Posts Tagged With: learning

South African Pearl of Wisdom: “Age Does Not Define You” (Another Jane Goodall-ism)

Age does not define you.

Sjoe, this is a big one for me. It’s particularly pertinent when you work in an industry where it feels like the median age is 22. For the longest time, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest child, the youngest kid in my grade, the youngest this, the youngest that. Now suddenly I’m the ‘older’ one. And it’s not seen positively.

It’s taken me a long time to be okay with the idea that my age doesn’t define who I am. Sadly, many people (woman in particular) are seen as less useful once they hit some subjective sell-by date, which is ridiculous. Some of the most brilliant work done in the world was (and continues to be) achieved by people well beyond the energetic youth stage. In fact, some were quite deep into their wrinkles.

I started touring as a musician at 25, which was practically grandma age for most of the people I encountered. I tackled welding for the first time at 32. I also faced down my first elephant, mamba, and lion at that same age. To be honest, the best and most challenging experiences of my life only happened once I was past my first quarter century. And that wasn’t for lack of trying. Yet I was always ‘past expiration date’ according to the norm for the industries I was in.

welding

The most challenging part of this is the way our society shames people not only for their age but also for their attitude about that age. Especially if society sees someone who they feel is not acting their age (though your guess is as good as mine as to what is acceptable and what isn’t and why at any age). It would appear, though, that anyone who travels more in squiggles than in straight lines and are thus perceived as ‘lacking direction,’ fall into the category of people who never grew up. They live forever in this negative spotlight, ever on the receiving end of a barrage of whispers and smirks. “Aw, they had such potential. Now, look. They’ve wasted their life.” Or “When is that person going to grow up and get their sh*t together?” The perpetual Peter Pans are beloved until they turn 30. Then they are a menace to society for some reason.

Let’s be honest – I have yet to meet ANYONE who really has it all together at any age, and who isn’t just saying it to make themselves feel better. In fact, I’ve started to think that having it all together is actually a myth. Kind of like the pursuit of perfection. It drives us, but it isn’t a realistic goal that anyone can actually attain. And that stems from many reasons, one of the biggest of which is that everyone’s definition of having it all together seems to be different.

Fact is, many of us do not have a straight path to follow in life, and age has nothing to do with it. At least not in the sense that it seems society THINKS it does. Ever heard the quote, “Not all those who wander are lost”? Actually, in many cases, age is the main reason many of us wander. It is the impetus that propels us to keep exploring, to keep pushing ourselves. We realize there is something amiss in our current life. And we act on that. As we gain more knowledge, we realise there is always more to know. Thus we push onward, collecting more stories, notching experiences on our proverbial belt. But this doesn’t age us. In many ways, it keeps us connected to the childlike fearlessness we lost somewhere between a bad experience at a grade school dance and our first failure on our first job. Age, if looked at in this way, can actually act to keep us ageless.

Cliché as it is, age brings us wisdom. It brings us a better understanding of who we are and what our true purpose is. And it gives us the wherewithal to follow our star instead of hitching it to someone else’s. Instead of clinging desperately to something someone else told we us we should do – but that we desperately hate – or forcing ourselves into a box of what is expected of us by people who aren’t living our life (and in many cases know nothing about us), we do our own thing. We experiment. We try different roads. Oh, the audacity, right? Heaven forbid we be ourselves and let our hearts guide us!

From the time I was a child, I was told I must choose a career; I must climb some ladder; I must stick with one thing; I must focus. Focus, focus, focus. On what?!? The answer to what, exactly, I was supposed to focus on changed with every person I spoke to. For someone like me, who is utterly enthralled with the process of learning, telling me to stick with one thing was like trying to herd 100 cats while being chased over ice by a pack of wolves. And it was a slap in the face to who I was. I know I am not alone in that.

I was also told I must grow up. I must stop being silly. This admonition I got when I was apparently using my imagination too much and thinking of outlandish things like making up an entire series of stories about a family of lint balls. Who draws the line between what is silly and what is not?

