Simon Ekin

Simon Ekin the Author

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“When the path ignites a soul, there’s no remaining in place. The foot touches ground, but not for long.”

Hakim Sanai, 11th Century Sufi Poet.

I was born in the Roman city of Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, England, in 1967, the second of three brothers. We were a typical middle-class English family. My parents were both privately educated and brought up with the conservative values and modest habits typical of their social class. Our lives revolved around our small and affluent community of landowners, professionals and aristocrats in the small village of Ilmington, near Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown.

My father was a Church of England clergyman and from him I inherited the inclination toward public speaking. He was much loved by his congregants, and his sermons were often spoken about long after he had delivered them. As children it was compulsory for us to attend Sunday service, and I would often sit spellbound as he preached with passion and a healthy dose of humour.

Dad was a natural at the pulpit, though he initially had resisted the path into the clergy. When he finished school he enlisted into the British Army and was posted to Tanganyika – now Tanzania – as part of the obligatory national service. When he returned to England he enrolled at theological college in the northeastern city of Lincoln, but his time there was short-lived. He left college and spent a number of years as a sales rep for the soft-drinks manufacturer Schweppes before returning to theological college, this time in Chichester in the south of England. I once asked him why he had resumed theological college having left prematurely. “The hounds of heaven,” was his reply.

He completed his studies and was ordained in 1961. It was when he was working as a curate that he met my mother, Bridget. They were married in 1963, and the three of us boys were born in 1965, 1967 and 1970.

It was from my mother that I inherited an intense love for her country of birth, South Africa. She was born in the coastal city of Durban, the younger of two daughters. Shortly after she was born her father joined the Allied forces against the Nazis in north Africa, leaving his young family behind. Like so many families at the time, the war took a devastating toll on my mother’s family. By the time my grandfather returned from Europe five years later, he found his wife had fallen in love with someone else – an officer in the Royal Marines. My grandparents were divorced shortly thereafter, and in 1947 my grandmother uprooted my mother and her sister and left South Africa to begin their new life in England.

South Africa remained close to my mother’s heart even into adulthood, and she was delighted when my father was offered a post at St James Church in Durban in 1970. Much of her extended family still lived in and around Durban, so we quickly settled in, and became a part of the community.

I loved South Africa from the outset. I spent countless hours playing with my older brother Charlie in our vast garden, climbing the avocado trees and pelting each other with the ripe fruit. My younger brother Jono was just a baby then, and Charlie and I got up to a lot of mischief while our mother was busy looking after the new-born and Dad was out tending to his flock. Ironically, South Africa for me represented freedom; I revelled in the outdoor lifestyle and easily made friends with the local children and my schoolmates. For a young white boy, South Africa in the early 1970s was a haven of carefree revelry, and I soaked it all up.

I was not completely oblivious to my privileged status in society, but at the time I didn’t fully understand the reasons why this was so. Deep down I knew that, although my brothers and I lived a happy and frivolous existence, life was very different for the black people who worked in our home and the many others we saw walking to and from their places of work in the suburbs. They seemed to belong in another world, and the handful of times my world collided with theirs was terrifying.

Such was the case when my brother Charlie and I went to his friend’s house to play. I was selected for a dare, a test to see what I was made of. I was armed with a plastic bag filled with water and instructed to throw it at the next unsuspecting person to come walking along the road. I crouched down behind a bush and zeroed in on a large black man, ready to pounce. After a few seconds I ran up to him, smashed to plastic bag at his feet, and turned to run.

I only managed to take a few steps before I felt a large hand around my neck. He held on tight as he thrust me to the ground, stopping just short of smashing my face into the tarmac.

“If you ever do that again, I will kill you,” he hissed.

I thought I was going to die.

He then dropped me like a rag doll and walked away. He didn’t hurt me – and he could easily have – but he gave me the shock of my life. Looking back on it, I wonder what rage he must have felt, an adult black man being tormented by a naughty little white boy.

You would think I would have learned my lesson, but typically I landed myself in trouble again. I had gone to visit a friend at his house, and I got into an argument with his sister. Stuck for an insult to hurl at her, I called her a bloody kaffir – a phrase I had heard said in hushed tones by other boys. I knew it was bad, insulting and mean. I didn’t care, so long as I could get my own back.

