Bittersweet Symphonies among Boundless Seas: South Africa Month 12
Greek “auto” (meaning self)
and “poeisis” (meaning creation, production)
refers to system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself
-First Used to Define Self Maintaining Chemistry of Living Cells
“When we act in a novel way, we are creating new connections in our brains that support that particular new behavior. We are developing new pathways in the brain, new habits of mind, which in turn correspond to new ways of thinking and living.”
High on a mountaintop, I stood alone. I gazed out to the painting which looked back at me. Its blues breathed along with my breath. Its emeralds danced with every shift and movement of my green eyes. The glow of the sun crept from behind the peaks in the distance as if perfectly timed with the smile that crept into the corners of my mouth. The first buzz of an early riser bee ignited the beating of my heart, and then the birds began. First one, then all the birds of the world sang on the very hillside on which I stood. With their symphony, the blood in my veins began to flow, and I became alive as the world awakened.
Suddenly, a man appeared to my right, and another to my left. No words were exchanged. We stood together, alive with the world.
Without saying a word, my mentor spoke, “Go ahead. Paint it as you will.”
Then came the silent words from the mentor on my left, “You are your own orchestra.”
The men vanished and I realized it hadn’t been my mentors, David and Neil, but rather wisdom from within me that had spoken. And so now was the moment of truth:
Was the world really a reflection of me?
Could the power of intent really make manifest anything which is dreamed?
Is what you see what you get?
And in this moment of truth, I stepped to the edge, and decided to play with life. I lifted my left hand, then my right hand, and motioned the orchestra to commence. Suddenly the blue of the sky became flooded with buildings. The mountaintops became people. The sun became an energy of creation, changing the painting with each moment. Anything that fell within my imaginative reach became part of this art looking back at me; this living, breathing world-and it was real. When I awoke, I took my first waking breaths of the morning, and in my first steps after that moment of truth at the edge of the world, I found Truth.
“One day you will realize you are just wasting your time.”
–45 year old English woman, lifelong South African resident
“When you leave, it will all fall apart, just like the efforts of all the others before you.”
–40 year old Afrikaner man, South African native and lifelong South African resident
“It’s in their DNA, they aren’t programmed for insight.”
–60 year old Kenyan native, woman, South African resident
“Now you see why we have something against them.”
–23 year old Afrikaner man, born and raised in South Africa
These are actual quotes from real conversations I’ve had since arriving in South Africa last July. As an American born post-Civil Rights Act, and decades after my home nation’s cultural-political evolution beyond racial segregation, I am not so accustomed to an environment in which separatist mentality is mainstream. To the surprise of many of my American friends, these attitudes are so ubiquitous in South Africa, that people with which I’ve closely bonded have expressed such sentiments.
Some of these quotes are from people who have come to the rural parts with genuine optimism, compassion, and well planned development aspirations. A couple of years into their work, their sparks burn out and they seem only to have energy remaining to caution the currently ambitious from fighting a battle in which they are “destined to fail.” Even those of strong religious backgrounds, such as the strict Christian Afrikaners, openly admit to having relinquished faith in the progress of South Africa towards a more sustainable, productive, and harmonious nation.
In a recent conversation, a 50 year old Afrikaner woman told me that I am not going to change anything while I am here. I responded, “Beyond big ideas of changing the world, I just came out here to open some minds. And so far, it’s working.” She then confessed that she runs a development organization which pays salaries to nearly 100 rural black South Africans near my work site. After listening to her describe her work, I informed her that despite the frustrations she voiced, she is not fooling me one bit.
“But you still do it,” I said, “You have more faith than you’re willing to admit.”
That’s just the thing; in such a racially attuned environment as small town South Africa, it is simply against the grain to believe new outcomes can be achieved by working among ancient and indigenous cultures. This attitude is also prevalent in the cities. However, when I am traveling through cities, I have more options as to who to share my time with, and so my low tolerance for pessimism is easily catered by moving along to someone more open, more apt to work with me on a project, and seeing from much broader angles.
