Salter Lecture 2018 – Bearing Witness or Bearing Whiteness?: Britain, Africa and Quakers

Diana Jeater

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I saw in some of the materials that were circulated to advertise this lecture that I am an expert on Africa, which is quite a tall order. As you probably know, Africa is the world’s largest continent. Not many people realise how very big it is. You can fit the whole of Europe, Russia, the U.S., China and India into Africa’s landspace and you will still have little bits of room leftover.

There are 54 nations and 1500 – 2000 languages and a great diversity of habitats. It includes Nigeria, which is the fifth wealthiest nation in the Commonwealth by GDP and if we are talking about wealth, it also includes Angola which – not many people know – but Angola actually bailed out Portugal during the 2008 financial crash and of course it includes Zimbabwe, which is where I work on.

Africa has an extraordinary diversity of habitats, including grasslands, rain forests, mountains, river basins and at least three climate zones. So it really is a very big, very diverse part of the planet. Interesting then, when I tell people that I work on Africa, that they say things like “I went on holiday to Africa once” or “I’m involved in supporting a project in Africa”. Now of course it’s not Africans who say that to me and on the whole it’s not people from the Caribbean or Latin America or Asia, South East Asia, who say those sorts of things. It is overwhelmingly people from what we might call the white world.

In Britain you have probably already noticed that white people tend to regard Africa from the viewpoint of consumers or donors: as a place where they go on holiday or a place where they do good, and frequently both of these things combined, which is something I will come back to. There is a tendency to regard Africa as a single place, typified by poverty, wildlife and noisy dancing. As a historian, I find all of that interesting.

And obviously, when I say “white people” I am including us – British Quakers – in that, because, as we know, we are very white. Most Quakers have black skins and live in Africa, but we do not think of Quakerism as an African faith. In fact, only yesterday there was a post on Facebook about the Cleveland Ohio mission to Kenya in 1902 that founded Kenyan Quakerism. Kenyan Quakerism now constitutes, I think, over half of all the Quakers in the world.

You think we might have noticed that, mightn’t you? and yet the comments on this Facebook page were along the lines of “Wow! that’s interesting – who knew?”. Friends, why don’t we know?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie the Nigerian novelist, gave a now totally viral (all over the internet) TED Talk about what she called ‘the single story’ of Africa.: how, when we talk of Africa, we just tend to tell one story, as though it could possibly represent such a huge and diverse place. Within British Quakers, the stories we tell ourselves about our relationship with Africa, tend to be about what we can do to help. It’s a good story. The Quaker Africa Interest Group is full of people who do really excellent work on the continent.

This is not true of everyone who goes there to help. You may be aware of the critiques of development, which is after all a massive international industry. If people in Africa stopped being poor and needy the industry would end, so the industry itself has a vested interest in Africa being a story of poor people needing help. I have actually published a blog piece on this, which again gets very widely circulated, called “Parasites on the poor”. But most of the work done by people in the Quaker African Interest Group is not like that. It’s not the kind of work international NGOs do. They tend to do work at the grass roots level, with Ffriends in Africa, of the type of direct interest to us as Quakers. I am sure you are aware of the work of Turning the Tide in East Africa for example.

At the most recent Quaker Africa Interest Group meeting we heard of the work of the Green Olive Trust, an educational foundation working in Kenya. There are long term projects around peace and development in the Congo; peace work in Sierra Leone; and (close to my heart)wonderful work curated/overseen by Milton Keynes Meeting with Hlekwene in Zimbabwe.

This work is still defined by us as the donors and the experts; and people from Africa as the recipients. So when we asked Friends in Africa to deliver our Swarthmore Lecture, we were not surprised that they spoke about peace work and development and problems with donor expectations. What we should have been surprised about, perhaps, is that we didn’t ask them to speak about their spiritual lives.

Sometimes – a lot of the time – being donors makes us feel good about ourselves (not surprisingly after all, given the alternatives).

Yes, we are doing good in the world; we are helping people. That’s much better than being Donald Trump. But often it makes us feel uncomfortable, especially when we are there on the ground and people ask us for money. That discomfort is partly because of our awareness of our colonial history. Do we owe these people? Partly it’s because we are aware of our privileges and partly it’s because the whole situation is so unfair and we know that we are on the wrong side of that unfairness.

