Posted on June 26, 2016
This girl. This young woman. Nearly twenty seven years later, I can look at her now with such love.
She didn’t love herself, not back then. She didn’t know how. All she knew was that she wanted happiness, and she believed what she’d been taught. That love and happiness would come in the form of a traditional marriage, preferably with a son and a daughter, in that order. Along with a cat and a dog. And this was before the days of minivan decals in those shapes.
If she could be a good wife, a good mother, she’d live happily ever after. so she crammed down her real dreams – of living wild, living free, living within a tribe, on wide open land that smells of mama earth herself. She forgot those visions, which came so early in life to her, she learned her lessons well. And she chose a good man, one who she believed she loved, and was quite sure would be able to love her.
It was a really good plan. And if things had gone according to all that she’d been taught by the world around her, it would have worked. She certainly tried. He did too. They had a much wished for child, had the dogs, gave up on the cats so as to avoid allergies.
It wasn’t bad, and often it was good. She did her best to follow the rules, even as her body protested with illness and injury and imbalance. She took her medicine and tried harder. She took in all that she, he, the world believed was wrong with her and she tried some more.
Until one day, she couldn’t anymore. She stopped trying so hard, stopped putting the whole world ahead of her heart. Stopped wearing the masks, and eventually the makeup. Over the years, she made room for peace within.
And her heart began to speak to her. In her dreams, mostly, and she began to remember who she was. How good she was, despite all the criticism she’d heard. And in time, she found her way home.
She found that place that held the smells she recognized from eons before. She remembered that she belonged there, where she could be free. And wild. And home with those who had always known her, and had seen her in their dreams. Had called her back and lit the way through the brilliance of their hearts.
Once she found all that, there was nowhere else to be. So she took a series of leaps, big ones. Even though those leaps – that she herself – tore asunder all that she’d been told God had brought together. Though she could feel God smiling on all this too, feeding her dreams that helped her find her way.
Somewhere along the line, the light came back into her eyes, helping her see so clearly that she could not deny herself, the place, the people. She loved herself enough to go, finally understanding that all she had walked through was all for this.
This girl. This young woman. She is older, wiser, has more lines on her face. And she’s where she belongs.
This will be the last post in this site. It won’t disappear, it will stand as a testament to the journey, at least for now. In time, you’ll find me at www.christakhulula.com. And until then, at www.silethokuhlefoundation.org – doing what I came home for.
With gratitude for everyone and everything along the way,
Posted on June 18, 2016
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Posted on June 17, 2016
There’s something about being on the other side of the world that gives me pause when I think about commenting on all that’s happened in America recently. While I love my new home here in rural South Africa beyond reason, there’s part of my heart which will always remain enmeshed with the ground of the country I spent half my life in, and the miles between those I love there only adds to the heartache I feel, watching the painful events unfold, one after another after another. And yet, I think living here in Zululand has given me a perspective which only adds to my long held beliefs, to what I have always known in my heart, so it’s likely time to try to weave some words around all of this.
It seems that, for a few years now in the US, the media and those of us who are adept at social media have been shining a light on the horrific events unfolding around brutality based on race. On religion. On sexual orientation. And these happenings seem to follow each other awfully quickly – almost like the machine gun fire so often used to annihilate those in question. It’s hard to comprehend, for most of us, hard to look at. Though we must. We have to, if we want it to end within our lifetimes – and I think most of us fervently hope that it will.
Here’s what I see as the bottom line on all of this – we are scared to death of anything different than us. Yes, there are historical stories, both personal and broad, which tell us that “those people” are dangerous, are out to get us, will only bring difficult times. And those stories are just that, stories. We, in our hearts, know better. We do.
