Opposites Attract - A journey to Africa
“ Opposites breed manifestation. God has no opposites and that’s why he remains unseen.” - The 40 Rules of Love
I have just returned from the trip of a lifetime. It was beautiful, it was hard, I laughed, I cried. Only after boarding the plane to return from Cape Town, South Africa was I able to truly soak in all that I learned and experienced on this trip. But first, let me back up…
Right vs. Wrong
Leaving on this trip that was both work and play, I was riddled with mom guilt. My husband had been away already for a few weeks on tour and my daughter was being so patient and amazing with our crazy freelancer's lifestyle, but in the midst of all of the shuffle of change, she got the flu right before I left. “What kind of a mother leaves her child for 2 weeks?” (even though my steadfast mother in law was here to help us for a few weeks). “You should do the right thing!” (Whatever that was).
The voice of judgment in my head often repeats the phrase “who do you think you are?” Over and over again until some part of me starts to identify with it. I know it's not real, I know it's not my true self, but it hurts nonetheless.
Before I had even left I was filled with conflicting emotions. Excitement to be on African soil for the first time. The anticipation of a big job that I knew very little about until I arrived. Guilt for leaving my sick child behind. Relief that I would get a break as a burnt out mom and lastly elation that I would be sharing this experience with my dad who on a whim decided to accompany me on this trip.
Frank Birl has always wanted to go to Africa. He was born and raised in rural Alabama and during the great black migration, moved north to Detroit and then Buffalo with his mother and 3 siblings being in one of the first black children to attend an integrated school. His stories of growing up black in America were unreal. I and my siblings were raised in Canada, but he never let us lose sight of the struggle that he and many of our family members endured. This trip was my way of thanking my dad for the pride that he instilled in us. Needless to say, the feelings were conflicting, to say the least, but off I went.
Reason vs. Instinct
I met a lovely Zimbabwean woman in the customs line named Peira. She was an expat in Cape Town from Switzerland where she worked with the UN. She is now a Ph.D. student in Psychology and studying healing through spirituality in native Zimbabweans. She told me all about Cape Town, its history, the drought and how greed, poor planning and misuse of the earth led to this problem. She told me great places to go and see. My parents are often worried at my openness when I travel alone, but what I have found is that when I trust my instincts and tap into my inner discernment, It never leads me wrong and I end of meeting the most fascinating people.
Upon arrival, the theme of opposites continued to ring clear. Stunning scenery and abundance of natural beauty in the midst of the greatest drought that South Africa has ever seen (they haven’t received a decent rainfall in 3 years!). There was water available for use. D-Day as they called it was continually being pushed back due to the conscious efforts of the locals, but you had to collect your shower water to feed the plants at the hotel and a lot of restrictions were in place.
Driving in from the airport, I noticed rows of tin shacks lining the highways as you approach the city center. This is where much of the black population lives. Many of these townships as they call them are conveniently placed across the street from very affluent white communities for easy access to cheap labor. This is a result of Apartheid and the separation of blacks from Whites in South Africa. The divide is great and even though the practices have been abolished, the separation of race and class is still very apparent in Cape Town.
Black vs. White
The conversation on race began day one. From the diver who picked me up at the airport who defined himself as colored (in between black and white) to the man selling samosas on the beach. It was a breath of fresh air to experience how freely South Africans speak of their relationship to race in that country. Coming from America where liberal political correctness reigns supreme, I was relieved to speak openly about all of the questions that were on my heart.
We all know black and white but in South Africa, they have another category; colored. I was confused at first seeing that African Americans were considered “colored” at one point in history, but this was different. In the times of apartheid, coloreds would be treated worse than whites and better than blacks (pure African blood). It is amazing how the saying “divide and conquer” rings so true here. How do you separate a nation? You make some feel as though they are better than others. Then you leave them to destroy themselves. We met many colored people on our travels and the matter of fact energy of them being better than one group but less than another was mind-blowing.