The next thing I knew their domestic worker was after me, waving a carving knife in the air and screaming blue murder. I managed to evade her and hid upstairs until my mother came to collect me.

These encounters were infrequent but frightening, and for me they reinforced the indirect message that I’d been hearing from the adults around me – black people were to be feared; best we steered well clear of them. They came into our lives to work, and the rest of the time they disappeared off into their own world, a world I knew nothing about and was scared to even imagine.

I was of course not aware that this period in the 1970s was the height of the apartheid era, when the South African government was tightening restrictions on the lives and movements of black people, and when the underground structures of the resistance movements were gearing up to step into action. I was only aware of the more frequent hushed conversations between my parents and their friends, which suggested that trouble was on the way.

On 16 June 1976 these political tensions spilled out onto the streets when school children from the sprawling Johannesburg township of Soweto rose up against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of educational instruction. The Soweto uprising, in which dozens of children were killed and detained by the security police, became the catalyst for intensified political unrest and security clampdowns. It galvanised communities all over the country into action and saw the escalation of the armed struggle. These actions, together with the international spotlight on the plight of the majority of the South African people, put pressure on the apartheid government and ultimately led to the dismantling of apartheid.

Yet, my idyllic life in my middle-class suburb continued as before. We went to the UK for a holiday at the exact time of the uprising, ostensibly for a holiday, though I suspect my parents went over to enquire about the possibility of returning to England. For white South Africans the riots were an ominous sign, a threat to the comfortable life to which they had grown accustomed.

One evening at supper the following year, my parents announced we would be returning to England, this time for good. They told us they wanted to give us an English upbringing, but I imagine they also wanted to give us a more stable future than the uncertain one unfolding in South Africa.

I was sad when we packed our bags and left our home in Durban, and our arrival to a cold and wet England only served to exacerbate my misery. There I was, with a shock of sun-bleached blonde hair and the year-round golden tan I had acquired from the countless hours spent in the African sun, now constrained under layers of clothing. And this during the English summer! I yearned to run barefoot on the warm South African soil, and I spent hours trying to become accustomed to our new life. My brothers and I were immediately enrolled in the local schools where we were gradually moulded into English gentlemen and taught the appropriate behaviours: I learned to speak when spoken to, to make polite conversation, and to shy away from any situation that could potentially result in confrontation or rebuke.

Though I was learning to be English, I longed for South Africa and I harboured a secret wish to return “home” one day. I made a point of reminding those around me that I was South African, a fact that didn’t go down well with my peers. My insistence on being different made me a prime candidate for some low-level bullying at school, and I was particularly tormented by a boy much bigger than me. I got my own back one day when I challenged him to a foot race. And not just any old foot race, but a barefoot race, on gravel. The children lined the path, and I tore off along the designated strip, my feet seeming to glide over the dirt, as they had done so many times back in Durban. My adversary, on the other hand, was left hobbling and wincing and cursing in my dust trail. He never bothered me again.

I think I always had a thirst for adventure, a desire to do things differently. Perhaps it was middle-child syndrome, what the experts in birth order theory say is the principal driver of those of us born into the unremarkable middle of our sibling series, who then continuously strive to distinguish ourselves in some way.

I had my first taste of adventure in 1984 while on a family skiing holiday in France. I was 16 years old, full of hormones, and I fell in love with a Scottish girl named Katie. Well, it is more accurate to call her Lady Katie, as she was a direct descendant of King James I of Scotland.

When we got back home after the holiday I undertook to visit her at her castle near Inverness, 1200 kilometres from my home. I wasn’t going to let the distance, a country border, lack of funds or an inability to drive stand in my way, so I got on my bicycle and pedalled north, complete with my three-piece tweed suit, shirt and tie, and brown brogues.

Our love match was not to be, primarily because she showed absolutely no interest in me when I arrived. I spent the rest of my time there visiting castles with Katie’s mother, who I suspect felt embarrassed her daughter was giving me the cold shoulder after I had made such an effort to come and see her.

