The Business Poet – Chapter 8

The Business Poet – Chapter 8

On Wellbeing

Next to chip into the somewhat strange emergent dialogue was a human resources manager, one of the guardians of the jewels in the crown of the company, as Merlin liked to think of his people.

“I’ve noticed that many companies treat employees as an expense,” she began. “Even if they say they are their greatest asset. In some industries, staff are seen merely as cogs in the machinery of business, a source of productivity. Yet people are miraculous, complex beings, not a wheel in some industrialist’s dreamed up clockwork universe.”

She paused, taking a deep breath and chuckling lightly. “Well, as you can tell, I’m passionate about this, so I’d better not get myself started. I want to know what you think about the importance of Wellbeing?”

She was so right, and Merlin shared her feelings. He rifled through his scribbled pages and found a reply:

“Wellbeing is the untiring journey in search of meaning, an adventure in self-discovery, and a path towards comradeship.

“Popular theories of human motivation confuse needs with wants and mistake means for ends.

“They hypothesise hierarchies, dangle carrots and wave sticks, as if people in the workplace are circus animals being trained to do tricks.

“Modern peddlers of job satisfaction confuse roles with personality and mistake props for reality.

“They psychometricise behaviour, rate attitudes and score values, as if people can be measured and are mere variables in formulas to be plugged into the productivity equation.

“We are all pilgrims treading the sacred trail of our life’s work.

“Salvation lies not in finding the Holy Grail or ascending the final summit, but in walking with awareness and gratitude.

“The redeeming sacraments surround and enfold us, if we can only drag our gaze away from the false promises of heaven on earth.

“The pilgrim recognises that the end, like all goals and aspirations, is simply a reason to begin.

“The sojourner knows that all the lessons of life and growth and death are part of the journey itself.

“Lasting satisfaction is less about personal achievement and more about understanding.

“And meaningful effort comes from seeing its connection to the larger story that is being told.

“No pilgrimage is without its trials and tribulations.

“The terrain may be difficult or monotonous, the weather inhospitable or extreme, the company irritating or arrogant, but these may be the very thickets that conceal the path to our own development.

“The secret of wellbeing in business is to recognise the value of the unseen and the unspoken.

“Think not the task itself, but how it changes you.

“Train your eyes not the target itself, but how it challenges you.

“Focus not the team itself, but how it binds you in friendship.

“Cling not the position itself, but how it allows you to make a difference.

“Think not, therefore, of employees, but of master potters honing their art.

“Think not of jobs, but of ceramic studios amply equipped.

“Think not of work, but of shapely vessels skilfully made, into which we can pour our personal and collective sense of meaning.”

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The Business Poet – Chapter 7

The Business Poet – Chapter 7

On Governance

Merlin had good memories of working with most of the people in the room, in one way or another. But one who held a special place in his heart was his Chairman. She had been a pillar of strength for him, and a wise counsel in times of need. She had bided her time to speak – always one to listen first – but now she stood and said, with affection in her voice:

“What of Governance?”

Merlin knew this was a hot button for some. The string of financial scandals and outrageous CEO pay packages over the past decade had ushered in an age of onerous risk management procedures and rules around how boards should operate. But he wanted to remind people of the spirit – rather than the letter – of the law of governance. In Notebook 5, he found the relevant passages:

“Governance is the precious gift of flight, a science in need of art, a structure in need of fluidity.

“The science of flight – like the principles of governance – is a ladder to the skies, but not a pair of wings.

“The structure of flight – like the procedures of governance – is a good set of wings, but not a bird in the sky.

“The art of flying is to dance with the wind and to sculpt with the currents, to ride out the storms and to reach for the sun.

“The quest of governance is to embrace society as a partner and to create meaning together; to hold fast to values amidst chaos and to take business to new heights.

“Do not underestimate the importance of ability in getting governance off the ground.

“Think of the eagle’s clarity of sight, the owl’s attentive listening, the swallow’s acrobatic reflex, and the weaver’s tireless work.

“Also, take heed – not all who dress up in feathers are masters of flight.

“Those who choose to bury their heads in the sand as accomplices to corruption and irresponsibility are ostriches that will never fly.

“And those that profess their virtues with loud honking while clinging to power and secrecy are maimed geese falling from the sky.

“Not all who take to the skies have perfected the art of flight.

“Those who control the buoyancy of their enterprise with hot air rewards and flaring punishments are balloons at the mercy of the elements.

“And those who manage the complicated jet engine machinery of procedural checks and balances know only the efficiency of mechanical flight.

