A time to remember: Reflections on John Bhurekeni´s DBU sponsored trip to University of Crete and Leuphana Universität


People texted me on WhatsApp to say how much they envy me going off to Greece as part of the UNITWIN Network on Education for Sustainable Development and Social Transformation (UNiESD&ST). You get cynical in Greece with all the late-night invitations for dinner and people crowding the streets in the dead of night. But you won’t feel cynical when you get to a traditional Greek cafeteria particularly where you get to eat salads dipped in olive oil and listen to the sound of a saxophone playing. 

I arrived at Heraklion international airport in the evening together with a team of German scholars, two of them professors in sustainability education at Leuphana University in north of Germany. Prof. Gerd Michelsen is the former UNESCO Chair holder and Prof. Daniel Fischer followed in his footsteps after getting recognized as the Chair this year by UNESCO.  Prof. Michelsen has held long the UNESCO Chair long enough to know a few secrets about the organization including those not written in the book. Accompanying them were two lovely early career researchers whom I have being communicating with for about four  months before we substantially met at Frankfurt airport in the afternoon on 21 November 2023 enroute to Heraklion Crete.

Partners´ meeting in Heraklion ©Svenja Loos
Partners´ meeting in Heraklion

That evening, sitting alone in my room at Hotel Astoria Capsis, I took out my folder and started reading the invitation letters I had received for my visa application. The first was from the University of Crete signed by Professor Nelly Kostoulas. From Leuphana Professor Daniel Fischer signed the invitation letter in which they offered me a 2-week research stay at the prestigious Leuphana University. The third invitation letter was from the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU) signed by Dr. Thomas Pyhel. There was so much stress in organising the visit for me, Deepika Joon played a central role in making sure all the required paper-work was in place. She said she wanted me to have this experience that I am sharing with you today. When the police asked me about my business in Germany at Frankfurt airport,  I took out the invitation letters the way one would take out a driver’s license at a roadblock on one of Zimbabwe’s potholed highways. With a smile, the police said, “enjoy your visit, sir”.   

The next day, being taken around by Professor Vassilios Makrakis,  a person who seem to adore Heraklion, chiefly- he says – because of its olive oil, I heard that olive oil contains oleocanthal which helps prevent or fight cancer. But Heraklion is not only an olive oil producer, it is home to Orthodox Christianity and a walk around the city is much like a walk through history, ‘this is where Europe begins’, says Prof. Vassilios. At the Historical Museum of Crete we learnt about the Heraklion local history, culture and about the Minoan civilisation. The history of Minos is well documented at the Minoan palace, Knossos which was both a religious and administrative centre. When we visited the ancient palace we learnt that it is the oldest known settlement in Crete, dating back to as far as 7000 BC. Deepika recorded short videos of Svenja and me explaining the purpose of our visit to Crete and the Politics4future project in general, some of the videos are already at the Leuphana ISDL website.

In Crete our main business was the  partners meeting of the Politics4future project. The project has six  active partner universities namely, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Rhodes University, South Africa, Heidelberg University of Education, Germany, University of Crete, Greece, University for Peace, Costa Rica, and York University, Canada. It is financially supported by Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU). During the meeting we discussed the key outcomes of the project and contemplated on the progress for the second phase of the UNiESD&ST network. We also discussed the management of the UNiESD&ST network and two  project proposals were presented the Leaders Of Learner Empowerment (LOLE) and the Cultural Politics4future: Advancing heritage-activated learning approaches for sustainable development in Southern Africa. Following the presentations we agreed to start the ERASMUS funding application process for Southern Africa and also to consider contributing chapters for a book project under the oversight of Professor Alexander Siegmund and Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka.

Then we left for Athens where apart from our busy schedule, we managed to visit the Acropolis of Athens a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, the Acropolis museum and the Ancient Agora. They say if you visit Athens and fail to set your foot at the Acropolis then you don’t know the signature landmark of the city. It is home to the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike which are buildings of great architectural significance. Like the ancient Minoan palace, the Athenian acropolis played a central role as a religious centre in ancient Greek. It is in Athens where I saw what I still consider one of the world’s most expensive building, the Acropolis Museum, with an estimated construction cost of close to 130 million euros. Established in 2008, Gemma (our tour guide) explained that the museum houses every artifact found on the acropolis and on the surrounding slopes. The museum’s elegant glass-floors showcase the archaeological discoveries that were made at the site where the museum building is located.

I went to the ancient Agora with the expectation of finding a rich-source of philosophy books to buy but the expectations remined a dream. The Agora an open square where all citizens could assemble is famously known as the place where Athenian democracy begun which is now a model for most democracies in the world. It was at the Agora where I learnt that every citizen (male adult) had legislative responsibilities and was liable to executive duties. This made the people of Athens crucial members of the legislative and judicial branches of the government.

The morning before we left Athens for Germany we walked around town looking for souvenirs. Deepika suggested buying postcards, Svenja went for t-shirts and some art paintings, while the most treasured souvenirs for me are Plato’s two books- Symposium and Apology of Socrates. I also bought the Greece and German flags- then off to Germany.

