Having allegiance to three countries, Britain, Australia and America I felt I was inured to seemingly eccentric place names. How could I not, when faced with Cockshoot, Slackbottom and Piddletown in England, or Woolloomooloo, Come by Chance and Bong Bong in the Land Down Under, or Boring, Whynot and Lick Skillet in the US? It didn’t take me long to realise why place names are invariably followed by the state here in America. Omaha, Nebraska for example. Within this great state of Texas you can go to Paris, Rome, Delhi and Athens all within a few hundred miles of each other.
But until a recent trip to the South African bushveldt I had not come across a place called ‘Nobody’. East of Polokwane, Nobody appears as a hiccup on the horizon, an area near the University of Limpopo. Research has shown a number of explanations for the Nobody’s name. Choose whichever appeals: a farmer removed from his land declared nobody would live there in future; a haven for witches, though I couldn’t quite get the correlation to the name on that one; or the story of a hearse being sent to collect a body on the side of the road only to find no body.
I have noticed that people living in oddly named villages and towns, and even countries, have a tendency to be defensive, and will expound at great length the derivation of their chosen abode. As if the historical explanation gives credence to its oddness.
And names change with the dissolution or merging of counties and countries, and the advent of cultural sensitivity, long in coming in some instances. What was originally Uluru became Ayer’s Rock but is once again Uluru. What was Ceylon is now Sri Lanka, and so on.
One has only to think of the scramble for Africa lead by the European powers fear of missing out on the Continent’s riches, in large part a response to Leopold of the Belgians corrosive and brutal hold on the Congo, to wonder at the borders between African countries. Drawn along lines of latitude and longitude rather than taking into account tribal allegiances, those early decisions have created countries with diverse, and sometimes antagonistic, tribal groupings. Unlike Australia, Canada and America where peoples of the world have gone of their own accord.
The same strategy of drawing random boundaries can be said of the Middle East. Syria, so horribly in the news now, is made up of Armenians, Turks, Christians, Druze, Kurds and Alawite Shias and Arab Sunnis. A country so diverse in ethnicity and religious beliefs it is almost unbelievable the lines drawn after World War I, for what was to become French mandate, are still in existence. No wonder the country has had a tumultuous century, only coming out from the Emergency Law instigated in 1963 in 2011. For most of its existence it has been at war with itself, suffering through coup after coup. The Assad regime, first under the present ruler’s father Hafez, has never pretended to be anything but a dictatorship with limited protection, or seeming care, for its people.
It is a human tragedy. Another.
But I can’t decide whether the powers of today, the USA and a combination of European countries, have a moral duty to intervene, to maybe help clear up a mess made by our forefathers, or whether in those hundred years these groupings of disparate people should have figured out a way to get along.
What will intervention truly provide the people on the street? Those poor sods, on all sides, whose lives have been decimated. More bombings, but better this time because they’re wouldn’t carry chemical warheads? Maimed is still maimed. Dead is still dead.
And what of the larger picture? The countries reaching from Syria’s boundaries, or China and Russia both with significant military and economic interests and both obdurate in their vetoes to isolate the Assad regime at the UN Security Council, are poised to condemn or maybe intervene at either action or possibly inaction.
There is a hovering and very frightening uncertainty to the whole region, which by the very nature of the world today, will spill into all our lives either directly or through people we know from a global life.
Even before the chemical attacks, agreement between the US and Russia to support a peace conference in Geneva was stymied by lack of strategy to even get all sides to the table, negotiation often being perceived as weakness.
Which brings us squarely back to the deadlock on so many issues in American politics. How, one wonders will Congress be able to agree on something as monumental as another intervention in the Middle East, with all its ramifications, if they can’t negotiate how to run their own country.
I suppose we have to trust those we elect to power; those people who maybe have access to greater information, but the more I think about it, the more I think there is a lot to be said for living in a remote place like Piddletown, or Bong Bong, or even in a place called Nobody.