Enlightened by Africa and somebody above

  • 2015-11-04
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

How gifted can a person be?

There are perhaps just a few things in the world that Gediminas Degesys, 34, has not excelled at yet. He’s already an ex-theology student, a philosopher, an Africanist, a polyglot with 11 languages under his belt, an Esperanto expert, a traveller, a Vilnius University lecturer,  a motivational speaker, a tour guide, and a poet. These are just part of the ambit of his interests. Out of the media limelight, the VU lecturer is a humble guy-next-door type of person you’d be happy to have around. Degesys kindly agreed to an interview with The Baltic Times.

How on earth can a human being be so good at so many things? What else are you good at?
To tell the truth, I often catch myself reckoning that I am not good at anything in life and am just merely treading forward in it. As you understand, the media likes to attach different labels.

Still, which activities do you find dearest? I refuse to believe you can juggle all talents equally well.
In the bottom of my heart, I am Dzukas — editor’s note: an ethnicity inhabiting southern Lithuania, from which Degesys is derived. I’m really fond of the landscape, its people, the Neman River, and the drawl, obviously. This is the picture of my childhood that has had a significant clout on my future revelations and wonders. To answer your first question, I’d perhaps add to the list I am a nature lover and perhaps a photographer, too. That I’ve developed a keen eye for nature, and surroundings on the whole, I should commend my parents and grandparents – ordinary and down-to-earth, nature loving people in Dzukija. I grew up in the town of Alytus and I keep my fondest memories of it.
As a child, I’d get fascinated with many new things and, sure, I wanted to try them out. No wonder I had enrolled in a school circus troupe and was scrambling up and down the ladder decently until my nails got sore.

How special was your relationship with your parents?
Quite regrettably, my parents, albeit bright ordinary people, had not been able to achieve anything major in their life because of the Soviet era, which would put everyone on the same peg. I was born in a pious family, my grandmother was especially a devout believer, but attending the Church and the services would often bring unnecessary attention — and set hurdles — back then.  Without a question, I consider my parents very special.

We all tend to seek answers to the quintessential conundrum of what life is all about, but you’ve taken it way further — to a special relation with God, and therefore your decision to enroll in a Catholic lyceum and Priest Seminary afterwards. When did you start feeling the call?

It’s really hard for me now to pinpoint the timeframe definitely. I tend to say that there’s something that we all bring to our lives from the past. As far as I remember, I was a pious child. I remember I’d feel mesmerized listening to organ music or seeing before me sacral ecclesiastical items. And the curiosity was not only about the upbringing, but, definitely, having to do with a past I am not cognizant of, understandably. My siblings, for example, have been affected by those sorts of things.

You quit the path of the priesthood after receiving a theological apprenticeship in the finest schools in Moscow and Rome. What disappointed you along the way?

I really wanted to become a priest, I yearned for it from the bottom of my heart, to tell you the truth, but there appeared certain obstacles – on the spiritual level, too – that sometimes derail our plans. That is what happened with me, I guess. The way of thinking, you know, is also subject to change, and there obviously were some disappointments in the Seminary, which, all combined, led to my departure from it. Perhaps I had idealized the Catholic Church too much. I expected it to be a warmer, more brotherly place.

To where do you believe Pope Francis’ resolution to change the Church can take it?
It can take it to quite different and perhaps hardly predictable directions, I reckon. We should not be forgetting that there are many people in the Church seeking change – refreshment, invigoration, and renewal, but there are as many perhaps who want the Church to stick to its doctrinal teachings and Conservative convictions. Perhaps two developments are likely: first, the Church’s schism cannot be ruled out with the Church splitting into two or even more separate entities; second, in the optimistic scenario, the Church will embrace the calls for change and we will see it changing.

Let’s talk a bit about the true love of your life, Africa. When did you fall in love?
It started off with my fondness for African languages and music at school, I guess. They are very melodic and unique, obviously. Back in the Soviet school, I was very keen on geography and particularly African geography. I remember I’d be very good at learning the names of African capitals and I’d delve on my own in tons of other accessible information about Africa. I really felt fascinated by Africa’s uniqueness and exotics. But I first came across Africans in the Priest Seminary in Rome, where, from the beginning, I started mingling with my fellow Kenyan and Tanzanian seminarists, a bunch of great guys. They emanated this incredible human and spiritual warmth and charm that was hard to resist. I’d hang out a lot with them and try to learn some of the language that they spoke.

