The Butterfly Effect

On Oscar and the link between Nike and narcissism.
Kidding! I have been asked several times about my thoughts on Oscar Pistorius – I have none. Besides country code, I share a whole lot of nothing with the guy and have zero insight on what the f*#ck happened in that house.

That this bizarre tragedy followed on the heels of the brutal rape and murder of 17 year old Anene Booysen has cracked opened the dialogue on gender based violence in South Africa. According to the Medical Research Council, 27% of men recently surveyed admitted to have raped in their lifetime. The conversation is necessary. So far it ranges from insightful to asinine and even despicable. Despite myself, I still read comment sections on on-line newspapers. I must want an ulcer.

The remedy far outstrips me and this blog. For what it is worth, I unequivocally believe meaningful change requires good men raising good boys. So I’m focusing this blog on a good man.

I consider myself lucky to be involved with the Ubuntu Education Fund, a community-based organization that transforms the lives of vulnerable children. They don’t focus on how many children they reach, but how deeply they reach each child. Their outstanding staff and inspiring youth face the litany of issues that come part and parcel with living in the slums of the most impoverished province in the country. You want to learn about the depths of gender-based violence? Walk a day in their shoes.

Vice President Gcobani Zonke, husband to Nomsa and father of 3, is a school teacher by training. He has been involved with Ubuntu since inception in 1999. Like most NGO leaders, he wears many hats – fundraiser, strategist, advocate, mentor, teacher, diaper-changer…. the list goes on. He has a remarkable ability to relate to people.  Old or young, rich or poor, local or foreign he puts people at ease and makes them know he cares.

GcobaWe called on him when Khaya got a birth certificate that read Khanya. Home Affairs is a nightmare at the best of times and we needed to get to Canada for a wedding.  I sat in line, appealed, ranted, raved and swore on the life of the heifer that screwed up in the first place. It would take 8 weeks and cost money. Gcobani stepped in at 8am on a Saturday morning. By 9am, the manager had apologized to our faces and promised to fix it by Monday, for free. It’s not that he knew someone on the inside, he just respectfully but firmly solved the problem. We learned a lot that morning.

This week, I was walking past his office. He stepped out to exchange niceties as per Xhosa custom. Family well, rugby good, baby growing, kids studying…

“By the way, what is Mpho’s clan name?”

Clan names are best described as family names above surnames. Xhosa people use them to trace their history back to a specific male ancestor. Mentioning someone’s clan name is the highest form of respect and it is considered polite to enquire someone’s clan name.

“Qhinebe”, I replied, a little bit proud of how my click came off.

“You are joking.” he leaned over to brace himself on the railing.

“Nope” I said with a smile, not clear what the joke was. “We call his Gran MaQhinebe.”

A single tear tumbled down his cheek.

“Everyone in Lusikisiki calls her MaQhinebe” I repeated to hide my confusion. Maybe he had an allergy?

Another tear streamed down the opposite cheek. He turned his back, walked into his office and grabbed a tissue.

I got awkward. Was I supposed to follow? What just happened? Perhaps he had a sinus infection?

“Come, sit.” His lip trembled.  This was not an allergy.

“I owe my life to the Qhinebes. Your husband belongs to a great clan.”

gcobs gardenIn 1900, his father was born in Benoni, near Johannesburg. The third born son, both older brothers died at age 3. To break the curse, his parents sent him to live with their distant cousin. He was raised far away in the rolling hills of the Transkei as the eldest of 4 Zonke sons. His father, a Qhinebe, loved him as his own. In their thirties, he sat the brothers down and said it was time to move on. He had accumulated many cows and it was their turn to create wealth. They dispersed throughout the province and each went on to live fruitful lives. Before he left, father Zonke told him he was not his biological son.

Soon thereafter, he set out for Benoni with his own infant son. They knew only that they were looking for the Mbalula family. After a short search, a door opened and he thought he was looking into a mirror. His father’s face. In that moment, his family doubled.

