Jeni Ayris: An appreciation
JENI Ayris was one of these dynamic folk whom you wished you had known all their lives.
She came into ours when she was in her late twenties and we noticed this café in Tollcross with the intriguing multi- coloured chevron design, going by the name of an ethnic group with a rich history spanning the south of Zimbabwe and the north of South Africa.
For an old anti-Apartheid activist like myself suspicions (and stereotypes) arose over how far this forthright Durbanite would embrace the new South Africa.
Immediately we were aware that her love of the “rainbow nation” and its kaleidoscope of peoples and cultures was passionate.
The phoenix that was arising from the ashes of Apartheid was reflected on the walls of the Ndebele Café and Jeni was at the centre of it all.
Jeni was thrilled by the visit of Nelson Mandela to the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Edinburgh Conference in 1997 as she had been over the yet to be reconstructed Springboks team’s victory in the rugby world cup two years previously. She hoped to persuade the president to visit the café and I think had some story about greeting him in the crowd as he left the Caledonian Hotel a mile or so down the road.
Most of the time she was greeting lesser mortals, as the Ndebele Café soon gained a reputation for genuine welcome, excellent food, zany tables to sit at, and a variety of clientele and staff from all over the world.
Jeni had a particular appreciation of the struggles faced by students in the post-grant days and a number from Africa found part-time employment there to eke out their limited funds.
I knew at least one Edinburgh University Southern African Scholarship holder, who not only had a job there, but found a supportive friend in Jeni when the student was going through a very difficult emotional spell.
In the Scotland Zimbabwe Group we used to hold gatherings for Zimbabwean artists at the Fringe and the downstairs part of the café (a kind of thinly legal adjunct) was packed with Scots and Africans enjoying food and drink.
After a performance, Jeni and her team ferried plates and glasses precariously down the stairs and although we tried to provide the right payment, a great deal of hospitality was thrown in. Although Jeni had to run a business and planning was essential, there was a generous spontaneity about so much of the operation.
I remember telling her that I was to help coach the Zimbabwe team at the Homeless World Cup in Copenhagen and she immediately responded with a pile of T-shirts, displaying the photo of the young footballers on the wall after we returned from the tournament.
In September 1999 she announced to us that her father, a retired Anglican priest, who had been a Chaplain to the forces, was visiting her in Edinburgh and that she would like him to meet to two ministers of the Church of Scotland (possibly the only ones she knew!).
Again the anxiety arose over what this old South African, living in Ladysmith, would make of two lefty peaceniks.
We needn’t have worried. Peter Ayris was a vintage guest for Isabel and me to entertain to dinner.
Laughter mingled with robust and at times outrageous conversation. What we gleaned that night was the deep bond between Jeni and her father in what quite obviously was a tug of war relationship between two strong and colourful personalities.
Much has been said in the media in recent days about the way Jeni embraced life and how her more recent taking on vital tasks in the dangerous part of the world that was so tragically to claim her was in character.
Clearly she made new friendships there and her strong resolve and diplomatic skills combined in a paradoxical way.
For those of us who were privileged to know her, not as close friends, but in the wider congenial circle, these two aspects of this remarkable woman came through.
The forthright, “up front” personality which made her such a congenial companion was balanced by a vulnerable, private, and at times somewhat lonely side.
Jeni Ayris leaves a legacy of generous friendship to so many in Scotland and far beyond. That cannot be diminished by the sudden and violent way in which she was taken away from those whose lives she touched and greatly enriched.
Rev Dr Iain Whyte
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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