When the Baobabs start dying

Rachel Nyaradzo Adams delivered an inspirational story of courage to the Michaelhouse community at our 123rd annual Speech Day on Friday.

A curious thing is happening in Southern Africa. Baobab trees are dying. Statistics show that in the last 12 years alone, 9 of the 12 largest baobab trees and 5 of the 6 tallest have suddenly died. The Panke tree, the oldest in the world at 2500 years, once beautifully nestled in the soils of Zimbabwe, died in 2011. Holboom of Namibia, with a girth of 35.1m, also died a few years ago and the Sunland Boabab of South Africa, at a 1000 years old collapsed in 2016 and died finally in 2017. These once robust manifestations of strength, longevity, healing, spirituality and protection are collapsing and coming to the end of their impressive and beautiful story. Researchers are not clear why this is happening. These trees, which have faced far worse weather conditions than what we are facing now, and managed still to survive, are all of a sudden succumbing to conditions that we are yet to be clear on. And while researchers are fixated with the question why, I am preoccupied with the question ‘what’? What does it mean when the theatre that we call life starts to change dramatically all around us. What questions are we to ask when all that we have known to be true and sufficient no longer is? What answers do we allow to emerge in the process of asking and do we have the courage to face the requirements of those answers?

I will turn to biomimicry for an answer, the field of study that looks to nature to solve some of our most pressing challenges. With the lens of biomimicry we look at patterns or occurrences in nature and search for the wisdom they reveal for possible application in our day to day lives. And so we fix sound problems on bullet trains by learning from the design of birds like the owl and the kingfisher. We learn how to run businesses like a redwood forest. We imitate shark skin to create bacteria resistant plastic surfaces for hospitals. In my field of work, which is leadership development and personal mastery, I am also looking to occurrences in nature for metaphors – symbolic moments from which I can draw both wisdom and inspiration. This moment when the baobab is dying, feels like a significant one. A moment in which I imagine these trees are whispering to us, inviting us to look around us and ask “what else is dying?” “What else no longer works?” “What else needs new ways of being?”

We are a continent of old problems. Leaders who we once considered our heroes and our liberators have in many cases betrayed our freedoms. Systems, which were off to a good start in yesteryear, are now failing to support our populations – (think healthcare, education, and infrastructure such as power and water supply) – and many people are being left behind as a result. Cultural practices of hierarchy and power distance in which we cannot criticize or provide feedback to leaders who are older than us are relegating our countries and organizations to old ideas and old preferences. I came out of a process a few weeks ago where I was talking to a number of young people from across the continent and not a single one thought their country’s ecosystems were supportive to them reaching their fullest potential. The World Bank echoes the frustration. A report released two days ago states that extreme poverty will become almost exclusively an African phenomenon by 2030, with 90% of the world’s poor projected to live on the continent.

So biomimicry. The African continent is having what I am now calling a baobab moment, a moment in which we are faced with the reality that whatever we thought was going to work, and what we thought was going to be resilient, is not going to work and is not as resilient as we would have liked to believe. Whatever ideas we had about progress, development, governance, systems, institutions are being challenged, even the idea of Africa Rising is being disputed on many fronts. So much is questionable. Too much is difficult. The future is currently unknowable. We need new ideas.

I have learnt that the only lens that matters when we are faced with the difficult and unknowable, is courage, that characteristic that C.S Lewis described as “not just a virtue, but the form of every virtue at the testing point”. When we start to see life move in a direction that is not supportive of our highest ideals, we must be willing to wear courage as our armour. This afternoon, I hope I can infect you with an appetite for this value that is already written into your school’s code. I hope I can ignite in you the courage to look squarely in the eye the changes that are all about us – in our schools, our communities, our countries and on our continent. Through my own story and experiences, I will share with you what I believe are the four key practices of courage. I use these with my clients at both a personal and group/team level, but I consistently go to them in my own life which often requires courage and courageous commitment. I hope that whether you face a baobab moment in your own personal life, or if you are faced with the calling to address larger, archaic, structural issues. Issues like xenophobia fed by the old problem of imagined borders; gender-based violence fed by the old idea of unhealthy masculinities; violence in general fed by the old amygdala based idea of making peace by waging war; poverty fed by the old idea of greed, class-maintenance and privilege – whatever your mission, I hope you find some use for the practices that have been such an anchor for me.

