Monday, May 6, 2013

Fountain of Youth Discovered in South Africa

Bereaville youth, Jayme-Lee hopped over riverbed rocks to catch up with me. She tapped me on the shoulder and smiled without saying a word. We were on a silent hike for the first 30 minutes. She showed me what she had in her hands. Berna-Lee caught up and we muffled our giggles. She knew I was on the hunt for heart-shaped rocks. She had one…another one weighing about 4 kilos. My backpack was already heavy with at least a dozen heart-shaped rocks. Where I come from, heart rocks are a novelty. Here in South Africa…not so much.

I have a history with rocks. I majored in Environmental Earth Resources at university and people often asked, “what kind of major is that?” And I either said: “it’s mostly geology sautéed in biology with a dash of chemistry and computer science” or, “it’s just a euphemism for oil & gas.” It was through this major that I learned to love rocks.  Most of my classmates dreaded our mineralogy tests and I secretly couldn’t wait for them. I longed to cradle bits of sky blue kyanite and vanadanaite the way that Carrie Bradshaw pined after a pair of Jimmy Choo stilettos. On my runs along the Trinity River in Ft. Worth, TX, I would often stuff bits of ammonite and worm fossils into my sports bra. After getting a flat tire on the Mombassa highway in Kenya, I picked up a couple of bits of basalt. A chunk of shale from Ireland, a piece of limestone from the Marshall Islands, a handful of schist from Massachusetts; they are small earthly reminders that I was there, wherever that was. I have two friends (both mentors) who have a collection of heart-shaped rocks and so, along this dry river bed, I decided to follow suit. As an aside, it is a great activity for kids to practice quiet observation.

The group on our first hike
Kim contemplating the landscape
In a twist of fate, I was asked to fill in as a chaperone on a camping trip with 15 youth from Greyton, Genadendal and Bereaville, located in the Western Cape, South Africa. This trip was sponsored by The Cape Leopard Trust in partnership with ARK (Acts of Random Kindness), Greyton Conservation Society, and Greyton Transition Town. The common link, aside from geography, was a budding interest in the environment and taking up the challenge to get out of our comfort zones. After a 5-hour bus journey to the Cederberg, we arrived at The Cape Leopard Trust on a Friday afternoon. Nicky and Sue situated our vegetarian kitchen and the rest of us set up our tents. Some of these kids had never been camping and they embraced the challenge of not only roughing it in the rain, but also voluntarily giving up their sweets, meats and chips in exchange for vegetarian meals. In the last 15 years of working with youth from all walks of life and several different countries, I can honestly say that this was one of the best youth groups (not to mention camping trips) I have ever experienced. And not to brag too much, but I have worked with some incredible youth in my life. I'm lucky that way.

Tariq sculpting
Over the course of 5 days, we covered a lot of ground…ecologically, historically, creatively, educationally, socially, nutritionally and literally. We hiked over 12 kilometers through rocky riverbeds, meandered through mountain fynbos, scaled incredible sandstone formations and ran along footpaths trying to decipher between types and ages of animal scat. We marveled at rock art, played games, told stories and roasted marshmallows by the fire. On one evening in particular, I was amazed at the dogged patience of 4 youth as they taught me how to count to 20 in Afrikaans. I will forever be working on the proper pronunciation of the number 4. We tried our hands at clay sculpture and using charcoal to depict landscapes and animal skulls. Using our newly acquired compass and orienteering skills, we created a perfect circle, made up of 12 people and 50 meters in diameter. We listened and watched for birds and laughed at the sounds of screaming baboon youth in the cliffs above our camp. We saw signs & tracks of genets, baboons, and klipspringer and learned how to set up a camera trap in hopes of maybe…just maybe catching a glimpse of the ever-elusive cape leopard.  

Desi helping to set the camera trap
The compost toilets, bucket showers, and late night baboon hooting reminded all of us that we were far from home, but close to something special…maybe a moment or two that we will fondly recall decades from now. Who can really know when passions are galvanized, when we make a change in our habits, form lifelong friendships, or a giant collection of rocks? All we can do is work to create these opportunities for challenge, exposure, growth, and character building for youth, and not to mention, adults.