In a recent revelation of mine, I realized conversations like the ones I’ve shared in these quotes are just as vital to my success, and the success of my host community, as are the more optimistic conversations I have. The discouraging words inspire me to dig deeper; they leave a residual whisper within my soul, “instill faith where there is none.”
There is no shortage of horror stories, corrupted projects, and foreign aid funding failures to discourage grassroots humanitarians like myself. In fact, research indicates that the majority of underdeveloped countries receiving foreign aid consistently show declines in growth. This cannot be ignored, especially when the sentiments of the inhabitants of these countries mirror the statistics. While I am an advocate of attuning your attention to the positive, I am also a realist. A little bit of knowledge about failures saves me from expending energy on repeat futile strategies. So, I’ve read the books, yet remain undeterred.
As a confidant to the discouraged and pessimistic, I often see a reflection of myself in them. I’ve only been here for eleven months, but I’ve already had countless days of frustration. My previous articles have expressed some of those hardships: How to break through apathy and make people care? How to get people to be on time? How to find to the right counterparts who gain a sense of satisfaction by teaching rather than receiving? How to dream big in an environment that seems to embrace a defeatist mentality? Maybe that is one difference in my approach. I don’t lie alone at night allowing these challenges to weigh me down. I ask these questions, consult my inner wisdom, and trust with unbending faith that the answers will come. Without fail, they always do.
For a couple of years now, I have played with life. I have subscribed to the idea that what you see is what you get, and that what you see is a choice. In a recent visit with my mentors, who have 20 years of development experience in Africa, I was given further justification for my optimism-for my belief that South Africa is a boundless sea of potential. One of my mentors, David Patient, stated, “South Africa is a 20 year old country. How does a 20 year old act?” That was the ultimate boost of faith. With the right amount of positivity, patience, and belief, any 20 year old is bound to learn a few things, mature, and take steps towards a desirable future. It is just part of process called Evolution.
“Yes, but Amanda, in our culture, if you give recognition to someone, the others can’t be happy for them. It’s not right, but how can we change it?”
–Ages 11-45, girls, boys, men, and women from the Venda tribe, Ready to Evolve
“You get what you create. Your thoughts- your energy- attracts and creates everyone and everything around you…If you can’t rely only on yourself, then you’ll never truly live.”
-affluent 35 year old man, Zulu tribe, Evolved
Everything in life is moving; it is an inescapable force, observable in nature, biology, technology, politics, and culture. The move to empowerment mentality and the potential resulting benefits such as health and economic growth is written on the wall. I can see beyond the chaos, there is an undeniable forward motion of life.
“Someone asked me recently, ‘what is your purpose in life; what is the one thing you can wake up and do everyday without thinking about the money?’ I couldn’t answer it. But I want to find it.”
-affluent 26 year old man, Venda tribe, Ready to Evolve
We, as organisms, are made up of billions of microscopic cells which interact with one another, while acting as individual cells, and carry out their own self-maintaining activities. We are living personifications of boundless potentials-just by our very breathing. At the scientific fundamental base of our existence is proof that by nature, we are cooperating, we are self-sustaining, and we are moving.
Isn’t it far more natural to be safe, comfortable, and happy than any of the opposite? Then, I can only conclude that in cases of chaos, poverty, and demoralization, something is interfering with nature. My job then is to open minds in ways that become aware of our natural potential as intelligent organisms, so we can together tap that potential more frequently-more faithfully-and flow upward, faster. Simply, my solution is to remove that interference, but I can’t do it alone. I can only shed light for others; they have to walk into it themselves.
There is one element which must be used if ever to shed any light for others. Absent this element, and you fail- other forces come in, pulling at your ego, your purse strings, your pride. No, you can only inspire and empower with one weapon in your hand. Love. Without love, you aren’t real, not to yourself, and certainly not to the ancient tribe who has been oppressed by people of your color, and whose own cultural advancements have been measured in war (that latter detail can be applied to pretty much every human inhabitant of planet Earth, so let this also be a mirror to yourself).