“Rare are those who have learned to truly fly with natural grace and agility.

“Effective governance allows the organisation to flex the muscle and sinew of internal control, yet still to ride the thermals of individual initiative.

“Inclusive governance allows the organisation to angle the wings of directional leadership, yet still to rely on the feathers of an empowered workforce.

“Inspiring governance allows the organisation to battle through the turbulence of stormy stakeholder encounters, yet still to believe in the sunshine of transparent accountability.

“Seek not, therefore, the formula for the flight, but rather kindle the passion for flying – for governance is not a cage of rules and codes, but a responsible way of being free.”

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The Business Poet – Chapter 6

The Business Poet – Chapter 6

On Marketing

Merlin took a sip of water and gazed around the room. He caught the eye of his Marketing Director, who was shifting slightly in his seat. Merlin raised his eyebrows, inviting him to share his thoughts. He stood and declared, somewhat defensively:

“Stakeholder engagement is all very well, but at the end of the day, we are a business. And if people don’t know about us, or our great products, we will soon by out of business. How do you see the role of Marketing?”

Merlin was aware that Marketing often got a bad rap these days. It was seen as pure spin. But he disagreed. Marketing was vital, if it was done right. He found his writing on the subject and spoke in reply:

“Marketing is the art of making music: skilfully played, it has the power to move all who hear its sweet melodies; badly recited, it offends the ear and renders the intended listener deaf.

“The secret of effective marketing is resonance.

“Communication becomes a symphony when the information echoes with the clear ring of truth and honesty, when the message reverberates with the rich tones of meaning and relevance, and when the medium combines to strike a harmonious chord of reach and direction.

“The curse of poor marketing is dissonance.

“Exaggerated claims jar with the reality of experience, monotonous repetition dulls the battered senses, and disingenuous tricks sound the alarm bells of suspicion.

“The wise marketer is the master of music, while the fool is the king of noise.

“The wise marketer is the student of pianissimo, while the fool knows only fortissimo.

“The wise marketer is the conductor of an orchestra, while the fool beats only his own drum.

“The true purpose of marketing is matching genuine needs with tailored services.

“The corrupted practice of marketing is associating coveted emotions with generic products.

“The grand masters of marketing are jazz musicians, adept in the art of listening, practiced in the skill of blending, refined in the intuition of creativity.

“The false prophets of marketing are paid pipers, playing on people’s dreams and desires, calling the tune to suit their own pockets, leading the innocent children away.

“The market is a lively place of songs, but beware: though some are music pure and true, many are designed to cast their spell.

“Beware of melodies sweet and alluring, for many are those who have met a rocky end with the mesmeric notes of sirens still singing in their ears.

“Beware of rhythms pounding with calls to impulsive action, for many before you have marched to their needless graves to the deadly beat of a drum.

“And beware of the fevered pitch of inspiring summons, for many have suffered under dictator kings heralded by the passionate salute of trumpets.

“The most exquisite music of marketing is pure silence, played on the precious instruments of quality and caring, resounding with crystal clarity up and down the scales of human trust.”

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The Business Poet – Chapter 5

The Business Poet – Chapter 5

On Stakeholders

Merlin hoped he hadn’t ruffled too many feathers by challenging customer supremacy. But long years of business experience had taught him that they are only one stakeholder group – albeit a critical one. So he was delighted by the follow up question, from their social responsibility officer, who spent a great deal of time listening to the needs to communities in which the company operated.

“Speak to us of Stakeholders. Will we ever seriously challenge the corporate obsession with shareholders?”

This was a matter close to Merlin’s heart. He often wondered if, for all the good capitalism had done in the world, the power of shareholders could be its ultimate Achilles heel. He consulted his notes, and read by the flickering candle light:

“Business is the living manifestation of a complex web of relationships.

“Just as the body depends on the coordinated functioning of all its parts, so companies rely on the constructive interaction of multiple stakeholders for their continued existence and success.

“The dreaming logic of the head must listen to the yearning intuitions of the heart.

“The craving appetite of the stomach must heed the cleansing capacity of the liver.

“The eager strides of the feet must match the energising breath of the lungs.

“Companies that pander exclusively to the demands of insatiable shareholders risk acquiring a compulsive eating disorder, while those that neglect returns to capital providers may soon be staring anorexia in the face.

“Managers that place their own comforts and rewards ahead of the welfare of their workers are selfish cancer cells that threaten to destroy the entire body, while employees that make blind demands without regard for the health of the company may unwittingly be spreading a debilitating virus.

