Into the Depths of Africa

Starting a new meditation group can be a challenge... if it means moving from tranquil New Zealand to dynamic South Africa

Starting a new meditation centre - occasionally moving to a new town or state - is a challenge that many of Sri Chinmoy's students have gladly taken. Few, however, have moved to the other side of the world. Abhijatri and Balarka Robinson are among the exceptions, bravely offering to move from their established Centre in Auckland, New Zealand (population: around 1 million, crime rate: low) to Johannesburg, South Africa (population: around 10 million; crime rate: not low). Fortunately, the two brothers were not wholly unacquainted with southern Africa. They were born and raised in Zimbabwe – which is no preparation for South Africa, mind you. "Zimbabwe is a country where the people have a very powerful heart quality," says Abhijatri. "They're not really that interested in success as such, whereas in Johannesburg, everybody is focused on making money and getting ahead. That's what it's like in big cities." After studying in America, Balarka went to Auckland in 1995, and joined the local Sri Chinmoy Centre soon afterwards. Lured by his stories of New Zealand beauty and splendour, Abhijatri followed him a few months later - both to the city and to the Centre. A few years later, they found themselves moving to Johannesburg (Jo'burg, to those who call it home), the largest city in South Africa. The move was not without trepidation, but once the decision was made, they said goodbye to New Zealand almost immediately, taking only their basic supplies. "We made very little preparation, apart from packing up the flat," says Abhijatri. "We started in South Africa with 50 kilos of gear, which included all our meditation class things and our clothes. Financially, we had some help from the New Zealand Centres and whatever money we happened to have saved up. "It was a bit of a shock, even when we finally got there," adds Balarka. "It took about three months to get used to the idea, feel more comfortable about being there and be whole-heartedly inspired by doing classes. It's probably like that for most people starting new Centres." Fortunately, they had friends who lived near Jo'burg. They had also visited the country as children, during the days of Apartheid. This, however, was meagre preparation. "It's a big city, very money-minded, with lots of crime and all the remnants of the racial problems of the past," says Balarka. "Johannesburg was not a place we had any familiarity with whatsoever. It's not the sort of place you go to as a tourist." They had arrived in a new country, unsure of where to start, still a little fazed by what they were doing... and trying to teach (and demonstrate) the benefits of meditation. Of course, this would not be achieved all at once. Step one: find a location. "This is a bit of a challenge when you find yourself in a completely new city, which is huge," says Abhijatri. "There are so many places where you can potentially start a Centre. You look at this big city and you think 'Where's the heartland of the city? Where should we start?' We just drove around, looked at places, got a feeling for what we thought was right." OK, so maybe we need step 1a: just surrender to your fate, and allow things to fall into place... Abhijatri recalls: "One day we rang up four potential properties in the paper, and got a series of answer-phones and no-replies. One of them, about an hour later, rang up because she'd seen a 'missed call'. I hadn't even left a message. It was an Indian lady who was extremely kind to us. In the end, we took that place. That was the right kind of area, the right price range. We felt that we were led to exactly the right spot." Step two: give the classes. Both of the brothers had taught meditation in New Zealand. "But it's very different giving classes in a new country, without the back-up of a big Centre," says Abhijatri. "You're establishing something completely new. Even in your own life, you've got to be much more focused. It really forces you to go deeper into your own spiritual life." They also faced the cultural differences. "The thing that we always liked about New Zealand was the awareness of culture," says Balarka. "It was a melting pot: people getting along very well together. South Africa is ten years on from apartheid, but when you go there - whether you're a black person, a white person, an Indian - there's a predetermined role. You have to be much more aware of culture and race while you're there, because although people are not racist any more, there's a way that society has developed. You have to go beyond that when you're teaching meditation and running a Centre." Step three: focus on the strengths of your location. Fortunately, the challenges of South Africa could be taken as advantages. "People are suffering from the same essential human maladies," says Balarka, "but for South Africa, there's a whole element of people having suffered, and also a situation now where everything's still changing. On the positive side, there's a lot of new stuff that's happening, and people are looking forward to a brighter future. But there's also the idea that all these things are changing, so people don't know their future. In that sense, there's more of a hunger for meditation. The meditation Centre in Johannesburg is growing steadily. When not introducing new students to meditation, the brothers have been able to use their new location for other projects, crossing the border to visit other nations as part of Sri Chinmoy's Oneness-Heart-Tears and Smiles humanitarian service project. Yet they still can't explain what inspiration possessed them to move to South Africa -- and moreover, what made them do it so quickly, leaving behind the beauty (and the large meditation family) of New Zealand. "That was a bit of a shock," admits Abhijatri. But the rewards of the past two years have been great. "I think we've gotten over that now."