I learned this in a profound and difficult way, personally. Though I’d been raised by extremely bigoted parents in the early 60’s, when that was more the norm, full of so much fear that suspicion levels were always on high alert, I’d always been drawn to people who lived who they were, aside from all the expectations. Provincetown, a vibrant and funky fishing/art town down the Cape from where I grew up, provided a lot of color, both literal and figurative – though I was made to wash my hands when I returned from “that place”. As if that could remove what I’d seen – the gay couples holding hands, the Portuguese and black people laughing and dancing, the outrageous artists painting buildings, boats, each other. Hand washing couldn’t and didn’t take any of those images away and in part, I’m sure they led me to the less puritanical life I live now.
Apparently I needed more, though. I needed to see a graphic depiction of what I knew instinctively. I need to see, in full color and smells and textures, that we are all the same. And so, when I was still quite young and riding shotgun in an ambulance, thinking that I’d like to be an EMT, it happened.
It was a dark and stormy night, literally. A hot and steamy one, and the smell of fresh asphalt was coming off the road as we arrived at the scene. The road was at that stage where it was very rough, still waiting for the final smooth coat, something that likely led to the accident, as one side was higher than the other. There were three cars – later, we learned that one held a group of four sisters, African American in the verbiage of the day, another a group of what they labeled as Hispanic men – fisherman either coming back or heading out in the early hours of the morning – and then four Caucasian college boys who had been drinking all night. I’ll let you guess which vehicle likely caused the accident.
The scene was a mess, a bloodbath. Two of the cars were upside down, one smashed into an accordion shape, front and back. The impact was such that people – and bodies left after their souls departed – were thrown quite a distance. There were a couple limbs lying about, two heads were wide open. Given the heat, no one was wearing much clothing, several of the guys had been bare chested. And given the roughness of the new layer of asphalt, much of the skin had been abraded to the point that the muscles lay uncovered.
And that’s all, after some trauma work, I see now. The bodies without skin. The gory yet beautiful composition of bone and sinew and muscle, all that lies underneath the skin. Where there had been variations of light, medium and dark skin tones, there was blood and dirt and nothing covering the basic structure of most of the people lying there that night.
Without all the skin, it was impossible to tell what race they were. Without skin, I couldn’t say that one was that different than the other – size and shape, perhaps, but nothing “racial” remained to identify them as like me or like them or those people. Those seemingly innocuous terms that cause so much hurt, and lead to all manner of “othering”.
And were those souls gay or straight, married or single, good or bad? Who knows. I didn’t care then, I don’t care now. They were human beings, people who loved and were loved, creatures of whatever god they believed in. They were here, and then some of them were gone. Others stayed, undoubtedly as marked by that early morning accident as I am.
I’m grateful to them all still, hard as it was to see at that young age, at any age. And as a tribute to them and to whatever forces needed me to see this in order to fully open my heart and shape who I am, I’ve spent my life trying to help others see this pure truth:
We are. We are incredibly beautiful and immensely flawed, as all humans were designed to be. And part of our gig here on earth is that we are colorful on the outside and to varying degrees, on the inside. We believe in what we know, and we love who we love. We just are.
My hope is that one day we’ll allow ourselves to be exactly who we are, and extend the same privilege to every single one of our fellow beings. And that rather than rape and shoot and harass and imprison and punish each other, we’ll learn to care for the hearts of others, for our own hearts with respect, with care, with compassion for every soul brave enough to live their life.
Together, as our fully expressed selves, we weave a tapestry of light, of love, in full color. There could not be anything more beautiful than if we allowed every being their own unique thread.
Because we are meant to be here. Every single one of us.
Posted on May 22, 2016
In Zulu, silethokuhle. In English, we bring the good.
This is what we’ve chosen to call the fledgling foundation I’ve founded here in the community of Ngwenya, located in KwaZulu-Natal, the traditionally Zulu area in the northeast of this beautiful country of South Africa. And it’s not that the foundation’s staff and I are bringing the good, or those who donate, or those who come to volunteer – it’s the community too. We all, as human beings, get to choose what we bring to the world, and this foundation is for all those who choose to bring good to all they do.