I don’t know. The lint tales were pretty damn entertaining. And my English teacher loved them! Too bad they got thrown away one day when someone in my family tossed out a bunch of my things without asking me. Ah well.

Anyway…

For years I have been told I must change. I must fit this mould. I must pick one thing and stick with it. Well, for me, who loves several what are considered completely divergent things (music, wildlife, science, writing, photography, education, to name a few), that’s an impossible proposition. Why must I choose ONE thing? The world is not made up of one thing. It is made up of many things that all work together and depend on each other. And to assume that a person can only do one thing is also a slap in the face to the beauty of humanity’s amazing complexity.

Not a single one of us excels only at ONE thing. Not a single one of us is interested only in ONE thing. The WORLD does not exist on the back of ONE thing. So why do we beat ourselves into a rigid submission, telling each other that we MUST follow ONE path? It’s illogical, impractical, and soul-destroying. Not surprisingly, I’ve been in revolt of that system ever since I was a child. And this is where someone like Jane Goodall stands as an inspiration to me.

Jane started out studying to be a secretary. But her mentor, Dr. Leakey, pulled her out of that role. Instead of her fighting and saying, “Oh, but this is what I studied; this is what I have to stick with,” she rolled with it. She quickly moved into an industry that she had no prior experience in, doing a job she knew not a whit about doing, at a time when women were pushed AWAY from the science field (and in many cases are still pushed away from today). Now in her 80s, she is still going strong. And guess what? She does more than ONE thing. And if she had stuck with one thing those many years ago, what would her life be like? Would we even know who she is? And what would be the fate of all the wildlife she’s devoted her life to saving? And all the people she’s educated and enlightened along the way?

In addition to any research work she does, Jane lobbies, she educates, she motivates, she fundraises. She gets stuff done, and not just in conservation. At 80 years old, she still jets all over the world to make a positive impact on the planet. If she let her age define her, imagine how different the world would be.

Dreams come at any age. And life happens. It doesn’t follow some prescribed plan; it doesn’t fit neatly into some preordained script. It is messy, unpredictable and often scary. It is exhilarating, exhausting and ever changing. If we let our age stop us from doing something, we miss out on all the fun. We essentially die before we are dead.

It’s a pity so many of us tell ourselves our time for dreaming ends the day we hit puberty. Or the day we graduate college. Or whatever other arbitrary date that gets picked for us by someone else. Age is a number, a simple way for us to count the seasons we’ve lived through and to keep a mental library of our own history. Don’t let a simple counting system get in the way of you living your life to the fullest.

If I wanted to depress myself, I could look at where I am in life and compare it to where other people my age are. I could think about all the vacations I had to forego, all the fun nights out with friends I missed, all the houses I would never buy, the new cars, the new clothes, the list goes on and on. I have not had those things, because I have chosen another path, one that is not about things and the acquisition of them.

What I do have, though, is a multitude of amazing experiences and a lot of cool memories. I have lived the kind of life people say they dream about when they gaze out their office window. And I will continue to live that life. And it will never be glamourous. And it will never be easy or stable. I will likely always struggle with the things so many of my peers take for granted, like buying a car that isn’t 5+ years old and laden with a hundred thousand kilometers on the clock; ordering a latte; getting a new pair of jeans when mine have seen the end of their days; having health insurance; being able to see my family (or even talk to them) whenever I want. I have given up a lot to be where I am. I have struggled massively. I have lived through dark times where I have been utterly alone, literally and figuratively. I have taken chances other people have been afraid to take. And I have paid for those chances, for better or for worse.

I stepped outside the lines when I was colouring my storybook. And I will continue to step outside those lines, forever refusing to live within the boundaries someone else has drawn for me. I draw my own pictures. I write my own story. And because of that, my age doesn’t matter. It never will.

And neither does yours. Get out there. Live your life.

