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Eric Kystall's lifelong fight for social justice

Eric Robert Krystall
Eric Robert Krystall. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Eric Robert Krystall swam against the tide. An ardent political activist, iconoclastic teacher, gifted development strategist and a relentless swimmer.

He is best known for his life-long commitment to solving vexing issues related to unwanted pregnancies and the AIDS scourge; the first formerly viewed as an embarrassing, unmentionable issue; the second then considered a frightening disease of unknown aetiology.

Affectionately known as Dr Eric, his passion was engaging the lives of wananchi and sharing solutions to the myriad medical problems affecting people on the continent he loved.

Eric spent his most productive years on how to educate ordinary people and others on family planning and AIDS prevention. Those fortunate to have interacted with him could not have failed to appreciate the integrity, dedication and humility he brought to his work.

He left behind the valuable legacy of pioneering puppetry as social messaging; a unique educative tool for instructing the underserved.

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How the political events of the 20th century and a measure of serendipity shaped the strong social conscience that defined Eric’s world also merits investigation.

His fascinating story begins in Lithuania where his father Nathan, as many Jewish people of his era, was born into a religious shtetl in Trishik, about 121 kilometers east of the Baltic Sea.

He left behind the valuable legacy of pioneering puppetry as social messaging

He left behind the valuable legacy of pioneering puppetry as social messaging; a unique educative tool for instructing the underserved. PHOTO | COURTESY

Nathan grew up in an ordinary, closely-knit Eastern European family where Old Testament values of justice and fair play ensured, at least in his home, the regular distribution of largesse to those in need.

Whether driven by wanderlust, the claustrophobic atmosphere of daily shtetl routine and the notorious pogroms (Christian slaughter of Jews) becoming ever more widespread, by l899 Nathan had sailed far away, leaving the old country to begin a new life in South Africa.

After serving in the Boer War, he returned to Lithuania, married and travelled back to South Africa.

Eric was born in l928 and attended Highlands North High School outside Johannesburg where a strong opposition to fascist anti-Semitism accentuated by the Second World War and the social injustices perpetrated against Jews and others in the struggle against German Nazism had begun to shape his future.

Despite bearing witness from afar, memories of Auschwitz and untold grief of six million dead would remain firmly etched in the consciousness of his and every Jewish soul.

With thoughts of training as a doctor, he aimed for medical school but after encountering several hurdles, began his university education outside Johannesburg at Witwatersrand Technical College.

There too Eric’s life in liberation politics began in the struggle against more European-inspired racial supremacy this time, in a particularly vicious form of institutionalised apartheid lasting from 1948 to the presidency of Nelson Mandela in 1994.

Out of the progressive National Union of South African Students, he became acquainted with such distinguished anti-apartheid activists as Ruth First, Joe Slovo and Albie Sachs.

Teaching stints at Detroit, Tuskegee, Alabama, Raleigh and Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Teaching stints at Detroit, Tuskegee, Alabama, Raleigh and Chapel Hill, North Carolina eventually lead to placement at the American organisation. PHOTO | COURTESY

Eric moved to London where he secured a place in Social Anthropology at the LSE (London School of Economics.) There he witnessed from afar the arrests and Treason Trials galvanising international opposition to apartheid at home in South Africa leading him to become not only an ardent supporter of the movement for freedom in that country but in future a tireless activist in all serious endeavours in which he took part.

Eric earned his PhD in Population Studies in the United States. Teaching stints at Detroit, Tuskegee, Alabama, Raleigh and Chapel Hill, North Carolina eventually lead to placement at the American organisation, Planning for Better Family Living (PBFL) where Eric was chosen to run the Kenya programme.

Eventually he would arrive at the highly imaginative idea of puppetry.

An amusing as well as unique educative tool, he educated select Kenyans in the art of puppetry thereby shaping the futures of those with whom he taught. Among the many puppet shows he organized, Puppeteers of America, Puppets Against AIDS and Puppets Against Apartheid are today the best-known throughout the development world.

His story is incomplete without mention of his second wife of 29 years, the talented artist and glassmaker Nani Croze and his brilliant son Nathan who died tragically in Peru.

Eric was an inveterate life-long swimmer, hence the title of his own autobiography, Swimming Through Life; The Abiding Optimism of an African Development Worker.

Scripted with the same moral clarity found in his many articles on family planning and AIDS prevention, and Nathan by his side, it is a highly readable compilation of personal history, pithy anecdotes and humorous asides with sharply-drawn insights into the challenges he confronted as a not insignificant player in Kenya’s evolving struggle against AIDS and often incendiary politics surrounding birth control.

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