I fell in love with Africa when I was 12 years old. The trigger was a book titled Born Free by Joy Adamson. I used to dream that one day, I would travel to Africa and do something significant that would make a difference – big dreams for a girl who attended a school so small that I was the simultaneous dux and dunce of every class. But like many youngsters, I did not do much about my dreams as I was too busy dancing around my room, shaking it all about and singing into my hairbrush.
Eventually I discovered that if I was to achieve anything, I would need to put down the hairbrush and pick up a book. I became interested in health and education and I was fortunate to be involved in a number of worthwhile projects, ranging from supporting women dealing with family and domestic violence to rolling out an Australian educational program that I designed, which was to support doctors and help them deal with their own psychological health. In nearly all of these instances, I was focused on the end result, and so were the funding bodies.
I became a little obsessed with my own self-improvement, believing that another degree or training program would help me to become a better change agent. I ended up with a raft of degrees, including a PhD, but I still had this niggling feeling that I wasn’t enough. Before I knew it, I was in my forties, remarried with a blended family and running my own consultancy. My African dreams were relegated to the backburner.
Luckily, I became ill. Over the space of 12 months I lost the strength in my hands, movement of my joints and was sleeping up to 18 hours a day. Initially, I was misdiagnosed with Ross River Fever, however it turned out to be an acute form of rheumatoid arthritis. Finally I was placed on the correct course of treatment and I slowly regained my strength and energy. While my physical health returned after six months, my emotional health was still a little shaky. Lying in bed for so long, unable to work or do anything else, had left me feeling quite useless. While I didn’t feel lucky at the time, this illness gave me an opportunity to learn a life lesson.
I thought the best way to recover would be to combine my passion for supporting others with my dream of Africa. In July 2009, with my family cheering me on all the way, I booked a combined adventure-volunteer project with All Out Africa that spanned three African countries. The adventure component involved camping under the stars and tracking the Big Five in Kruger National Park, South Africa – lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos – and then it was off to swim with whale sharks in Mozambique.
However, it was the volunteer project that really captured my imagination. It was based in the Kingdom of Swaziland, a tiny country sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. Although it has spectacular scenery, a unique culture and traditions, plus an extravaganza of animals David Attenborough would be impressed by, it also has a dark side. Swaziland has the highest HIV rate in the world and the average life expectancy is just 33.
As part of my volunteer placement, I was based at a Neighbourhood Care Point to help the Swazi volunteer teacher look after orphaned and vulnerable children. The focus of these centres is to ensure children receive two hot meals of ‘pap’ (a maize meal mixture and beans) a day, basic education, life skills and healthcare when necessary.
However, many of the children were so emotionally overloaded by what was happening in their lives, they were reluctant to become involved. Dressed in threadbare clothes with shoes that were often several sizes too small for them, they would sit in the shadows and stare at the centre. Even the lure of two hot meals was not enough to encourage them to attend. It would have been easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the problems facing these children; I wondered what possible difference I could make.
My role was to help engage the children, to give them permission to be kids for a while. It was then that I knew exactly what it was I could offer. It’s been over 40 years since I have danced and these days there are parts of my body that shake it all about whether I’m dancing or not. Despite this, I hokey-pokied myself silly. Children started to run up to me each day shouting “Teach, teach, shaky, shaky?” I spent my time dancing, singing (badly), kissing away tears and there were days where I just sat and cuddled. For once, I did not think about the future, I was simply in the moment. Eventually, the children opened up and then they were ready to receive the support that we could offer. It was humbling to realise that so little from me meant so much to them.
It seems ironic that my dreams of doing something significant were eclipsed by something as simple as the hokey-pokey. For years I believed that some problems were so big – and my possible contribution so small – that I would hesitate to do anything. Instead, I would do another course or try to improve myself in some way so that I would be a more effective change agent. I finally learned that it does not matter how big your contribution is, how many degrees you have or even the size of your wallet. What is important is that when you are involved, that you need to be fully present and focus on being part of the whole journey, rather just focusing on the outcomes.
There is a quote credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” Just as this is true, for me I know there is also a world of possibility in something as simple as the hokey-pokey. We just need to get out of our heads and into our hearts to see it.