Sun vs. Moon
The first day I was alone and took advantage of learning the lay of the land. I walked the streets and got familiar with the area. That night I took an uber (best way to get around Cape Town) and went to Signal Hill to check out the sunset. The minute I reached the top of the mountain I began to cry. It sounds dramatic but it was a homecoming of sorts. My body and my mind felt at ease for the first time in weeks. The sun and moon were held in perfect balance in the sky. I took off my shoes, walked barefoot and cried. I looked at the sun as it set and saw the moon patiently waiting its turn to rise. Perfect balance. What was red and orange changed to indigo and violet? Everything began to sync up. I felt a natural rhythm begin to overtake me. The feeling of separation disappeared and for that moment all was one. I sat there and I began to contemplate; how can I embody the unforced rhythms of grace? What is my role in evolution? What is my role in creation? Show me how to receive it.
I woke up the next morning to meditate on the balcony of the hotel and this verse came to mind: Ecclesiastes 3:3-13 (A Time for Everything). There truly was room for all of it. Good, bad, dark and light and I didn’t have to rationalize or explain it away. There was a freedom to holding two equal and opposite truths and choose to stand in the paradox, in the unknown while continuing to walk forward.
Father vs. Daughter
My dad arrived the next day. I had a few days before having to dive into work, and so the adventures began! A tour around the southern coast of Africa. Feeding Ostriches out of the palm of our hands. Spotting baboons stealing snacks from distracted tourists, chilling with penguins, stunning coastal views of the tip of the continent, a safari full of majesty and wonder. An impromptu yoga session on the top of Table mountain.
Now my dad does two things very well. He talks and he sleeps. He interviewed every tour guide, every restaurant host, every driver, and hotel staff that he could about their experience of being African. Black, white, colored, it made no difference. He was officially in his element. People were so kind and also relieved to be able to speak so candidly in a scene where 99% of tourists were white Europeans.
The irony of hosting mostly German and British tourists on the exact land that their ancestors raided and conquered can't be easy. or maybe they don't even think of it. I do.
I also felt a sense of sadness around the fact that we were enjoying these breathtaking views and nature as the only people of color on that side of the experience. It felt weird and it made me wonder “is there a monopoly on beauty?” “ Why are only white people awarded this privilege?”
Work vs. Play
So I did start this blog by stating that I was brought to Cape Town to work. I was hired to be a communicator of sorts between a group of new york business types and South African artist. There was a huge world health conference being held at the convention center in Cape Town and a group of local South African talent was hired to open and close the opening night awards show for countries around the world cutting back on tobacco sales and distribution. With all of that being said, I showed up not really knowing my role but knowing that I would be the associate creative director.
In my mind, it was perfect for me, but what I soon found out was that I had to balance two very different ways of working and communicating. I had to hear the worst of both sides and be the peacemaker and problem solver/creative mediator in the middle. After the first night of work, I went back to my room and looked in the mirror vowing never to accept a job like this again!
After a good night's rest and some perspective over breakfast with my dad, I realized that this was exactly where I belong. Holding space in the tension of things, in the paradox. The beauty of connecting two seemingly opposite views and finding their common thread. It is not easy, to say the least, but what it is, is union. It’s messy and stressful and unapologetic and hard, but it is necessary.
Having a mostly white team from New York show up in South Africa and have a very limited amount of time to work with a very laid back group of South African artists was tricky. Me having to communicate his wishes was trickier, but by the end, there was a coming together, a trust even. One of the cast members approached me minutes before the show to teach me a dance that they wanted me to know. “You are one of us,” she said. This experience was another lesson in human nature's instinct to shun and misunderstand anything that looks like the other, but there is beauty in collaborating where there may not have otherwise been any contact.
Nature vs. Human Nature
The show was a success. Dad left to head back to frigid Toronto and I had one day left in Cape Town. I decided to reach out to Peira and take her up on that hike she suggested at the start of the trip. I woke up at the crack of dawn and met her up in wine region. We went on a 6.5K hike in the mountains with her two Rhodesian ridgebacks. That same sensation poured over me. A feeling of being connected to all that is. My throat began to tense up as I wanted to release my tears. I took a deep breath and continued with the walk.