In 2015, I held the prestigious title of Director for Africa at Yale University. Before that role, I worked for the leading management consulting firm in the world and before that role, I worked for the leading asset management firm in Africa. When I started my first role after reading for my Masters at the University of Oxford, I had a long list of academic accolades – Mandela Rhodes Scholar, Felix Scholar, Mellon Mays Fellow, Deans Merit List and on and on and on. Now I say all this because it was a big deal. It was a big deal for the student who had graduated from a high school which only had one textbook for my entire A-level history class of 17 students. It was a not a poor school but it certainly was not a prestigious school. Born and raised in two small towns in Zimbabwe, my exposures to the world were very limited and limiting. But limiting as they were, they were nothing compared to the baobab moment I was about to have. After my A-levels, with no money to go to university I got my first job sweeping floors and making sandwiches in a bakery. I always knew we had no money for university, but I imagined that some miracle would make the impossible possible, as had happened in many instances in my life before that. But no miracle came.

It took me three years to raise the money that I needed to get to university. Three years of uncertainty, three years of questioning my purpose, three years of a quiet depression. Those three years, those painfully slow 1095 days, taught me the first practice of courage: that courage is first and foremost a silent inner process of disciplined thinking and relentless focus. Before courage has a public audience, before it is heroic, it must first reside in the unseen chambers of the internal hopes and dreams that only you see and understand. It must be supported firmly by the values that inform your reason for being. Courage is about holding on to the promise when there is zero evidence around you that change is possible. Courage is stubborn.

So many times I was told to give up on the dream, nudged to go in a different direction. But I was so certain of the path that I should take and was willing to look the fool until my chance came. And when that chance came and I finally got to the University of Cape Town I was unstoppable. I was so hungry for the tertiary education that I almost didn’t get that I devoured every lecture, every journal reading, every text book with the appetite of a mad-woman. And when the successes finally came, I subconsciously bought into the idea that I deserved them. I had worked hard, I had taken risks, I had endured humiliations, and so I deserved to be in these chambers of power. Little did I know that just as I was settling into the fruits of what I thought was my ultimate courage, I was about to learn the second practice of courage.

I had started to tell you earlier that I was heading up the Africa Initiative at Yale. I was hob-nobbing with important people and flying all over the continent in business class. I lived in a beautiful apartment in downtown New Haven Connecticut and statistics told me that my life expectancy was high. I had to some degree arrived. But as all of this was happening, I started to get a niggling inside my heart that I was abandoning my country and at this point my continent. I had lived 15 years outside of Zimbabwe at this point and had been paying attention, from the periphery, to the decline that was plaguing my country. But up until 2015 it was the government’s problem. They needed to fix it. They needed to get it right. I was too busy being successful to be derailed by their shenanigans.

But as callings would have it, the niggling in my heart would not stop. You see, the word courage comes from the Latin cor, which means heart. If we are to practice courage we need to be willing to have our hearts touched by the things that are happening around us. We cannot complain, and be upset and hope that the problem will go away. We have to insert ourselves into the center of the issue and engage with it deeply, intimately, intentionally. This means that we have to be willing to change the story.

And this is practice number two.

I believe fundamentally that it is stories that keep us locked in old paradigms. This is because stories become allies, they bind us to a particular belief about the world. Those allies become strongholds, and those strongholds become identities. The identity I see many of us in our generation holding on to so strongly is that of victim-hood. It is fed by the story that our leaders just don’t get it and that we are victims of their leadership and the systems that they have created. They are the problem.

But what If we changed that story. What if the story was not just that our governments were messing up but the fact that we as a generation are not applying ourselves? What if the story was that I as a citizen of my country, had abandoned my responsibility to contribute my gift and my talent to making a difference? What if the story were that youth is not about selfish ambition but about selfless commitment like the kind Mandela had when he started his political journey at 26, or Kwame Nkrumah at 21, or Claudette Colvin at 15, Winnie Mandela at 28, or Ruth First at 21 or Aliko Dangote at 19 or Ahmed Kathrada at 12. What if the story were that instead of a crisis of leadership we actually are facing a crisis of courage? What would that imply?

I grappled with these questions and the possibilities they presented and as a result my story changed. My youth was not for self-aggrandizement, not at this critical juncture in my country’s history. And with that I resigned from my role, accepted a statistical decrease in life expectancy and moved back to a country in which I have no medical aid, have no power for 20 hours a day and consistently grapple with the realities of a failed economy.