“Businesses that pollute the environment or fail to look after the community are poisoning the body and eroding its immune system, while civic and green organisations that attack rather than engage constructively must face the full force of the body’s self defence mechanisms.

“The needs of the private sector are many and varied, like the diverse requirements of the body, for water, food, rest and stimulation.

“An enterprise without a market of willing customers is a baby still-born, and a business without a stable, transparent government is a tantrum child.

“A company without reliable suppliers is a fickle teenager and a commercial venture without a record of good media relations is a staid adult.

An organisation without an incubator of creative innovators is a dying elder.

“A healthy body maintains a state of dynamic equilibrium, yet there is no single measure to diagnose this ideal balance.

“Temperature, pulse and blood pressure, all combine to paint a picture of health or illness.

“Likewise, the vitality and sustainability of a business cannot be determined by the satisfaction of one stakeholder group only, or even all stakeholders at one point in time.

“The stakeholder-sensitive company invests in multiple instruments and tracks diverse measures for continuous bio-monitoring and bio-feedback that signals the state of health of the corporate body.

“In reality, a body does not consist of separate parts at all, but functions as an integrated whole.

“Machines can be dismantled, but if a body is dissected, it means it is dead.

“Those businesses are most alive that are inseparable, even indistinguishable, from their stakeholders, for this is the way of the living organisms.”

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The Business Poet – Chapter 4

The Business Poet – Chapter 4

On Customers

Merlin was pleased to see one of his frontline staff had stood up to speak. He had always believed that these were the real heroines and heroes of the company – those dealing with customers, face to face, every day, exchanging pleasantaries and dealing with their complaints.

“What about Customers?” she asked simply.

Merlin thumbed his notebooks and cleared his throat to speak:

“Customers are the weather gods worshiped by business, as the mercurial source of creation and destruction, feast and famine, wealth and destitution, life and death.”

He looked up and saw her nod knowingly and smile, as she took her seat. Merlin slipped back into role.

“Legend has it that the Philosopher’s Stone of business success is religious devotion to customer service.

“According to this belief, entrepreneurs are the mystical high priests who have the uncanny ability to tap into the moods of the weather gods and to profit from their esoteric knowledge.

“They appoint directors as clergy who, having taken strict vows of capitalism, organise and lead their flocks in the ways of placating and pleasing customers with price sacrifices and product gifts.

“In reality, however, customer sovereignty is an expression of healthy stakeholder tension rather than a royal pronouncement of a commercial truth.

“For the goals of customers are not always congruent with those of business owners, managers, employees or other interest groups.

“Customers may want the highest quality for the lowest price, while owners may want the highest returns with the lowest costs.

“Customers may want the widest choice for the least inconvenience, while managers may want maximum standardization for the most efficiency.

“Customers may want unrelenting 24/7 service with a smile, while employees prioritise work-life balance with meaning.

“And customers may want ever more ‘stuff’ for unlimited consumption, while special interest groups want to reign in the damaging behaviour of corporate excess.

“Although most business devotees pray for fair weather, the enterprising trader turns all weather to their advantage.

“They know that the sun fuels the plants which can be cultivated as crops and forests to feed a resource hungry world.

“They know that the wind turns the windmill which drives the turbine to generate energy for a power thirsty people.

“And they know that the rain channels into rivers which circulate through the veins of industry, keeping it cool and clean.

“Fly-by-night commercial opportunists prey on unexpected changes in the weather, living as slaves to the boom and bust cycles of customer fads.

“Amoral mercenaries seek out the most destructive storms and make bargains with the devil, living as shadow people in the underworld of bloodthirsty customers.

“More sustainable enterprises seek to understand the underlying principles and patterns of the weather, living as students of human needs and desires.

“The natural scientist understands that the weather is Earth’s way of maintaining a dynamic balance between its complex living systems.

“The macro economist understands that customers are society’s way of structuring a reciprocal relationship between production and consumption.

“The business practitioner understands that customers are the market’s way of matching latent demand with tailored supply.

“The industrial psychologist understands that customers are suggestible subjects whose distinction between needs and satisfiers is easily confused.

“And the critical philosopher understands that customers are typecast characters in a scripted narrative which blurs the margins between fantasy and reality.

“Customer demand is not a reliable proxy for social good, nor is business success a sound indicator of desirable activity.

“Nevertheless, customers can be activists for ethical behaviour and moral causes, and businesses can be pioneers in the delivery of social justice and environmental protection.

“In our legitimate and worthy striving to serve the customer, know that there is a spark of the divine in all of us, for we are all simultaneously weather worshippers and weather gods.

