Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Long Walk to Divorce

In a peculiar set of circumstances I found myself on a bus on June 14 2011 headed towards Durban to meet a person I knew very little about. I knew his name was Miyere ole Miyandazi. I knew he had walked from Nairobi to Cape Town in 2004. I knew the spark was the violent response to protests by the Maasai around a lapsed colonial agreement regarding land; one that saw the Maasai restricted from accessing hundreds of thousands of acres of seasonal grazing. Instead they were pushed into unsuitable reserves that have damaged their whole way of life. I knew that he had been walking ever since. My understanding was that he was doing this to raise awareness about the situation of minority peoples, that this had something to do with some of his heritage coming from the nomadic Maasai. His message resonated with me. Instinct told me I should meet him. 

A handful of papers from his website were my only company on the 7 hour trip. They told me that he was speaking about access to land, freedom of movement and association, that his message was one of tolerance and peace. 

I would later learn that he was walking to break down the barriers dividing us as humanity. His was a journey into the self. Walking was his individual tool for coming to better know himself, a pilgrimage towards walking the path he is meant, to make his unique contribution to this earth. 

My phone rang one evening while I was sitting at home. On the other end was a very excited voice. 

"Howard, I met a Maasai walking along the N2 Highway coming from Cape Town. I could not believe my eyes! I turned my car around, offered him some water, and started asking questions...You should have seen the design of his car tyre sandals..."

It was a friend and brother, Shane Engelbrecht, of the Eastern Wilderness School. Apparently Miyere was on his way up the coast toward Mozambique and eventually to Cairo.

On this route Miyere would be hugging the shoreline which would take him through the Transkei. Called the "Wild Coast", its isolation is deafening, its landscapes steal one's breath, and the rural life, rich in tradition, thrives among rolling hills. It was our intent that we would share his steps in this leg of the journey. But, as in life, one's plans do not always match reality. Despite making contact with Miyere, we were not to make this trip. 

I spent a month overseas in April and returned believing Miyere to be long gone. When I called his cellphone I was surprised to hear it ring. There was more surprise when he answered. Serendipity slapped me when I learnt that he had passed through but returned to Durban. 

A cocktail of excitement and panic came over me. It was still possible, his willingness to have me with him had not waned, and the soothing voice on the other end of somewhere pricked something in me. It felt as if I had found a home.

I had planned to walk with Miyere for about a week and return home to continue looking for work. I carried a small bag with limited contents, I was prepared to sleep in the bush. Part of my kit included the pens, notebook, camera and digital sound recorder that would allow me to document the trip,  I hoped to publish somewhere in the media.

None of this was to be. On the first night we were huddled together, covered from the winter by a lau, the distinctive clothing worn by the Maasai, that my brother had brought back from Tanzania. Looking out over the Indian Ocean, we were lost in conversation. To the soundtrack of ocean, a bright, white moon threw sheets of crystals across the calm water. 

At one point Miyere said that he was wanting to write a book. He asked, why not with me?

I think I grinned and gave a feeble reply. There were a million reasons why not. I gave it little further thought. That was until we had walked the 130 km’s to Empangeni. Here we were ‘lodging’ in a place that was home to young people from different and difficult backgrounds. Each was trying to make their way in a world obsessed with money, despite their limited tools to earn it in "normal", accepted ways. 

The night we arrived, it seemed to take forever to get into the city centre from the arterial highways. On one particularly steep rise we passed a group of young women dressed suggestively. They seemed in high spirits, laughing and dancing as the minibus taxis idled passed with their music blaring. They took a particular interest in us, especially me. They thought the opportunity was ripe enough to have a laugh. 

I remember chuckling as I was watching this CBD shutdown and empty out, here in Zululand, while out host-to-be, Peter, bought us an ice cream from KFC and then got lost in his Swahili tongue with a fellow that could well understand it. The world...

The next morning I found my way to the kitchen of a many bedroom house. While making tea a young woman, the sleep still fresh in her eyes, dragged her slippered feet across the room. She seemed relatively unphased to see a stranger standing there. We greeted one another before I asked her if I new her from somewhere. Was she from the Eastern Cape? Grahamstown perhaps? 

