I was recently asked to facilitate a programme for an organisation that wanted to learn more about doing business in Africa. Instead of visiting different parts of Africa, the programme used the various African business communities in Johannesburg as a platform for learning. We visited other-than-South-African, African business communities around Johannesburg.
I’ve made Joburg my home over the past 20 years, but the city was presented as new to me through this experience - my eyes were opened. As part of the programme, participants were split up into small groups for an afternoon and interacted with business owners across the city, visiting the Nigerian precinct in the inner city, the Ethiopian warehouse traders in the south, Somalian mall traders in Mayfair and small business owners in Diepsloot. The city is bubbling over with international communities using Joburg as a business hub. It’s happening in our hometown, and I’ve been largely oblivious to it.
Fast forward one month later and I’m at a colleague’s birthday gathering at a soccer clubhouse not far from where I live. I met and chatted to a group of people from other parts of the world who are living and working in Johannesburg. I became engrossed in conversation with a young Jamaican man who teaches at a high school in India. He left Jamaica when he was 15, went to school in the UK, became a teacher and has been working around the world for 15 years in countries including Japan, Lebanon, Malawi, South Africa and now India.
These experiences have shown to me how localised I am. Even though I’ve lived in other countries, I still cannot comprehend how someone can recreate their life in a completely different context and start from scratch, many times over. Just like the Somali spaza shop owner I met in Diepsloot who brought his family, wife and two young children to South Africa in treacherous circumstances. It hasn’t been an easy time in these past few years but he has a three-year plan. He’s working on getting to the United States and setting up a business there, and I’m sure he will. He has enough life scars to demonstrate his resilience.
I’m confronted with the qualities these individuals must have to allow such transience. And in imagining those qualities, I get a sense of my own limitations and my own fixed sense of ‘home’ or context. At Reos Partners we work with processes that allow groups to imagine possible futures that move them out of their current frame of reference. What does it take to imagine and act on a picture of the future that is surprising, difficult, and yet worth pursuing? Intentionally straying out of the edges of our comfort zones of what we think we know about the world is both exciting and intimidating.
In confronting my own limitations, I stay inspired by new Jamaican friend who told me “all who wander are not lost”….
This article is part of a series "Moving Through Tough Terrain".