On the face of it this was not one of my greatest successes, yet it taught me a very important lesson: you never know until you try. Had I stayed at home pining for Katie, I would never have cycled through some of the most beautiful countryside in the United Kingdom. I also may never have acquired a passion for long-distance cycling, a passion I pursued in spectacular fashion some years later.

During the course of that seemingly disastrous weekend I learned I need never shy away from a challenge. No outcome is certain, and every result has value. The only certainty is achieving nothing by not even trying. At 16, this was a powerful lesson to learn, one that would be reinforced many times over when I finished school and joined the British Army.

After school I took a gap year to India and South Africa, and then I applied and was accepted to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst after a fairly comprehensive selection process. I had no real interest in a lengthy military career, but I figured the army would offer great leadership training and travel opportunities, while making the most of my love of sport and the outdoors.

The Sandhurst motto is Serve to Lead and our first weeks there focused almost entirely on training us to serve. There were endless hours of apparently meaningless tasks like polishing and shining our boots, digging trenches, and cleaning toilets with toothbrushes, all performed while being shouted at by the Colour-Sergeants and Sergeant Majors with their booming voices and walrus moustaches.

The training was rigorous, both physically and mentally. The first six weeks in particular were intended to break us, to weed out the ones not cut out for serving as officers in the armed forces. It was not unusual to be taken on a 24-hour route march or to have to endure standing in formation for hours at a time. There was always someone telling us what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, and it was made clear that we had no say in the matter. After all, armies rely on their members being disciplined and working as a coherent unit, and these drills and exercises were meant to equip us with the physical and mental tenacity to endure the challenges that lay ahead.

Our superiors were merciless. Though they addressed us as “sir” because we were officers in training – known as Officer Cadets – they made it clear that they thought we were soft mummy’s boys who they intended to break if pushed hard enough. As one Sergeant Major was fond of reminding us: “If you’re looking for sympathy you’ll find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis … sir!”

After I graduated from Sandhurst as a Second Lieutenant in 1988 I spent four years in the Light Infantry Regiment. During that time I had postings in Kenya, Germany, Jordan, Norway and Cyprus, and for a period I took command of an Army Youth Team in County Durham, northeast of England. My team and I went around to schools and introduced the youth to the military by taking them on outward bound activities like rock-climbing and abseiling, and conducting obstacle courses and initiative tests.

But even as I was immersed in military life the civilian in me yearned to connect with people in a way that went beyond giving and receiving orders or following instructions. I took every opportunity I could to get to know the people in the various countries where I was posted. For instance, when my battalion was based in Paderborn in northern Germany I undertook to make the most of my months there. Before leaving I attended a basic German course and, armed with a German dictionary, I resolved to explore my new home and its people. I had ample opportunity to beef up my vocabulary shortly after I arrived as I was assigned duty in a Land Rover for 10 days, most of the time stationary in the woods. In the weeks and months that followed I realised that learning a language (or anything, for that matter) is not particularly difficult if you really want to do it, and that most people appreciate the effort you make even if the result you achieve is not entirely perfect.

I went beyond the stereotypical behaviour of English personnel posted in Germany, who were often unpopular with the locals, as they made no effort with the people or the language. They either stayed within the garrison walls or caused trouble in local bars. As a result of my efforts I had an amazing time in Germany, made even more remarkable by the historic event that took place while I was there – the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of West and East Germany.

But by 1992 I was growing restless. The seed that had been planted by my bicycle trip to visit Katie in Scotland had developed into an obsession, with the idea I had when flying over Africa in 1986 of a transcontinental cycle trip. I subsequently left the army and in March 1993 I began my cycle through Africa with my then girlfriend, Jo.

We flew to Cape Town and cycled back over 14 months, covering 13 000 kilometres and visiting 21 countries. We had done some basic preparation before we left, but for the rest we figured we would make a plan and solve any problems as they arose. After all, there was only so much we could take with us.

