Gaining perspective about my time in Ukraine

As I continue to explore the theme ‘Surrender,’ and it being 3 months since I went to Ukraine, I have finally got time to reflect and write about it.  I’ve got to be honest with you. I have struggled writing about my experience in Ukraine because my experience was completely different to what I had expected it would be. It’s taken me some time to understand it; to understand what I did experience versus what I wanted to experience.

When I went to Ukraine, I was faced with some unforeseen challenges that shaped my experience into something completely different to what I had expected it would be. To appreciate it and learn from it, I’ve had to acknowledge how focusing on my expectations and not on what it was, led to some feelings of disappointment, like it was ‘less.’ My expectations were that I would meet and get to know many more Ukrainians than I did. I would spend much more time with them than I did. I would be able to interview them in the way that I normally do. When this did not happen as much as I wanted it to happen, I felt disappointed and frustrated and this blinded me to what my experience really was and the insights and lessons available to me. I had to let go of my expectations for me to see it for what it is and the value in the experience.

Since getting back to South Africa, I’ve also had to get stuck into my photography work. I have been completely focused on my day job (!) which is an agricultural and commercial photographer! Simply put, I’ve needed to replenish the bank account since going to Europe and it’s absorbed me and it’s been necessary!  At the same time, I often think of the incredible Ukrainians I met and how I want to tell you about them; how what they are experiencing is real and heart breaking. How tears rolled down an old man’s eyes when I told him that people as far as the southern tip of Africa, are thinking of them, support them and care about what is happening to them.

I need to tell you about my experience in Ukraine, that was neither what I expected nor what you would expect from a photographer and writer going to a warzone. I need to let go of all those expectations and write from the heart and tell you what this time was for me in the way of the Ukrainians I met, the volunteers I met and how this experience has taught me so much about my own life and what I will do (and what I won’t do) in the future. I have come back to South Africa knowing so much more about myself and about how to go forward with Rosie Goes and of course, so much more about the Ukrainians and what they are experiencing.

When I was debating whether to go to Ukraine or not, I asked myself some hard questions. Why would I go to Ukraine? I hardly knew anything about it prior to this war.

I was invited to join a group of volunteers (who are also my incredible friends!) and who were raising funds and delivering food and essential supplies to Ukraine from Germany and the Czech Republic every two weeks on their weekends. Other than that and the news, I honestly knew very little about Ukraine – probably not enough in most people’s minds to go there and experience it during a war.

There were many possible reasons for me to do something like this. Reasons that would justify me going and reasons that would not. Was this trip aligned with Rosie Goes and the theme I am exploring, ‘To surrender.’ Or was it something else? Was it many things? Why would I do such a thing as a South African who knew very little about Ukraine?

Some people have put it down to a midlife crisis. And maybe that’s part of it, although I would not call it a crisis, but rather a massive life change that is aligned with being true to myself and choosing not to live my life in a box that I did not fit. A crisis would also suggest that once I’ve got this trip and experience out of my system, I would come to my senses. I’d remember the plot, and get back in my box! But this is the thing, this is not a once off – this is a way of life I am choosing, one that fulfils me, and gives me a purpose that sets my soul on fire!

Another reason for me going to Ukraine, is literally because I asked for it. I put it out there that I wanted an experience that was ‘out of Africa’ and that would give me insight into the theme ‘surrender/acceptance.’ My ‘out of Africa experience’ came via Facebook a couple weeks later, though at the time, I was not clear how Ukraine was linked to the topic I am exploring.

I was invited to go to Ukraine but I needed to get there within the next couple of weeks. In 2 weeks, I needed to get my finances in order, receive an invitation from the Ukraine government, drive to Joburg and apply for a Ukrainian visa, then apply for a Schengen visa which can take weeks …all in the month of April when South Africa is full up with public holidays and literally shuts down for the month! I decided to go if the ‘seemingly impossible’ happened in the time it needed to happen and if things just flowed! And it did, like magic! I took it as a sign that this is something I should do.

The ultimate decision maker came in the way of a brief interaction with a fuel pump attendant. I had just filled up my tank and was evidently surprised by the price of fuel and the amount I needed to pay. The man looked at me, then said, ‘We should be supporting Russia. If we support what they are doing in Ukraine, we would not be paying these prices.’

I did not react to his comment but it gave me absolute clarity about what I feel strongly about and that Ukraine feels so far away from us and so foreign to us South Africans. It’s easy to make a thoughtless comment that suggests it’s okay for the Russians to kill Ukrainians in a hostile land grab, because we cannot see their faces. It’s easy to make a comment without thinking about what you are really saying and supporting.  It’s also easy to turn our heads away from abuse, because it serves us. To side with the bully, and they feed us their crumbs and fool us into thinking it’s loaves of bread, until it happens to you. That day when you are fighting for your life and I turn my head and walk away because it does not serve me to stand up for you.

I realised that I simply had an opportunity that not many others have had, to know more. To put a face to the Ukrainians, and when we are commenting about what to support and what not to support, we see a person.

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
― Virginia Woolf

In the next couple posts, I will continue to share with you what I did experience and how it’s taught me some more about what it is to surrender to ‘what is’ before we can move forward. How having expectations about how something should be, can stop us seeing what we need to see and not always what we want to see.

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