The YaLa Miracle

Nobantu Modise — By Nobantu from South Africa

From November 2nd to November 5th 2017, 70 participants and alumni from the Aileen Getty School of Citizen Journalism travelled to Jordan together to partake in a weekend of learning, dialogue, and fun. This is Nobantu’s experience: 

There was a wise king who lived a millennia ago and was revered the world over. Among his treasured written works was a particularly poignant reflection on life, in which he said that there is a time and a season for everything under the sun. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to reap a harvest.

I will be the first to admit that I have been fairly spoiled as far as my time for experiencing the miraculous is concerned. I was born in political exile to a family of anti-apartheid activists, thereby inheriting a very rich and unique legacy. A miracle of its own. I grew up in a democratising South Africa, making strides to forgive and reconcile, as opposed to degenerating into the brutal civil war the world anticipated. A total miracle. I had the great fortune of going to brilliant schools and accessing opportunities which my toasted caramel skin would never have accessed pre-1994. Miraculous. Nelson Mandela was my President…epic!

As it would be,  November 2- 5 was my time to experience an unforgettable miracle which stretched beyond my republic into the arms of a borderless, loving family known as YaLa Young Leaders. Under a banner of progressive thinking, what the world would most likely deem an “unlikely set of fellows” converged into a well facilitated series of exchange and…well…fun! 70 bright young minds came from Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Kurdistan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, to Amman, Jordan for Yala’s Alumni Citizen Journalism Conference. The program and set of lecturers were especially arranged to refine our skills in journalism, public speaking, writing and peace activism. More than anything, I wish we had an extra week, at the very least, to explore varying contentious issues related to peace building and peace activism, because it is a vast and delicate set of topics that cannot be rushed, whether approached from a Middle Eastern or African perspective.

Reflecting on my time in the Spring 2017 cohort, as well as in my time at this conference, I highly appreciate that YaLa has restructured, coloured, and animated a poorly cast image of a very special region. All I was exposed to before was the calculated assertions of academia and the impersonal generalizations of mainstream media. Now I have had the honour of being exposed to sets of narratives that few have done justice to. Having met my peers and counterparts, I see no difference between us. Whether South African or Middle Eastern, we have our set of introverts and extroverts. We are dancers, philosophers, mathematicians, business people, and the hilarious one or two who just shaved off 10 years from their biological age. *Wink* But ultimately, we are just people. People willing to care. People willing to do. People willing to navigate our way through landmines of trauma, religious sensitivities, and…well…you have to apply for the programme to find out the rest.

As fulfilling as it is to simply bask in the beauty of this miracle known as YaLa, and its network of astute young leaders, I cannot help but ask, “What are the odds?”

What are the odds that I would jet off from the southern-most tip of Africa to see young Israelis and Palestinians learning together, being vulnerable with each other…then bonding over Bamba? What are the odds that this unlikely collection of nationalities would be excitedly buzzing around a resort, simulating news rooms and generating content dissecting critical topics? What are the odds that from societies stubbornly set on continuing divisive tugs of war that there is a resilient, like-minded set of young people stirring a current to initiate change? What are the odds that most of us arrived not knowing a single soul but left a changed person? I expected to learn, but what are the odds that I would meet so many kindred spirits? What, indeed, are the odds?

Having grown up in the miracle of a democratising state has not, in any way, made me immune to recognising and cherishing a special miracle when I see one. More than anything, I see more clearly a time where my heart swells to replicate the miraculous. I see a time where a change-maker is no longer a lone wolf, howling into unforgiving winds, but part of a bold, eager pack – rabid to redefine what should be deemed acceptable. I see a time when inspiration and action are colliding to re-shape the world that we live in.

More than anything I see a season to exclaim: “Yalla…let’s go!”


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The Revolution of Flowers

21175954_1498788570209917_871295268_n— By Harvey from Malawi

How much do you know about Malawi as a country? Probably very little. Experience everything about the country through Harvey’s eyes, a local who is traveling across the country, reporting for YaLa Africa Press. You just might like it!

Welcome to the booming Malawian flower industry. And as it happens, my newest biggest obsession. I mean, who on earth doesn’t like a flower? Flowers are pretty and by far the only thing in the world that best expresses all things good and beautiful.