“Therefore, let our service be respectful and responsive and let our custom be careful and considered.

“In this way, business and its customers will form a soulful pact of sacred trust.

“And let us never forget that, as customers, we carry the weather within us.”

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The Business Poet – Chapter 3

The Business Poet – Chapter 3

On Profits

The head of finance wanted to get straight to the heart of the matter, and said, Speak to us of Profits.

The old man smiled a wry smile, consulted his notes, and answered, saying:

“Just as nature cannot survive without water, so commerce depends on profits to quench its natural thirst for capital.

“Profits are the refreshing crystal water that collects in rock pools in the mountainous terrain of business.

“Used wisely, profits are a source of life and rejuvenation – channelled effectively, profits have the potential to sustain a tropical forest, or to green a barren wasteland.

“But if the flow of fresh water through the pool is blocked, the water becomes stagnant and a breeding ground for disease.

“If profits are excessively horded, rather than fairly and productively distributed, the dam of popular discontent will eventually burst, causing indiscriminate damage to all who happen to lie in its flood path, and leaving behind scars where the integrity of the commercial system has been eroded.

“Like the water cycle in nature, profits are part of a larger cycle of financial resources circulating through enterprise and society.

“A farsighted business will seek to understand and contribute to balance in the whole system, looking both upstream and downstream for any signs of impending drought, excessive damming activity or pollution of the water supply.

“The wise manager will be acutely concerned about the looming crisis of economic desertification in many marginalised areas of the world, which threatens to disrupt the entire water cycle unless it is reversed.

“Profits are one measure of success in business, but only one of many.

“Only a fool would try to argue that the water cycle is more important than the oxygen cycle or the carbon cycle, when in truth they are wholly interdependent.

“Likewise, pursuing a business model that emphasises profits ahead of people or the planet only serves to undermine the very fabric of the economic system and will end in ruin.

“Decisions about how and where to channel profits are best made by those who are intimately familiar with local needs and conditions.

“Effective water management demands first hand knowledge of nuances in the landscape, variations in geological patterns and micro-climatic moods, together with an understanding of the intimate needs of the resident populace.

“Beware, therefore, of the vagaries of scattered shareholders, absent landlords and remote executives.

“The destiny of something as precious as water is far too important to trust to the hands of the self-proclaimed ruling few, or the self-indulgent faceless many.

“Let those who have helped to build the waterways and nurture the rain and negotiate the open sluices, drink also from the fountain of profits, as just reward for their tireless labour.

“But do not forget to also extend the life-giving chalice to those less fortunate, who do not share the privileges of prosperity, for whatever reason.

“Remember those who live in the desert of deprivation, with no oases on the horizon to relieve their parched existence.

“Remember those who are surrounded by great rivers of abundance, but have not been granted the drinking rights of the employed.

“And share your profits generously with those who are dying of thirst, for giving without expecting to receive in return profits the heart and the soul, and there is no greater wealth.”

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The Business Poet – Chapter 2

The Business Poet – Chapter 2

On Work

A loyal employee representative from the trade union, who had never been afraid to speak his mind, was the first to take up the challenge and, continuing in the style of The Prophet, said, Speak to us of Work.

Everyone’s attention turned to their former leader whom they held in such high esteem, curious and expectant, to see how he would respond. He smiled as he recalled jotting down his thoughts on the meaning of work, and in his mind he knew exactly in which notebook and on which page he would find the passage. He thumbed the pages and soon had his forefinger marking the appropriate place. He looked up, cleared his throat, and with a strange feeling of hearing the echo of his own thoughts, began to read:

“Conventional wisdom says that some live to work, while others work to live, but both extremes are undesirable.

“Those that lose themselves in their jobs, or titles, or careers, are lost indeed, for they filter life’s rainbow through the prism of work and declare the world one colour, with themselves the master of a single hue.

“Those who find themselves chained to employment, whether from desperation or fear, are prisoners of the darkness who see life’s bright rays, at best, through the bars of impotence and boredom.

“Both types are victims of insecurity and false identity, for work does not define us, but gives us the opportunity to define ourselves.

“Career choices do not dictate our worth, but allow us to celebrate our worth.

“Job titles say more about our sense of self-importance than our ability to do important work.

“Employment does not equate to the contribution we are making to society, nor the potential we have to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

“It is a strange irony that the most valuable work is least valued in our material world, while the most selfish pursuits are glorified and richly rewarded.

“We live in an age of inverted values.

