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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Fear, courage and perception

In Tjolotjo (now Tsholotsho) Zimbabwe, I learned to test the limits of fear -- and survived.

In April, 1980, I learned the most important lesson of my life. Most people are afraid, and most of the things we fear we need not. Success in life occurs when we transcend our fears and, even better, when we see beyond others' fears and take risks which we know are less risky to us than most people perceive.

Those of us who take the leap of faith from employee to entrepreneur appreciate the risk of giving up "job security" for an uncertain future -- only to find, if we are determined and somewhat capable -- that our security actually is higher than most employees. (We after all can dismiss everyone but keep our job, if we have to.)

I suffered as a child, beset by fears; fears of social relationships, speaking, most sporting activities; even walking in the woods alone. So I sought escape in my own private space. Someone suggested I should collect stamps. Perfect -- a solitary activity. I looked at the little pieces of paper from distant, unimaginable lands, and wistfully thought, "what would it be like to go there."

As university ended, and I faced the possibility of an uncertain future -- the daily newspaper I had the good fortune to be hired at for summer work told me I would not have a permanent job -- I decided to travel. "Go to Europe," someone suggested. But that seemed boring to me. Then I noticed an overland adventure trek in Africa. It went to some really strange and obscure places like The Central African Republic and Rwanda, and I thought, "Why not -- this is about as far away as I can go."

So I went; travelling on the back of a Bedford truck from London, England through the Sahara and the Congo jungle, on a three month journey to Nairobi, Kenya. We bounced along the rutted roads -- I didn't connect socially with my t ravelling peers, of course, but I had never been away from home so long, and never so far.

When we arrived in Nairobi, I had a choice -- to head straight home, or carry on. And in perhaps one of the most fateful decisions in my life, I decided to trek on southward, using public transport. By train, plane, hitchhiking, and sometimes walking, I made my way south, through Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, and arrived in Rhodesia. Wow. A strange place; a land 'rejected' by the world, a war, military convoys, complex racial and political issues, and more. I stayed a month, then briefly visited South Africa before returning home.

Two years later, after a stint on a small newspaper in Alberta, I returned, with one goal -- to see the end of the war in Rhodesia.

Again, I experienced life at a higher level than I could have dreamed; working on a local newspaper, meeting people, exploring, learning, grappling with history, economics, social issues and more.

But it wasn't until near the end of my time in Africa, in April, 1980, that I had the key flash of insight that would change my life. I'm not afraid, I realized, to go where others wouldn't go. To see, to experience, to live. The people around me were afraid, for good reason. They were in the middle of a civil war. But even most of the people in the midst of the war didn't get it -- blinded by their own fears and prejudices.

On Good Friday, after the peace settlement had been reached, and the warring armies laid down their weapons in preparation for the hand-over to independence, I decided to take a local (black) bus to Tjolotjo (now Tsholotsho) in the centre of the war zone. Whites around me said: "You're nuts. You can't do that." But the black people within Bulawayo said it would be okay.

I hopped on the bus, and enjoyed the raucous, wild ride, with cheering and relieved people going home to their tribal village area. No one had ever seen a white civilian on their bus so they accorded me a place of honour, besides the driver. When we arrived in Tjolotjo, I headed to the local bar. Time for a night of drinking in what had been a hotbed of guerrilla activity.

As the night wore on, I received the (expected) propositions for sex from prostitutes: I declined; then the sex would be 'free' (I also declined, probably wisely considering Aids was just starting to spread in Africa), then someone said: "This war is over, but we must start another one, to defend our tribe". And I held a can of Raid in my hand and was set to spray it, when a tiny little guy, a runt of a person, tugged on my shirt, and suggested perhaps I shouldn't do that. I realized he was right.

An hour later, I looked for my camera. Someone had stolen it. So I stood on a table and said: "I expect to have my camera back later tonight." Then I went back to drinking.

I staggered out of the hall about midnight, to see a police van pulling up. Four guys were hauled out of the van, including the agitator who had called for a new war. "Please have mercy on me," he pleaded. They had found the camera, and the guys who had stolen it. Seems many off-duty police officers were in that bar (it had been a police outpost, after all), and it took only a few minutes for the word to get out and for the police to find the culprits.

I continued the evening, drinking a little more, with the White District commissioner and police chief, celebrating the the changes and insights, crashing that night on a police bunk.

The next day, the Bulawayo Chronicle rightfully fired me for violating every rule in the book (it is one thing to go drinking, but to stir up trouble at a police camp while identifying my place of employment is of course valid grounds for dismissal.) But I didn't really care, or mind. I had seen what I needed to see, and learned what I had needed to learn. I could stand up to tyranny, overcome hate and prejudice, and celebrate the freedom from fear, with a healthy dose of common sense and patience.

Things of course have not gone well in Africa since my departure -- war, hate, poverty and disease now 'rule' the land. Tjolotjo has seen its share of horrors, including a 1983 massacre and more recent economic and political challenges. And I realize not everyone has the good fortune to enjoy love, a secure upbringing, and the intelligence to experience and enjoy life.

However, I learned in Africa that fear sometimes needs to be "checked at the door", and that most of the time taking a leap of faith -- after careful thought and consideration, of course -- and heading into the unknown can bring huge rewards. We need to look beyond our assumptions, our narrow frames of reference and see the bigger picture. Then, regardless of the economy, we will prosper, both as business people and human beings.

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