 

20160531_092238All rights reserved. ©2016 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: adventure, Africa, Jane Goodall, Life Lessons, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #1 – Bush Education

This post is numero uno in terms of my adventures here because to me, education is the beginning of everything.  With the exception of the bloody hand, which is simply an example of the types of wounds I’ve seen out here, these photos above are some of the animals that remind me of school and education, Africa-style – a mongoose, an owl (owlet, in this case), and a tortoise.

There is something fascinating about teaching people, especially people who come from vastly different backgrounds than yours.  We have students come and go, traveling from all over the world to train to become field rangers.  Some have no interest in actually pursuing it as a career, but instead just want to enjoy living in an entirely new environment, challenged by new and foreign surroundings.  Even many South Africans who pass through our training camp feel themselves in a completely alien world when they come to the bush.  If you come from the suburbs or the city, or even the countryside, you aren’t prepared for the bush.  You might have knowledge of it, you might have visited it, but you have no idea what you’re doing out there.  I get that.

I have now been in the bush for about two years, and I’m still a newbie.  I still look over my shoulder whenever I’m walking.  Hell, I am constantly looking the full 360 degrees, to the point where I get dizzy sometimes.  I doubt I’ll ever stop doing that.  I may gain years of information and experiences that are valuable for surviving in these wilds, but I will never feel too comfortable.  And that’s a good thing.  Comfort can get you killed.  This also means I’m always trying to educate myself.  If I can educate others as well? Two birds, one stone.

However, the type of educating that I’ve found the most rewarding is the haphazard, completely unexpected kind, like the kind I found myself doing with the staff at our camp.  One of the women (I’ll call her Linda) has been with the company for almost fifteen years, in the same role.  Fifteen years of doing the same thing over and over, year after year, with no change but the endless carousel of employees and students passing through.  While there is quite a bit of employee turnover here (and I certainly understand why, but no need to get into that), nothing else really changes but the seasons, and even those come round again every year.  As such, I asked my bosses if I could help with getting this woman some credentials behind her name.  Options, I thought, are at least something to get excited about, and would give her something to change up the monotony.    Plus they might enable her to get out of this kilometer-deep rut she was in.

Linda got pregnant in tenth grade and dropped out of matric (high school).  She never graduated.  She can read, but not particularly well.  She knows her way around a kitchen and a laundry, but not much else.  She doesn’t know how to drive and she certainly doesn’t possess a driver’s license.  I know this for sure, as I tried to teach her to drive one day.  We took a quick run up to the main gate to pick up deliveries, and I let her get behind the wheel on a straight patch of road on the way back to camp.

Driving a manual Land Rover in the bush as your first driving foray is probably not ideal.  We managed to not hit anything, though we did stop within a hair’s breath of a rather large Knob Thorn tree. Shaking, she turned to me and said, “Ok, enough,” and quickly got out of the car and ran back to the passenger seat. End of driving lesson.

If you want opportunities in this world, you need to be able to access them.  People say you make your own opportunities. Yes, but you have to have access to knowledge, and Linda did not have that.  She was stuck.  She was bored.  The most excitement she got was the weekly food order we did together, as it gave her a small bit of creative input to put together a menu plan. Yet because of how limited I was with budget, even that had ridiculous limitations. And with only one small fridge and one small freezer, and a large rodent population constantly finding its way into the cupboards, it’s hard to get creative.  You tend to stick to the same things over and over. Any time you try and go out of the norm, you get shot down by the powers that be who tell you that you are spending too much money on food for the people who are paying the salary of these same people. This is why I don’t do well working for other people, by the way. I point stuff like this out, which often doesn’t get received particularly well, especially when you work with people who want the pay without the responsibility. I’ve run into more than a few of those in my lifetime.

Anyway, I decided that, since we offer a First Aid course as part of our training, there was no reason why we couldn’t add Linda to the list. Makes perfect sense, right? I mean, if something happens to me or any of the trainers, there is no one else here who can administer basic life support. Most of the students aren’t trained. And what if it’s just Linda and her counterpart at camp? I proposed this to one of my bosses, and he thought it was a great idea. Problem is, there isn’t another First Aid course for another few months.  Linda asked if I could show her some foundational First Aid in the meantime.