I want to read you minutes 17 – 19 of the Friends World Council of Churches (FWCC) Central Executive Committee of March 2017 titled “Issues of privilege and historical injustice”.

“We have taken up a concern raised by several Friends for how FWCC’s work in every part of the globe is affected by a history of colonialism and inequality and by media distortions that influence perceptions of people in other parts of the world. Too often Friends in wealthier countries only see images of people elsewhere in situations of poverty, misery and need, whereas Friends in poorer countries see media images of wealthier countries as if people there are all prosperous and successful. We too often hurt each other by assumptions we make, stories we tell, misunderstandings, favouritism and superficial relationships. Even as we commit to forgiveness it is difficult to forget or undo long standing injustices and slights. We recognise that a key part of FWCC’s work is to overcome these historical patterns and to foster and model authentic relationships of equality and mutuality. That requires a willingness to name destructive patterns as they occur, to recognise when we have made mistakes and to ask for, and offer, genuine forgiveness. When we know each other more fully in our homes, families and Meetings, we can better understand the full person, not just the cosmetics or stereotypes. Much work has been done in this regard over this work in the past decades, but more remains to be done”.

It is a beautiful minute. It expresses an important discomfort and I want to talk more about that feeling of discomfort. Because, Friends, as much as we desire to help, our feelings of discomfort about that desire to help also come from genuine leadings. Friends, what I have learned is that if we truly listen to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts, we begin to move away from thinking “How can I help?” and we start on a different journey. Engaging with Africa takes us on a journey, not, as Conrad proposed, into the heart of darkness but into the heart of whiteness (which perhaps for Conrad was the same thing).

In Jewish, Christian and Muslim cultures we are told a story about self awareness being the fruit, and because of the nature of what a fruit is, also the seed of the tree of knowledge. When they ate from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve became self aware. They became aware of their nakedness and they were ashamed. We have become aware of our whiteness and we have become, perhaps, a bit ashamed. But, like Adam and Eve, sometimes we want to hide from that shame. We want to share the burden of blame. We start to tell a story about how we misperceive each other.

And that’s where I begin to feel uncomfortable about that beautiful minute, because it seems to me it misses the point about historical injustice. Historical injustice creates a particular kind of world. It does not stop when colonialism stops. We are born into a world that was made by historical injustice. It’s the world we still live in. And just because we are good and kind and mean well, it does not mean we are excused from or above or apart from the systems of privilege that shape our world.

So, we may have misunderstandings; but where the responsibility lies for putting these misunderstandings right is not equally balanced between us and those whom we go to help. Our friends in poorer countries may like us. They may recognise that we are not rich by the obscene, distorted standards of our home country. We may recognise that they are perhaps more competent and less demanding than we had originally feared. But however good our relationships, however much we spend time in each other’s homes, we still have more power in the relationship. And, that, I think is what we need to look at. That is the mutual misperception that we need to face.

When I first started teaching in a university, I had a student who was writing a dissertation about the history of Southern Rhodesia/Rhodesia. I am sure you are all aware of that history. Under Ian Smith, under UDI, there was white minority rule. There was systematic discrimination against Africans in all areas of life. The student described all of this very well and wrote very eloquently about the suffering that this entailed for the Africans. But there was no explanation in it, and I kept pushing her to try to analyse more. In her penultimate draft, somewhat intemperately, I wrote in the margin “Yes, but why were they behaving towards the Africans like this? They were not nasty people. They were perfectly kind to children and animals”.

When she submitted it, one of my colleagues, the co-marker, read it first and said “Have a look at page 5” and there in the middle of page 5 there was a sentence. “It’s very odd how horrible they were to Africans, because they were not nasty people. They were perfectly kind to children and animals”.

Friends, we need an analysis of power and we need an analysis of what it means to disempower. Adam and Eve, we are told, felt shame in Eden – that heaven on earth. Well, as Quakers we aim to build the kingdom of God, the heaven on earth, right here, because God has no hands but ours. There is no place for shame in the kingdom of God. Self awareness must lead to change, not to shame.

Travelling into the heart of whiteness is a journey, not a destination. It is what we know; what we know in Fox’s words “experimentally”.

