Of what is joy made? From where does it spring? Who best knows how to capture it? If I thought I knew the answers to these questions, I got the opportunity to rethink them on a recent trip to South Africa. (Click the photo on the left for a slideshow of images.)
chile in Cape Town, I planned to tour local township projects with an outfit called Uthando, meaning “love” in tribal Xhosa. Uthando founder, James Fernie arrived early for our appointment with his associate Charlene, and said enigmatically that today was not to be the usual. Instead of township projects, we would accompany a group of “oldies” on an outing.
Uthando works with many partners, including NOAH, an organization providing housing, health care and social activities for seniors. Our group of 60 was from Cape Town’s largest township, Khayelitsha (Kah-yuh-lee-sha). Its elderly population lives off pensions of about $100/month, often supporting grandchildren orphaned by AIDS.
Once in Khayelitsha, James drove down a narrow street, parking behind buses that people slowly boarded. The first thing that struck me was the clothing. The women wore layers of skirts, sweaters, vests and jackets on this warm morning, most including headwear – knit caps, bright fabric wrapped high, and in one case, the majestic traditional Zulu hat. The few men wore suits and fedoras; one cradled a guitar. The NOAH staffer, Thembi, explained that clothes are like treasure, stored away without being worn – so on outings like this, she encourages them to “dress to kill!”
Our destination was a raptor sanctuary, Eagle Encounters, located in the sunny wine country of Stellenbosch. After we arrived, Thembi and James led the group toward the sanctuary entrance and then along a walkway past birds of prey—falcons, hawks, owls, and even a Martial Eagle, a breed nearly extinct. The sun shone brightly as we ambled to the small amphitheatre for a demonstration of the birds in flight. Several of the elders bravely volunteered to have birds land on their hands, and when they did, oohs and aahs filled the air.
Afterward, we headed back toward the sanctuary entrance. Some moved with such difficulty, I worried they might slip on the uneven ground. One man barely managed to push a woman’s wheelchair. Meanwhile, Thembi chatted and cajoled, teasing and laughing, all the while patiently helping them make their way.
At the compound’s other end, tea and muffins were served on white cloths. A long line formed. But with cup and saucer to balance, not everyone took a muffin. I passed platters of muffins around, but ran out before I got to everyone. And like the muffins, there weren’t enough seats. Even those with seats squinted in the harsh sun. I imagined how hot they must be under their layers, and expected to see unhappy countenances. Instead, there was only easy conversation and calm.
After tea came the grand trek to the bathrooms, situated a ways away. Thembi asked if I’d accompany the group. Thrilled to be of use, I slowed my pace to theirs and watched as they spread out along the path like beads on a necklace.
Half an hour or more later, we made it back, and James ushered us toward the picnic spot—again down the uneven walkway. A few trees gave shade for about half the group. Those who could found seats; but one fellow, who suffered arthritis and was last to arrive, ended up perched precariously on a log. I kept marveling at how accepting they all were—not a complaint or frown among them.
As I stood there, worrying about the heat, lack of chairs and all that walking, Thembi asked if they were ready to sing. To my astonishment, these seemingly frail people, who had just sat down after the half-mile trek, now rose to form two chorus lines. The man with the guitar stood in front, and they began to sing. A glorious sound came forth, buoyed by swaying and clapping.
The heavens seemed to open with their song, and instinctively, I looked up. High above us, a wild Martial eagle floated effortlessly on the current. As the music rose, mingling with the soft breeze, I felt a joy so pure and complete it filled my every cell. In that moment, the elders no longer worried or amazed me. They simply reminded me that joy is a thing we choose and make ourselves, and in singing our joy together, it becomes Uthando.
This piece is the second in a series on South Africa by leadership expert and consultant, Rebecca Reynolds. Reynolds works with leaders, explores leadership issues and contexts, and writes on leadership lessons. This series will explore leadership themes from her South Africa trip. Reynolds may be reached at RebeccaReynoldsConsulting.com. Previous posts: part I.