Ngwenya is a breathtakingly beautiful place in the Lebombo mountains and at the same time, is economically extremely poor and very rural. Much of the community does not have running water or electricity and has not received much in the way of aid. It’s also my neighbor – I can see the rondavels and houses from near my own home further down the range, and it’s a place full of bright, kind, engaging people who I very much enjoy spending time with . The Zulu culture is alive and well, in many ways, and part of the mission of the foundation is to help preserve that while also providing skills which will help children and adults succeed in the Western world, too. It’s rich in natural resources, as well, and the community only needs to understand more about conservation in order to care for the land in a way which will allow it to sustain this extraordinary place for generations to come.
Officially, the mission of the Silethokuhle Foundation is to support culture, conservation and compassionate education in the community of Ngwenya. We believe that great things are possible in and for the community, and in supporting the preservation of the culture, the growth of the people and the conservation of natural and historic resources, we hope to develop, in the spirit of ubuntu, trust and cooperation with the surrounding communities and the greater world.
To begin with, we’ve chosen to reopen a preschool called Lindokuthle, which means “we wait for the good”. No such thing as coincidence, eh? The building was built by the municipality and then closed several months ago because there were not enough families able to pay the R45 fee – that’s about US $3.75 – per month in order to pay the teacher’s salary. My thinking is that if that’s the case, they really need the preschool! And so it will reopen on July 6 with 24 children enrolled from three to five years of age. The building itself is in great shape, and we’ll add a kitchen so that we can provide the children with a good meal each day – key to their growth. We’ve found a wonderful teacher and lovely assistant from the surround area – we are clear that this is a Zulu school, not an American one and that our role is to support the teachers and parents in making it a place which serves their needs, rather than tell them what is needed. We held a parent’s meeting – which means a meeting for the entire community here! – and had a full house. The interest was high and the questions were excellent. The community has been incredibly welcoming to me, the foundation and now to the school – and the families were delighted by the idea of teaching English at this early age. (The standard curriculum in South African schools is taught in the tribal language for the first three grades and then in Grade Four, the children are immersed completely in English. Which sounds good but all the textbooks, in all subjects, are in fourth grade level English, so to say that they can be quite lost is an understatement. I can’ t imagine being directly immersed in that level of Zulu!) The families happily agreed to pay a lower fee and to volunteer one day a month at the school – whether that be painting on the weekend or helping serve tea to the children. I wish I could convey the happiness and delight in the classroom that day.
There’s much more to tell you and this blog may well become more about the foundation than about me until we get a web site up, so stay tuned! I’ve already begun teaching English to the 2nd and 3rd graders at the Bekhimkhonto Primary School which Lindokuhle will feed into, and will add the first grade as soon as I return from my upcoming trip to America. The kids have learned so much in just a month or so – it’s incredible to witness! We’ll provide learning circles for teens and adults very soon – in which we listen and learn and they ask questions and learn and we all end up smiling at each other with full hearts. A vocational training centre and a community centre with emphasis on cultural activities along with a shop are next on the agenda. There’s much to do here, not a dull moment, and yet it’s all unfolding with such ease and so much joy.
Many of you have asked how you can support us. There is a Facebook page – here and we’d love to have help with many things as we seem to be growing very quickly! The official registration of the foundation is happening in both South Africa and the US, but until that’s all done, the best way to donate is via PayPal. You can contact me for details – christa at christagallopoulos.com. I have heard from so many who would like to donate actual goods – books, etc. – which would be lovely except that shipping to this area is very iffy, and there are very pricey duties involved. A little money goes a long way – the tiny scissors are about $3.00, shoes are $7.50. If you’re in the Washington DC area, I’ll be selling my artwork the first week of June as a fundraiser, too.
And, of course, if you’d like to visit, just let me know. It’s an extraordinary place and as you’ve seen, has changed my life in so many ways. I love to share all that it offers with those who join us in the belief that far from needing to be “fixed”, South Africa has much to contribute to the world.