I spent a mesmerizing hour listening to the details of his story. His father died in 1999 at 99. He is the youngest of 8 children and has tried in earnest to recover both families’ history. Typical for that era – there are many gaps. South Africa has been shaped by internal migration more than any other country. Under colonialism and apartheid, families were pulled apart. Wives and children were forced to stay in black homelands while men were imported to work in the cities and mines. He has spent years combing the Transkei for information on the Mbalulas, only to come up empty.

When a grown man spontaneously breaks into tears, you pay attention. He repeated, with conviction, that his grandfather had no children when he adopted his father and this is reflective of the quality of Qhinebes. That his story matches my late mother-in-law’s identically sends shivers down my spine. I have already told my version of Gran’s story here; she became a mother when she picked Noxolo off her doorstep.

“There was something extra pulling me to go to Home Affairs that morning. Khaya is my niece.”

Boys need men

Boys need men

Two generations ago, Qhinebes in unrelated circumstance took in infants expecting nothing in return. Proof that grace endures, 113 years later their legacies live on in ways that far outstrip their intentions.  In a strange but true fact – neither of us would be here without them.

South Africa has a long history of great men doing great things. The very best know where they come from and espouse responsibility, integrity and courage. The world needs more of them. I’m happy to know my daughter belongs to a clan of the very best.

On love – Peter and Catherine

Peter and catherineNames: Catherine Louvet and Peter Hartley
Relation: Aunt and Uncle
Married: 28 years
Hometown: Montreal
Occupations:  Senior Group Consumer Marketing Director, Rogers Québec and Associate Publisher,L’actualité.
Head of Global Marketing – Alumina, Dow Chemicals.
Children: Camille (22), Lauren (19)

Getting older seems hard. For all the wisdom it fosters, age appears to have an inverse relationship with hope.  Time weathers. It injures. The more you have, the more likely you are to experience loss and suffering and the less you have to look forward to. My father once challenged me to find out why most liberals are young. It is still on my to-do list.

Hartley siblings in 2012

Hartley siblings in 2012

That is to say nothing of relationships. Not only do half of all marriages end, the other half don’t exactly inspire.  How many young people look at a married couple after 30 years and think “Wow, I can’t wait!”?  That cute old couple strolling through the park? He’s not really deaf, he just pretends so that she stops talking. It doesn’t even work.

Moreover, women appear to come out worse for the wear. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said we are like tea bags – you don’t know our strength until we are in hot water. That’s great if true, except that tea bags end up pretty haggard. As the next generation of wives and mothers, I spend a decent amount of time among friends plotting how to improve our prospects. I also make a point of latching on to great role models.

Peter and Camille

Camille graduating from McGill with a BCom

Lest I ever call them old – Peter is my father’s youngest brother, Catherine his amazing wife.

Their story is quintessential blue-eyed boy meets brown-eyed girl. Handsome star athlete and top student graduates Canadian University and goes to France to play professional hockey. He meets his teammate’s gorgeous, wholesome and intelligent little sister. They fall in love in a French meadow on a bicycle built for two. They picnic under the stars, drink wine and eat croissant but never get drunk or fat.


Lauren – actress extraordinaire

Thirty years later they wake up every morning and sip cappuccinos in their stylish kitchen while listening to Mozart and reading the newspapers – English and French. They have great careers, dress well and eat even better. In the winters they ski. Summers they golf, bike and swim.  They have a long list of great friends. They give back to the community and make great citizens. They have a quaint weekend home in the mountains and a rustic family cottage on the Muskokas. Catherine makes it home to France annually and they manage to take a fantastic family vacation each year. This year Argentina and Chile, last year Aspen, the one before Italy.

Their daughters, my cousins, are a double dose of exceptional. Camille is in her first year of law school. Lauren is spending a gap year traveling while applying to Theater School. Between them, they have covered all possible talents and all 5 continents.  They are stunning, warm and well-adjusted, yet each their own person.

PCCLTheir first daughter, Kristen Alexandra, was born with down syndrome. They accepted her and committed themselves to doing whatever she needed to thrive, including moving to Toronto to access better resources. At 9 months, she underwent heart surgery to correct a defect commonly found in down syndrome babies. She did not survive. They had to bury their first born child.