I remember my first bouts of anxiety prior to coming to South Africa. My insecure ego, attached to a former identity and the comfort of familiar faces and places, became a bit sad. I knew once I left Chicago, and once I leaped into my life’s true calling, I would never be the same. It was as if I could feel the pains of my skin shedding away as I evolved into a truer self. At the time my placement in Peace Corps was announced, I had been working with an English South African at my job in the US for about a year. He could empathize with my reservations. He wrote me the following:
“It is very hard to leave everything you know behind and start a new chapter of your life. Most Americans would never even consider doing it!!! Your horizons and world views are about to expand and you are going to become a better person for it. In addition to that, you will make a difference to someone else’s life and meet some really interesting people along the way. You have to look at it this way: You are about to become a citizen of the world. You will also realise that people are the same where ever you go. Most people are generally good and we all want the same things in life.
You are not leaving the US, you are going home. You will set foot on the continent on which humanity evolved. You will walk on the same land that one of your direct ancestors walked on 200 000 years ago. Every part of your body evolved for the environment that you are going to be living in. I have asked many people from the US and Europe who staid in Africa permanently why they chose to stay? They all told me that as soon as they set foot in Africa, they had this primal feeling that they belonged there and somehow that they had finally come home. Maybe it is a distant primal ancestral memory, but I feel it too.
Near Pretoria where you will be staying is something called the cradle of mankind. It is a series of caves in which the first homonid bones were discovered by Raymond Dart in the first half of last century. It is a world heritage sight and to this day, new hominid fossils are being discovered there. It is humbling to see the remains and feel the presence of our ancestors that roamed the African plains all those millions of years ago.”
So what is my approach to help others leap into the forward moving stream of life’s richness? I can’t deny the stagnation and disorder in my current environment- widespread disease, unemployment, heinous crimes, lack of water and food…the list goes on. In a recent journal entry, I wrote the following:
“I have long been a believer in, ‘we are evolution become conscious of itself.’ This is the belief that is at the core of my relentless optimism about the possibilities for cultural progress and upliftment of societies which have seemed to remain dormant-or further-decayed in a world which is ever changing.
These societies have been sleeping, but they are not dead. They have simply lacked the appropriate catalyst for awakening. Many social factors are responsible for such sleepiness, and change is only going to be possible with a delicate balance of insight and acknowledgement of those factors, paired with a culturally sensitive transfer of knowledge as to our inherent nature as organisms of evolution.
Evolution imparts a wisdom about the fact that we, now, are moving, and that if we remove interference, we will just flow with that movement. We can be free from the belief of limitation and the enslavement of identity, and participate more actively, more happily, as members of our current world.
Within many societies, I observe that something has interfered with visibility into this dimension of our existence. But, once we begin knocking at the door, questioning the possibility that we can move forward, that we are wired for growth, that we are capable, the door will open. With proper encouragement-or rather, the proper questions- curiosity will be seeded. Curious minds tend to move.
Now, how to incite folks to knock? I am already discovering ways and encountering others from within the culture who have stirred from the sleep of stagnation. These individuals are the key.
As a leader, it is my responsibility to keep myself continually knocking-continually evolving. And then by my very being, I will inspire those around me to do the same. The world truly is a reflection…”
I am not only concerned with the rural South African populations with which I work. No, for me it has become needful to restore a little faith in the hearts of people like those who tell me I’m wasting my time. Disheartened. It is an unnatural state. It is a state of limitation, and my goodness, folks, we are not limited. How can I demonstrate this truth?
I empathize and relate to the stories of frustration; I allow my demoralized friends to look in the mirror, and see me looking back at them. A bright eyed woman with hope who’s hit some of the same walls they’ve encountered. As they look into the mirror and peer back at me, I move. I beckon them to come along, to play with life, to play with intent. I invite them to see what they really want to see, to abandon the bitter and create the sweet.
