TEDx Dare: Life lessons from Africa’s remote tribes.
I’m a journalist with a serious travel problem.
I’ve got the bug really bad. I love packing my bag and going - anywhere, really. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have travelled to some of the most stunning and eye-opening places all over the planet and have camped with the most remote tribes in Africa.
It might sound like I’m bragging – but I’m not. Really, I’m just surprised.
I grew up in the bush – in Gunnedah and then on a farming property in Northern NSW around Armidale. When I was a kid, I would get so homesick just staying over at a friend’s house in town. In Year 5 our whole class travelled to the Gold Coast and got to go to Sea World and WetnWild. I was too homesick. I stayed at home. Going to Sydney was a really big deal. It was so big and far away. And driving over the Harbour Bridge – it was scary! So many lanes, cars, trucks, which exit do I take! Terrifying.
I look back now at how that little homesick girl from the bush got to be an international journalist and travel all over the world, and I’ve realised there wasn’t really one big moment that changed everything. Instead it was just small consistent steps. I didn’t stop – I just kept moving forward and getting more confident and daring along the way.
I was nervous at my first job as a TV reporter in regional NSW. I thought, I’m just a girl from the bush, what do I know about being a journalist.
And then I moved to a bigger city and thought the same.
And a few years later when I moved to London to work at the BBC, there were moments where I thought, I’m just a girl from Australia – what do I know?
And then I moved to the Middle East to work at Al Jazeera News, and I again thought, I’m just a girl who has worked in Australia and also in London, what do I know about being a journalist in the Middle East?
But I just kept on going.
And I’m so glad I did.
Because through travel and talking and interviewing people all over the place, I have learnt the greatest life lessons.
The first lesson:
1. There’s no such thing as normal. We, as humans, are all so wonderfully different, yet in so many ways, we are exactly the same.
There are obviously language barriers and stark cultural differences, but I’ve learnt that we all have a similar desire for happiness, health, peace and joy, and a need to get through life the best we can.
Here’s my example: The Suri Tribe – on the border of Ethiopia and South Sudan – one of the most treacherous and isolated locations on Earth.
My husband, who is also a journalist, had been working too hard in our jobs in breakfast television – and we wanted a break.
So we quit, packed our bags and before we knew it we were in the depths of Ethiopia.
Now, it’s a long and bumpy three-day journey from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa into the village of the Suri tribe. 4WD access only, lots of flat tyres and for part of the way we were accompanied by guards with AK47s.
But the trip is worth it. The Suri men paint their faces with bright clay from the riverbed to intimidate neighbouring tribes and protect their families – and also to impress the ladies.
And the women wear clay lip plates - something I’ve never seen before in my life.
The clay discs are a symbol of a Suri woman’s beauty, dedication to her tribe and social status. The larger the plate, the more her father can expect as a dowry. For example a big plate may get 60 cows for the woman’s family when she marries and a smaller plate may get 40 cows.
The plates are usually inserted before the age of 16. The two front teeth are removed and a small cut is made in the bottom lip. The disc sizes increase over time, as the woman ages. A type of Vasoline is applied around the edge of the plates to make it easier to get in.
The clay plates are very delicate and break easily.
Now this can be quite confronting – and to be honest, I wasn’t sure how I was meant to feel about the whole thing.
But this is the life lesson!!! The Suri women are so different to anything I have ever seen - but they are also just like so many mothers who I have met around the world. They’re dedicated and loving to their children, they’re constantly feeding and playing with their kids, preparing food, talking and laughing with their friends, and they welcomed me into their circle.
My white, freckly skin and blonde hair was very strange to them and something they had never seen before – and they were interested to know about my life. (They kept asking me where all my kids were.)
The Suri women work harder than we have to – their babies are strapped to their backs and we saw them pulling and carting long tree trunks on their shoulders and fire wood on their heads for their village. This is so different from us – but they do this to help provide for their families – which is something we also do.
The theme of today’s talk is DARE.
And… for these women, their life is constantly at risk, but they dare to survive.
They dare to know who they are, what they need to do to stay alive and keep their kids alive and they dare to know their culture and to be proud of who they are.
These women taught me the importance of opening our minds and daring to think differently.
My second life lesson from travel:
2.Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not limited to stereotypes of perfect people we see in magazines and social media.
Maasai women ooze confidence, power and joy. They know their culture and they know who they are. And that is beautiful.