Now I have always found Advices and Queries 11 rather challenging. Of course there are some I love. No 1 of course, from which everything else follows, Nos 27 and 28, which I think are most people’s favourites, but no 11 is a hard one. “Be honest with yourself. What unpalatable truths might you be evading?”. In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie observed “what you believe depends on what you’ve seen, — not only what is visible, but what you are prepared to look in the face” (p.252).

So, I want to talk a little about what I have learned to look in the face; and how I have tried to get others to see me and to look me in the face too. And in this, I am guided by the second half of Advices and Queries 11, which gets a little more encouraging. It says “When you recognise your short comings, do not let that discourage you. In worship together we can find the assurance of God’s love and the strength to go on with renewed courage”.

So I want to tell you a little about my journey. The first time I ever set foot on the continent of Africa was in what we would now call my gap year (though those were not invented in those days) and I did the hippy trail with a bunch of friends. We went down to Morocco in a van and I had a revelation while I was there, that the tourist attraction was that these people were poor. They did not look like us and live like us, because they were poorer than us. And at that point, I thought I never want to do this again. If I am going to go and see the world, I want to do it in a way where I am part of changing things.

But we have seen that the tourist engagement is what most people, or an awful lot of people, think about when they think about Africa. When the FWCC minute talks about media representations and misrepresentations and how they see us as rich and we see them as poor, the tourist industry has got a lot to do with that. Our “poor” do not go there. Their rich become assimilated with us. Structures of tourism mean that we often do not meet each other routinely, in a like-for-like context; and that is true of aid work as well. Increasingly there is something called ‘ethical tourism’, part of ‘ethical consumption’. In fact there is even a word “developmentourism” (all one word).

Some people might call it ‘poverty tourism’, but at least it’s poverty tourism with a clean conscience. You are building a school. You are helping with some project. And actually a lot of these projects do very good things. But, there is a book which has just been published by Joao Afonso Baptista, who is Mozambiquan, called The Good Holiday – Development, Tourism and the Politics of Benevolence in Mozambique. In it, he says that it locks Mozambiquans into a dependency relationship, where they have to go on being worthy of benevolence, and cannot move forwards.

So I went to Morocco and I thought I do not want to do this again. I do not want to be a poverty tourist. So I thought, I know, I’ll go and get involved in development. I’ll go and help. I’ll go and do good things in Africa. So I started to work on a doctorate on “women in Zimbabwe”. (People always said I was working on “women”. I pointed out that everyone else was working on “men” but “women” seemed to be a meaningful category in the way that men were not.) I was going to “help women” in Zimbabwe by writing a doctorate on them.

I was heartened when I started hanging out with the development people and aid workers in Harare at their parties – there were a lot of parties – about how much they talked about the need to listen to rural women. But, as I listened to them a bit more, I had another big revelation. They wanted to listen to rural women because they had agendas that they had already set elsewhere, and the problem for them was that they needed women to buy into those agendas, because otherwise they would not meet their targets. The reason why they wanted to listen to rural women was in order more efficiently to impose ideas that had been formulated elsewhere in a language that would make them acceptable to local women. So I thought that maybe I did not want to do development after all. It did not really seem to be about what I was looking for. It seemed to be another form of imperialism.

So my doctorate became much more about sexuality and identity and how people express themselves, and how the experience of white occupation changed the spaces in which women could move. It was intended to provide a new discourse; a new way of thinking about African women as sexual agents in ways that moved aside from the moral discourses that had dominated them so far.

So I got my PhD. By the time I got my PhD I  think I had lived the sum total of 15 months in  Zimbabwe in the whole of my life. And guess what – I was a world expert on Zimbabwe! I was a world expert on Zimbabwe because I had a doctorate from the University of Oxford. I had colleagues in Zimbabwe, who had lived in Zimbabwe all of their lives, who knew much more about Zimbabwe than I did, but nobody ever asked them to international conferences as world experts on Zimbabwe. And that was because they came from the University of Zimbabwe and their skins were not white and their voices were not respected.