First things first: tear down the walls of limitation. What is limitation anyway? A fictitious belief, and nothing more. What are beliefs? In my observations, I have found many beliefs to be stubborn ideas grounded in the past. And by the past, I do mean anything that has occurred before right Now. What good does that do us? If we ground ourselves in the past, then where is the creativity in that? Let us know that creativity comes from an infinite source, and so as long as such a tool as creativity exists, there must be infinite possibilities for creation. How then, could anyone intelligently argue that defeat is definitive?
As intelligent lifeforms, we are wired with the ability to create anew, again and again, throughout our lives. The only interference with that creativity is the belief in limitation. That is the one and only factor which has stagnated the evolution of my host community, and which has disheartened so much of the human population, in South Africa and abroad (I write more about this concept in my book).
My passion is my work, and my work is my art. I eat, sleep, and breathe ideas for humanity. Some of my most recent and most brilliant ideas have come to me in dreams. People close to me out here are often bewildered by how this happens. I am too, but I flow with it, stating, “that’s the power of Intent, want it, trust it, and it will be.”
When I get an idea, I state my intent aloud to make it manifest. I don’t get bothered with the uncertainties and unlikeliness of these manifestations. Aren’t the horror stories and the foreign funding disasters stories from the past anyway? I live Now. So, I affirm, “the right people and resources will be revealed to me in right time.” That is it. Then, my energy is freed to work on what opportunities are available right now. I keep my vision in my mind, my faith in tact, and continue about my business. Then, as if by miracle, the people and resources always come, usually in the form of coincidence.
Critics often indulge in challenging me, “but just because that coincidence occurred, doesn’t mean it was meant to be!” Maybe they’re right. I am not pontificating destiny and pre-determined outcomes. What I am striving to do is raise your awareness about the power of intent in dictating the direction and quality of your attention.
If I don’t journey into my days with the belief that what I need and desire will manifest, then how equipped will I be to recognize opportunities when they arise? I speculate that most everyone in life experiences coincidence; they are presented with openings for the evolution of dreams into reality, of needs into gratification, but because they lack the faith of intention, their senses aren’t astute to these synchronous occurrences-these little miracles, if you will.
“You accept the love you think you deserve.”
The day before I met David Patient and Neil Orr of Empowerment Concepts, my mentors, I stated my intent. I had been in South Africa for a couple of months, and was craving new teachers who, like me, understand the boundlessness of human potential, and the power of intent. I wanted someone on my plane of thinking, but with more experience, to further empower me in my work. I was feeling alone, coasting through ups and downs and stories of past failures. I wrote in my journal:
“May the right teachers enter my life now. May I meet people that can encourage me on my own evolutionary path and empower me to bring the truth of human potential home for the people I serve. It is my intent to be open and receptive to when these people enter my life. And so it is. I am grateful.”
The next day, at a Peace Corps conference, I met David and Neil. I showed them the book I was reading at the time, and it turns out Neil knows the individual who first brought the author of the book to South Africa. During their session, they shared stories of how they worked within the cultural norms of various tribes and groups throughout Africa, opening minds to the reality of their potential, and inspiring the evolution of entire cultures toward healthy and sustainable living. In fact, they won a National Geographic award for their success among the Masai tribe of Kenya. Months later, I would find myself in a year long leadership program, with David and Neil as my mentors. The power of intent!
A few weeks ago, I read about a very successful women’s study conducted in Limpopo province. I was inspired to use similar processes for the women of the Venda tribe in my region of Limpopo. However, in my online research, I could not find contacts for the leaders involved in the study. I wasn’t discouraged. I just believed that I would be led to the people who ran the program, and that I would be ready to act when this synchronicity occurred. Days later, I found myself in contact with a director at United Nations and was immediately put in contact with the program manager of the women’s study. The power of Intent!