This journey gave me a sorely needed boost of hope. With the recent crime wave in Greyton and Genadendal, I have twice been a victim of burglary in the last 3 months. Everyone seems to have a theory as to why it is happening, who is doing it, and when (if ever) it will die down. A popular theory is that this is the work of youth serving as puppets for older individuals with a tick problem (AKA, meth). It is easy to hand myself over to feelings of negativity, cynicism, and general distrust in my species. And while statistics offer some comfort, the pressing question is, what does it mean for me to feel safe? And how much am I willing/forced to alter and morph my daily operations to create a sense of safety for myself? I got to thinking, a sometimes-dangerous hobby, and I wondered about these kids on my camping trip; not only them, but ALL kids. What does it mean for them to feel safe? Do they feel safe at home? At school? Did they feel safe hiking with me and being far away from what they know as home? What part do I play as an (gasp) adult in creating a safer and more joyful world for children, but especially teens?

Orienteering to build our perfect circle
Drawing skulls is not easy
I heard a recent episode of This American Life about Harper High School in the south side of, Chicago, Illinois. I was listening to the story, happily chopping vegetables while my dog dreamt peacefully on the floor. And there in my little Greyton kitchen, I began to sob. This particular high school, with a population of 506, saw 21 students wounded by gunshot and 8 murders in 2012 alone. And often these shootings are over petty things. If you are a boy living in this 2 square mile neighborhood, you are born into one of 15 gangs based on the street where you live. It isn’t a choice, it is an assignment, whether you want it or not. Even police officers claim that kids do not have the choice to opt out of gang affiliation. “We feel safer like this. We never like to walk past trees and stuff. There’s too much stuff (shootings) goin’ on,” replied a girl when asked why she and her friends walk to school down the middle of the street. I encourage you to listen to this 2-part story, moreover to be a regular listener of TAL. No matter where you come from, this show is incredibly eye opening and educational.

I was taking a walk through the Gobos River the other morning pondering the recent and rampant burglaries on my street. I felt thankful that I wasn’t present for either of my burglaries, but angry at the violation; the poaching of my safe space. And then, in that moment, I stepped on a heart-shaped rock. I found 4 more after that. One of the social workers at Harper High school told the interviewer, “I need to see where education works. And I need to see where success happens.” I could not have expressed it better myself. So far, I have collected 15 heart rocks, one for each teen that was on the trip. 
Last Day
My goal is to collect one heart rock for each young person who gives me hope and create a heart rock sanctuary in my garden. These rocks will serve as a solid reminder that when you look for the good happening in any community, you will find it. Often, these rocks will be extremely hard to find depending on where I am physically and mentally, but I believe that once I’ve trained my heart and mind to look for them, they will become easier to find.

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I am still a newcomer to South Africa and I have so much to learn in terms of history, culture and politics, but one thing I know is that every human being has basic needs. Food, water, and shelter are obvious, but I think safety, moreover community, useful contribution and joy are often seen as luxuries in many communities around the world. I want to be a part of changing this. Because there is a difference between surviving, which is what I feel so many children are trying to do, and thriving, which is what children have the right to do.


  1. Sunnye, this is why we are friends. As one of your heart rock collecting friends, I too can attest to the power of healing felt in a found and solid treasure. Our heart stones were part of our wedding and our daughter's blessing and we plan to continue including them in important moments of our lives. One of my favorites is from you. I too cried and was apalled at the Harper HS story. Loving teens is a mixed bag of emotions and you are certainly at the center of that right now trying to understand and process. Love you, J

  2. Sunnye, I love your heart rocks and are particularly envious of them. I love your idea of creating the sanctuary in your garden for every child that gives you hope. I might have to do this here in my little ecovillage. Wonderful writing, so enjoyable to read and you must keep on doing this. You rock Ms Sunnye Collins. I send big love across the pond. Coleen

  3. Thank you for the engaged and full-bodied writing Sunnye. I have reminded myself and am reminded from you here that it is not so much having the right answers, as much as asking the right questions that will lead us on the journey back to the now and wholeness. Thank you for exploring and inquiring as such.

  4. Jenna, Coleen and spokeofsource! I am so sorry for not writing sooner. I just checked my old e-mail and got the notice of your comments. Thank you sooooo much for reading and your thoughtful comments. Since writing this post, I am continuing to delve deeper into opportunities to work with you. In so many ways, I am starting from scratch here. ALL of your words give me GREAT hope. SO thank you.