Your support, whether tangible or in pure spirit, means so much to me, to all of us here. Thanks for walking this path with me, with us. I hope you’ll enjoy the photos on Instagram and Facebook, as we continue to grow. I’ll look forward to introducing you soon to both Sanele Thwala and Michele Musselwhite, who form the rest of the three legged stool that is the foundation – and I know they join me in welcoming you to our endeavor.
Silethokuhle. We bring the good. I believe, as many of you do, that when we bring the best of ourselves to whatever we do, we heal the world. I’ve chosen, along with Sanele and Michele, to do it here. We hope you’ll walk with us as we do.
Siyabonga kakhulu. Thank you very much.
Posted on May 19, 2016
A year ago or so, I painted this picture. A series of them, actually. All low mountains, deep colors, lots of golden light.
And now I see this scene painted in front of me, full size, earth and sky, every day. Like Bert and Mary Poppins, I’ve somehow jumped into the middle of that canvas, and now I live here.
I drive past warthog, impala, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest on my way to the petrol station. Or into town. Every single morning. And more and more, I drive high on the ridge, bumping along and waving to the members of the community which is quickly becoming a place I feel incredibly at home.
I sit in traditional mud houses and babble at gogos in an odd mix of English, my baby Zulu and a whole lot of hand gestures and smiles. And funnily enough, we understand each other.
I listen a lot. To young men who want to improve their lives and those of their families, who know that they have a lot to offer but just don’t know how to offer it. To old men who hold the secrets to a brave and beautiful culture, afraid it may be forgotten and wanting to teach the young to both revere and preserve that treasure. To women who are bright and beautiful and so very strong, who ask for so little and give so much. To children, too – though mostly I watch their shiny eyes and huge smiles and shy offers of hands to hold.
And I speak. To whoever will listen, about how much good there is in this remote place, about what I see in them, about how much potential there is here. I speak English, and enough Zulu that they know I am trying, and we laugh a lot. We hope and we dream and they explain and I explain and then we sit back and are amazed at how very much we have in common. And how simple it is to see the best in each other, and to move forward from there.
More than anything, though, I wonder how I can possibly convey the magic of this place. How I can explain this feeling of being so full and so on fire and so at peace, all at once? At the joy of finding where I belong, quite some time after arriving on the planet, and that even that long wait was worth it for this. And the incredible connections with such extraordinary souls.
I am, above everything, grateful. And glad. And so very happy to be here.
(This, for my friends who have asked, is why I haven’t been posting much. Not because nothing is happening, but because everything is happening.)
Posted on March 22, 2016
Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.
When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.
– Shel Silverstein
I went out on game drive at Phinda the other evening for the last night drive of my visit along with two couples who’d arrived later in the week – and we all really wanted to see a leopard. I’ve been around long enough to know that desperately wanting something is likely not the way to bring it to you, yet we are human beings and while I’d seen and done all sorts of incredible things that week, it was the longest I”ve ever been there without seeing one. Our guide and tracker, JG and Bethuel, were pretty determined, too.
And yet, after searching for quite some time, we hadn’t seen one single track. So we did something different. We stopped the vehicle and sat still for what seemed like a very long time but was probably ten minutes or so. We got quiet and settled and we listened. And we heard her call, quite clearly, from not too far away. We also realized, in hearing the other vehicle searching for her, just how much noise we make in the bush- it’s a wonder we see anything at all!
Anyway, we followed that sound – one of my favorite sounds on earth – for quite awhile, carefully checking out the thicket with a spotlight. No dice. So rather than continue driving and searching as we normally might, we stopped again. Got still, got quiet, listened to the night sounds, watched the moon through the trees. And we heard her again, that wonderful huffing sound. Clear as a bell. Once again, we were off – this time it took a group effort to lift tree branches overhead in order to get to what we hoped might be the right spot. And it was close but still not right. We could sense that she was close, yet we still could not spot her.