“As with Nature, so too with work: the smallest, humblest and least visible are the most pervasive, productive and critical – the very foundation on which the balance of life depends.

“The modern economy is an attempt to create a neatly manicured garden, sterile and devoid of the disorderly profusion of wild growth.

“Unshapely jobs are severely pruned every season and non-conforming workers are weeded out and discarded on the refuse pile of the unemployed.

“Surviving staff are fertilised with financial incentives, trellis-bound through management-by-objectives, and sprayed with market mantras to increase resistance to the buzzing, biting pests of social and environmental activism.

“For society to blossom, diversity must be allowed to flourish: budding talents must be nurtured and the acorn latent inside the oak tree must be cherished.

“Only when survival is not dependent on growing in the limited garden of formal employment will we witness the true bounty of human nature.

“Only when we create an environment in which the tender tendrils of youth can climb towards the warmth of their inner calling will we reap a full harvest of what is possible.

“True work is service in action, creativity in motion, meaning in the making.”

Merlin looked up from his entranced soliloquy, somewhat anxious, unsure how his words had been received. But he needn’t have worried. The human collage of nodding heads, smiling faces and appreciative whispers was a picture of support and encouragement. So, they continued.

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The Business Poet – Chapter 1

The Business Poet – Chapter 1

On Letting Go

It was time to leave. A bitter-sweet time. Merlin Wood felt sadness, but also contentment. The business he had conceived and birthed and nurtured was mature enough to stand on its own feet now. To live out its own life.

He gazed around the room at the people who were gathered for his farewell. For so many years, this had been his family. Together, they had endured; they were survivors, through thick and thin. They had been triumphant in their successes; downhearted in their failures. He did not know them all intimately, but he felt a shared sense of belonging. To many, he had been close enough to know when there was cause for some or other personal celebration. Others had trusted him enough to unveil their insecurities, to let their pain show.

But now, it was time to let go; to entrust them with the business. Ironically, the way he saw it, the company was not the legacy he was leaving at all. In fact, on the surface of it, there was not much remarkable about the business itself. It was not the biggest, nor the smallest. It was profitable, but not excessively so. It sold good quality products, but nothing spectacular. He had always maintained that the value of the business was not in its bricks and mortar, or its cash-flow or dividends. The real value was in the way in which the business lived and breathed and kept its people alive and passionate.

That was the real gift he had given them. And that was why he was leaving behind his scruffy notebooks in the boardroom cabinet – those dog-eared, tea-stained A4 pages on which, over the years, he had jotted down his ideas. Scrawled untidily were the lessons he had learned along the way: about how to make a business ‘fit for human beings’; about how to survive in commerce and still sleep soundly at night; about how to create a company that served society, instead of the other way around. So many thoughts …

It was almost time for the ritual reading. He liked rituals. It was one of the things he had tried to embed in the business, and his farewell was not going to be the exception. He always marvelled at how simple rituals were able to imbue an occasion with meaning. The little ritual he was going to perform now had been conceived by the incoming board of directors. They had suggested that he read extracts from his notebooks to the family, friends and staff that were assembled, in the spirit and style The Prophet, that masterpiece by Lebanese mystic and poet, Kahlil Gibran, whose writings he so treasured. He thought it was a fitting way to go. If nothing else, it would be fun.

As his friends and colleagues began to take their seats, spreading out like a fan from where he sat behind his favourite knotted wooden desk, he traced his fingers around the worn edges of his notebooks, as if caressing the contours of a beloved’s face. On the cover of each book was written ‘My little book of thoughts, wishes and wisdoms’ – numbered one to seven respectively. Flanking the notebooks were two simple, white candles, unlit, tall and upright, like royal guards of honour. He allowed his awareness to drift over the animated whispers that were rippling around the room. It had a soothing effect, as if he was holding a spiral shell to his ear and eavesdropping on the secret, bubbling conversation of an imaginary ocean. Gradually, the fresh breeze of anticipation subsided and a quiet calm settled over the gathering. He took the emergent silence as his cue to begin.

The lights dimmed and the match he struck flared noisily in the dusky hush that had descended. He lit the two candles – symbols of the life of the company – and invited all those present to approach this time together in the spirit of a fireside dialogue beneath a star-spangled night sky. Then he spread his arms wide and, quoting Gibran’s famous invitation with a hint of playfulness in his voice, said:

“People of Orphalese, of what can I speak save of that which is even now moving within your souls.”

There was a murmur of laughter, and Merlin could see people visibly relax, perhaps relieved that the ceremony that had just begun was to be enjoyed, rather than taken too seriously.

