Swimming against the tide for social change and justice

Sunday November 6 2011

Dr Erik Krystall. Picture: By A Correspondent

Dr Erik Krystall. Picture: By A Correspondent 

A fascinating new addition to Nairobi’s growing collection of home-grown biographies, memoirs and autobiographies including histories of individuals written by others is Eric Krystall’s uplifting, irreverent new memoir, Swimming Through Life.

A more apt title would have been Swimming Against the Tide as for the better part of his 83 years, Dr Krystall has been bucking conventional wisdom by diving into the deep-end of movements for social change.

In hitching himself to the zeitgeist of the 20th century’s most passionate political struggles, he has navigated successfully the murky waters of the donor-aided development industry.

As an insider, his penetratingly honest pen portraits provide rare insights into that world of “collusion between patronising donors and bungling local officials.”

An internationalist in outlook stemming from various lives spent in South Africa, Britain, America and Africa, he ultimately made his home in Kenya.

To keep his hectic life centred and sane, each day he meditates in his sanctuary: The calmer shallows of the Indian Ocean or when inland, his Kitengela pool where for hours he breaststrokes his worries away.

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Born into a African Jewish family in South Africa in l928, it was a Johannesburg rabbi (teacher), a fervent upholder of the Hebrew tikkun olam (repairing the world), who would give context and shape to the young Erik’s future.

Indeed, Dr Krystall’s early identification with the struggles of people of colour over Afrikaner/British racial inequality thrust him into a lifelong commitment to the underserved.

His entry point in development work was the global demographic explosion… Although recognised as the catalytic factor underlying massive material deprivation among the world’s ordinary citizenry, environmental degradation, resource depletion, disease pandemics and global warming, drastic population reduction continues to be a political hot potato, with ministers of planning/health everywhere except China, fearing rejection at the ballot box refusing to face it head on.

Equipped with a degree in social anthropology from the London School of Economics, Erik Krystall moved to America where population studies at the University of Michigan consumed most of his working hours.

After a stint at the Tuskegee Institute, a university constructed in l881 in the American South for the children of freed slaves, he returned to Africa to manage the Nairobi-based United Nations family planning program.

Although Dr Krystall saw first-hand improprieties at such institutions as the World Bank, until the early l980s his offices at Longonot Place generally saw continued progress.

Then he began noticing “the greasy smell of funny business,” fearlessly relating some unfortunate stories of “irregularities” by a few individuals. Taking early retirement, he devoted himself to other concerns including the de-stigmatisation of Aids victims through the imaginative use of puppetry and to community service through the Rotary Club.

Among his many achievements, Dr Krystall had an uncanny eye for connecting with visionaries… and in him they also found a kindred spirit.

A panorama of the world’s luminaries unfolds as population issues and politics led him to many iconic individuals. Often vilified in their early years, many were to become venerated historical figures; a few today’s heroes.

In South Africa, he would meet the future Nobel-prize-winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela’s housing minister and ANC leader Joe Slovo.

Friends in high places

In England, he came to know Romilla Thapar who would become a renowned Indian historian while in America, leading civil rights leaders Stokely Carmichael and Tom Hayden and, novelist Saul Bellow were known to him personally.

In Kenya, young minister for finance Mwai Kibaki and many more were among his colleagues, workmates and friends. Having met so many Nobodies before they became Somebodies, a needful chapter was appended to the work as a list of notables and others entitled “And whatever happened to…”

Dr Krystall’s strength of character was also reflected in his choice of life partners.

His current wife Nani Croze is the noted stained-glass artist whose colourful mosaics grace many of Nairobi’s newer buildings.

They live together in the bush at her Kitengela Glass Studio surrounded by a close-knit community of technicians and their families as well as a huge menagerie of beloved dogs, baboons and other wild animals that visit.

His former wife Abigail, a no less formidable woman, was a brainy proposal writer, project designer and evaluator for several of the city’s NGOs.

Here the question arises: With so many thousands of these new self-published, personal histories in print each year — a miniscule number becoming classics with the rest falling into the liars club of outright fabrication — why should anyone bother reading them?

Especially since irritating self-promotion (what a great man am I!), mudslinging (airing long-standing grievances against others), shallow observations passed off as profound judgments, and other shameful forays into the muck are too often the order of the day?

Fortunately, Dr Krystall had the great luck of having Nathan as his son as the younger Krystall is a truly gifted wordsmith. The book is the product of a father-and-son team, as the elder Krystall narrated his stories to his son.

It was a worthy effort; Nathan’s language is as earthy and authentic as it is devoid of the pitfalls mentioned above.

Dr Krystall’s kaleidoscopic whirl through the decades is not only a moving testimony to a long, worthy life, but also, inadvertently, to the great good time he managed to have along the way.

Yes, there is so such much to learn here, the often shark-infested waters of the aid industry notwithstanding.

Eric Krystall, a man of integrity and imagination who knows the art of living, of how to make intelligent choices that also enrich the lives of so many others. Echoing Nathan, keep on swimming Dr Krystall.