Recently I overheard a dinner party conversation taking place between my parents and “the gang”, which is the affectionate term assigned to their group of retired friends. In all honesty I am yet to see any mob behaviour from any of them, alcohol seems to have the opposite effect and result in early slumber rather than hooligan-like shenanigans. They were discussing holidays, a topic in which my parents can rarely “compete”, growing up, our family adventures took us to Cornwall as opposed to far reached exotic destinations, aside from a couple of trips to Bermuda to visit relatives and one package holiday to Cyprus.
They have, my parents that is, managed to catch up a bit in their retirement, but are by no means seasoned travellers and certainly cannot regale their friends with colourful accounts of glamorous bi- or tri-annual holidays. This is, of course, until the conversation had circumnavigated the globe and reached Africa, that dark mysterious continent that many want to explore but no one really knows if it is safe beyond the tour bus or Serengeti safari. Here my parents can speak with enthusiasm and experience as they visited me in both Botswana and South Africa during the 11 years I was living there. We took many a road trip to ensure a comprehensive African adventure, exploring the diversity of place in all its different aspects as far as the time would allow.
It was at this point that I arrived, just in time to witness a stream of superlatives describing the “glorious Okavango sunsets” and a long flamboyant list of the Delta’s other finest attributes, which to the untrained ear, might have sounded a little ostentatious but when put into context it was undoubtedly the first time that evening that Mum had felt able to contribute with knowledge and insight, so I believe she could be forgiven a smidgen of pretentiousness! This was not being said for my benefit either, as they were blissfully unaware of my presence. I had popped in unannounced to relieve them of just one more of their assets, this time an extension flex needed for a presentation the following day. I do own one but had a sneaky suspicion that it might be too short and it was too late in the day to source another, hence the flex theft!
As I stopped to eavesdrop I realised that the words describing their experience were uplifting, sensational, beautiful and delightful evoking truly glorious feelings of wonderment, marvel and joy
– ‘the holiday of a lifetime’.
Yet listening to those words all I could feel was a deep sense of loss and sadness, so profound that it brought tears to my eyes.
How could our memories be so different?
It was at that moment I realised that I had never really made peace with my decision to leave Africa. That decision had been made for me. In a sense Africa had been taken away from me.
As I write, I see a statement steeped in victimhood but I feel the pain that is so very real, as if it was yesterday. I can only describe it as being synonymous with the hurt experienced after the unforeseen break-up of an incredible 11 year relationship. For me, this was the worst relationship break-up ever, and believe me I have been party to some interesting ones including infidelity, violent anger and mysterious disappearance.
I loved Africa with all my heart, but one fateful day, in a matter of minutes, my perspective shifted and the trust I had in Africa was irrevocably damaged.
One moment in time took me to the point of no return, it took away my uplifting feelings of joy, wonder, beauty and delight replacing them with feelings of confusion, despair, panic and fear
– Africa went from glorious to inglorious in a heartbeat.
It was such a normal day, right up to the point where I parked my car outside my flat and was faffing around collecting my belongings from the passenger seat. There was a tapping at the car window and I instinctively swung round, expecting a neighbour or a car guard, only to be faced with the barrel of a gun. The mind does funny things when presented with imminent danger and it certainly took me a couple of seconds to comprehend the seriousness of the scene unfolding before me.
It was not the first time I had been confronted by a life-threatening situation in Africa, as living in the wilds of the Okavango Delta threw up a few critical moments, but this was Cape Town and it was the first time that the threat was at the hands of a human being as opposed to an irate animal inconvenienced by the imposition of human presence in their world. The human threat was far more terrifying I can assure you.
In that moment I made peace with death.
I remember thinking how fortunate I was to have had such amazing life experiences, to have been loved by family and friends and to have been blessed with the gift and desire to help others learn, grow and empower their own future.
In that moment I felt it was okay to die because I had done as much as I could to help and serve others and had a really good run of it, I was quite calm and unafraid. It is a very surreal memory, a definite soul moment.
Fortunately, my brain then kicked back into gear (excuse the pun, I was in the car at the time!) and needless to say I survived that encounter, as a result of one clear, rational thought, one very bold move and one quick follow up action that saw me away in a matter of seconds and unharmed. Sadly, I left some of my courage and most of my trust in that parking bay, never quite feeling safe in that world again.
It was through this experience that I realized we really do find evidence in our environment for what we believe to be real, right and true. I had gone, in an instant, from seeing hope, growth, beauty, wonder and joy to the other extreme of finding evidence for fear, hatred, pain and sadness. Suddenly my glass was half empty.
Although I stayed for another 12 months they were incredibly hard. I found myself limiting my activities, overeating and watching far too many box sets instead of enjoying the glorious sunsets and the al-fresco lifestyle afforded by Cape Town’s exquisite vistas and climate. I spent most of my time between work and home, I was anxious every evening as I pulled up to my flat to park my car. Despite the best efforts of my friends to lure me out, I found being in public spaces more threatening than ever before. It was time to leave as I had transitioned from a life of faith and freedom, one that I deeply loved, to a life of fear and resentment.
One moment, one day, one man, one gun.
For the first time I felt powerless and unable to shape my future. There was no space in this truth for defensive humour, no laughing this off and ‘seeing it for what it really is’. There was no positive reframe powerful enough to change the intrinsic fear now deeply rooted, there seemed to be no choice, no other way out. When I look back now, nearly three years on, it still makes me sad and the void Africa left has never really healed. In quiet moments I have a terrible case of the “what-ifs” and the “if-onlys”, although I can now reflect with objectivity and will never let negative thoughts, fear or regret prevail – after all what’s real, and what is only in my head?
When I catch myself in the act of negative thinking I consciously bring balance to my thoughts by reminding myself of the staggering, unspoiled beauty and unparalleled experiences and adventures. I do enjoy listening to my parent’s uncomplicated memories of helicopter excursions over Victoria Falls, drums and dancing at Boma evenings, small planes and seemingly unkempt airstrips, Botswana’s pristine wilderness and unbelievable wildlife encounters, the waterways, the sunsets, the day and night lilies, the mokoros, the smiles and kindness of the people and the meditative silence. I love the retelling of the family Christmas in Cape Town, the Christmas Day beachfront ‘braai’- the year we had lobster instead of turkey! New Year’s eve with Johnny Clegg at Kirstenbosch Gardens, the CD still gets played in Abbots Leigh on a nostalgic summer evening over a bottle of chilled Rosé.
The glorious Africa I lost touch with for a while, but who captured my heart and my imagination forever.
What was the purpose? What was the learning?
I have asked those questions a thousand times with no definite conclusion. Yet now I acknowledge and respect the fragility of my present circumstances; in a matter of minutes what is current reality can change forever – this works both ways, for better and for worse.
I have a deep sense of gratitude, not just for dodging a bullet (literally) but for life, not something I will ever take for granted. Every day I try to be grateful, it’s not always easy but every day I try again and every day I try to learn, reflect and grow. I see the power of seeking an alternative viewpoint and wonder if we can ever truly be objective when it comes to our own ‘stuff’?
Maybe it is always wise to seek another perspective, not with the intention of confirming our own thinking nor to adopt their opinion or reality as our own, but to add a perceptual dimension, to question our standpoint, to enable our ability to think beyond the story that we tell ourselves.
Africa made me strong. Africa opened my mind.
Africa taught me compassion, genuine acceptance and the importance of unconditional love. Africa revealed my true potential and introduced me to the wise person within that truly inspired and influenced. Africa gave me everything, took it all back, asked me to reclaim it and then set me free.