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Wisdom of the Drum – Chapter 1

Wisdom of the Drum

Chapter 1

This is a story about Mduduzi, a young man whose destiny conspired to cross his path with mine. Our meeting was inevitable from the instant that Mduduzi began to beat the drum, and something shifted deep inside of him. Unbeknown to him, in that profound moment of clarity, he set foot on a sacred path of knowledge known to the initiated as The Wisdom of the Drum. At the time, however, nothing could have been further from his mind. The whole experience was not only unexpected, it was uncalled for. So let me start the story at the beginning.

It was a cool autumn afternoon in the big African city. Mduduzi, or Dudu as his friends called him, was sitting in a circle with his work colleagues on the garden terrace of a luxury hotel, gathered for yet another team building exercise. To say that Dudu was sceptical would be an understatement. Surely their time could be far more productively spent, he muttered under his breath, as he thought of his desk piled high with paper and his email in-box jammed with unread messages. The fact that the exercise was drumming (it had been paintball and abseiling on two previous occasions) just added to his impatience – what could be more irrelevant?

Dudu was proud to be counted among the new generation of African executives – riding the wave of empowerment that followed political transformation in his country, and no longer shackled by what he regarded as the backward and superstitious ways of his ancestors. After generations of subservience by his people, he saw himself as a role model for Africa’s future – a leader in the race by a continent to catch up with the rest of the world. He was confident in his abilities and comfortable with his new-world identity.

Not everyone shared his triumph. His parents seemed singularly unimpressed by his meteoric rise through the corporate ranks. They expressed their disapproval by endlessly repeating irritating proverbs, like “a tree without strong roots will not survive the storm” and “only an arrow launched by a sturdy bow flies straight and true”. It was their way of chastising his casual dismissal of African cultural traditions. And though he found their lack of support and understanding hurtful, he would never admit it, nor would he let their antiquated attitudes hold him back. After all, what they regarded as a supportive web of ancient beliefs and rituals, he saw only as an outdated net of entangling taboos and restrictive rules. In a high speed world of cutthroat global competition and 24-7 business trading, there was little time or use for role-playing quaint practices reminiscent of the very tribal customs that had kept his people in the dark for so long, while the rest of the world strode ahead into the age of enlightened progress and the information revolution.

It was in this belligerent frame of mind that Dudu sat in the drum circle that fateful afternoon, surrounded by his more gullible and eager contemporaries, all looking ridiculous dressed in suits while animal-skin drums were wedged awkwardly between their knees. His tepid expectations did not improve when a sloppily dressed man walked into the middle of the circle, wearing ripped jeans and a threadbare T-shirt. No wonder they don’t take us blacks seriously, Dudu thought irritably. The man was cradling a drum that was suspended from his shoulders by two reggae-coloured nylon straps. This was obviously the person his company had hired to lead the drumming workshop – the circus ringmaster, Dudu mused wryly. What a waste of time and money! Dudu sighed heavily, waiting for the inevitable verbose self-adulating introductions he had become all too used to at these teambuilding events. He expected that it would be followed by a romanticised lecture about the importance of cultural heritage, or something similar.

What happened instead took him completely by surprise. It was the first of many surprises that would confound him that day and ultimately lead him to question so many beliefs he thought were unshakeable, not least his attitude towards his own culture, the nature of progress and what makes life worthwhile…

Boom. Boom. Boom. The hub-bub of the assembled group faded to silence. The steady base pulse continued. Boom. Boom. Boom. Smiles crept onto the expectant faces of the onlookers. A few uncertain twitters of laughter escaped. Boom. Boom. Boom. The sound was not loud, but Dudu felt it reverberate against his solar plexes. Boom. Boom. Boom. Looking at each other for support, first one, then more, and eventually the whole group, joined in, beating their drums in time to the simple rhythm. Boom. Boom. Boom.

At first, Dudu resisted joining in. He hated blind conformity. But as the sound enveloped him, he relaxed a little. The image of a moist, moss-covered rock dripping water floated into his consciousness. He closed his eyes and beat in time to the drip-drip-drip of the water. Softly at first. The beat was getting louder and the tempo quickening. In his mind’s eye, the dripping water became a tumbling trickle. The rhythm changed, adding a lighter off-beat. The trickle cascaded to a bubbling stream. A dominant beat began to throb above the pitter-patter of syncopated secondary rhythms. The stream swelled to a raging torrent. Without warning, a rising crescendo of emotion was coursing through Dudu’s body and gushing out through his hands. The division between sound and motion melted away. Gradually, he and the drum became one. Until, momentarily, the music transported him to a place of knowing, a state of being, that he could only describe feebly afterwards as the core of his soul.

