I must have been about 15 or 16 years old when, suddenly, my mission in life presented itself. Or so I thought.
A documentary on television portrayed the lives of three media correspondents. It was in the early 1980s, and places like Lebanon and Latin America were going through intense transformations and struggles. As I watched how these three merged their lives with their environments, I became fascinated by their lifestyles. Somehow they managed to combine the creativity of storytelling with the purposiveness of hunters searching for those magical ungraspables: Truth, Justice, Fairness, Honesty.
These people (I forgot their genders, their ages, their nationalities and other identifying labels—it was 35 years ago) were witnesses to history. They were—through the simple act of witnessing and reporting—also influencing history. They were part and parcel of their worlds: they lived where the story unfolded, they ate the local foods, drank the local drinks and slept under the same stars.
The documentary that evening provided me with my daystar. I had to become a correspondent. Every decision I took from that moment onwards was targeted towards the realization of my dream. My studies, the volunteering I did, the internships I sought out: they were all building blocks on my path to becoming a correspondent. My dreams were far from modest, and unhindered by realism. First I’d report on places no reputable journalist would visit. Then a post in a country on the fringes of the news. Next the capital of a better-known regional player. After that: a position in a capital of a powerhouse. And finally: editor-in-chief of a quality paper. Of course.
Looking back now I laugh at the audacity. What was I thinking?
Ends of the Earth
My first assignment “from the field” took me to Timbuktu, to report on a peace festival in the desert. Fifteen years had passed since I had watched that documentary. One year later I landed at the airport of Nairobi (Kenya) with two suitcases of belongings, and contracts for print media in Europe. I had made it.
For the next couple of years, I traveled throughout Africa, reporting on the good, the bad, and the ugly. I penned stories, laughed out loud, and wept tears of sorrow. I climbed mountains, hiked endless plains, and scuba-dived the reefs of East Africa. The more I encountered the incredible diversity of life on this continent, the less interested I became in the pathway I had projected for myself towards editorial glory.
One topic in particular, had drawn my attention, while confronted with the scourges of sexual and domestic violence as well as HIV/AIDS. “What makes a man resort to violence? What brings a man to rape, or to unsafe sex?” Those questions, and others, crystallized in one that superseded the others: “What does it mean to be a man, today?”
Like elsewhere on the globe, cultures in Africa too are changing rapidly, and drastically. The old African adage “I am because you are, you are because I am” is no longer as convincing as it once was. Values that used to guide behavior in olden days seem to have been overtaken by the quick pursuit of material well-being, often at the expense of others and of nature. Where for eons the power of the collective and its well-being reigned, now individualism had taken possession of hearts and minds of people.
I wanted to better understand how these changes affected men, their hearts, and minds, their thoughts and behaviors. In the course of nearly ten years, while roaming the continent for my newspapers, I added that one question to my notebook: “What does it mean to be a man, today?” And as I spoke to hundreds of men from all walks of life I slowly realized that my true passion lay here, in these kinds of conversations. Conversations to be had under a tree, on a verandah, in a bar, on a mountain top: man to man, soul to soul. I wrote a book, Spots of a leopard—on being a man, and once it was published I fell into a dark space. By writing it I had touched on issues that moved me, inspired me, challenged me. Without this theme to work on and with, I would be a newspaper journalist again. My daystar had lost all its appeal. I found myself stuck in an identity and purpose I no longer wanted.
One might think that publishing a book delivers a burst of joy, pride of achievement, a sense of unshackling from a theme. But it didn’t. On the contrary.
You see, journalism isn’t just a job. It’s a lifestyle. It becomes an identity, like so many other jobs tend to do to adults. That perennial question at parties, or while waiting at airports: “What do you do?” And the answer filling the respondent with pride and identity: “I am a journalist.” For many, that vocation equals adventurism, independence, critical questioning and so forth. And for as long as I was a journalist, I was proud of that label. I identified with it and embraced it wholeheartedly as the person I wanted to see in the mirror.
My book had made it crystal clear: I knew I could no longer be a journalist. But if I no longer was a journalist, then who was I? What was I? Could I possibly be anything else? Why—or so I wondered—am I so attached to this label? Can I replace my perception of self as the embodiment of a profession with something that actually encompasses the whole of me, and not simply the manner in which I earn my keep?
As I sat in the garden of a close friend in Cape Town, exploring a sense of emptiness, the image appeared of me wearing a filthy, smelly and stained coat. This was my mask, my persona. My being a journalist had become an overwhelming part of my identity. But it was no longer sufficient. It no longer nourished the needs arising from deep within. “Maybe it is time to take off the smelly and stained coat?” she suggested. In my mind’s eye, I tried to peel off the coat and noticed how it had merged with my skin. And shedding my skin felt very, very uncomfortable, and very, very painful. But I started—I had to peel, yank, fiddle and scratch the skin off. The mask had become a hindrance.
Peeling off the coat meant facing the world naked, and unprotected. No longer the man-with-a-profession, but the man himself. This especially felt very scary. Because: who is that man? Who am I, beyond and underneath my profession? Who am I, from deep within?
Growing a New Skin
It is now nearly eight years later. And despite the difficulties and pains of the process of metamorphosis I truly feel it has all been worth it. Since shedding my skin as a journalist I have re-trained as a psychologist. Nowadays I consciously strive to have a balanced professional life, trying my best to draw boundaries between the man I am, and the things I do for a living.
Journalism nowadays is a thing I do when there’s a desire to write, instead of a thing I am 24/7. But the journalism is only one among many other things I do to give depth to my life, together with cooking, cycling, caring for my dogs, loving my wife, reading, photographing, spending quality time with friends, and tending to my counseling practice.
I no longer have one profession only. I have several: I write and I photograph, I offer my counseling to clients and my consultations to those who seek it. I design websites and materials for print. I step in with research where that’s desired. All these vocations help me express the numerous aspects of my personality: my desire to be creative, or analytic. My desire to write, or to silently listen. To observe lines, shapes and shades. They have become tools of expression, as much as they are tools of generating income. But none defines me, anymore. They are things to do, instead of things to be.
Of course, there is much I miss about the days of full-time newspaper journalism. The rush of deadlines, for example, or the excitement of being an immediate witness to history. Or the privilege to ask complete strangers about their lives, their opinions, their experiences.
And there are days on which I long for that daystar, that shone so brightly for a quarter of a century, lighting the career path I had decided to march. That star provided clarity and purpose, and it was a symbol of a certain type of simplicity: the conviction so typical of teenage boys and young adult males that only perseverance is needed to realize one’s dreams of the future. Nowadays that conviction no longer reigns. There is no daystar anymore. Sure, life is more complex without it, but it is so much richer too.
Instead of marching towards a destination, I’m learning to dance on the rhythms of life and reality. I’m learning to check in with the deeper needs of my being, and adjust my course accordingly. It is scary sometimes to no longer have a clear-cut destination and, in its place, to make life up as it happens. To dance and no longer to march.
I’m still growing a new skin. One that stretches and adjusts, that can get scratched and ripped. One that can be taken off and washed, without it feeling as if life-as-I-know-it has ended. On the contrary: a skin that can adjust to the man within.
Ever changing, ever maturing. Ever dancing. Ever ripening.
Photo: Getty Images