Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Magical Garden of Words

There was once a boy who loved words very much…

Image by Wellington Sanipe in Unsplash

Once, not far from here, there lived a boy. He was an ordinary boy except for one thing: he loved words. What type of words you ask? Oh, many kinds of different words. Words that made you see things differently, words that made you smile, words that made you sad, words that made you imagine amazing things… Many different words.

These words he would pick up when others would use them in conversation. He discovered some when his father told stories. Others he found when his mother told him what to buy when she sent him to the corner shop. And yet others he uncovered in conversations he overheard when adults were speaking… Soon he had collected a large number of beautiful words.

It was not that he really understood any of these words. Well, not at first. But as he took them to his room, he would look up their meanings in a dictionary and lay on his bed and pondered over them. Turning them round and round in his mind. Every new word he had would bring new ideas into his head.

As he collected these words, he hid them in a box under the bed where no one could get to them. Soon he had so many that they could no longer fit in the box. Tried as he could, the lid of the box would not close any longer. The box was full. And so it was that as he grew older, he always had many boxes in his room each one filled to the brim with the new words he collected over the years.

His mother was not too happy about this because it meant that his room was always untidy: boxes everywhere with words spilling out of them. Why could he not be like other boys and just forget words as soon as they are told to him, she would complain. Many of the words had found their way onto the the blankets of his bed, onto the floor and even onto the walls. His room was a mess of words.

One day he took one of these words and planted them to see what would happen. He took a little pot with soil and put the word inside. He watered it and would you believe it? It grew. First a green stem with leaves and then later a flower: the word in colour with the most beautiful petals.

So excited was he that he fetched his box of special words and began to plant them one by one. Soon he had a garden of words. Pot planted words were now everywhere in his colourful garden. Some words grew differently from others. Some had grown, like his first word, into word flowers. Others, grew into poems, into stories, into tales. Some even grew into books.

Images from Cas Cornelissen in Unsplash, Ryan McGuire of 
Bells Design and Steven Spassov in Unsplash

On a sunny day a young woman walked by and admired his garden of words. “What a most amazing garden,” she said. “You should cut them and put them in vases.” He could see that the words had a great effect on her. As she cast her glance to different parts of the garden, the young man could see that the different word flowers changed the expression on her face.

When she looked into the furthest corner of the garden where a tree of poems was in bloom, she became transfixed, the smile fading from her face and a tear forming in the corner of her eye. Then when she bent down to page through a book hanging from a branch, her eyebrows seemed to crease and there was a lost look in her eyes like someone who had stepped into a different world. Other stories made her smile so wide, the young man blushed.

“Would you like one of them?” he asked because he could see that this word wonderland had touched her heart. He picked a poem with the most exquisite colours and gave it to her. When she looked him in the eye, he knew, in that moment, that she would always return to this magical garden of words.

[Check out more stories on Medium]

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

How to Transplant a Rose Bush

Survival techniques for life-changing events, 
in memory of Zane Ibrahim

“Who the hell is out there?” I inquired from a shadow in my rose garden at 3am. “I have been passing your house for a month now and noticed your roses have not been pruned. The season is almost over,” said the shadow as he continued snipping away with his pruning shears. As he stepped into the light, I saw his familiar face. “Zane! What the hell?”

Zane Ibrahim was the station manager of a popular community radio station in South Africa called Bush Radio. My company had been designing most of their print media (below-the-line) requirements at the time. This was a client. In my garden. At 3am. Pruning my roses! “This is my meditation,” he explained, “and I saw the light was still on.”

I once lost everything I owned: two homes, a BMW, a media business I had built from the ground up… I was drowning in debt. I was cleaning up the home I had once bought to house my business. I had to sell those premises to help cover my debt. Zane had come into my garden at this time.

For weeks and months after that incident, Zane would come around to be of support to me and my family through one of our most traumatic seasons. We moved cities, from Cape Town to Johannesburg, I had to find permanent employment and we had to find new accommodation.