I sometimes do a thought experiment with my students. I say to them “Imagine if all of British history, all the respected British history, all the stuff that you have to read about British history was written by Zimbabweans. So a few British people can write British history as well, but actually all of the really good archives about British history are in Zimbabwe. So you have to get funding to go there in order to be able to use them. And the ways that Zimbabweans write about British history is in terms that make sense to Zimbabweans. They are not really interested in our king lines. They are not particularly interested in our politicians. They are interested in big lineages and how lineages have changed across time and cattle and land and how marriage is negotiated. It does not fit terribly well onto British history, but that’s the history we all have to read, because these are the people who make history”. My students look really surprised and they find it really hard to imagine what it would be like if all British history were written by Zimbabweans – all the history that is recognised as worthwhile history. But this is the everyday reality for my colleagues in Zimbabwe. All of the great authorities on Zimbabwean history (including me) are white and from elsewhere.

So I was beginning to think “You know, this is quite hard”. Every time I try to help I just seem to be consolidating existing structures that are making things worse. Meanwhile, along the way, I had picked up a partner, or he picked me up. Anyway, something happened. He was Zimbabwean. Growing up black in Zimbabwe under Ian Smith and during the liberation war causes a lot of damage and a lot of trauma.

Most days things were fine, but suddenly a switch would turn and I would find myself at the receiving end of a tirade about how racist I was. And if there was one thing that I was pretty sure about myself, it was that I was not racist. So I was very puzzled and indeed hurt – deeply, deeply hurt by this accusation. But because I loved this man, I tried to hear what he was saying. And eventually I began to understand what he meant when he accused me of being racist. It was because I had privileges that were denied to him that I had not even noticed. This I learned experimentally.

So after I wrote my first book, I did not know what to do really. I did not want to go on being the “expert on Zimbabwean women”. I thought maybe Zimbabwean women ought to be the experts on Zimbabwean women. So for my next book I realised there was only one topic I could write about. And that was about white people who had gone to Zimbabwe and had become “experts” on Zimbabweans. I thought that at least I can write about. So I began to study the very first “experts” on Africans in Zimbabwe, in Southern Rhodesia. The people who codified the language and the law and customs and administered that language and that law and customs, and began to write the anthropology and ethnography.

I began to realise how deep our misperceptions of Zimbabweans in the academy went. It went right back to the beginning. All our knowledge in the academy was compromised from the start, because it was distorted by the white people who wrote it. Mostly they meant well, but there was only one group they could learn about Zimbabwean Africans from, and that was Zimbabwean Africans. So they spoke to them; but what they heard was distorted by what was already in their heads.

We cannot escape the history behind the moment we live in. The white researchers heard things, but they made sense of those things in ways that made sense to them (not to the Zimbabweans they were speaking with) and then they wrote that down. They codified the language according to forms of grammar that they were already familiar with. They codified the laws according to grammars of law and ways of thinking about justice that they were already familiar with. And then they began to teach each other these things. And at that point, they stopped talking to Africans, because they had the knowledge. Within a generation, Africans going to school and being asked to write things in their own language, were told that they were not using their own language grammatically.

So I painted myself into a corner in writing this book. I said I can have no claim to expertise, because any expertise is based in this academy where everything we know, and every way in which we think, is determined by a culture from elsewhere, that has distorted the way that we look at Zimbabwean culture. I had, in effect, disempowered myself, which is what I wanted to do. The problem was that nobody noticed! I thought I had thrown out a massive challenge to the academy about how we need to disempower ourselves; and I got reviews saying what a very interesting history book.

It was at this point that I went to work at Woodbrooke. I had kind of run out of the academic route and I went to get some spiritual succour by working at Woodbrooke instead, because I had now reached the point where there was no manoeuvring. These are structures of power. Every relationship we have as white people, with the history of the world at our backs, is compromised by that history – not because it is the past, but because it has made our present.

So we want to do good, which is a true leading – some of you I am sure will remember hearing Lee Taylor speaking so powerfully at Yearly Meeting a couple of years ago, about how she was led to go and work with Hlekwene. That was a true leading. But unfortunately our true leadings come to us in a world that is imperfect.