We connected over being black women who love nature. Love being in nature, love clean eating and holistic medicine. We spoke about why we rarely see black people on hikes, in nature. How I think it has something to do with a certain idea of success and not having time for "that sort of stuff". Maybe it's because we are busy working out butts off! Maybe it's a deeper sense of being in nature forcing you to be alone with your thoughts. No distractions. I often speak of my journey through yoga as a privilege of sorts. Who in my family spent this much time and energy on “finding myself”, on connecting to and releasing my past hurt. “Black people don't go to therapy” I would often hear people say growing up. We are strong! I was so tired of being strong. I just wanted to be held, this was the perfect setting.
She took me by streams of fresh running water that you could drink from the rocks. You see, the mountains had found a way to sustain. I found it funny that it takes a disruption to humans way of living for us to pay attention to the earth and make a change. 3 years with no rain and there is fresh running water in the mountains but no system to collect and distribute. The lack of respect for nature and taking for granted what is all around was abundantly clear.
We stood next to trees that made me feel like an ant and stood on top of cliff’s that made me feel as if I ruled it all. We shared about our relationships, our families, our successes, our failures. We ended our time together picking some passion fruit at her house as she showed me the pride she had in her garden. Then she dropped me off at one of the local wineries to have breakfast and walk around. I continued to soak in my last day and reflected as I walk the vineyard allowing nature to be my date. After allowing myself to wander for a bit, I jumped in an uber and went down to the waterfront to board a boat and head over to Robben Island.
I met Cheryl, the stage manager from the show I was working on and we boarded what was known as a very choppy boat ride over to Robben Island (meaning the Island of Seals). This is where Nelson Mandela and countless freedom fighters were detained and tortured during the time of apartheid. People had warned me that the boat ride was rough and the experience was rougher. Sad, heartbreaking, anger-inducing. I was prepared but open to having my own experience.
Upon arrival on the island, you are taken by its beauty. Penguins, seals, birds flying free. We boarded a bus where we were guided around the island. People now inhabit Robben island. Ex-prisoners, wardens all living together in peace. The crime rate is 0% and there isn't even a police station. Children playing, a post office, a church, a school. A fully functioning and thriving community. How can so much beauty come from so much hate? I guess Nelson Mandela’s words are True:
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
We met a gentleman who led us through the tour of the actual prison. He was 22 when he was arrested, charged with sabotage and brought to Robben Island. 7 years imprisoned. Given no shoes, less food than the colored prisoners, beaten, tortured. He was an activist and part of the South African Liberal Students Association working to fight the injustice of Apartheid. He served time with President Mandela, told us stories of his courage and light. His body will never be the same, his sight diminishing from harsh work conditions in the sun, but he chooses to live on Robben Island, to tell his story every day. He said: “even after everything that I went through, I harbor no resentment. I chose love.”
In yoga, we study Ahimsa (non-violence). It is one of the “10 commandments” of yoga. Yes, that can mean physical violence, but what I experienced that day was an atmosphere of ahimsa in a place where violence once reigned supreme. The polarity of the two was both un-imaginable and real.
Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to India to study Ahimsa before leading the civil rights movement in America. Jesus went missing for many years for his life and many believe that he traveled east to study Ahimsa with eastern philosophers and sages. Gandhi overthrew an entire British Army preaching nonviolence and love. It was clear that you can't fight fire with fire, hate with hate. It’s seeming opposite is the greatest weapon of mass constriction.
Sitting next to my co-worker on the ride back (who is white), we spoke about how she felt. The word that came to mind for her was one of shame. Mine was one of pride. I usually would try to lighten the load for my friend and ease her pain but instead, I allowed her to sit with it, knowing that the tension of the two conflicting emotions is what would ultimately breed peace.
Landing back on dry land I received this text after our hike that morning:
“ Viva to black women being the change that is required for us to enjoy our beautiful world. The pleasure was all mine spending time with you. I had an absolute fun time with my black like-minded sister!!!”
Flying back from this trip I am left with one resounding word. F R E E D O M.