Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Barry Eustice – a personal tribute

Barry Eustice died last week and Botswana is a slightly poorer country because of it.

Barry was well-known throughout Botswana for his charitable walks, walks that covered Botswana but also other countries, raising many millions for the disabled wherever he went. I’m not going to repeat all the dates, distances and achievements, many others are better placed to report on those. Yes, he got an MBE for his achievements but that wasn’t what impressed people.

Barry was a role model, a demonstration of the spirit that can overcome the greatest of disabilities and was living proof that whatever fate throws at you there is always room for a smile. Well, in Barry’s case a load of smiles and a few beers as well.

I first grew to know him a decade ago as a regular in the bar at the President Hotel in Gaborone. He seemed to be forever there, sitting on a bar stool, surrounded by friends of every background, often with the Weekly Telegraph crossword half-completed (but not for long). One of the first things he ever said to me was “Who directed Dirty Harry?” “Don Siegel”, I said. We knew then that we had each met someone with the same level of passion for the sort of knowledge that is completely useless but that comes in very useful in pub quizzes and long conversations in bars after you’ve had a few.

A few years ago my wife Kate and I were part of a large team of people that was helping Nomsa Mbere and her followers prepare for her walk across the Makgadikgadi Pans. In order to launch the walk publicly there was a gathering at the Maharaja and I persuaded Barry, as a famous walker, to come along and give everyone an uplifting talk. After a series of, I have to say, rather unexciting lectures up sprang Barry. Within minutes he had the audience eating out of his hand. There were stories of mishaps, accidents, women ending up topless and the occasional President who would come along to wish him well. It ended with Barry doing one of his party tricks. After a comedian’s warm-up he showed us how he could balance one of his crutches vertically on the palm of his hand. “See”, he said, “just because I’m disabled, it doesn’t mean I’m incapable!”

The last time I saw Barry I was sitting in a restaurant with a visitor from South Africa when Barry slowly walked by. He joined us and then I watched as my guest sat open-mouthed as I made Barry share some of his stories. He seemed to have that effect on people. Here was a rather diminutive, elderly-looking, disabled man who would stun his guests with his achievements.

Barry raised the profile of the disabled in Botswana. He raised enormous amounts of money. He bothered government and businesses into donating to charity. He started the Botswana branch of the Cheshire Foundation. Like Leonard Cheshire, Barry achieved what very few of us can hope to do with our lives. He made a real difference to the society he lived in.

In an age of mortals, he was a hero.