And when we think of ourselves as saviours, when we think of ourselves as people who are going to do good, then we stop being seekers. And surely as Quakers, above all else, we are seekers. So we stop being seekers and instead we begin to worry about how we appear, a worry that was superbly encapsulated at the Quaker Africa Interest Group earlier this year by – I think it was – Bronwyn Harwich (correct me if it was not her): that we are demanding, bureaucratic, inflexible, cautious and remote. It’s not a great self image, really. But still we position ourselves as saviours who are going in to help, not least it seems because we most commonly encounter Africans in a situation where we are white and British and rich and they are black and African and poor – and this is despite Nigeria being the fifth richest nation in the Commonwealth, despite Angola baling out Portugal, despite there being at least one African amongst the world’s 100 richest people. There is a reason why we do not see those bigger pictures. It’s the world we live in, that does not want us to see those bigger pictures.

But we are also, I think, dazzled by our own aid projects. We know why aid is important. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will be able to feed himself for life”. We all know that one. A book has recently come out by James Ferguson called Give A Man A Fish: Reflections On The New Politics Of Distribution. And he says, You know what? Teach a man to fish and you create an unemployed fisherman. In our contemporary neo-colonial world, you teach a man to fish and he will probably end up dead trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to Italy, like the Senegalese fishermen in the 2012 film La Pirogue, directed by Moussa Toure.

In this neo-liberal world, there are not easy solutions. Teaching a man to fish, or even a woman to fish, is not going to help when we have an ecological crisis and global disparities of wealth. James Ferguson said, give a man a fish and at least he can exchange it for something within a local commodity distribution economy. And actually, that is working. In Namibia everyone has a basic income. In large parts of South Africa, lots of people are just given a basic income by the state. It keeps the local economy moving. It creates circulation of goods.

Now I am sure you have heard of that idea as well. Universal benefits, basic citizens income – we think it’s a really good socialist idea that we are trying to push over here (some of us). In Africa they have been doing it for ages – how many of us knew that?

We do not look to Africa for expertise; instead we go to Africa to offer it. But Africans often know more than us, because they have already “been there”. City planning for example and resource crises in over expanding cities. Debbie Potts, who has recently retired as a geographer from KCL, has been arguing for years that the USA is reinventing wheels when it comes to city planning. She has produced paper after paper that shows that these questions have already been addressed and largely resolved – well not largely resolved, but at least beginning to be resolved – by thinking going on in Africa. The thinking has already been done, but it has been done by Africans and no one takes any notice of it.

Or, another example, philosophies of race and racism. Since Black Lives Matter it’s becoming increasingly of interest. We get feature pieces in our newspapers, very often written by black journalists. But how many people know about Mudimbe’s work from 1988 or Hountondji’s work from 1983? We expect to read women on feminism – so why don’t we read Africans on colonialism and constructions of race?

And what about our faith? What about theology? Do we perhaps not look to Africans when we think about spiritual issues, because maybe – just a little bit – we mistrust African spiritualities? We are very comfortable with Buddhism, or at least a Buddhism that’s presented to us in Europe. But particularly as unprogrammed Quakers, aren’t we just a little bit uncomfortable with Kenyan evangelism, and aren’t we uncomfortable even talking about that discomfort? On that Facebook post yesterday, one comment suggested that Kenyan Quakers were (and in itself the phrasing is fascinating) “not Kosher”. Now you might expect people to be piling in at that, but instead there was just one response that said “Well, these all seem like God fearing and God loving people” – so that’s alright then!

We are very good at being nice. When somebody says something that really needs a challenge, we just kind of side step it. But it is harder in my experience, to “know one other in the things that are eternal” than it is to be nice.

In my experience, African spirituality lives alongside ancestral spirits and other spirits in a very robust way. There is more room in African spirituality for miracles to happen.

I was in Zimbabwe last month at a Harare Meeting House. There is no warden there at the present moment but the Meeting House warden space is let out and there was a change in tenants. The tenant who was leaving claimed that the table and the curtains had actually been bought by him when he moved in and that therefore they were his to take away. The clerk of the Meeting decided not to fight him. She said “My Friend, we are all suffering. You don’t need to lie to me. If you want to take these things, tell me you want to take them”. This is not something she would have said a few years ago, but increasingly as her spirituality deepened, she felt more and more that there is that of God in everyone and it was that of God that she was speaking to in this tenant as he left.

That same afternoon, out of the blue, somebody phoned up and said “I have got some curtains. Do you want them?” Now we know this happens. We have these stories of our own. But in African spirituality that happens all the time, because there is just greater cultural openness to the work of the spirits in everyone’s life.

