“In the cathedral of the wild, we get to see the best parts of ourselves reflected back to us.” Boyd Varty, a wildlife activist, shares stories of animals, humans and their interrelatedness, or “ubuntu” — defined as, “I am, because of you.” And he dedicates the talk to South African leader Nelson Mandela, the human embodiment of that same great-hearted, generous spirit.”
This Talk was given in December 2013
Boyd Varty – Environmental and literacy activist
I’m a man who’s trying to live from his heart. And so just before I get going, I wanted to tell you as a South African that one of the men who has inspired me most passed away a few hours ago. Nelson Mandela has come to the end of his long walk to freedom. And so this talk is going to be for him.
I grew up in wonder. I grew up amongst those animals. I grew up in the wild eastern part of South Africa at a place called Londolozi Game Reserve. It’s a place where my family has been in the safari business for four generations. Now for as long as I can remember, my job has been to take people out into nature, and so I think it’s a lovely twist of fate today to have the opportunity to bring some of my experiences out in nature in to this gathering.
Africa is a place where people still sit under starlit skies and around campfires and tell stories, and so what I have to share with you today is the simple medicine of a few campfire stories, stories about heroes of heart. Now my stories are not the stories that you’ll hear on the news, and while it’s true that Africa is a harsh place, I also know it to be a place where people, animals and ecosystems teach us about a more interconnected world.
When I was nine years old, President Mandela came to stay with my family. He had just been released from his 27 years of incarceration, and was in a period of readjustment to his sudden global icon status. Members of the African National Congress thought that in the bush he would have time to rest and recuperate away from the public eye, and it’s true that lions tend to be a very good deterrent to press and paparazzi.
But it was a defining time for me as a young boy. I would take him breakfast in bed, and then, in an old track suit and slippers, he would go for a walk around the garden. At night, I would sit with my family around the snowy, bunny-eared TV, and watch images of that same quiet man from the garden surrounded by hundreds and thousands of people as scenes from his release were broadcast nightly.
He was bringing peace to a divided and violent South Africa, one man with an unbelievable sense of his humanity. Mandela said often that the gift of prison was the ability to go within and to think, to create in himself the things he most wanted for South Africa: peace, reconciliation, harmony. Through this act of immense open-heartedness, he was to become the embodiment of what in South Africa we call “ubuntu.” Ubuntu: I am because of you. Or, people are not people without other people. It’s not a new idea or value but it’s one that I certainly think at these times is worth building on.
In fact, it is said that in the collective consciousness of Africa, we get to experience the deepest parts of our own humanity through our interactions with others. Ubuntu is at play right now. You are holding a space for me to express the deepest truth of who I am. Without you, I’m just a guy talking to an empty room, and I spent a lot of time last week doing that, and it’s not the same as this.
If Mandela was the national and international embodiment, then the man who taught me the most about this value personally was this man, Solly Mhlongo. Solly was born under a tree 60 kilometers from where I grew up in Mozambique. He would never have a lot of money, but he was to be one of the richest men I would ever meet. Solly grew up tending to his father’s cattle.
Now, I can tell you, I don’t know what it is about people who grow up looking after cattle, but it makes for über-resourcefulness. The first job that he ever got in the safari business was fixing the safari trucks. Where he had learned to do that out in the bush I have no idea, but he could do it. He then moved across into what we called the habitat team. These were the people on the reserve who were responsible for its well-being. He fixed roads, he mended wetlands, he did some anti-poaching.
And then one day we were out together, and he came across the tracks of where a female leopard had walked. And it was an old track, but for fun he turned and he began to follow it, and I tell you, I could tell by the speed at which he moved on those pad marks that this man was a Ph.D.-level tracker. If you drove past Solly somewhere out on the reserve, you look up in your rearview mirror, you’d see he’d stopped the car 20, 50 meters down the road just in case you need help with something. The only accusation I ever heard leveled at him was when one of our clients said, “Solly, you are pathologically helpful.”
When I started professionally guiding people out into this environment, Solly was my tracker. We worked together as a team. And the first guests we ever got were a philanthropy group from your East Coast, and they said to Solly, on the side, they said, “Before we even go out to see lions and leopards, we want to see where you live.” So we took them up to his house, and this visit of the philanthropist to his house coincided with a time when Solly’s wife, who was learning English, was going through a phase where she would open the door by saying, “Hello, I love you. Welcome, I love you.” And there was something so beautifully African about it to me, this small house with a huge heart in it.
Now on the day that Solly saved my life, he was already my hero. It was a hot day, and we found ourselves down by the river. Because of the heat, I took my shoes off, and I rolled up my pants, and I walked into the water. Solly remained on the bank. The water was clear running over sand, and we turned and we began to make our way upstream. And a few meters ahead of us, there was a place where a tree had fallen out of the bank, and its branches were touching the water, and it was shadowy. And if had been a horror movie, people in the audience would have started saying, “Don’t go in there. Don’t go in there.”