So one more time, we waited and watched and listened in the dark. All of us focused on just this one thing: the listening. And it worked. Before we knew it and in what seemed no time though it had been over an hour, at least, there she was. Lying under a bush, deep in the thicket, gazing at us as if to say “I’ve been right here, just waiting for you.” She was gorgeous. Small and lean, with an exquisitely beautiful coat – eventually she walked out right towards us. We followed her for a little while, taking in the way she moved through the night, silent now in admiration and awe. It felt, as it always does, as if a gift had been bestowed on me – and my guess is that I wasn’t alone in feeling that. In time, we left her to look for her mate or cubs and find a peaceful place to rest. The whole vehicle was filled with happy hearts – and grateful for guides who had the capacity to do things differently, to take the time to let it all unfold. An awesome evening.
I’ve been thinking about that leopard, about that experience, a lot since then. It goes on my highlights reel, certainly, and yet it’s bigger than that. I’ve landed with this, after boiling it all down – it really felt like a beautifully played out metaphor for my life over these last six months. Maybe for my whole life. I hadn’t really thought about it but if there’s one thing that led me to where I am now, to South Africa and this extraordinary life I’m living lately, it is that I’ve finally learned to listen. Which, of course, means I’ve also learned to be still, to quiet myself down – that’s been a lifelong process, for sure. The challenge, though, is in doing that when everything I know is the “right thing” to do is not working. To choose not to follow the standard practices we are all taught to follow in our days, months and years on this earth. To just stop and be until I can hear the call clearly. To be shown that so beautifully, with so much grace and under the African night sky was a lovely and powerful reminder – one I hope I won’t soon forget.
It makes me wonder, as Shel Silverstein writes, what I might create if I can continue to listen this intently, this well, this regularly. What we might all create, how we might expand, what we could possibly discover. If we allow ourselves the privilege of being still, of listening with all our hearts, I can only imagine what we can do. Especially if we can listen to ourselves.
Posted on March 7, 2016
Therefore…love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.
For those who are near you are far away…
and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast….
be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and
be gentle with those who stay behind;
be confident and calm in front of them and
don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy,
which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend.
Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them,
which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again;
when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and
be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust….
and don’t expect any understanding;
but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance,
and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing
so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
It’s been weeks since I last posted here and in those weeks, my life has shifted in so many ways that I don’t know where to begin writing. These words, from one of my favorite writers and teachers, say it better than I can even though they were written so long ago – which delights me. Rilke knew what my heart now knows, and there is so much grace in that.
I’m writing this from Madrid, a city I love and yet a place that leaves my heart longing for South Africa – like every place other than that beautiful country I am lucky enough to spend most of my days in now. And in the being away, I see how much I have grown there, under that big beautiful sky and amongst all the incredible creatures and people who roam the land.
In just a handful of months, my world has expanded – and my heart, too, in more ways than I can count. And I’m aware that if I hadn’t allowed myself to drop all the stories of what I should do and who I should be and had not followed my heart, my life would be very different from here on in. I didn’t, and I largely still don’t, know what the next decades will hold for me. I’ve given up security and a pretty cushy lifestyle in order to explore all that life in South Africa can be – and that means discomfort on many levels. Still, despite a life long fear of being rejected, I’ve been welcomed openly and warmly in this new place over and over – a gift I cannot refuse.
My own growth, yes, means leaving some of those I love behind and giving them the space to deal with that in their own ways. The resulting loneliness comes in waves and living atop a mountain in the bush means plenty of solitude even in the midst of time in community means that those waves will continue to wash over me, undoubtedly, for a long time to come. And I’m okay with that – there is room in that solitude for even more growing.
When I think back to the time when I was small and knew myself, this life is all I wanted. The wisest part of me, the knowing I arrived on this planet with, knew that what I needed was the wide open spaces, the tribal people and ancestors, the living things that fly and crawl and traverse the land and the sky. Fifty years later, it’s still true – only now I can gift myself with all of it, every single day. I can feel the love within, the love that surrounds me and allow myself to be enveloped by it, to thrive. And to be surrounded by others who do the same, every single day.
