We are in this together. That is Gavin Hartford, the narrator of this story and my life partner Lou Almon, an artist. It feels oddly like we have always been in this together. Like we were destined to be here at the start of our journey. Because for more than four decades we have journeyed through the hills and valleys of each chapter of our lives together, shoulder to shoulder, sinking into troughs and summiting obstacles, pushing the boundaries of who we are and what we want to be. It feels like this journey is just another chapter in the long walk of life, with its own valleys and peaks yet to be discovered. With Lou by my side, everything feels possible.
That’s how I like to think about this journey across Africa. Just another life chapter with Lou. Something we won’t regret. I try not to think too hard about destinations. It’s only the journey that truly counts. There is a big picture of us winding our way up Africa to north before turning south. That big picture hovers in a deep and almost forbidden part of my consciousness. Because I don’t really want to own the big picture as some kind of burden to terrorise me. It’s just a nice dream. A dream to be realised as we go, perhaps. Or not at all. For now, I like to just think in bite-sized chunks. So I think about an off-road drive up the Lebombo off road trail on eastern borders of Kruger and heading north into the Zimbabwe highlands from there. One step at a time. Believing that it is the road, the people we encounter on the road, the places we see and the places we decide we want to see, that will drive our actual destiny. Step by step. Plotting the route bit by bit as we go.
This journey comes when we are both in our early sixties and tapering off from the intensity of everyday work life. It comes at the end of a lifetime of work first as an activist against apartheid and then as a change agent in the post-democratic South Africa. Work that began in earnest in the seventies when I first became conscious of the symbiotic fusion of SA’s statutory racism and class exploitation in the aftermath of the June 76 youth rebellion when I was just nineteen years old. At that time I was falling in love with Lou in my heart and studying industrial sociology with a hungry, fertile mind. A mind that was searching for something rational to explain and give meaning to the racial oppression, the poverty and inequality of the world around me. Not any meaning. But meaning with a home that could inspire and fuel and give purpose to my instinctive sense of rebellion that has always inhabited me.
I found that home in the warm heart of the anti-apartheid movement where I worked as an activist and trade unionist for many years. After SA’s transition to democracy, that change work evolved into mediating labour conflicts and designing employee and community ownership solutions for the poor. In its essence I have always been inspired by the need to seek ways to resolve social conflicts in ways that grow and share the wealth of our country more than before. Through this work I have sought to give some small meaning to the ubuntu philosophy espoused by Mandela. An ubuntu philosophy which teaches that we are who we are through others – that it’s through our service to others that we give meaning to our lives and to our human essence. Throughout this journey of mine, Lou has built her career as an artist, raising our two kids into adults in the process, and feeding and caring for us beyond all calling. She is the unseen hand of the ubuntu spirit in our family and our community, living its ethos and radiating its energy tirelessly every day. Through the decades she has stood alongside me as my rock, my anchor, my best friend and mother of our children.
In our hearts I believe we are still these people – the people of ubuntu. We want to go slow amongst the people. Listen and feel the heartbeat of the people of our continent. Find our place in the villages and markets. Learn how the people hold one another and toil against poverty and the winds of the climate crisis. We want to share and learn. Grow our knowledge of Africa’s people and their survival solutions across the biomes of the continent. With Lou by my side sketching, painting and photographing the people and places we go, navigating the tracks and highways. And me recording, talking, listening and writing as we go. Trying to dig behind the obvious. Seeking to understand the inner patterns of struggle for survival of the continents people, its land and its last remaining natural resources and wild places. An immersion into life itself, into the cauldron of that explosive interdependence of the natural and social world. All the time following the road less travelled. Listening to its songlines. Discovering and sharing my story with you, the reader, as we go.