Like a thunderstorm that has spent its fury, the experience ended as quickly as it had begun, petering out to a gentle tap-tap-tapping with a few fingers lightly on the rim of the drum. Then silence.

When Dudu opened his eyes, the sun’s bright rays, sparkling rainbow-tinted through his misty gaze, seemed entirely appropriate, even numinous. As his focus returned to the physical world around him, he saw the drum leader looking directly at him, into him, and nodding a reassuring half-smile, as if he knew exactly what Dudu had just experienced; as if he wanted to let him know that it was alright, that although everything had changed in an instant, it was precisely how it should be.

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Dreams of Gold II – Miners of Gold

Dreams of Gold – Chapter 2

The Second Dream – Miners of Gold

Langa grew up as most any African village-boy would. Days were spent on the grassy hill-slopes tending cattle and playing stick fights with the other boys. Nights, everyone gathered around the communal fire to share food, beat the drums, sing, dance and tell stories. Langa loved the stories best of all – tales of great gods and monsters, ancient battles, heroes’ journeys and loves lost and found. His favourite was the one about the Golden Age of his ancestors, long before the white man invaded this part of Africa; long before this continent was even called Africa. In those, days, its name was Tangawatu, which means “the vine upon which humans grow”. The elders, with fiery shadows flickering across their animated, wrinkled faces, would tell the tale something like this:

“As the story goes, our ancestors, with their great skills in stone masonry, iron smelting, cattle rearing and food production, had built a magnificent empire in which many tribes lived peacefully united. At the heart of this ancient civilization were caves stretching deep into the Earth’s belly, in which they had discovered the golden dust of creation. This sun-kissed metal was softer than iron, but of great shining beauty. Treating it with fire, the ancestors soon learned to fashion it into many magnificent shapes, which henceforth adorned the great kings and their palaces of that age.

“So precious was the gold that in trade with distance tribes, one tiny nugget exchanged for hundreds of cattle; and later, in trade with the white people from the Waterland, the same transaction bought thousands of beads made from the rainbow itself. All this made the Great Golden Village (as it became known far and wide) more prosperous and famous still. According some storytellers, for those who were initiated into its secrets, the gold also had magical powers of transformation.”

At this point, the storyteller would usually pause and sigh deeply, concluding the tale with the haunting words that “no one knows for certain why or how the Golden Age came to an end. But it is said that some of the ancestors abused the power which the gold had unlocked and so unleashed the wrath of the great Sun King, who blazed his fires day and night for twelve long seasons, until nothing was left of the Empire of Gold, or its people, or the secret knowledge.”

The story was especially attractive to Langa because his village was poor in the white man’s money, which made life difficult and shameful for his people. Many had ceased to believe that they were ever capable of having created such a Golden Age, as the story professed, nor that they would ever manage such a feat again in future. The harsh reality of poverty and dependence was reflected in Langa’s own family.

His father often had to travel many days to find work in the cities, sending back what he could of his wages and returning only after the rebirth of countless moon. When a crop failed in the village, his mother too would have to go away in search of a servant job on a white man’s farm, or in a nearby town. There were many days when young Langa and his brothers and sisters would go without food or parental solace, crying themselves to sleep for the aching pain in their stomachs and hearts.

Even when both of his parents were at home, they were often toiling beneath some strange invisible yoke. Although Langa didn’t really understand this ghostly burden, he often heard them whispering in the night about the unjust oppression of the white man’s government, of police raids and brutal beatings, even of his father being locked behind bars for not carrying his dompas identification papers.

But all these hardships simply strengthened Langa’s resolve to one day become clever and rich, like the white man, so that his family would never be in need again. Exactly how he was going to achieve this passionate conviction, he had no idea. Until, that is, he reached the age of Initiation into Manhood.

As was customary for this rite of passage, Langa and the other boys of comparable ages were isolated from the main village and made to build themselves a remote grass shelter. There followed many days of precise instruction on their future rights and responsibilities and the customs and mythology of their tribe. Then came various tests of physical stamina and mental resilience. Finally, when all of these had been accomplished, the Initiation Elder stood solemnly before the boys and briefed them:

“In the past days, like the snake, you have shed the old skin of your childish ways; like the wild hunting dog, you have showed your tenacious endurance; like the lion, you have been courageous in the face of danger; and like the elephant, you have shown your mental savvy. Now, you will need all of these traits, plus the spirit of the eagle, to carry you through your final, most critical challenge. Each of you, alone and without food, will go out into the wilderness in search of a vision of your life’s quest. It may come as a whisper in the wind, a formation of the rocks, a picture in the clouds, a dream or apparition, or a message from an animal. You will know its truth by the liberating flight that it gives to your soul. Go well, and be sure not to return without your gift from the gods.”