I arrived in Lüneburg at night on 28 November. The weather was bad. November in German is cold, snowy, and grey. Back home in Zimbabwe, I have never believed I could long for a thick winter jacket, gloves, and a scarf. Under a low, cold, grey sky Deepika, Svenja and I walked from the train station to the nearest hotel where I would spend my night. Our shoes kicking against snow-white nuggets. I stopped more than once to listen to the whispers of snow;

welcoming me to a land far from home
the whisper came from snow-white rooftops
it flows with the slow-moving wind
from silhouettes of white eucalyptus trees
it rolls with the small wheels of my monarch
crushing against the snow, turning the clatters into music
light gleams kissing snow-white grounds
welcome to northern Germany- the hotel door slides open


The warmth in my room ushered in a process of positive affirmation of the hospitable integrity of the people of Lüneburg. Breakfast at the hotel was typical bread, bacon, and a cup of coffee. I didn’t want to taste new things otherwise I would have a stomach-ache and spoil the visit. The bread was fresh and tasty. Later, I was to learn how the Germans pride themselves of having the best bread in Europe. Sitting alone near a window I could view snowflakes falling and accumulating on the smooth tarmac road. I could see people coming in to have their breakfast, having low conversations in small groups. They never forgot to load their cups, saucers, and plates in trays and putting them on a trolly ready for those who would do the dishes. This German style is impressive, a responsibility lesson outside the classroom and you can just learn by pitching in.

Lüneburg is a town in northern Germany with an estimated population of close to 75 599 residents. It is 50km south of the city of Hamburg and is famous for its salt production and trade and is home to Leuphana university. The town is usually very impressively clean and it’s one of the few towns I know where one can turn on tap water and drink. One morning Svenja took me to the Alter Kran at the former llmenau docks. She took pictures of me standing with my back to the crane. I was at a historical place documenting my own history. Then we took a train to Hamburg where we climbed 500 steps up the St Nikolai church tower. I read on the walls that when the Lutheran church was completely rebuilt in 1874 after the fire that destroyed the brick chapel in 1842 it become the world’s tallest building from 1874 to 1876. Up the tower there is a platform where one can read history panels and get a panoramic view of the city.

From St Nikolai church we went to the Christmas market where we bought lunch. Winter-time Christmas Markets are common in Hamburg, but was told the Lüneburg historic Christmas Market stands above the rest. At the Christmas market, I expected to see people shopping for gifts. I expected every kind of merry-making. I expected to see young people with roses and chocolates. I knew nothing about a Christmas market in snow and people drinking gluhwein in mugs my folks would reserve for special guests.   

At Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, apart from Svenja, Stefanie, Senan Gardiner, Deepika Joon, Daniel Fischer and Claire Grauer, I met a few other researchers radiant with exhaustion and idealism, who said they want to collaborate with African scholars particularly those working on education for sustainable development and indigenous knowledge systems.  During the week Deepika and Daniel arranged for me to meet their students. I engaged with the masters students and also introduced them to my research and the community of philosophical inquiry. With Deepika’s class we explored different school leadership styles and how they contribute to building sustainable schools. By the end of my first week at Leuphana I was happy with the idea of collaborating with Daniel and Deepika on a Politics4future paper. I was even happier to having a few other scholars from the UNITWIN Network on Education for Sustainable Development and Social Transformation (UNiESD&ST) joining us. A proposition still pending until the next UNiESD&ST network meeting in January 2024.

Being a primary school teacher by profession I was keen to visit at least a primary school in Lüneburg. And the dream was made true when I was invited to dinner at Professor Daniel’s house. The following morning I was escorted to a village primary school. The buildings in the village looked much like those in my home town city. At school I met teachers and students who were all excited to see me and to usher me into their classrooms. The school is well resourced, with a music room, computer centre, an art and craft room it stood to me as an excellent modern primary school. Half the students in the maths class wanted to visit Africa and in the English class they wanted to learn more about schooling in an African primary school set up. Students in the English class demanded that we have a picture together. At about 12 noon Prof Daniel was back to pick me up. A proposal to connect our two schools was made as this would allow students from the village primary school in Germany to exchange their cultural experiences electronically with students from a Zimbabwean rural primary school.

A night before I left I was invited to a concert again by Prof Daniel Fischer. This was my first time to learn about the German pianist and composer  Martin Kohlstedt.  Daniel later explained to me that he is also a movie sound track composer who gets much of his inspiration from thinking like a child. Martin explained how he composes his sound tracks in his indigenous language. Having enjoyed the sound of the piano and how it drove me deep into a process of soul searching, I convinced myself that I will learn the language so I could be able to converse in and comprehend his language. His body language as he played the piano was that of someone who was in raucous conversation with the instrument. I walked to the back of the concert room so I could record a short video and take some pictures of the pianist. These would help me explain back home what a Germany concert look like.

The following morning I spoke to Professor Matthias Barth who explained to me more about Germany concerts and how they are typically different from South African concerts. I deliberately left out Matthias and Katrin together with their son Tom at the start of this story for these were my hosts during the stay in Lüneburg and needed a respectable standing ovation. They made sure I felt at home every time. Encouraging me to explore the city by myself, inviting me to taste what they would always call typical German food. Katrin made sure there was a good supply of my favourite black tea. Tom would always give me a weather update and a introduction to what I would call German cultural praxis 101. As soon as you enter the house you remove your shoes and hang your winter coat on a coat hanger – on Nicholas day people share gifts, mostly chocolates. I am forever grateful to this family and to everyone who made my stay possible in Lüneburg, it indeed was and will always be a time to remember.

John Bhurekeni (PhD)is a research fellow at the Environmental Learning Research Centre, Rhodes University, South Africa. John developed a decolonial approach to philosophy for children that expanded primary school children’s critical reflexive thinking skills and teachers’ capability for creatively engaging heritage-based curriculum. His research interest is in the fields of philosophy for children, global citizenship education and education for sustainable development  as they apply in primary school education contexts in Africa and the Global South more widely, using theoretical approaches that are at the intersections of critical pedagogy, sociocultural learning, postcolonial and decolonial theories.