I’m certified as a level two responder with First Aid, so at the very least, I could show her basic life support stuff like CPR, and how to administer first aid and bandaging for specific wounds. I bit off more than I bargained for when I said yes.

I’d like to think I have good communication skills. I’d like to think I’m great at explaining things, and at teaching and inspiring people. Of course, however much I’d ‘like’ to do those things, I may not actually be capable. I haven’t had to ever teach something like CPR to someone who didn’t even have a basic understanding of human anatomy. When I mentioned digestion, I got blank stares. What was digestion? What do the lungs do?  Wow. Back up.

Linda, the other woman who worked with her (we’ll call her Thandi), and I set up a table in the middle of the kitchen. I gave them two drawing pads and a copy of the First Aid manual we had at the camp. Then I set about going through the entire human body, drawing diagrams and explaining what each and every part of the body did, and how they all linked together. Imagine how this was received by two women who believe in beings like Pinky Pinky, who lives in toilets and sucks bad children down the drain, and the Tokoloshe, who is an evil spirit sent to haunt people and give them indigestion. I had to extricate theology, spiritualism, and tribalism from the concept of heartburn.

These women aren’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination. But they are ignorant of modern biology, a fact they willingly admitted to me. They plainly explained that I would have to change perceptions set in stone for hundreds of years by tribalism and lack of formal education. They voiced concern at the initially overwhelming amount of material presented to them, material so fundamentally different from what they had been raised to believe; they had every reason to think this might be a futile attempt. So did I. Among other issues, I’m no bio teacher, nor a philosopher, nor a socio-economics professor.   What I knew of these women and their culture came from them telling me about it. I could sit and watch all day and make incorrect assumptions, which wouldn’t help anyone, so I found it best to simply ask. And they did the same with me. Most of our lessons were about what I was taught, followed by what they were taught, and then concluding with any cross-over, and explanations of both sides of the same educational coin as we tried to find common ground where my information made sense to them, and theirs made sense to me.

Expecting anyone to ingest this much fresh information that directly opposed much of what they had been raised to believe was challenging in so many capacities. I was asking them to delete what they knew and start over. They were asking me to learn their history and inject it into what I was teaching them. But they didn’t blink an eyelid, just kept on absorbing whatever info I could possibly remember about how a gall bladder works, and I kept at it, determined to give them a fighting chance at learning and understanding basic life support, if only so they could explain to an EMT over the phone what was going on in the event of an emergency. Slowly, slowly, progress came about, one heartbeat at a time.

In addition to our health lessons, we tackled computers from the bottom up – complete with diagrams of what the different computer components, like screen, desktop, mouse, and keyboard, are. It was slow and meticulous, and we often had to go over the same material several days in a row, but like everything else you learn, you need repetition and practice for it to sink in. These women didn’t have access to a computer.  They didn’t have access to the first aid equipment. They had to rely on me to provide everything for them, and to then show them even the most fundamental elements, such as turning a computer on, or how to properly bandage a protrusion (and what a protrusion was and how you pronounce it, for that matter). In the back of my mind, I thought of all the times I spent teaching my mom how to use the internet, or email, or the answering machine, or the television remote. That was infinitely easier than this. And it reminded me of how lucky I am to have been born into a time when technology is de rigeur. I can’t remember NOT having a computer.

We laughed. A lot. We giggled over my terrible drawings.  But they loved it, and so did I.  Seeing their faces when something sunk in, when a light went on in their heads and eyes – it was tremendous.  I’m not sure if anything I’ve done has really made a difference for them. I do know it meant a lot to have someone take time for them and try to help them in a positive way. I know they felt a bit marginalized and were excited for even the slightest bit of exposure to new things. I’d like to think that if nothing else, I’ve expanded their worlds. They’ve certainly expanded mine.

Song of the day: ‘Learning to Fly’ – Tom Petty

….and for cheese factor and inspirational ability – ‘I Hope You Dance’ – Leann Womack

 

All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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