There is room to think in African ways about spirituality – ways that we do not learn enough from. We are happy to go to Buddhism, but how often do we go to our own Friends in Africa and say “teach us something; teach us something spiritual”? I was part of a post Meeting for Worship discussion group in a Harare Meeting some years ago and we were talking about how we want to build the kingdom of heaven on earth. God has no hands but ours: we are trying to make this world a better place. And what emerged for me from that discussion was something that stayed with me really powerfully. We don’t want to build the kingdom of God – we want to build the kin-dom (mutual dependencies). I don’t think a British Quaker would come up with that.

So why don’t we share at the spiritual level? Why was our African Swarthmore lecture not about experiences of the spirit? Well my experience is that we have learned to distance ourselves from one other: sometimes to be just a little bit afraid of people from a different culture – from an African culture. And that is, of course, because the power structures in the world have moulded us, and moulded us in ways that we find hard to see.

The FWCC minute noted how we can be afraid of saying the wrong thing, of offending each other without meaning to, not understanding accents, upsetting protocols and cultural norms and mostly, being British, we are afraid of causing embarrassment.

So, what do we want to unlearn? Who do we want to disempower? We cannot be not-white – so how do we want white to be? We feel discomfort about our whiteness and our white privilege. Friends, what would make us feel comfortable?

Well, I think there is an easy answer to that – equality! Equality would help, wouldn’t it? Equality would help hugely. If we had equal wealth. If we had equality of education, well that would make us all much more comfortable, wouldn’t it? Of course there is a small matter of global social revolution in order to achieve this, but hey! we’re Quakers! We’re up for that!

That’s where we came in. We are trying to build the kingdom of heaven on earth. But… Equality of wealth, equality of education, they’re not straightforward. Wealth in what? Wealth in cash? Wealth in cattle? Wealth in people? Wealth in kinship and the dependencies that go with kinship? Maybe our idea of wealth is not everyone’s idea of wealth.

Equality of education? Yes, that would be great. Education about what, though? Does the whole world want to be educated in the things that we are educated in? What language would people learn, if we had real global equality of education? What would equal education be? Yes, we want equality, but whose equality? Are we not often simply reinscribing our western hegemony, our European legacies and we don’t even know we are doing it?

On this journey that I have been on I have found out that the more I learn, the more I don’t know. We all know that happens. But I have also found that the more we challenge power, the more power we see. It’s not our fault that we think about Africa and aid and helping, as we do. We live with structures of power that frame all of us. But when we try to think with the spirit, we begin to see what we cannot see. The shape of the world becomes different. We realise things we did not know before. And this I know experimentally.

I learned that I was rich when I was sitting outside the Meeting for Worship in Harare and a Friend was ranting about how angry she was that the politicians who were all so wealthy and they have their cars and they have their flat screen televisions and so on, and I said, “Well, wait a minute. I have these things” and she said “Yes, but we don’t mean you”. But why not? We think we are middle class. We know that people in this country, many of them are very poor. But in global terms, if we take ourselves as a benchmark, we are misunderstanding what wealth is. We are all obscenely rich.

So I tried to think with the spirit. I tried to think with love; and thinking with love is both painful and terrifying. How can we bear to look this in the face? In Felix Holt, George Eliot says “It is not true that love makes all things easy. It makes us choose what is difficult”. Being nice and doing good is easy; but it does not get us out of existing power structures. Often it reinforces them.

Fortunately, often our African Friends have already found ways that we can learn from. Most Quakers are Africans and most Quakers do not worship in silence; but we like to think that we are good at silence. In our global conversation with Africa, perhaps we like to talk a little too much? We don’t know what a genuine global equality would look like. But we won’t even find out, unless we stop trying to lead the path towards it. Our silence can and should be our ministry.

When we bear our whiteness, “bear” means two things. It means we bring it into the space. It also means we endure it, because the burden of privilege is heavy. But we can also bear our whiteness as ministry. We can be the change. We can be silent. Let us think of Africans as donors, because actually they are. The global flow of wealth flows in to us. We just give a little bit of it back. The real donors in this world are the global poor. Let us think of Africans as donors because they are spiritually rich and we have much to learn from them. Let us think of Africans as donors, Friends, because that is what love requires.

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