Of course we encountered some major challenges along the way, not only because of the magnitude of the undertaking, but also because we were two young white folk travelling through Africa during a period of political and social instability in many countries on the continent. There was always talk of conflict, though we never witnessed any. The closest we came to conflict was in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Jo and I were confronted by about a dozen militia angling for money and cigarettes. They reeked of alcohol, and the aggression in their gestures suggested they could easily become violent. We managed to diffuse the tension with banter, and mercifully we were allowed to continue on our journey.

Two weeks after our arrival in South Africa the struggle hero and South African Communist Party leader, Chris Hani, was shot and killed by ultra-right winger, Janusz Waluś. Farmers we encountered warned us of an impending civil war, and we could certainly sense volatility in the air wherever we went. Interestingly, though, we experienced much warmth and friendliness from people we met along the way – the so-called terrorists! I learned that what you hear, versus what you experience, are very different things.

The bulk of our challenges were confined to tyre punctures, the settling of bribes by officials, and the scourge of malaria, which I succumbed to three times.

People were incredibly generous, and we were invited into their homes and to their dinner tables on many occasions, even when what they had to offer was meagre by Western standards. Ironically the gourmet meals we ate tended to come from other travellers, the ones who were travelling in much grander style in Land Rovers laden with all manner of provisions.

Other than the single incident in Zaire, at no other point during the months we cycled through Africa did Jo and I feel that our lives were in danger. We went there with good intentions, curiosity and respect for other people’s way of life, and in turn we were welcomed and respected.

It’s a cheesy saying but it’s true: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Once again I was reminded that great adventures only happen when we actually get up and undertake them. In this case, our great adventure happened one revolution of our bicycle wheels at a time, taking us on a remarkable journey through a diverse and majestic continent.

Looking back I see that all these adventures – Africa, Sandhurst, India, Lady Katie – were the boot camp for my life’s work: to inspire courage by connecting with people from all walks of life. They taught me that nothing is ever accomplished without action, that people’s fears, concerns and aspirations are fundamentally the same, and that we can achieve great things in life if we dare to step beyond what we fear.

But as much as the adventures of my life equipped me with the skills to undertake life-changing projects, it was what I learned over the course of a weekend that helped me to develop the mission for my work. A friend had invited me to an introductory evening of the Landmark Forum and, excited by what the programme promised, I immediately signed up.

The Landmark Forum is a transformational personal development programme whose fundamental premise is that we can create new possibilities when we learn to put the past in the past and act with authenticity. I was profoundly impacted by what I discovered that weekend. In particular, I learned there is a critical difference between the facts and our interpretation of the facts, the importance of identifying and casting off baggage, making choices, powerful completion of “incomplete” past events, integrity (honouring one’s word) and a host of other distinctions that continue to positively impact my life.

Most importantly, the programme enabled me to see that returning to and making a difference in South Africa could be more than a long-cherished dream. Nothing was stopping me from realising the dream except my own fears – about being too white, too loud, not clever enough, not suitably qualified … at the time there seemed to be a ton of obstacles in my way.

With these new distinctions I set about turning the dream into reality and I began to put the plans into place for my return to South Africa. It was in this frame of mind that I boarded that bus in Brixton and with that fire in my belly that I found the courage to stand up and speak to my fellow passengers. I moved to Cape Town in January 2001 to begin the life I had envisaged. I planned to ignite conversation in every corner of the country, to unite South Africans of all races around the idea of peace that I saw so clearly in my mind. I was so excited about transforming South Africa I was certain that Nelson Mandela himself would be there to meet me at the airport.

Of course, big dreams take time to realise. Setting up my life in Cape Town took longer than I had expected, and my efforts to unite people around a common purpose proved more difficult than I had anticipated. At times I felt so discouraged I was tempted to abandon my quest.

Why were people so reluctant to connect? What would it take to break down the barriers that were continuing to separate people along racial lines and social classes? What could I do to cause the change I envisaged?

Like a flash of lightning I realised that fear was calling the shots, both in my life and in the lives of those I wanted to impact. It was threatening to scupper my plans and – more importantly – to deny me the opportunity to contribute to a country I had grown to love. I couldn’t allow fear to get in the way of my dream after all it had taken to come so close to achieving it. It was time to put fear in its place and step up to the call to courage.

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