The irrepressible Zane Ibrahim, 23 June 1941 to 19 May 2014

The advice and support that Zane and his partner Trudy gave us at the time was invaluable. I captured some of that amazing guidance in a poem:

To transplant a rose bush
Wait for the end of its winter
Cut down its stalks but a few
Prune all its branches
Sever the roots right round
Water it one last time
Then remove it roots and all
Prepare the new hole in sunlight
Not too close to neighbours
Prepare the soil with bone meal
Plant the bush deeper than before
Set it firmly in the new hole
Water it once more
In Spring, wait for the first buds

I was in a dark place then. It was a painful walk back into light but his words have always sustained me. He said something else that I still give to others in similar circumstances. Zane said,

“Whatever you do, do not stop making your push-ups: your spiritual push-ups, your mental push-ups, your financial push-ups, your physical push-ups. When your ship comes again, and it will, you want to be ready to take it sailing. You don’t want to be so desperate that when it does come in you sell it part for part before it even docks. You must be the able and ready captain of your ship to take it back out to sea and find new adventures that are waiting for you.”

Zane passed on more than six months ago. I posted a note on a blog to honour him: “Oh my brother, my loved ones and I owe so much to you. Thank God you lived and loved amongst us. Like Spring you made us blossom wherever we were and still your legacy continues. You live on in every mustard seed that you have planted with such loving care. From Allah we come and to that is the final journey. What a journey you have travelled! Hamba Kahle!”

[Check out more stories on Medium]

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Introducing the Humans of Cameroon

Changing the narrative of your country, one status update at a time

A Cameroonian from the Facebook page of Humans of Cameroon

Humans of New York, a website and Facebook page (now even an app) showcasing ordinary New Yorkers, is sitting at almost 11,5 million likes. It’s not difficult to see why. New York is perhaps the most famous city on earth. Google auto-completed the name when I typed in ‘how many songs about…’ It threw up a Wikipedia article listing songs, in alphabetical order, that reference the city, its landmarks and street names. There’s a gazillion of them!

And Cameroon? Google started with ‘10 fun and interesting Cameroon facts’. And the first fact was: ‘Cameroon is the first African country to reach the quarter-final in soccer world cup.’ I bet you don’t even know what the capital of Cameroon is. I had to look it up and I’m from South Africa. Many Africans would roll their eyes and say, ‘Typical!’ Well, it’s Yaoundé.

If you’ve been watching news recently, then you would know that Cameroon helped her neighbour Nigeria by launching airstrikes against the extremist group Boko Haram. Pretty feisty for a country that generally only gets into the news because of its football players making a name in European leagues.

Equally feisty is a Facebook page a friend asked me to like, called Humans of Cameroon. My first thought was that this must be a copycat of the massively popular Humans of New York. Then I clicked on the link and this jumps up at me:

And then this:

I was taken by the sheer humanity of these stories. This was so far from the stereotypical depiction of Africans that either needed charity or came second to their wildlife and spectacular landscapes. Because of media priorities such as proximity (it is in our backyard), impact (it is massive and we are affected by it) and prominence (it involves celebrity), countries such as Cameroon hardly make it on the media radar. When they do make it into the news then, it is because of something negative.

When I shared the page with my Facebook buddies, this is the response from one of them:

“A gem of a FB find on this last day of 2014 (thanks to Adli Jacobs). Brilliant unmediated African voices — the kind we never get to access through mainstream media.”

In a sense, the creators of Humans of Cameroon have applied the New York example as a genre. There have been other cities and countries that have done the same. In Cameroon’s case it acts to reposition (or repackage) the country by foregrounding its people and allowing their voices to contribute to how that nation is seen. And yet, in a sense, it also acts as a counter-balance to Humans of New York whose lives are evidently more affluent, residing in a city that is the darling of the world.

There is no Statue of Liberty in Cameroon, no Empire State building, no Broadway or Time Square. There is no Madison Square Garden or famously numbered streets in Yaoundé, the capital. But there is in Cameroon, despite a past of two colonial masters (the British and French), despite a president who refuses to say goodbye, despite being beset by corruption, despite the threat of civil tension boiling over from neighbouring Nigeria, these amazing people…

[Also check out my stories Medium]