Area 14 suburbs, Lilongwe

As the country is experiencing rapid infrastructural development, project implementers are not holding back in making sure their new projects are completed with a nice natural finishing touch. Not only that, people’s personal priorities are shifting too, as most of them are looking to make their immediate surroundings look as fabulous as possible without having to spend a fortune doing it. Flowers are just the thing. This has resulted in an increase in demand for various assorted flowers – and the suppliers are responding.

Flowers at a shop

Personally, I consider the flower industry in Malawi quite revolutionary, as it is a representation of people’s shifting attitudes, perceptions, needs, and wants. For a country that lacks good infrastructure and urban recreational parks/centres, flower shops are changing how different spots within the city premises look, and giving city walkers something pleasant to look at. For other countries, this might not be that big of a deal, but in a third-world country where people are used to seeing unpleasant sightings such as pollutants and poorly disposed garbage along public roads and within the city, flowers here are what can be considered as one of the few success stories to come out in recent times.

One of the people I bought flowers from this week, James, points out that the industry is quite self-sustaining. A person starts as an employee at someone’s flower shop, learns the ins and outs of the trade, and the next and final stage sees them setting up their own shop at a place of their choosing. Though there might be some competition, the flower industry keeps thriving because as a business it is less resource intensive. Places to set up shops are in abundance (usually along any city road), water for irrigation occurs naturally, and the owners use their own labour to mitigate operating costs.

A new flower shop along the road

Accounting the monetary rewards as well as the aesthetic value flowers are giving out to the city, it becomes obvious that this new upcoming industry deserves all the support it can get. A little flowery advice: with the rainy season about to begin, this is the best time to plant some flowers!

Tragedy at Zomba Mountain

21175954_1498788570209917_871295268_n— By Harvey from Malawi

How much do you know about Malawi as a country? Probably very little. Experience everything about the country through Harvey’s eyes, a local who is traveling across the country, reporting for YaLa Africa Press. You just might like it!

It was during my third year of college that I experienced feeling so close to death. It was one of those sunny Saturday mornings in the middle of the rainy season that Wongani and I decided to go hiking to the top of Zomba mountain. Wongani was my closest, nerdiest, and the weirdest of friends back then. This being our second trip within a period of 12 months, we had agreed to hike up to the highest point on the mountain, if this was to be a challenge worth taking. We did this because we felt the previous hiking trip we took was less of a thrill due to poor preparations, and we were motivated to make this one an adventure of epic proportions.

Zomba mountain is 2000 metres at its highest point, and occupies an area of 130 square kilometres. For novice hikers, it’s not that much greater of a challenge, and we had heard of many people going up the mountain like child’s play. More importantly, we had done this before, but had turned back only after covering half the distance. The plan was that we choose a section of the mountain with the highest point, hike upwards and then back, following the same route. We had calculated that if we left at 5am, we ought to be back where we started by 5pm. As luck would have it, we were already on the road at 5am, carrying a backpack with four litres of water and some glucose. To make things even better, we had met a guy in the bushes at the base of the mountain who volunteered to walk with us a few kilometres up the mountain. It was ironic since he was a charcoal maker, people who are actually destroying natural habitats in Malawi. But here we were, us, the admirers of nature, and a man who makes a living by destroying nature.

Myself and the charcoal maker.

He did leave us on a good track and we parted ways. From this point, Wongani and I marched upward, exchanging the role of carrying the back pack which by now (about 4 hours into the hike) was getting heavier every passing minute. Hell broke loose when our trail began disappearing, the surroundings getting trickier with vegetation, and the upward slope became steeper. Before long, it was no longer mountain hiking, and the whole thing began to look like one of those rock climbing documentaries you see on National Geographic Channel. We did not bring any ropes, as we had not anticipated slopes that steep. I am a very cautious person, so I was first to suggest we turn back, but adventurous Wongani would not have it. He kept pressing on, rock after rock, with me following him behind and cautioning, “Be careful bro, it’s a long way down.” Wongani would only say something like, “Calm down dude,” as he went upwards. Occasionally he’d miss a step, which would send my heart racing at supersonic speed.