It was life that was laughing when we both remembered one another from the street the night before...

The young men of the house were from Tanzania. Their "careers" were in the taking and selling of drugs, some even going a step further with house breaking and robbery. We shared a room with about eight of them, Peter having given us his "loft", a kind of second floor inside the room, which consisted of one mattress. From up here we had a view of all that transpired below, the comings and going, the dealing and as well as using. 

A stout middle-aged woman with a serious presence was the law and mother figure. Then there were what seemed to be an endless number of young women who were in and out of the bedrooms on the other side of the house. They were seldom around at night, when they were making their living on the streets. 

Together, they were one big family, sharing the hurt and pain, the challenges and troubles. And then there was the laughter and joy that is also a part of life. The young men, despite their "anti-social" occupations would gather in the evening around a shared dish, placed in the centre on the floor. Each one on his haunches, experienced hands moulding neat balls of food that went effortlessly into hungry mouths. Inside this ritual they were fundamentally together, equal. Also, the five single beds in our shared room had no owners, it was first-come first-serve. Sometimes I would even wake up at night and see more than one body huddled together on a small mattress. Miyere commented that this was the product of Julius Nyerere's post-Independence social policy of Ujamaa (familyhood), a philosophy of shared existence. 

This marginalised minority took us in without questions. They cooked and shared food with us, and, more importantly, gave us their trust, making no attempt to hide any of the things they were doing. They gave us a home and asked nothing in return, this house that seemed to be fueled solely by the pursuit of money. One could get a cigarette from the "madam", she always had many, but one would have to pay: "Everything is business," I think I recall her say. I don’t think we could have been safer. Outsiders themselves, they understood what it feels to be shunned or pushed aside.


The Book

Miyere again raised the subject of the book. I had not seen anything of the material he said was already written, but I had that strong feeling again. It was a case of now or never. We had already been on the road for ten days. My initial reaction was fear. He was serious in the belief that we could make this be! It was the same fear that would have stopped me getting on a bus, from walking without knowing the destination, would have had me running from a house of people who are given one dimensional labels like “prostitute” and “criminal”. It felt so easy, natural, so I wanted to run faster and further away. I had done so many times before.

After some negotiation with my wife, Miyere and I agreed on a month, that is what it would take to write a book. I started writing this from rural Zululand, in a village, the area being called Mnqobokazi. The original plan was to get up to Mbazwana, closer to the Mozambique border, where we had the offer of a house with all the amenities we could possibly need. 

We settled here instead on a whim of Miyere’s. That day I had lost sight of him until I rounded a bend into the village and saw that he had stopped a Rastafarian who was boarding a taxi. The next thing I knew we were sitting under a tree awaiting the induna (headman). He emerged, the figure of a Zulu royal representative - stout with a belly and knowing eyes. After explaining our case, our way was paved

Mnqobokazi is rural, there is limited access to electricity, which was not always constant, a whisper of an Internet signal, and few shops close by. But most importantly, we had the support of a wonderful family and community who accepted us in after only a brief introduction by the salt and pepper bearded elder. 

The Journey

I packed relatively light, but many of these things were there “in case”. The road is a serious partner, testing your commitment, and I soon learnt that these were comforts for the mind. The body knows, and resents, ten kilograms at the end of a 40km walk. 

Miyere carries next to nothing, not even water. I watched with the most acute intrigue one day as we arrived at a point in the day's walk. He stood there, searching inside of his lau for some unnamed irritation. Eventually his hand emerged, cradling a palm full of silver coins. 

"It felt like there was this big weight that I have been carrying. I couldn't work out what it was..."

The next minute he was pushing a fist full of money through the small window of a spaza (small shop), to buy milk, fruit, anything. The point was to rid the body of this unnecessary load!

He seems to have a profound belief in “what must be will be”. My preparation was an attempt to circumscribe this. We covered between 20 and 45kms a day. The extra kilograms fell off of me and I had to learn to walk again. Miyere walks like a man genetically engineered for this. Long limbs keep their rhythm and gait no matter the surface or gradient. 

In truth though, this is probably has more to do with a deep ancestral calling. Even after seeing a test show HIV positive, the reason for his return to Durban, has not deterred him from his path or mission. To him, it is another gift, a chance to learn and to pick at another barrier. 

