A few days ago a letter came from Kampala, Uganda. It’s still lying on the table inside the front door, with its envelope. I haven’t put it in the bin for recycling, and nor have I thought about replying to it. It continues to lie there. What follows tries to explain why.
The brown envelope, which has a Uganda stamp and a Kampala postmark, is addressed to ‘Mr Andrew Michael Walter’: close but not quite all there. The address, not too hard to discover online, is correct. Inside, in a different hand, is a two-page letter written on lined paper in blue biro.
The story told by the writer follows a pattern familiar from similar messages, generally transmitted by email and normally from Nigeria, that were once quite common some years ago. Her father has died of AIDS/HIV and her mother is also dead, leaving her to look after a baby brother. She no longer has the money for fees to pay for the vocational course she has been following in an educational institution in Kampala (a copy of a letter from the ‘bursar’ of the institution is attached, threatening to remove her from the course if outstanding fees are not paid by the end of January). The writer warns that her efforts to get help locally lead only to ‘greedy men’ wish to take advantage of her. There is another attachment, a colour photo of (presumably) the writer herself. She finishes by asking for me to remit a sum, in euros, sufficient to pay for the final year of her college fees.
Since the narrative follows closely the format of familiar scams, it’s highly probable that this too is a trick. Even so, there must be a chance – a small or very small one – that the letter is genuine. It is, after all, quite elaborate, and the writer has gone to some lengths to support her case.
It’s not as if the letter writer’s play on my conscience has the force it might have if I’d never given a thought to supporting causes, including educational causes, in Africa. For years, for example, I’ve helped the Canon Collins Trust, an excellent body that emerged from the anti-apartheid struggle. It helps young men and women, in South Africa and more widely in sub-Saharan Africa, take advantage of opportunities in higher education.
So why is the letter still on the table? I suspect that the reason lies somewhere else, rooted in a human instinct and institution that has a long history.
Many people have paid tribute to the great writer and art critic John Berger, who died on 2 January. Some of them referred to a value that was important to him throughout his long life: hospitality. The novelist Ali Smith listened to him speaking in the British Library in 2015:
The questioner asked what Berger thought about the huge movement of people across the world. He put his head in his hands and sat and thought; he didn’t say anything at all for what felt like a long time, a thinking space that cancelled any notion of soundbite. When he answered, what he spoke about ostensibly seemed off on a tangent. He said: ‘I have been thinking about the storyteller’s responsibility to be hospitable’ … The act of hospitality, he suggested, is ancient and contemporary and at the core of every story we’ve ever told or listened to about ourselves – deny it, and you deny all human worth. He talked about the art act’s deep relationship with this, and with inclusion.
In his book A seventh man (1975) Berger wrote ‘to try to understand the experience of another it is necessary to dismantle the world as seen from one’s own place within it and to reassemble it as seen from his.’
This openness to other people and their needs echoes the institution of hospitality in most traditional societies. According to this tradition it is the duty of someone who receives a personal request from a stranger for shelter or other urgent assistance to do their best to provide help. When Odysseus, after ten years of wandering, finally arrives back on Ithaca, a wretched migrant and disguised beggar, his old friend Eumaeus the swineherd fails to recognise him but still welcomes him and offers him food and shelter. Odysseus responds, ‘I hope Zeus [Zeus Xenios – the god of hospitality] and the other gods will reward you with your heart’s desire for receiving me so kindly’. Eumaeus replies, ‘My conscience would not let me turn away a stranger in a worse state even than yourself, for strangers and beggars all come in Zeus’s name.’ (Odyssey, book 9).
For Berger hospitality ‘seems to me to be an incredibly important human capacity. And the first rule of hospitality is to accept the presence of somebody and exchange’. Whereas capitalism, he said in Ways of seeing (1973), ‘survives by forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible’, and fascism he defined as ‘one set of human beings believing it has the right to cordon off and decide about another set of human beings’.
In 2017, maybe, hospitality, in its wider, Bergerian sense, is something we should hang on to, in the face of increasing ‘narrowed interests’ and ‘cordoning off’ in the world around us. We seem to entering an age which disdains hospitality and endorses the response of Polyphemus, the one-eyed xenophobe, to Odysseus’s earlier plea for help in the name of Zeus, ‘Stranger, you must be a fool, or must have come from very far afield, to preach to me of fear or reverence for the gods’.
The letter and the envelope are still where I left them.