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Listen • Share • Be Human

Her Story

Fran Fearnley

Owner - Zim Art and Rice Lake Gallery

Fran's Story :

In 1998 I left a job I loved to go and volunteer in South Africa for two years. I had no idea where the experience would lead me. That was part of the appeal. It was a deliberate mid-life shake-up. I felt too complacent and not sufficiently challenged.

I used to joke that I had to leave Canada to clear demerit points from my driver’s licence and to let my then-coloured-hair go grey. (And there was some truth to that!) As it turned out it
transformed my life.

My first year was spent as the associate publisher of a social trends research and publishing project at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. During the second year I managed the Electoral Code of Conduct Observer Commission, an ad hoc organisation formed to oversee observance of the Code in the run up to the country’s second democratic elections. I also travelled throughout the region – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Lesotho and Namibia.

One of the friends I made was with Nokuthula Masuku. She was the first person from her rural community, Mabibe, to go to university. She invited me to visit her family. To a curious Canadian there was much that fascinated, from food preparation, weaving mats and growing ground nuts to the workings of the tribal court and what the children were learning in school. No question was evaded. Every home was open to me.

I was told that although people travel through the area regularly (it’s close to several popular tourist destinations) no white person had ever come into the community to visit.

One of Nokuthula’s grandmothers responded to me in a way which reflects South Africa’s complex history. She was absolutely stunned by my presence. It seemed inconceivable to her that a white woman was in her home. She wanted to know what food I was eating. Nokuthula told her I was eating traditional food with the family and described the dishes we had eaten the night before. She looked at me with her old, tired eyes and said over and over again, Siyabonga. Siyabonga.” (Thank you.Thank you.) I just wanted to cry.

My friendship with her grand daughter and interest in her people, she said, was a sign of hope for humanity. It showed that blacks and whites could speak a common language.

I went to Madibe hoping to develop a deeper understanding of the Zulu people and culture and the realities of rural life in this part of the world – without electricity, phone, internet and running
water. It was an unexpected privilege to be considered an ambassador of cross-cultural harmony.

It seemed that simply being there as an open, curious and respectful participant was enough.  What a profound life lesson.

My favourite inspirational quote is from Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” That can sound overwhelming. But what my two years in Southern Africa taught me is that it is possible for one individual to make a difference. And it’s not rocket science. Show up. Listen. Share. Be human.