps not your first, second or even third choice. There are times where the decision on which road is made for you without you being part of the choice. You have all been faced with decisions like this this year and will face many more such decisions as you journey through life.

Keeping all this in mind, I think it is not just the choice of road that will make the difference in the long run; rather it is the way we choose to travel and it is choose as we can make a conscious decision on this.

You could choose to battle your way along the road butting heads with those you meet which will, in the long run, make the journey very difficult and draining. You will miss opportunities that come your way with your resistance. You will miss out on the friendships and people who would help guide us. This may be the right road for you but you will not benefit from it as you should or could if you had chosen a different way to travel.

You could choose to question your way along the road looking for justification, validation and reassurance while being suspicious of those around you. Why am I here? Where are we going? Is this the right road? I think the other roads are better! Criticising the choice and the options available perhaps out of a lack of self belief that you cannot get to the end and the fear of failure is looming. This will make your journey hard for both you and those who are also on the same road. You will miss out on the exhilarations of the new experiences along the way which will shape you as a person. 

You could choose to set out with an open mind considering every opportunity and friendship along the way. You could welcome the challenges which face you bravely and with a ‘can do’ attitude knowing that you will have help and support around you. You may find yourself battling or questioning which is no bad thing but you will be doing so with an open minded perspective. You will share the experiences with those who are like minded and are on the same pathway establishing friendships for life.

So, to sum up…make a conscious choice on how you travel each journey in life.

There will be changes: look on every change as an opportunity, you never know what is round the corner.

View every closed door as a new beginning, open everyone: you never know what is behind it – yes it might be a surprise (booh!) or challenge but it might lead to new and better things.

I know that you leave Safa with a suitcase bursting with academic and life skills to take with you on your journey all neatly filed and labelled and ready for you to pull out, whatever life throws at you because….every cloud has a purple lining…

And no matter where you go

No matter what you do

You will always take a piece of Safa with you!