Go to the mountains and the mountains will offer you a reflection of who you are. Oftentimes this reflection is very different to the masks we have created in defining our own reality. Oftentimes the mountains will reflect a truth that offers a new journey, a new realisation of who we were actually born to be.
A course starts, new faces, people. Spirit is light, smiles dance to hide anxiety. New voices –impressions formed. The first supper talk of men and women’s role, traditional Xhosa perspective – this was my first meeting of Sipho.Standing amongst a group of men making light of the power of women.
The first voice of Sipho was a voice of aloneness.“I don’t trust anyone. I am my own man.If I am to get anywhere in this world, it will be by myself. I don’t need other people.”It was a belief that he expressed repeatedly over the first day or so of the course. A defence worn as amour to protect himself from a hurtful and hard world.
Day three, early morning, cup of coffee in my hand. Sipho approaches, talks of how people always want to take.He works for stuff and then has to share with his family, all the time.How is he expected to get what he needs. Frustrated look on his face, “it is better to be alone, I will get things done for myself, don’t want to need anybody, don’t or can’t trust.”
But a second voice in Sipho started to be heard as the days passed. A voice that took hold in Sipho, witnessed by us all, that grew stronger with the passing of each day. It was first heard after the rock climbing activity. A sharing amongst the participants as to who offered us support and to whom did we offer support? We use the metaphor of Belayer, the person who keeps the climber safe on the rock face for people to express where they find support.
Sipho’s voice: “I have no one as my belay, as I have said before, I don’t trust people, it is better to do things on my own. But,” and now in a quieter voice, “I think I have offered my younger sister support, there was no money for her school in my family, so I paid for her – this was a good thing I think, the right thing to do.”
Ja, I thought to myself quietly – the guy who doesn’t care for others does indeed, what else is going to emerge?
And so on a hot autumn day, shaded in a small cave next to a river, a new voice of Sipho was brought to our community. This voice was received and blessed, echoed back to Sipho by the valleys, crags and cliffs of the beautiful Grootwinterhoek mountain range over the next five days.
When we had finished speaking of where we are supported back home, it was time to select a new group of leaders to take us to our overnight camp. Two women volunteered.We waited for a third to raise a hand. It took a while and then Sipho’s voice: “Ja, I will join this group.”
A difficult hike, long and rocky uphills. The group got tired, there were tears, angry mutterings of frustration, feet with blisters, backs sore from heavy backpacks. And all the while Sipho leading. Considering each and every team member, how to draw on their strengths, challenge weakness, draw team spirit into a powerful united whole, that brought us over the final saddle and down into the night’s campsite.
I was in awe. I had witnessed a leadership skill so rich, so enabling, from the very participant who declared himself a fierce loner, an individual who stated that he did not trust.
The next morning we gathered in our first morning circle to give feedback to the leaders of the previous day. As I listen to the group’s feedback I find myself contemplating on a phrase brought to me by my elder and friend Howard Goodman: “This work of Educo Africa it is really about creating the Mandela legacy.” As I muse on this in reflecting on what I had witnessed in Sipho the previous day, I hear Jasien speak: “You know, to be honest,Sipho came to speak to Ishmail and I about how to lead.He was scared, maybe almost in tears – not sure that he could do this thing, I mean guide the group, support and lead to our destination. I told him not to worry man.You know what we call Sipho at Tsiba?We call him Nelson – yes after Mandela – he is that kind of man. And look at how we got here.” He turns to look at Sipho. “You are that kind of leader Sipho. I look up to you.”
So days pass. I watch Sipho.He smiles more, seems to take delight in offering to assist, introduces a rich humour that keeps us in laughter. Maybe without conscious intent he continues to serve the group, binding, strengthening and supporting.
The day of the peak climb, there is Sipho, walking next to an older woman in our group, holding her hand as we struggle up a fierce incline. ‘Mandela legacy’ does not seem right.That great man’s legacy is his own gift. I start to imagine a cloak, created from a fabric stitched from all the qualities of our first President, Nelson Mandela. I see that cloak worn around Sipho’s shoulders as he moves his life forward – Sipho is living a new potential, a stronger reality – in spite of all he has to face.
One evening with the setting sun, the group moves out, alone for a twelve hour solo. A night to reflect, forgive and ask for forgiveness, a night to dream their song – their future. As with all the people, Sipho returns the next morning and shares a story that is heart rendering. We now understand why he has struggled to trust, why he would rather have walked alone. Sipho’s story is his story and not to be shared by any other than him. But the final image he presents is that of a dream just before he woke up. A dream of Sipho playing with his dogs – an image of joy and belonging.
Our last night together, final check-in, before we move to course closure. The simple question asked, “How are you?”
Sipho: “I am a new born man, I go home changed – my heart is open. I will go home tomorrow and walk into my brother’s house, and no matter what the conflict, the problems, I will lift my arms and shout,‘I am home.Come and greet me.’ ”
So, the cloak of Mandela.A young man comes to the mountain.Through pain and hurt his voice shouts, “Leave me alone!” And now he leaves, returning to the same challenges and hardship, but with a new song in his heart – a song that holds the rhythm of community, that invites trust. A song forSipho,a man who knows he can lead. For me he is wearing the cloak of Mandela – inviting the future for this country that is already being lived in our young people.