We spent sundown with a local tribe at Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. They live right next to the mighty Mt Kilimanjaro – a stunning mountain, with elephants and other wild animals wandering by.
These beautiful women taught me how to do their traditional jumping
and dance. Their colourful beaded earrings and neck discs were swinging as their bodies moved. These women possess both strength and grace so perfectly.
You won’t find their faces on the front covers of magazines or as typical social media influencers – yet these women are among the most stunning you will ever find.
MAY THER - MYANMAR
We met May Ther in a stilted hut about an hour's paddle along Inle Lake in central Myanmar.
Like many Padaung women, she was fitted with 10 brass neck rings when she turned 8-years-old. The older she became the more rings she received. By 25 she had 25 neck rings - the maximum number.
May Ther is now 62 and told me the coils don't hurt. She said she wasn't forced into wearing them and they didn’t help her find a better husband. Instead, the rings are purely to look good and to show others that she is a proud Padaung woman.
May Ther taught me that being proud of who you are is to be beautiful.
Again, she taught me the importance of opening our minds and daring to think differently.
THAW DONA HOU – OLD BAGAN
Now, I want to show you the happiest and most beautiful and graceful woman I have ever met.
Her name is Thaw Dona Hou. She’s a Buddhist nun.
She was squatting alone in the shade, at Myanmar’s Old Bagan markets, just watching the world go by. Although elderly and a little frail, she was shining with joy and humility. It was hot and humid, so she had a hand towel over her shaved head.
When I asked if I could take her photo, her face lit up with delight. Post snap, she shook my hand and wished Buddha to be strong with me wherever I decided to go. She was so happy, generous and present in that exact moment, and found such joy in the smallest of things.
I’ve met people who have absolutely everything they’ve ever dreamed of and more. And they are so unhappy.
These women have very little material goods, but have more love and gratitude and happiness than anyone else I have met.
And finally, the third lesson from travel:
3.Resilience and daring to dream Life can be tough, but we are even tougher… and we should never forget who we are.
RESILIENCE - MALARIA
When I found out I had Malaria I was such a sook. I thought, that’s it – this is the end of my travelling. I was in Ghana in West Africa at the time. I’m pretty sure I got Malaria from a pesky mosquito when I was in the neighbouring Ivory Coast.
Signs that you have Malaria are fevers, wild dreams, aches and a metallic taste on your tongue – like you’ve been sucking coins. Yuck! Well I had all these. So, unlike lots of patients, I was lucky enough to go to hospital in Ghana.
When I finally saw the nurse, I grumbled, I have Malaria!! She calmly replied, “Take your medicine and you’ll be fine.” She said, “Don’t worry, I have Malaria right now – as I work and treat you, I have Malaria. See all those people out in the waiting room? They have Malaria too. Everyone has Malaria. You’re lucky. You’ll be ok.’
And I realised just how lucky I was – and how resilient that nurse and the West Africans around me were.
And how resilient the other tribes of Africa are – who must fight every day to maintain the life they want for their family and their village and to keep their culture alive.
Now, when I was trying to work out what I wanted to say in this talk, I found it hard to pull everything together and really vocalise my message. I was nervous about speaking – it’s can be a bit scary up here! - and I was struggling to believe that I had anything that was even worth sharing.
I’m very close to my mum and trust her opinion, so I sent her what I had written to see what she thought.
She had a read and then phoned me and said, well sweetheart, it’s fine. But it doesn’t really sound like you.
She was right. I was too worried about working out if my stories or ideas were good enough and I ended up writing what I thought I should be saying – instead of writing from the heart.
We need to dare to be vulnerable. We need to dare to just be ourselves and know ourselves and try to be the best, honest versions of ourselves.
I have a 17-month-old toddler named Clementine. We have watched her learn how to roll and then crawl and take the very first steps of her life and start walking.
What’s amazing, is that toddlers never really act in fear. They just back themselves to do new things, without over-thinking. Toddlers dare to be fearless and fall over and get right back up again. How inspiring is that. We can’t remember it, but we were all once toddlers, too.
And just like the toddlers and the many women I have met along my travels, we need to dare to trust ourselves. We need to back ourselves. And know ourselves. And be proud of our best selves.
We need to dare to make our own judgements - don’t let me tell you what to think – get the information you need and dare to make up your own mind.
And finally dare to look at life differently. Broaden your opinions and views and just like a good journalist dare to see that there are always two sides to a story.
You can watch Steph’s TEDx Talk here.