He had gone up, 3 big rocks above me. All the while he would be calling for me to follow, excited that he can see a walkable flat mass of land on top. I tried to climb up but I could not. It was after I was tired of trying that the bitter reality became known. Wongani was a much taller person than I was, and he could reach places I could not. All the while Wongani kept climbing, I called out his name, but his responses by now were becoming very distant. I told him I could not climb up and asked him to come back down so that we may abort this seemingly life threatening mission. Alas! Wongani could not climb back down the same way I could not climb upwards. The slope had become so steep where he was, that coming back down would be like trying to climb down a wall built at an angle of ninety degrees. At about 1700 metres above sea level, I tried not to imagine what my friend would look like after falling from such height.  I yelled, “I am going back!” and he yelled back that he will find a new path down and that we will probably converge somewhere.

Wongani trying out a cave.

I looked back down, and at that moment I knew it was going to be a long and painful way down. Because the rocks were steep, moving was very difficult – to the point that I was only circling the same place I was sitting. When the wind blew, coupled by the heavy backpack with the four litres of water in it, my body almost fell over the edge. I had to lose the bag… no I have to lose all of the water… no, maybe lose just some of the water… where are our mobile gadgets? Maybe I should call for help, and say something like I am stuck up in the mountains. Through this confusion, I had to sit down and clear my mind. I yelled, “Wongani!” But the man was long gone to find his own way down. I had to get going too, as the time on my phone was displaying 12:20 and I was long way up. I opened the bag and threw the bottles of water over. I watched them smash as they went down the mountain. Since I could not lose the backpack, I took some bandages Wongani had in his bag and tied the bag to the bandages forming a rope. I would then let the bag down onto a different rock using the bandage as a rope, then I’d follow and so on. I could not lose this bag, because it had sentimental value to Wongani, and knowing the man who from time to time named and still names his inanimate possessions, losing the bag was not an option.

Wisdom came over me, I had to follow the gorge that ran from up the mountains going down. Gorges on mountains have running rivers and are mostly covered with vegetation. I figured that moving this way, the chances of me falling over the edge would be minimal. Vegetation would act as support and keep my speed in check, and when I slip I would get caught in the bushes before long. More importantly, the gorge will be my GPS so I do not get lost. It was working, but I was worried about my friend…what if he fell? Wongani was a bit clumsy at times. I had to call him but all the mobile phones were with me after we had previously agreed to do so to void losing or breaking them during the climb upwards. I had to put such thoughts away and focus on covering the distance down. I had worn shorts on this day and by now my legs were full of cuts and bruises…the wounds stinging with the dumpy heat under vegetative cover. I had walked for over four and half hours going down, calling out for anyone who could hear, but no one was up here. The place was quite scary, with nothing but the sounds of nature in the background.

After getting lost more times than I could count, and almost going insane in the process, I was at the base of the mountain. Wongani was nowhere in sight, and I told myself I should walk straight to the hostels and wait for him there. It is a 1 hour walk from Chancellor College hostels to the base of the mountain. Heading home, I contemplated on what I would tell people if Wongani disappeared. What would I tell his parents? I would look like the evil one for leaving a friend behind. Halfway to the hostels I met a group of men whom we had passed at that same place 11 hours earlier, moulding bricks. I was so relieved when I heard them say a guy I went up the mountains was asking them if I had passed by before him. Wongani was about 25 minutes ahead of me all the while getting worried sick of what had happened to me.

The rest of the journey home was an embarrassing and a humbling experience. Crossing through the city, people looked at me with interest. I assumed I looked like some nightmarish creature with bits of bushes in my head, dirty clothes, and red eyes – I was a severely exhausted human being at most. I found Wongani waiting at my door looking worse than I felt. We both went to have our separate hot baths… this was one of the most painful hot baths I have ever had. Later, we convened at my room, ate the food we were supposed to eat when we reached the mountain top, and told each other about our separate horrors we had to encounter coming down the mountain. We laughed and contemplated how close we had come to seeing the worst.

We are looking forward to going back soon. Any partakers?

The trek up the mountain.