Langa was sent off in a westerly direction into the barren bushveld. Immediately, he began to apply his knowledge of bush lore, which he’d been taught since a young child. What was the spoor telling him about animal life in the area? Which edible and medicinal plants grew here? What was the flight of the insects signalling about nearby sources of water? What were the calls of the birds saying about the presence of danger?

By nightfall, he had found a suitable place for building a shelter, raised above the lie of the land, with partial protection from an overhanging rock and close to a trickling stream. The shelter was a simple construction of supple sapling sticks woven together and laced with green leaves, providing adequate relief from the stinging rain and the baking sun that he was likely to encounter in the long days ahead. Alongside, Langa had stacked wood to feed the fire during the night, to keep him warm while warding off unwelcome predators.

The days which followed were a mental battle – to prevent boredom and depression from setting in, to disregard the pangs of hunger and other physical discomforts, and to deal with hurtful and nostalgic memories that seemed to rage like rabid crocodiles within him. Most difficult of all, however, was the anxiety of the vision quest itself, especially the self-doubt that increased with each unyielding passing hour.

Langa tried desperately hard to maintain an attitude of openness to inspiration, to tune his senses to be aware of esoteric subtleties and covert signs, but all seemingly in vain. By the fifth night, feeling weak, tired and defeated, Langa had reached his threshold of tolerance. “At sunrise”, he reasoned with himself, “I will bury my deep shame and return to the Initiation Elder, conceding with whatever dignity I can still muster, that I am not yet ready to pass over this watershed into Manhood.” This resolution being made, he immediately felt great pressure ease from his temples and he drifted easily to sleep. And into a dream:

A dank, earthy smell filled Langa’s nostrils. Crouched in semi-darkness, his hands traced the jagged, cool wetness of underground rock. Great thunder boomed and echoed all around him, shaking the uneven ground beneath his feet. A light from his forehead dimly illuminated the snaking stonewalls of a narrow tunnel. Veins of glittering gold caught in the beam of light and flashed back at him. He caught his breath!

In the distance, a strange looking cart was filled with rubble and gliding magically away from him. When he followed the cart, he came to a place where the tunnel was intersected by a vertical bottomless black shaft. Suspended in the shaft was a large box, which apparently took to flight as he stepped into it. When it came to rest again, he stepped out into blinding, brilliant sunlight. Through the glare, he could see a large wheel towering over him against an horizon of strange looking conical hills. As he stared in confusion, the chant of men’s voices drifted up the eerie hole. Langa could just barely make out the words:

“Diggers and dreamers are we
Slaving that we might be free
Meanwhile our Mother Earth bleeds
To satisfy men’s hungry needs
For riches and glory and wealth.”

With the last line of the chorus still echoing in his ears, Langa awoke with a start. He immediately knew that the dream was his gift from the gods, and though he did not understand its meaning, he rose with the sun feeling that his soul had indeed taken flight like the eagle. Without hesitation or delay, he began his journey back to the original grass shelter, where the other boys and the Initiation Elder awaited him expectantly.

That night, around a fire that seemed unusually warm and homely, each boy recounted his vision and the Elder, in consultation with the Diviner, offered an interpretation. When it came to Langa’s turn, he recalled the unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells of his dream world experience and waited in suspense for an explanation of its significance. After protracted whispering and nodding between the sangoma and the elder, the latter said simply:

“We believe this is a literal dream that foretells your destiny amidst the gold mines of South Africa. But it speaks also a warning about the seductive power of wealth and the harmful exploitation of nature. Therefore, you would do well to remember the reverent relationship that our ancestral gold diggers cultivated with our living Ma and her sacred shiny seed. Hamba kahle – go well in your life’s journey!”

Langa could hardly contain the excitement and anticipation that he felt as his dream was being deciphered. In one grand sweep, his escape path from poverty and deprivation had been revealed. Soon, he would be rich! And he would save his family from their embarrassing indignity. As winter turned to spring and the daisies ignited into a blazing carpet of technicolour, Langa turned his back on his birthplace, his youth and his family, as he set out on the long journey to the Highveld, to the place they call iGoli, which means “place of gold”.

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