This week, members of my Takalani Empowerment Project are focusing on securing food for their villages. If our people are no longer hungry, then their capacity for evolution and expansion is opened up- new potentials emerge and higher life aspirations become feasible.
During a leadership workshop a few weeks ago, I prompted the youth groups to complete this sentence: “When I am a leader, I will do these three things…” Many of our members said they would ensure hungry people have food. I asked them just how they were going to do that. Some of them proposed giving food to the community. Because our purpose is not only to talk about building our community, but to actually do it, I challenged the learners, “how can we give what we don’t have?” I then shared the story, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” The members’ eyes lit up when they realized that by teaching, they could change someone’s life forever! Their purpose became clear, as they stated their intent, “I will teach others how to help themselves.”
We then developed a plan to facilitate training on permaculture (a gardening technique which emphasizes companion planting and requires minimal resources, sustainable even in areas of water scarcity). The skills will be transferred to the youth, and the youth will transfer the skills to their parents and neighbors from within their villages. The most basic benefit of this project is food security. Other benefits include household cost reduction and income generation. I’ve recruited a member of the school governing board to lead our first workshop. He and I both have training in the permaculture technique. Over the next few months, we will be developing project leaders from within the youth groups and among the community.
Congruent with my intent to introduce a catalyst for sustainable change, my projects are under way, carried forward by enthusiasm from former defeatists. These defeatists now understand that life moves, and they’ve made the choice to move with it. Now that this contagion of truth has touched my host community, we’re conspiring ways to make it viral, to expand it throughout South Africa.
I decided months ago that I want to organize an arts and culture festival to showcase the community projects of my target group. My idea is to build confidence within surrounding villages in their ability to build and advance their communities-on their own. The festival will celebrate the achievements of my community as they practice the power of intent. With a proper celebration for the entire Venda region to see, I envision goal attainment.
I can see everyone gathered. The women are in their Venda striped tribal skirts, the men in their shined shoes. We dance and celebrate tradition together, venerating the ancient customs of the tribe. And then we stop. Everything goes quiet, and I approach the microphone. One by one, I introduce the members of Takalani Empowerment, and in their native tongue, they show their tribal counterparts just how much they’ve done for their communities. The crowd goes wild, we dance some more, and by the end of the night, 50 new people approach me asking to be shown how they can help themselves.
However, I have never organized a tribal festival. I was aware that I needed to meet someone, from within the culture, who could guide me. Not to worry. Weeks later, I attended a writer’s festival in Durban. Before leaving, I affirmed, “I know I am going to be pleasantly surprised by some coincidental meet who can assist with the festival. Thank you for this!”
Two days into my Durban trip, I stopped at a reggae club for fun. I met a man whose grandmother lives in my neighboring village in Venda- 10 hours from Durban. The man is from the Venda tribe, and has already organized an arts and culture festival in my region. He was so moved by the work I am doing there, that he decided to collaborate with me on the project! What were the odds of meeting someone from my region of Venda, with the exact qualifications I was seeking, while vacationing in the world tourist location that is Durban? The power of Intent!
I have more plans out here, and about 100 stories of coincidence matching my intentions, but in the interest of keeping this post to a favorable length, and not revealing all the excitement at once, I will reserve those for the book and for future articles. I will say this though, what you see is what you get. It’s not about me though-this sort of magic has now been passed onto my host community who is now seeing what they want, and believing their dreams will be met.
It’s not always rainbows, but without limiting beliefs, we have unlocked an inner wisdom. Together, we play with life, and tap that infinite source of creativity.We have found truth; we know that we are evolving, upward.
We are the endurers and creators of bittersweet symphonies among boundless seas.
“Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune. But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born, And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. …Work is love made visible.”
Disclaimer: The content on this webpage is mine personally and does not reflect the opinions or positions of the US Peace Corps or US Government.