Excuse me for the naive question that you have heard perhaps dozen times: is it safe to embark on criss-crossing Africa? What do we have to watch out for there: people, contagious infections, or snakes perhaps?
Well, maybe you’ve heard that, recently, a young fellow got bitten by a snake at the foot of Gediminas Hill in Vilnius, so danger from snakes can come even from where they are rare.  Get me right, but I sometimes find Lithuania more dangerous. My three cell phones, for example, have been stolen in Lithuania, not Africa. Also, you’d perhaps find it hard to believe, I’ve caught a nasty virus in Lithuania and never got one in Africa, although I’d be sipping water of very dubious quality.
Seriously, I believe that other things put one in danger in Africa. How safe or unsafe one can end up being there is based on one’s attitude in Africa. If one were to tread in Africa like that African elephant in the jungle — courteously and amicably — then one would be all right there. But if one decided to assume a know-it-all European’s attitude, it would not be very helpful, obviously. The main advice I have for everyone is this: be friendly, here and there.
To be honest, I’ve wandered on my own many times in very rural all-black African communities — some of which had a reputation for harboring notorious gangs — and I’d always leave them unscathed. Meanwhile, a friend of mine has been robbed of his watch on the White Bridge in the center of Vilnius. So the safety of a location is a very relative term, as you see.

Perhaps some angel was guarding you in Africa?
(Snickers) Maybe, I don’t know. There’s a good adage I like: one has to possess a bit of the African soul to feel safe on the continent, and enjoy it, importantly. Maybe I’ve got a tiny bit of it? Who knows?
To veer off to the hot issue of refugees, I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before we start seeing Africans crossing the European borders. Africa is moving rampantly forward and people are getting more mobile there. We should not be frightened of the people.

Perhaps you are one of the very few people around here who can speak Sotho and Zulu, African languages. What was so fascinating about them to you?
Frankly, I feel bad when I cannot speak the language that the person next to me knows. I’d say I start feeling a kind of existentialist funk then. To go back to my time in Rome, I remember I’d be painstakingly collecting the words of the languages that my African peers would be speaking. I always insisted that they spoke their mother tongue. Their languages sounded to me kind of Italian — very melodic, with many distinct vowels. So eventually I decided to plunge into the culture — and the languages. Not surprisingly, when it came to making up my mind on the thesis of my doctoral studies, which, by the way, took me to Paris, Durban, and Dakar, I didn’t hesitate for a second: it had to be an African focus.

What is it for you to be able to speak 11 languages: an extraordinary talent, hard work, or a celestial gift?
Honestly, I’ve haven’t got it answered for myself yet. I believe it’s a two-way thing. I mean I start believing that there is something that is given to us from above. Sometimes, when learning a new language, I can hardly ward off the hunch that I’d come across it in one or another pattern – through lexicon or grammar – in the past. Not necessarily the language is relevant to any of the others … Foreign language studying, however, is not about miracles, but exertion of many efforts and hard work. Now I’m expeditiously learning Arabic. I will start my nearly ten-hour session right after our interview is done and I’ll finish it late at night. Believe me, the language is not opening itself with a finger snap – like the rest, I have to do the mechanic work – cram the words into my head and do the drills. I can tell I can discern some familiar patterns in Arabic from other languages, having nothing to do with it from the first glance, but, still, I perceive them.
Frankly, I sometimes have this weird feeling of enlightenment when I’m learning a language – as if some light were shining … Where it is coming from, I don’t know.

How do you manage to keep the languages in “good shape”?
Well, that’s the issue No 1. One can perhaps add one language after another on the list, but, indeed, how to keep up the level? A language is obviously a live body that needs to be nourished and looked after. I try to devour at least a couple hours for each language weekly: watch a film or news or read a book. Strong will and determination are needed here, too, obviously. Tonight, after I’m done with my Arabic class, I will grab a film in Latvian and will watch it for an hour or so. I’ve learnt Latvian a while ago and now have to make myself keep up the level by coming back to the language regularly, as well as all the others, too, in fact. Sometimes it’s very hard to catch up with all of them, honestly.

Do you find the Lithuanian language in top 10 hardest-to-learn world languages?
If we were speaking of the complexity of its grammar and what really makes a good expert of the language, then, certainly, it makes the list.

Have you ever thought of a diplomatic or voluntary mission with the knowledge of languages?
Indeed, I have had many job propositions from various kinds of organizations, but they have never gotten my interest. I guess I am not up to what the diplomatic work requires…

You also teach the Sotho and Zulu languages in the Oriental Studies Center in Vilnius University. How is it going?
I guess it is going well. Some of the students are intending to use the languages after graduation. Some of them have asked me for private classes. I try to be creative in teaching the classes: we listen to songs in the languages, for example.

When are you packing up for your next trip to Africa?
(Grins) Well, I’ve got my classes in Vilnius University to finish and I have some writing and private teaching to do still … but, yes, the will to get out somewhere is getting stronger. I am not sure if it will take me to Africa this time – perhaps I will set out to Asia now, say, Laos?

Does the University job pay your air fares?
Oh, no, not at all! But as I’m juggling different jobs – from lecturing to working as a tour guide in African countries – I can afford it. The Lithuanian salary, even of a University scholar, is pure mockery in Lithuania. Lithuanian politicians should be ashamed of not guaranteeing a decent living. But I cannot change it, I guess, as I detest politics.