It’s UN International Day of Happiness

March 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

FACT: More girls have been killed in the past 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century.
Shocking, ey? Today is UN International Day of Happiness and I am so serious about it that I made an embarrassing selfeo (selfie + video, get it?). It doesn’t contain unicorns or dancing – though there is some glitter. Obviously.

When the optimist fights back

January 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

Sometimes the best form of attack is to dance to a happy song. With a feather duster, naturally.

Confessions of an optimist

December 31, 2013 § 2 Comments

I am an optimist. Always have been. At one point I used to label my condition as ‘terminal optimism’. It’s not that I was suggesting a positive outlook would kill me, simply that I was committed to being optimistic until the day I died.

And then 2013 arrived. And what a load of kak it brought!

Seriously, I’m the poster girl for the glass half full ‘tude, but 2013 has really pushed it. And November? Well, it’s hands down winner of the ‘month of the year’ award for sheer volume of kakness delivered.

I would love to say my position is based on a broad world view that encompasses typhoons, civil wars, global hunger and the like, but I’m afraid that mostly my whining is all about things that have happened to me, my family and my friends. To be honest, mostly me. There have been unexpected deaths, challenging health situations, frustrating career flat-lines and painful relationship traumas. And while I know that my problems are mere trifles in comparison to so many – in fact I feel almost blessed if this is what constitutes a bad year for me –  still, they are mine, and I end this year feeling somewhat battered.

I know – cue tiny violin, right?

Fortunately it is not the way of the optimist to be beaten and quite frankly, as much as I have a tendency to wallow, I find negativity rather more exhausting than it is worth. And since no doubt millions of new year’s resolutions will take inspiration from the late Tata Madiba, it seems appropriate to remember his words: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

In fact, if I were feeling generous I suppose 2013’s kak should be thanked for teaching me some valuable lessons about who I want to be when I grow up and reminding me what is really important in life. It’s made me cherish true friends, value supportive family, count my many, many blessings and think about practical changes I need to effect in 2014 to make it a happier, healthier more productive year. And so, with a nod to The Happiness Project, here are my twelve commandments for the new year:

  1. Be Jen
  2. Be honest – not least with myself.
  3. Make time for the people who make time for me.
  4. Make time count – and yes, that means less Facebook (it kills productivity and turns relationships lazy)
  5. Do more of what I love, and love more of what I do.
  6. Read more.
  7. Write less – for the wrong reasons and to the wrong people, that is.
  8. Cultivate energy – respect my body and Go. To. Bed. Earlier!
  9. Be brave.
  10. Practice decisiveness.
  11. Let it be.
  12. Live in the present.

A bit of a haphazard list, but there you have it. I am thinking I might need to appoint a quarterly review board to help keep me on track. A sort of personal performance review. After all, that’s where bonuses come from 😉

Whatever your ambitions for 2014, however big or small, I hope the universe keeps you safe and helps you to achieve them. Love big and live well – Happy New Year!

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Small things that matter

September 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

Stop phubbing, start talking.

Stop phubbing, start talking.

I admit, I can be a bit of a wimp, but I reckon only the exceptionally stoic amongst us would have watched the recent coverage of the terror attack in Kenya without flinching. Me, I had to fight back tears on more than one occasion and you know what, I’m okay with that, because this sort of thing should upset us.

Now it’s not that I want us to be upset, of course not, but I for one don’t think I will ever comprehend how people can be so cruel to each other. What drives teenagers to gun down innocent people in a shopping centre, a mother to starve her vulnerable four year old son to death, and gangs of men to commit violent sexual offences? Clearly in some cases one could argue religion and politics but even then, I just don’t get it. How can any good come from inflicting pain and suffering?

I think in part the problem is that in a hyper-connected, increasingly virtual, world, we have forgotten how to connect with each other as people. We walk around with our heads U-turned into smartphones so that we can tweet, email, and Facebook. We watch reality TV and play life-like video games. We use hashtags for emphasis and emoticons for sentiment, and when we visit a new country, we spend so much time behind a camera lens Instagramming our dinner and applying filters to our photos of the locals, that we forget to experience the moments and the people in them. We see stuff on the news, lots of stuff, from all over the world, so much stuff that looks a bit like reality TV and a bit like video games and a bit like Instagram that it all sort of blends into a big hazy mass of stuff…stuff that’s real, but not so much to me. Until someone gets the balance wrong and forgets that it’s the school fair that’s real, not the weapons of mass destruction.

I appreciate that I am simplifying a very complex problem, and without a beauty queen crown on my head I feel ill-equipped to offer any real advice on securing world peace, but I do think that reconnecting with people and with community has to be a good starting point in the reclamation of humanity. It may be ‘easy’ to fire a gun at the anonymous, but surely not quite as easy if you’ve celebrated a shared football team’s win at your local pub with Mr Anonymous? And certainly child abuse can’t be quite as easy to get away with when people feel empowered by a sense of community to ask questions when in a first-world city, a four-year old is seen scavenging through a bin?