The experience has been a spiritual one in the sense that I have really had a chance to drink deeply of the inherent goodness of people. Whenever we have been warned not to go somewhere we have gone anyway, and found comfort. Very often people’s first reaction is suspicion, even fear, but this thaws to reveal curiosity, then understanding. And every night, when our situation touches that human part of a person we meet acceptance, welcoming, and the truest hospitality. 




It was liberating to be released from the traps of modern-day living, the so-called rat race and its infinite complexity, much of which is self created and imposed. On a journey, life happens, and in the way it must. Each outcome is as it should be. There was an invisible power in our vulnerability - in placing yourself in the hands of another, and knowing that he or she will make a choice either way. It's hard to explain, but not knowing when or where the next stop, meal, bed, how the experience will feel, look, and sound, is freeing. The only thing certain is a knowing that something, beyond our ability to comprehend, will come. It is exciting in that it gives a very different perspective on the priorities of the day.

I have relearned the importance of food, especially when it comes after more than 24 hours. The energy inside a single orange eaten on the move. I found cleanliness in the conscious ritual of bathing in a bucket after days without washing. I marveled at the bigness of a small thing like a cup of tea, and wondered at a gesture of help from one with little in the way of material things. 

I have come to learn how much I take for granted as I am consumed by concerns with time and money, both of which I have limited control over anyway!

Doing something so simple as walking in open spaces I have noticed more on two feet over a relatively short distance than I could ever have done covering thousands of kilometers by car. To drink water from dams, swim in them. To feel the body renergised after chewing on freshly picked sugarcane, guavas which sprout from the shoulder of roads, and even the occasional pawpaw. 

The heat of the day has been eased by the shade of gum trees, the gentle breeze a conductor to their leaves inside of nature’s orchestra. Even the rain in places of little shelter, it falls like a baptizing ointment as you move to the rhythm of the universe, contributing your unique tune. Tar and dirt roads, railway tracks, footpaths, sandy beaches, and ways yet to be explored, all have been home to our purpose-driven feet.

We have stayed with people I might have chosen to talk about as black or white, rich or poor, urban or rural, business people and those operating under the law. It is not what society would say of them that matters, but rather the fact of their common humanity. Like me. Like you. All our needs overlap at the most basic and universal level. We experience this everywhere with those we meet. At times
 I might still be tempted to talk about "these people" or "those people", but in truth all of us humans are one. Previously, I might have said that I have a beautiful country, but I now see that all the land is one. It knows nothing of things like borders and nations. 

How curious a thing, the human obsession with trying, in futility, to order the world. We are but shooting stars in the expanse of time and space and so any feelings of grandeur, thoughts of being the centre of the universe, are but the machinations of minds that put us out of orbit in the order of things - like a grain of sand thinking itself more important than the beach...

"My understanding is that it is only we as human beings that have boundaries. Water has no borders, it takes on any shape. Fire is a force unto itself. Air is life, it sustains it. All the earth is one, it does not know country or border. It is humanity that is not playing its part by acting in a disconnecting way. My belief is that when humanity comes into itself that is when the Big Bang will be, the celebration of one."



Miyere has come to call his journey The Ultimate Walk for Humanity. “Who does this guy think he is?” I thought upon first hearing it. But in a strange way I have realized that this is his walk for his own humanity. His peeling away the layers of things (external borders, boundaries, boxes and definitions) he has inherited, accepted, or had thrust upon him. He is walking physically, but more so his journey is one directed into himself. It is a self-made pilgrimage. By finding and walking that human part in him, he shares in the humanity of others. And so, his own, personal journey, is one inside the bigger context of a two-legged species, a testament to the knowing that the "self" is bound up in that of others. Humanity, by its very definition, is not something individual, even though that is where the journey begins and ends for each of us. 

For humanity only finds its true meaning inside the interaction between people. 