With my Khaya

With my Khaya

We met and loved Kristen when they visited in Vancouver, but I was far too young to fully understand the loss. Many years later, I asked Catherine whether it was harder to lose Kristen or her father, who was shot during a home robbery. I was taken aback by how decisively she replied – Kristen. Once you become parents, you stay that way; for a time, they were parents living without a child. I think I rationalized it to dull the impact; it was a long time ago and they went on to have 2 more beautiful daughters. I convinced myself losing a baby is easier than a grown child because you don’t share as much history. I probably even tried to believe there was a small sense of relief because her life would have had challenges.

"Fog that!' Peter joined my Dad to canoe from Montreal to Quebec City. They coined the term on a bad weather day.

“Fog that!’ Peter joined my Dad to canoe from Montreal to Quebec City. They coined the term on a bad weather day.

Now that I am a mother, I better understand – nothing compares to losing a child, regardless of age or circumstance. Now that I have endured my own tragedy, I further understand the hurt never goes away, no matter what follows.

When seeking good relationship role models, Peter and Catherine are impossible not to love and admire. They share a great life and genuinely enjoy each other. The last time I saw them, they were holding hands like teenagers. But I refuse to believe they live well despite their losses. Rather, partly because of them.

They lost their child. Catherine’s father died tragically and mother has Multiple Sclerosis. My grandfather spent his last weekend at Muskoka, announced “it doesn’t get much better than this” and then passed away from old age on the commute back to Toronto. A great way to go, unless you were Peter, the driver. They grieved Strachan as much as anyone. He lived with them in Montreal and shared a particularly special bond. Now, he shares a memorial with Kristen on Mont-Royal.

peter and catherine dancing

Strachan and Chloe were married in their backyard on their 23rd wedding anniversary

If their lives are indeed charmed, it is because they make them that way. Time has injured them too. Watching them choose empathy and humility over fear and bitterness makes them the jackpot of role models.

Every night Catherine rushes home to make dinner for her family, even if it means working late into the night. Every day Peter gets on all fours and chases the cat. Every month, he sends a video or bad joke to the entire family to keep us talking.They plan months ahead in order to make time for everyone. It is not roses and butterflies all the time; they still trade mundane to-do lists, get frustrated and argue. But they work hard at living well and feel lucky for being able to. That is as good as it gets.

On yoga and the challenges of playing dead

I have practiced yoga for about 10 years. By ‘practice’, I mean an overall average of three times a month.

My first time, I mindlessly followed a friend to hot yoga anticipating a gentle experience. I felt like an old man. I thought my ankles were going to snap off and spleen explode through my back onto the rear wall.

Now, I can grit my way through classes without embarrassing myself.  That’s the point of yoga, after all.

Ancient Yogis say you can achieve harmony with yourself and your environment by integrating the body, mind and spirit. When it all comes together, apparently you achieve a state of complete inner calm and peace.

I was once caught unaware by the teacher saying ‘wherever you are this moment is where you are in life’. I happened to be repeatedly banging my head on my knee. Without even noticing.

How hard can this be?

A friend recently described me using hurricane as a verb – I ‘hurricane’ around her. It could be nature or nurture but is certainly a way of life. I am always moving. I list ‘adapt or die’ as a skill. I am interested in  a bit of everything and have never put my meetings into a calendar. I like to think it has afforded me a full life, but have enough sense to know I shouldn’t be tortured by the corpse pose. That’s right, the one where you lie on your back like a dead person – I simply cannot stay still in mind or body.

Contributing to the storm in my teacup – I work from home.Two years ago we moved to the armpit of the earth (Port Elizabeth). I tried getting involved locally and lasted 2 months. Since then, I have been working in several capacities for 6 different organizations, all remote. I have done research, been a tour guide, written a debate curriculum and dozens of long, boring documents.  I say yes to everything, typically have either too much or too little and rarely know what’s next.

Give me this instead, any day.

It always seems to work out but has brought out my worst. Without stability, security or a schedule, not only have I become even more chaotic, I’ve learned how to worry. Now, concern about what may or may not happen later has further crowded my bottomless mind.

Amid of all of this, I have landed on a project that could change my life and make a meaningful contribution to something important. But (a big but), it is self-directed and nobody will pay me for it until it is finished, if ever.