This leads me to the third practice of courage. Calculate the losses. As a neuroscience coach, I am clear, as I am sure you are, that the brain does not like change. There is that primal part of ourselves that does not want to die, that wants for things to stay the same, to stay comfortable. And so it is important that we prepare the brain for what is to come. On the journey of courage, we need to be very honest with ourselves, right at the onset, about the losses we are going to incur in order to make our contribution possible. For me, I left a 6 figure role in a developed economy to move back home to Zimbabwe and start a leadership consultancy whose mission is to have courageous conversations with leaders across Africa. I was clear about what I would lose. Prestige – my business card no longer read Yale and instead carried the little-known name of an intention called Narachi Leadership. Access – I was transitioning from walking the corridors of power in different parts of the world to starting again. Comfort – I was leaving behind the conveniences of functional infrastructure to be in a country whose roads and hospitals have become deathtraps. But because I knew that this is what I was signing up for, because I named it and accepted it as a necessity for creating the future that I preferred, I started to build the neural pathway for the fourth practice of courage. Resilience.

People ask me how I cope with the hardships that my country currently faces. How I don’t fall into the temptation of giving up and going back to what is comfortable. How having tasted the delicious conveniences of the West I don’t want to have it all again. I say because I have resilience. I watch my thoughts to make sure they remain disciplined. I take responsibility for my emotions and make sure I don’t cultivate resentment and therefore victimhood. I have made breathing deeply – a mechanism for relaxing my nervous system- a close ally. I make friends across the threshold because I understand that genius comes out of diversity. These are all tools for resilience and they have kept me sane over the last 4 years. The greatest tool however, has been building a tribe of people around me who are committed to similar work. People who are mad enough to believe that authenticity is worth striving for, that our corporates and organizations can be spaces of healing, and that the systems we build can be supportive to everyone and not just a few. My friend Dr. Ela Manga and I for example have started a series called Being Human, a brave effort to provide a counternarrative to the many hashtags of our day that while noble, well-meaning and needed, threaten to create a future that is driven by hate and anger. Another friend and I are designing a process to coach leaders who lead from a place of woundedness and are currently incapable of seeing the damage they are doing to others. We are trying to work through both the oppression that causes suffering and the suffering that causes oppression as it is so powerfully described by Sterling Toles. Our work is not common, it is breaking ground. But we are clear that the old models no longer work and we are also clear we cannot do it alone. Resilience is about making sure that you create a cushion of support that allows you to be vulnerable while doing your best work in the world.

And so what is my final message to you today, you the young men whose armour is integrity, humility, compassion and courage. I say that the conversation is no longer about being given a seat at the table. It is not even about bringing a folding chair to the table if you are not invited as Shirley Chisholm once said. The conversation now is about how to build new tables and new chairs altogether. The conversation now is about metamorphosis. It is about that weird stage between being a caterpillar and butterfly when the vestigial cells are still fighting the imaginal cells and what wants to emerge.
This requires that you go inward first and ask “what matters to me”? “What keeps me up at night”? “What is a future I cannot accept for myself and my country, and how do I fix it?” It requires that you be willing to change the story. The story of what it means to be a man in the world. The story you have told yourself about what is inevitable and cannot be changed. It requires that you be willing, as individuals and as a collective, to face some loses so that we can, in the end, gain some wins. And it requires that you be resilient in the face of what will be resisted by the powers that be.

I say that building the country, the region, the continent that you believe we all deserve is possible. As long as you believe in your madness. As long as you dance with possibilities. As long as you discard the seduction of victimhood. As long as you are willing to have your comfort zone disrupted. As long as you insist that the issues that matter to you are worth paying attention to. Since I started Narachi Leadership 4 years ago, I have worked with leaders from 47 African countries – in schools, corporates, universities, start-ups – doing unconventional work on wounded leadership, leadership archetypes, the biology of bias, healing organizations and authentic power. I have been exhilarated and challenged all at once. Because I allowed my heart to be cracked open by the challenge I was perceiving and experiencing, I have dedicated my life to doing work that can actually make a dent on the continent.

Thich Nhat Hanh says so powerfully “enlightenment is when a wave realises it IS the ocean”. I am inviting you to always remember that You ARE the OCEAN.
You ARE the school.
You ARE the community.
You ARE the hope.
You ARE the inspiration.
You ARE South Africa.
You ARE Zimbabwe and Malawi and Mauritius and Botswana and Ghana and Senegal and Kenya.
You ARE! You ARE! You ARE!
And waking up to this this will mean we no longer have to struggle under the stronghold of old stories and old presumptions that no longer serve who we are wanting to become.

And so I return to baobabs. Whether you want to look at the death of baobabs as alarming or you want to see it as the natural progression of things, it makes no difference. The message is the same. Change is here, change is now, change awaits our courage.

I will end with the inspiring call of musician Pete Seeger. “Liberty is a hard won thing and EVERY generation has got to win it all over again” Young men of Michaelhouse, go and fetch your courage. Your liberties and freedoms depend on it.
I thank you.

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