Ubuntu - the so-called African humanist philosophy - is a concept that has become lofty and ethereal in recent years, used by anyone seeking to invoke its mythical power for different ends. But ubuntu does not live in the libraries of universities, the halls of parliament, or the kraals (village) of chiefs and kings. It is not some weighty concept that can only be accessed by those possessed of title, status, intelligence, or enlightenment. No, ubuntu lives and breathes in the smallest gesture; the greeting of stranger, the acknowledgement of one life by another. "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu", a person is a person through people, is as simple as that. 

Ubuntu was abundant in those dealing in flesh and drugs in Empangeni, the hooters of the cars that sounded support to us as they sped past on busy roads. It was rich in the spirit of the man who made it his mission to finds us accommodation one night and then, failing in his efforts, delivered us to his boss's doorstep, and so did. It was the sugar in the tea given us by security guards on a cane field, right after they had told us we could not stay there for the night, but before they directed us to the next place. 

This is where we must make it work. We all need to walk our Ultimate Walk as individuals, to that place inside of ourselves where we can touch and so make us of that unique gift inside us, that one in seven billion. This is the unique fingerprint. And once we find that gem we need to keep cognisant that it is not something to be kept, selfishly held or used, for that betrays its purpose. We must walk with that gift through life sharing it freely and openly at every chance we get. For then it will become polished, will sparkle and share its light with others so that they may do the same. 


So, as I began to write in Mnqobokazi, we have been given a young woman, Nomalungelo, to look after us, as is the custom here. She heats water for us to wash in the morning, she prepares and serves our food, keeps an eye on us. Her name translates as “knowing my rights” and does she ever. For she is not a servant to us, but a partner. The air of our small room is shattered by confident commands: “Phuza tea!” (come and drink tea) and "Miyere, Howard. Lunch!" Though she is young, she is playing the role of big sister to us.

Nomalungelo is under Mama Magumejane, a woman who has accepted us as one of her many children. The most gracious host and a beautiful spirit. This is a royal home. For Magumejane was married to the paramount chief, Ngwane. He was murdered some years ago in a dispute over ubukosi (the chieftaincy) and party politics; the destructive clash of civilisations. Despite having been left to raise two young girls with family that is not her blood, having to face the difficulties of life inside a women-only household, she is strong. But more importantly, she has remained open when she could easily have become cynical and cold. 

The lesson here is that those considered "rural", "traditional", maybe even backwards, have much to teach. Their lessons are free of theory, being informed by feeling that becomes action. Judgement, and its quality of alienation, are suspended. Each individual is given a chance to prove themselves...

We need to walk as one, we need to wrestle everyday with those arbitrary social things (gender, class, race, nation, religion, sexuality, etc.) that keep us thinking about what divides us as human beings and away from the fact that there is much, much more around which we are united.

Miyere is walking in response to an ancestral calling. Based on his, sometimes turbulent, life experience he made a conscious choice not to carry a passport, believing himself to be a citizen of the earth. And yet he has presented himself at border posts because he has nothing to hide. When asked for identification he has presented his thumb, believing his fingerprint to be the ultimate form of identity.

Miyere is also without money, bank account, or sponsors, a planned route or schedule. Instead, he wanted to let people be his hosts and guides. He wanted to see for himself if the “kind human” still existed in humankind. The walk was to be a peaceful challenge to borders, both physical and imagined, that separate us as humanity, those that limit our minority (individual) freedoms of choice and movement.

He has faced prejudice, kidnapping, arrest, deportation and imprisonment without trail, as well as violence -
 many of these moments at the hands of the authorities, thus showing the glaring inconsistencies and contradictions in the application of paper-based laws. But this has paled in comparison to the overwhelming support and goodwill of people from very different backgrounds who have become minority partners in the Ultimate Walk for Humanity. 

These are the some of the intentions Miyere set off with, as we write in The Divorce:

“The intention that I was setting off with from the beginning was very clear. That walking was the best way to show the potential for peaceful coexistence, the spirit that is evoked in communities and individuals when walking. When one is able to take a step towards another person’s house, whatever time it may be, this is a gesture towards learning and understanding, towards touching the best that is in people.