I also became a Mom.  On the one hand, children automatically make you present. You don’t have to be a guru to appreciate the moment with a baby. On the other, you lose most of your control and time.

3 hours spent making frog cupcakes for my nephew's birthday.

3 hours making frog cupcakes for my nephew’s bday.

My resolution since Khaya arrived is to become more deliberate in my behavior. Decide who I want to be and structure my time accordingly instead of waking up and riding the rodeo bull. Be calculated, proactive, disciplined and start saying no to things that don’t directly match my priorities. By the way – I don’t get to have 150 of them.

This week I sucked. I fell into a dozen old habits, achieved a million things yet nothing at all and spent my weekly yoga class running circles around the inside of my echoing head.

Do I have something on my face?

Do I have something on my face?

How does an 18 pound human who eats one food at a time manage to dirty 6 dishes, 2 pots and a food processor in one meal? Why can’t I bake wheat-free, sugar-free granola to help shed this stubborn baby weight while interviewing an emerging Kenyan entrepreneur without screwing them both up? What do I need to do to get the internet to work properly without 2 phone calls and a trip to the mall?  And where the f*#! did the week just go?!

I made minimal progress on my big project, never set up on-line registration for this year’s SHLF run, forgot to call my friend back and didn’t bake my husband a cake for his birthday. Yet I checked Facebook every day and watched re-runs of The Newsroom. Oh and this blog is supposed to be about someone else. And I have mango on my shirt.

Do people change? Clearly I recognize the difference between importance and urgency, but how do I re-wire myself to actually apply it? I have read Strengths Finder and understand the value of building to your strengths rather than your weaknesses. But what if your weaknesses are prohibiting your strengths? Being the obstacle to achieving your own purpose is profoundly demoralizing. As is losing the same battle repeatedly.

"To the person that stole my running shoes I work at the gym, fucker, there is real sweat in those! Bad choice asshole!"

“To the person that stole my running shoes – I work at the gym, there is real sweat in those! Bad choice asshole!”

Last year my friend SaraJane decided to lose 30 pounds and wear a bikini. Growing up she was always lovable, but a little chubby and insecure. She has totally grown into herself and become a fantastically witty supermom to 2 kids and a Swedish husband. She started a blog and chronicled her transformation from running only when chased to running on a treadmill every morning. She got frustrated, hated her body, stumbled many times and felt jealous of skinny girls with fancy lives. It was marvelous. Mostly because it was raw, gave a voice to the struggles we all have and showed what an ordinary person must go through to change.  She lost the weight but still won’t wear a bikini. But, she went from eating candy by the bag to becoming a personal trainer so that chubby women feel they belong at the gym. I call that a far bigger win.

All this to say that I haven’t given up and will push on. Given the choice between this entry or nothing, hopefully it is a fill in rather than a failure. Even if I never achieve a state of complete inner peace, this week I will try again to conquer the corpse.

Luna – It Takes a Village

LunaName: Luna Munei Nevhutalu
Home Town – Pretoria, currently Paris
Occupation – Financial Analyst,
Education – UCT BBusSci Actuarial Sciences (Quantitative Finance),  currently INSEAD MBA.
Relationship  – Sorry boys, she’s been hollered at, spoken for, turned her player card in.
Age – a true lady does not reveal

If the most remarkable thing about me is the people that I know, it is small wonder I have chosen to live in South Africa. This is not to say people at home are not outstanding and inspirational – they are.  It is to say that South Africa sits at a particularly unique time in history and my own generation bears the responsibility of rising up to it. That makes for really cool people.

Apartheid came to a much overdue end in 1994.  This means any black person over 19 was systematically denied human and civil rights and miseducated. Critical thinking was the biggest threat to the apartheid government. Media was controlled, the internet did not exist, whites were brainwashed and blacks were systematically ‘trained’ according to their opportunities in life. Rather than science and literature, they learned to garden and sew.

4th black female actuary, financial analyst and Director of SA's #1 tv show.The country is in good hands.

The country is in good hands.