As I say, world peace is not entirely within my gift, but connecting with the people in my community is. It’s why over the past few weeks I have made one very small but very conscious change to my daily routine;  I have made it a rule to always smile, greet and make eye contact with bus drivers. My logic is simple: we’re all human, we all want to be noticed. A smile and a moment of eye contact may not seem like much, but they say something important. They say “I see you, you’re real and you matter.” And once you have that, you chip away at anonymity, reinstate humanity and open up the possibility of community.

It’s a small thing, but then maybe it’s the small things that matter.

Steal our rooibos? The ‘Gaul’ of it!

July 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

The real shape of rooibos.

The real shape of rooibos.

In a case of please don’t pardon the French, the South African Rooibos Council (SARC)  – with only four days notice – had until last Wednesday, 24 July, to prevent yet another French company from trying to lay claim to the name ‘rooibos’. According to SARC co-ordinator Soekie Snyman, until such time as rooibos is recognised as a protected geographic indication – as with Darjeeling tea, Basmati rice and, ahem, Champagne  – the industry body has to keep applying to block companies from registering the name as a trademark.

Rooibos which, though strictly speaking not a tea is – I would argue –  even more strictly speaking, ours, considering it is traditionally grown in the Cederberg region two hours north of Cape Town.  South Africa began exporting rooibos in 1904 and the industry now keeps around 4,500 people in jobs and sends 70%  of its output to European Union states.

Given that this is the second time in less than a year that a French company has tried to nick rooibos, and just eight years since a US attempt to do the same resulted in an out-of-court settlement, one wonders why it’s taken so long for the South African government to wake up and smell the tea and protect one of our most recognisable brands.

But wake up they eventually have and earlier this month the South African trade ministry proposed regulations to protect rooibos under the Merchandise Marks Act, stating: “The name rooibos can only be used to refer to the dry product, infusion or extract that is 100% pure rooibos – derived fromAspalathus linearis and that has been cultivated or wild-harvested in the geographic area as described in this application.”

Take THAT you champagne quaffing hypocrites!

This is obviously good news for SARC which, while not wanting to prevent rooibos-related trademarks around the world, wants the same level of exclusivity bestowed on France’s sparkling wine (yes, that is a dig) to fall on South Africa and our, very much homegrown,rooibos. But whether it comes in time to save rooibos from the French remains to be seen.

Fortunately, I have an idea. A big, blue cock(amamy) idea.

You see Wednesday 24 July was not only the deadline for saving our red bush, it was the day a big blue cock came to roost on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Though German artist Katharina swears her motivation was more phallic than Gallic –  “It’s about male posing, about showing power, about showing … erections! I mean, look at that column!” – one can’t help but laugh at the irony of a 4.7 metre tall blue rooster  (the national symbol of France) right beside a monument to commemorate Britain’s victory over the French.  No wonder Nelson’s back is turned!

So I say, let’s have the South African government give the French the bird. Our esteemed politicians are so good at passing gold amongst friends, you see, and heaven knows they’ve done far more bird-brained things in the past, so I can’t see that anyone would bat an eyelid if they were to present the French with a golden egg. A big one. An egg designed to fit snuggly under the blue rooster. And blast out La Marseillaise. At British tea-time. In eggschange, of course, we would require our rooibos.

I can only see one flaw in my plan which is  the potential outcry from the  homophobic French public over suggestions that their beloved cockerel, by virtue of apparent egg-laying, is gay. But hey, that’s not our problem. Let the French and the English discuss that over tea. Rooibos tea.

**This post also appears under my column for The South African.**

My Mandela

June 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

In 2004 when plans to erect Ian Walters’ bronze statue of iconic South African statesman Nelson Mandela on the north side of Trafalgar Square in London were publicised*, I recall feeling petulantly annoyed. Who were the Brits, I sulked, to lay claim to MY Madiba from MY South Africa. Sure, I wanted the world to recognise this man who, not single-handedly but with a singular spirit, changed the trajectory of my home country, but there is honouring and then there is nicking. At the time, this felt like nicking.

This week, as Madiba lies ‘critically ill’ – I prefer to recognise it as age, not illness  – in a Pretoria hospital,  there can be no hiding from the fact that this deified, but ultimately human, man is rapidly approaching the end of his time on this earth. As much as his passing is something  South Africans in particular have dreaded, it is a fact that we – and the world – have generally come to accept. I am ashamed to say that I refer to the world with a degree of reluctance because once again, I can’t help but feel a child-like jealousy at the thought that when the inevitable happens, people for whom Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela will never be more real than a statue, or a poster, or the cover of a magazine, will mourn loudly and publicly.

