A delegation was in town, come to inspect the SKA site and progress.
On Friday they’d done their fieldwork.
Today was Saturday; a banquet had been laid on in tents pitched out on the local school grounds. Dignitaries and prominent citizens were present for various speeches and presentations.
On Sunday the same tents would be used to drum up enthusiasm for the less prominent citizens of the area, laborers and farm workers. The agenda for that upcoming event would be to detail the promised benefits that the SKA investments would bring to the area.
Marsha had been speaking at some length with one of the visiting politicians who had presented a keynote address. Guests milled, joined them and broke off to chat with others. The topics Marsha and the Minister had talked about ranged widely until the drift of conversation allowed Marsha to bring up the incident.
“My son ran into some trouble at the school, quite unpleasant really…” she went on to describe the details.
“I think it’s an isolated incident,” he assured her. “We were originally presented with a petition but our PR people took care of it—the town council is fully behind us now.”
“Oh I don’t doubt the council,” Marsha agreed, “but it does seem that the religious groups are… how shall I say...? Underwhelmed by the implementation.”
“Yes,” the Minister declared, “it’s a small group who are unhappy about the loss of farms and other conveniences,” he made light of it.
“Of course there are legitimate gripes—I’m talking about something much more unsettling. It seems that we’re treading on religious toes….”
“Oh, the zealots,” the roll of his eyes suggested he knew about them. “I think you’ve uncovered the Israel-Visie a lunatic splinter of the church. There are just a few of them that we’ve identified, mostly old men past their prime who have to hide their affiliations or they’ll push the enlightened younger generation away from the church. Regardless…” he went on before she could challenge him, “…the infrastructures we’re bringing in are going to continue isolate them as the youngsters adopt new thinking. The new IT infrastructure at the school… new tar roads… upgraded airport… fastest fiber optic internet connection on the continent…”
Though the politicians weren’t bringing anything tangible in, they unashamedly took full credit with an inclusive ‘we’ to the very people who were bequeathing these things; but Marsha let the petty point go;
“Sure… But how much do the farmers value these things going on in the town when we’ve cut all wireless connections to their farms…? They’re feeling isolated. There’s a lot of discontent. Maybe it’s one of your old men, but at least one of the teachers at the school is putting real negatives into the kids’ minds. He’s the local pastor, so…”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. If you look at church influence it is plummeting,” said the Minister confidently. “Thirty years ago they had nearly a thousand members out here—it’s a third of that now. He has no real influence anymore. I know this because it was an early concern and my office looked into it. We got it resolved.”
“I hear your assurances,” Marsha conceded, “but with all respect I don’t sense it is resolved. The church’s influence may be down in numbers, but the world over their attitudes are sharpening. My husband’s an evolutionary anthropologist and author. His work has hit a lot of headwind, especially in America.”
“Well, that’s America for you,” the Minister smiled with a practiced sincerity that was anything but. “We’re not in America.” He aimed his reminder at the flock of eavesdroppers, voters, that Marsha was an outsider with an American accent.
“I must disagree,” she persisted. “I think there is cause to worry… These people seem very passionate, and...”
“I have no doubt in my mind that this significant project will serve as a catalyst to improve learner performance in the area of mathematics and science and to prepare learners to take advantage of the opportunities that will emanate from the developments associated with the Karoo Array Telescope, the MeerKAT and the SKA.”
The minister had just repeated verbatim an extract from the speech he had just delivered from the podium. This wasn’t a conversation, Marsha realized, it was just more political cheerleading for the small audience listening in.