The kind human had ceased to be. He was now beating himself. Using my life’s history and interest to learn, I decided to walk and confirm that I am native of the land…

I was not walking sponsored by corporates governed by a formalized schedule where everything was prearranged. I had divorced from this way of thinking. I was to open up that human kindness and demonstrate that this is alive in the people by making them the ones who would support and make successful this journey. There was clarity in my intention for the journey, my destination, but I had no idea of the details of what would happen in between. How I would be fed, where I would find shelter, the people and experiences I would meet, the land and my ancestors would take care of that."

"Why Divorce?", people ask. Why not? You see, The Divorce is really about connection...

We spend long hours behind the computer going through the story, but the sounds of life and the community are never far. There is no routine, people dictate this to us through unscheduled visits. Perfect! A constant reminder that we don’t always get our way in life, that it’s not all about work, that our world is not the world. 


Our small room, which we share, has become our sanctuary and the walls of support in our process of writing his book. I would never have believed that a book could be, should be, written in this way or in such a space of time, but it is happening. 


The Divorce – A diary of a journey by a native soul in Africa, on foot will eventually see the light of day in printed form. Exactly how is impossible to say, but I am sure partnership will be the way. And then this smaller journey, its many conversations and exchanges, will travel further, gain many more voices, and the journey will continue for us all. 

Lastly, remember that everything, absolutely everything, happens for a reason!



About the Journey "Cape Town to Cairo and beyond", 29 January 2011 on Table Mountain.



Ubuntu-Tibet Freedom Festival, 27th April 2008, South African Freedom Day:

"To my dear friend His Holiness the Dalai Lama, let me say: I stand with you. You define non-violence and compassion and goodness."
- Archbishop Tutu Statement [Wednesday, March 26, 2008]
On South African Freedom Day, we are holding the UBUNTU Peace Festival to remember those in the world who are still denied basic freedoms, with focus on Tibet.

YouTube video of festival

No Borders Exhibition - Cape Town: The Edition from Africa. A documentary photography magazine that aims to expand the headspace of Africa. A back issue first published in 2009 - Go to page 30

Odlum House of Grass, Yala, Kenya:

Miyere's hope is to establish the Odlum Cultural Skills Institute. The vision is to have it become a centre of learning for street children from around the continent. Miyere has had a number of experiences with children on the street during his travels, all of them deeply personal. 

This has left him confident that they, their position, are metaphors for sickening societies. They know the price of exclusion as "untouchables", and yet if given the chance they may become teachers to those who would learn.

June 16 – Day 3 DBN – Tongaat Beach
June 17 – Day 4 Tongaat Beach – Blythdale Beach
June 18 – Day 5 Blythdale Beach – Tugela (Willie & Lydia)
June 19 – Day 6 Tugela – Gingindlovu (Johan)
June 20 – Day 7 Gingindlovu – Mtunzini – Esikhawini (Spiro)
June 21 – Day 8 Esikhawini – Empangeni
June 22 – Day 9 Empangeni 
June 23 – Day 10 Empangeni 
June 24 – Day 11 Empangeni – Kwambonambi 
June 25 – Day 12 Kwambonambi – Mtubatuba (Beni)
June 26 – Day 13 Mtubatuba (Beni)
June 27 – Day 14 Mtubatuba (Tulio and Astrid)
June 28 – Day 15 Mtuba – Masibonisane High School (Khayo)
June 29 – Day 16 Masibonisane – Hluhluwe (Johnny)
June 30 – Day 17 Hluhluwe – Mduku (Johnny)
July 1 – Day 18 Mduku – Mnqobokazi (Induna Zikhali)
July 2 – Day 19 Mnqobokazi – KwaNgwane and Magumejane – The home of The Divorce
August 2 – Mnqobokazi – Mbazwana - Farewell, but not forever!!!


Sandra McLeod Humphrey said...

What a one-of-a-kind journey, what a wonderful story, and what an amazing man! I love the idea of one world with "no borders" where cooperation is the rule rather than competition and where we all strive to bring out the best in each other. Love your blog and I'll be back.

Craigieji said...

Yeah, wonderful story, if I just had the courage, i would love to 'walk' in a similar way!! Keep it up!!

Robin said...

Beautiful story and inspiring words. I am touched to my soul and urge you on to keep it flowing!Perhaps this is the way the world is walk, one story, one heart weaving to the next.
Thank you!