Travelling Beneath

Bodo (my beloved companion who mostly has the patience of Job) and
I are on our way back from the privilege of a road trip through our paradoxical
country to visit the biggest city we have, Johannesburg, and its neighbour
Tshwane (or should I still call it Pretoria?). It has been an inspiring trip.

It started with the opening night of the IMPAC film festival run by Pluto Panoussis and the Open Window school. We were exposed to the latest in exploratory film making. Some of the short films shown severely challenged my innate conservatism, but also stimulated my mind to transcend some of its well worn paths as a result of the startling imagery- for example: a man delicately stroking a barbel fish lying on a table wearing a collar (the fish, not the man) and the sound track following the contact of the finger with the fish!? Bravo Pluto for being such a pioneering and fine teacher – your film students take creativity to a new level and your guidance keeps it meaningful, although sometimes the meaning may be deeply personal.

We then had the privilege of three days in the Waterberg in the Welgevonden Game Reserve.  Although  covered in the brown coat of winter, the Waterberg shines as a relatively intact ecosystem. I know that without human intervention the lions would decimate the impala population to the brink of extinction (too many “big five” animals in too small a space), but there are butterflies galore. It was both thrilling and disturbing to come upon the 10 new teenage buffaloes being fed from cut open tyres on our way to the gate on the last morning.

We returned to the cities in order to do some work. I had some client meetings and a launch of my book Beneath in each city. I was reminded that affluent city people spend a lot of time in malls. Several times we were faced with the challenge of finding our way around unfamiliar malls and their parking lots. Our satellite navigation system was invaluable in negotiating the strangle of roads leading to the malls, but could not help us once inside the concrete boxes of our modern market places. Bodo (who has an innate sense of direction) invented creative ways of directing me as we rushed around preparing ourselves for my public appearances. I often had a sense of being a country bumpkin – not enough style or tech savvy to qualify for membership of the indefinable group that apparently thrives in this part of our complex country.

There were hard experiences:

  • Seeing the pathos of two tatty, yet still dignified elephants at the Joburg Zoo persistently curl their trunks into their inaccessible (by day) nighttime enclosure for a treat they could not quite reach.
  • Witnessing two dirty and mangy polar bears in their concrete enclosure listlessly half playing with one another.
  • Being continually surrounded and bombarded by advertising billboards and posters multiplying and enlarging in a nightmarish fashion. Billboards that proudly advertise themselves as offering in-your-face advertising (how could I miss it?!) and then having to think about my own bombardment of my network when they may feel intruded upon. We are all screaming “SEE ME, SEE ME!!!”
  • Watching the relentless and mindless destruction of habitat spreading like a cancer over the land, and knowing that at the same time the development is feeding many hungry mouths, and a good deal of greed.
  • Continually searching for the blue sky behind the brown haze.
  • Seeing the many poor and needy people at the side of the road and  more invisibly in the fragile homes of the urban sprawl and knowing that I am not able to help them.
  • Trailing my own heavy carbon footprint behind me as I went.

And yet, mostly, we encountered kindness and inspiration in a variety of forms:

  • The elderly pale faced proprietor of the men’s outfitters that sat behind his desk (defiantly smoking one cigarette after another)  berating his helpful scurrying staff members for not keeping him informed of the decision to quickly shorten my trousers for me, but who nevertheless winked and smiled at me as he gave me a discount.
  • The manager Marlize and the team at Exclusive Books (Brooklyn) who did a magnificent window display and pulled out all the stops to draw and host a great crowd for my launch of Beneath.
  • The many people who gave of their time to hear me speak about my passions and who asked meaningful questions which allowed me to display my wares (so to speak).
  • The connection with very special and longstanding friends who support me warts and all.
  • Treasured friends like Thapelo Mahlangu who went to great trouble (and risking his life while driving) to tell the world about my book and my activities.
  • The friendliness of staff at the variety of establishments that served us food and rooibos cappucino’s and the various courageous attempts at making red cappuccinos when such item was not on the menu.
  • The informative generosity of Owen Early, the book sales representative in Johannesburg who handles Beneath.
  • The woman at the beauty parlour who kindly, but bravely (and successfully) suggested an added grooming service.
  • The author (and past head of the Publications Board who was responsible for critical unbanning) who took the time to read and complement me on my book and attend my launch.
  • Candice and Marcia at Skoobs for supporting the launch of Beneath.
  • The past MBA students who connected with me in a variety of ways and reminded me of the joy of teaching and the privilege of fulfilling the role of a teacher in the world.
  • The SAB and Henley Business School team who asked Lewis Pugh to speak at the gala dinner for the delegates of their Management Development Programme and invited me and Bodo to attend.
  • Lewis Pugh, a great and compelling storyteller, who is crazy and determined enough to swim a kilometre at the North Pole in order to alert world leaders to the fact that we are causing the ice to melt at an alarming rate.
  • The women who cleaned our rooms at the various guesthouses and tidied my scattered possessions with care.
  • The people in Cape Town who kept the show on the road behind the scenes, my wonderful assistant Susan, careful and kind Samuel who brushed and walked Blackie (our remaining dog) every day, my publishing manager Dominique who keeps a watchful eye, Xavier my distributor who supported and delivered, and PR fairies Wendy and Sarah who keep me in mind when it matters.

Of course, there was a lot more, but now there is the delight of the Karoo sky and the Pierneef landscapes beneath it on the way home.

The power of stories

We are on the road to Johannesburg from Cape Town driving through the beautifully barren landscapes of the Karoo. I love road trips for many reasons, but mostly because they give perspective to a life. There have been riots in London, the gold price is soaring, the ice is melting and yet life goes on. I woke up wondering (as I do sometimes) how we can make it all better. I know that I want us to clean up pollution, but for a person struggling to feed his or her children, or someone who has even abandoned that essential task out of utter hopelessness, the accumulation of plastic in the oceans simply does not matter. We are faced with many potentially irreconcilable dilemmas everywhere.  And so I think and think and think about how to take action that breaks through intractable world problems.

My main idea this morning is that it is critical for people to tell their stories (and to be heard) as a stepping stone towards caring for themselves, their communities and their environment. And so, for today, I decided to ask people their stories when I met them. The waitress at the Wimpy told me a little of her story. She  managed to become qualified in various aspects of hospitality despite having very limited resources. Hers is a story of determination.

I have been musing about how we can tell our stories whilst using our hands and also through our handiwork – making patchwork blankets, knitting, painting, crafting of one kind or another –  in a slower, older way of living and communicating and stitching the fragments of our lives into coherent wholes. And finally, thinking about how we can pay more attention to the untold stories of our unconscious minds, releasing the demons and discovering the magic that is sometimes stored there.