This love, indeed, holds a blessing and a strength the likes of which I’ve never known, and one so large that I expect it can hold all of us who choose to allow ourselves to feel it. Easily, beautifully and for all time.
May it be so.
A journey of giraffes I had the opportunity to observe one day at Phinda, as they slowly and carefully approached the watering hole, wary and wondering what predators might be around. In the end, they followed the young one and allowed themselves to drink, taking just what they needed.
Posted on January 17, 2016
What am I doing in South Africa?
I keep getting this question, from many people. And sometimes from myself. The truth is, I don’t exactly know. The truth is, that it is somehow, inexplicably, home. And the truth is that, at least for right now, it’s where I belong.
When I returned from South Africa:the dream trip, late in November, I already knew that I wanted to return, soon and for longer. What I didn’t know is that within a couple days, I’d be so homesick that my heart hurt and I kept bursting into tears. As someone who’d never really felt at home anywhere, this was a new and confusing thing – so I did the only thing I knew to do, and started googling.
There’s a reason I call Google “the modern mystic’s crystal ball” and it certainly came through this time. Somehow I found an incredible organization, whose mission lines up with my own, called African Impact. Before I knew it, I was signed up for a couple weeks here and two more there, my flight was booked and I landed in Joburg, first thing in the morning on the first day of the new year. Two days later, I arrived in Hoedspruit.
And here I sit, this Sunday afternoon, in the lounge of African Impact’s Dumela Lodge, in Limpopo Province near Kruger National Park – the northeast corner of this country I’ve come to love. I’ve been doing conservation research for two weeks, which necessitates many early mornings and game drives galore, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. The staff here is a dream team and I’ve lucked out with my fellow research volunteers in a huge way. I like it so much that I rearranged my calendar in order to stay longer and be part of the very first week of community volunteering here, working in the local schools and on programming with the lovely pair of people heading up this project. I am so looking forward to it – and to another two week gig in St. Lucia next month doing HIV/AIDS education/support with what I’m sure will be another wonderful group of folks.
There’s more lining up – check out my Instagram feed to see what’s happening day to day, or find me on Facebook – more time in the bush, which I love, a training in Cape Town with the Institute for Healing Memories I hope to attend, R&R with lovely friends in KwaZulu-Natal. It’s all weaving together beautifully. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?
And it is, of course, a dream come true. Something I’ve wanted to do for my entire life, a gift that I’ve somehow called to me over time. And something that requires, in the midst of all the wonderful, great sacrifice. Not just the conveniences – Amazon doesn’t deliver here, people. In fact, getting anything delivered in South Africa is a challenge. There are unidentifiable (for me, so far, I’m learning) creepy crawly things on the floor of my rondavel fairly regularly and the heat has risen to well over one hundred degrees more than once. I’m sweaty and dirty more often than not. There’s no such thing as green juice or gourmet chocolate in this little corner, either, it seems. And the internet in these parts has never heard of FIOS.
So much that I normally take for granted just is not here – and I couldn’t be happier. What is here is immense beauty. An unbelievable variety of creatures. People who share my mission to both expand their minds and hearts as much as humanly possible and do some good for the world as they go. A lack of privilege, perhaps, yes, and an incredible depth of culture, community and conservation potential to explore.
So much to dive into, such big skies to soar in. A place, for the first time, to really spread my wings and fly.
I don’t think, to answer the question, that it matters much what I’m doing here. What matters is that I’m being. I’m living what I talk about so much, write about, teach in so many ways. And for that, I’m so grateful. What it requires of me is to let go of the reins, to stop planning, to give up the safety of what many would consider a dream life in the States – a very, very comfortable way of living, and to let it all weave in front of me. To jump, to leap, to fly.
How long will I stay? That’s another post, on another day, somewhere down the line. For now, I’m content just to be here.
A juvenile tawny eagle – near Hoedspruit, South Africa.