But then what is real, and who owns Mandela anyway?

For me, the tears that have surprised me over my bowl of cornflakes as I watch breakfast TV updates on his condition, are very real indeed. They stem from a love of my country but also from a very personal experience of meeting Mr Mandela in 1999. I was a 21 year old student in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. Mr Mandela came to town to officially open the National Arts Festival and I covered the story for the student-run festival television station. Desperate to meet the man, my friend Ilda and I appealed to various bodyguards and then pleaded with his personal assistant, Zelda, to allow us ‘an audience’.

The day he became MY Madiba. (yes, I know I don't look like me...)

The day he became MY Madiba. (yes, I know I don’t look like me…)

My overwhelming memory of that meeting is of the feeling of Madiba’s hands. Surrounded by photographers, he singled Ilda and I out claiming that he wanted a photograph with us. Before hugging us both to him, he took my hands in his and I vividly recall thinking how very much like my grandfather’s hands they felt. The same warmth, the same gentle enveloping. From that moment on, Nelson Mandela wasn’t just an anti-apartheid hero, a former president, or a Nobel prize winner, he was someone whose hands I had held. He was MY Mandela.

But I concede this is an experience that has most likely – and wonderfully – been replicated in thousands of ways in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, around the world. I may have held his hands, but who am I to say this makes Nelson Mandela any more mine than the musician in Birmingham who recorded a protest song calling for his freedom, or the charity worker in San Francisco who follows a path based on his legacy?

Though admittedly no saint, in many ways beyond my knowledge and experience, MY Madiba has touched the lives of people across the world. I don’t own him any more than anyone else does, and certainly no more than his family, his friends and indeed, he himself. Ultimately Nelson Mandela is, as are we all, his own person, he just happens to have positively influenced more people than most which makes us feel like he is OURS. Like he is real to each of us. This is why it has pained us over recent weeks  to see his privacy and dignity compromised by bumbling politicians and vulturistic media, but also wonderfully why when he does leave us, ours will not be the state-sponsored mourning of the North Korea variety, it will be real.

Who is your Madiba?  Share your reflections in the comment box.

* The statue was finally erected in Parliament Square in 2007 after a 5 year debate over its location. And for the record, I am no longer sulking about it!

Why I run

April 19, 2013 § 4 Comments

Meep!

Meep!

Remember that movie ‘What women want”? The one with Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt? Remember the ad campaign that Helen supposedly came up with for Nike? Well, when I think about running, that’s the campaign I think about. The one that works for me. The line was simply: ‘No games, just sports’.

I don’t remember when I started running, or even why. Quite frankly, I can’t quite work out how I’ve gone from being someone who once baulked at the thought of a 5km fun run, to someone with a drawer full – quite literally – to bursting with technical running gear about to take on one of the world’s most prestigious marathons: ‘London’, as it’s known to the running community. Or even just ‘the marathon’ if you’re a Londoner.

But here I am, the night before the night before, my body an ode to the carb, wondering why exactly I run. Especially since I still do not consider myself to be ‘a runner’.

I don’t run because I particularly enjoy it. Early starts, freezing races, red face, aching muscles – seriously?!

I don’t run for the social life. Apart from race days, I tackle running solo

I don’t run because I’m good at it. Sure, I have serviceable pins that get me around a course, but I’m no athlete. I have no special aptitude for either speed or endurance. Which is why I…

…don’t run to win.

So then, why run?

I run to remind myself what a marvel the human body is  – and what it is capable of. Even mine.

I run to feel part of the human race, not the rat race.

I run to have something to work towards – and something to achieve.

And I run because there are no games, just sports. Running is the one activity that allows my mind a break; that focuses my brain on the present. When I run I can’t over-analyse or worry or scheme. My thoughts are limited to ‘ooh look, what a cute puppy, or ‘eek, mind that puddle’ or ‘just to that next tree’.

In part I run also because I’ve been ambushed. It’s a crafty little critter, the running bug. It sneaks up on you and wham! Before you know it, you’re a runner, addicted to the endorphin rush! I have been very vocal about the fact that not only will this be my first and last marathon, but once it’s done, I expect to pack my running gear away for a long, long time. Yet just yesterday I started thinking about the next race. You see, crafty I tell you!

So come Sunday morning, despite injury and illness, I will be making my way, nervously, to Blackheath to line up for the start of the Virgin London Marathon 2013. I honestly have no idea whether I will make the distance – which I guess is part of the attraction – but I do know that I’ll be running to be part of the human race, to marvel at the human body, to focus my mind on the present and to achieve something. I’ll also be running for charity, for my family and friends and also, quite compellingly, because a five year old girl expects me to show her my medal and I don’t want her to make the ‘L’ sign on her forehead if I cop out!

Wish me luck!

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