Fast forward and we now have a gaping hole in a transitioning society. An economy and government built to meet to the needs of 5 million must now accommodate 50. Unfortunately, when apartheid lifted, the decades of crappy education that denied people fundamental skills did not disappear with it. There remains a giant gap between what is needed and what is available. Let’s call it the abyss.

It is a sorely complex issue and, frankly, the national dialogue about it sucks. Rather than approaching it constructively, people dumb it down.  We focus on the most polarizing opinions and congratulate ourselves for not being as bad as the other guy.

Amid this rubbish is a growing population of incredible young people whose commitment to do better embarrasses me regularly.

By virtue of my age and that my vehicle to South Africa was education, I stumbled ass backwards into a population of trailblazing over-achievers. My peers are the first generation educated post-apartheid. They were the guinea pigs of integrated schools and have grown up to become the first black chartered accountants, actuaries, professors and professional athletes in history.

This is inspiring in its own right, but it is their shared patriotism and sense of responsibility that keeps me in love with this country.  For 7 years I have watched closely: it is near impossible to gather even a small group together without inciting a hearty discussion. Many a sushi dinner that started with upcoming weddings have erupted into heated political debates. Better yet, they always, always end with what to do about it.

Luna and cousin Lerato

Luna and cousin Lerato

I first met Luna in 2004. I had just arrived back in Cape Town to start Grad school. I re-connected with friends I made while studying abroad in 2001. It was a Skwatta Kamp concert at the Valve.  I had no idea who Skwatta Kamp was but went anyways with a male friend who was dating Luna’s cousin. I had never met either of them.  Luna was also studying at the University of Cape Town and working for the night as a liaison officer for the band.  They gave her a clipboard.

When she came over to say hello, she stood with her back to me. I rolled my eyes.  I had no interest in her cousin’s boyfriend or creating drama where there was none.  I smiled through it and pretended I wanted to be her friend while she called her cousin to warn about the new girl in town.

The guy turned out to be a wankster (yes ,wankster) and was gone soon enough. Both Luna and her cousin were my bridesmaids.

Mom Khanyisa (before pilates was cool)  is a Director in the  Dept of Health

Mom Khanyisa (back before pilates) is a Director in the Dept of Health

Fierce, smart and driven, this is a woman on her way.  Hilarious, loyal and generous to a fault, she will have fun getting there and will absolutely bring others up with her.  Family-oriented, she is surrounded by the best. Above all, she has the rare quality of getting better the more you know her. Every time I think I’m there, she reveals yet another layer.

Dad Prins is Vice-Chancellor at TUT. Sister Wani a big shot Director.

Dad Prins is Deputy Vice-Chancellor at U of Zululand. Sister Wani a TV Director.

Just this month Luna started her MBA at INSEAD, arguably the world’s top business school. By now she ought to be annoyed with me. My pep talks throughout the application process were all about an African woman committed to bettering the world. Then, I sent her off to France with a collage of photos and select verses from Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech.

But here’s the thing – raising your village is a uniquely African concept. I now have a daughter that lives in hers.

I underestimate my own privileges daily.  I was encouraged to be bold, be fearless, follow my dreams.  I get to want for a full life, safety and security for my family and to retire with a plan. I try to do my part but it will always be against the backdrop of choice – I can choose my battles and leave any time. I don’t have to mend history’s scars or prove myself to doubters and haters on behalf of a race; I automatically get the benefit of the doubt.

With our niece Rebone aka The Meatball

With our niece Rebone

Luna must balance priorities where I get to choose. She has to juggle all of these things with her responsibility to her community and country. At the risk of being dramatic – a young black educated woman in South Africa carries the weight of a fragile country on her shoulders.  Embellishments aside – that is a hell of a burden to bear, but a gorgeous thing to watch.

My very closest friends take these responsibilities seriously and honour them truly, all the while having fun and looking good. Not only do they challenge me to do better, they pave the way for my little girl. I am doing my best to raise an African woman for the next generation, but sure am glad she gets to call Luna Auntie.

As for Luna, her journey to greatness started a long time ago and is currently traveling through France.  In case I’m putting undue pressure,she is allowed to struggle too. Just don’t be surprised to see her shine from there to here.