African Medicine: Healing at Home

I remember it clearly because it was the first day of December, the air outside was thin and cold, and a blanket of frost had wrapped itself around the city.

I ordered a taxi to the airport and stared out the window as the streets of London, swathed in shades of pink evening light, passed me by in a haze.

Dragging my suitcase through the halls of Heathrow, I felt overcome with exhaustion. I remember repeating to myself, ‘just get on the plane, just get on the plane and just get on that damn plane and finally you can relax’.

It had been a tough year, to put it lightly. After wading through a stinging sea of loss, illness and heartbreak, I had reached the end of my tether.

So I wasn’t surprised to find myself sobbing with relief as my plane soared through the English skies, as we careened towards the southernmost tip of Africa, towards promise of sunshine and friends and lighter days.

Since moving to London in 2018, trying to determine the place I now call home has become somewhat confusing. Although I feel a strong connection to this old, historical city, if home really is where the heart is then I know it will always be in South Africa (with a significant portion nestled between the Andes mountains and the Amazon jungle).

There’s just something about Cape Town. I can only describe it as tonic for the soul. It’s a striking reminder of the beauty of this earth, that taking time to stop and smell the flowers is not only important but highly necessary. That it is in fact why we are here.

The mountain (the huge flat one) is a continual reminder to stay present.

Amidst the excess of lessons life has taught me, realising the value of home has been one of the most poignant. It’s true that only through leaving can we come to really appreciate the significance of certain places in our lives and how they have forged our character.

Coming home felt like taking off a heavy jacket. It felt like finally I was being allowed to play again. I could shelve the serious things, the weight of all the grief, the grey, the sickness and sadness. This trip was about feeling light and being light and spreading light and seeing the light in others.

On New Years Eve I stood on a dance floor, surrounded by friends, old and new, beaming with joy as I watched the hardest year of my life dissipate into dust.

I squeezed myself quietly and whispered into my chest, “I love you. I am so proud of you”.

Having been deprived of fun or so long I found myself indulging, perhaps a little too hard, in all the hedonism and debauchery the city has to offer. So on the third day of the new year I felt it necessary to jump into my dad’s old Toyota 4×4 and head east, along the Garden Route of South Africa, into the hinterland.

I was excited for the trip. I’ve always found driving alone to be one of the most cathartic experiences. There is nothing better to me than an early morning, a feel-good playlist and the seductive lure of the open road.

As the highway receded beneath the tires, I felt tears falling as I recalled all the times over the past year I felt robbed of my happiness. There were moments of grief for the broken hearted girl who couldn’t trust her body, who lost her mother while fighting for her own life, who eventually lost herself. But this sorrow was also accompanied with a feeling of overwhelming pride. I felt strong, strong in my bones and in my skin, strong in my heart. All those feelings of insecurity and self-doubt seemed to have disintegrated in that hospital bed.

I was healing; as I drove I let go of the layers of my past. I drove into the new year; into my new chapter.

Five hours later I arrived at my destination, a small town aptly named The Wilderness.

You know the sort of town that makes you feel like a little kid on holiday? Where you walk into the grocery store with sandy feet and salty hair and a wet swimming costume plastered across your body. Where the smell of braai wafts from every house, while giggling kids and panting dogs, uncles with their beer boeps and old fisherman dragging their catch of the day, amble home along the road at sunset.

Where spiders cower in the corner of the bathroom shower and croaking frogs keep you up at night.

Where you sit on the balcony watching as the evening sun casts a tangerine glow across the lagoon and hours seem to trickle away.

Well, that’s the Wilderness.

Days passed by quickly in this slow little town and it wasn’t long before I was back on the road again. Driving for thirty minutes on a dusty dirt road I stopped to chat with a herd of curious cows, before arriving at a fairy-esque enclave in the midst of a forest; a humble piece of land belonging to a friend. A group of us gathered by the fire pit, drinking tea and sharing a spliff, before discarding our shoes and hiking down to the river barefoot, where we swam naked in the rain.

Then, it was back on the road again. While driving I passed through a torrential rainstorm. I was singing along to music and staring into the distance watching as giant wind turbines eclipsed the horizon. I’m not sure why but I remember this moment so clearly. Perhaps it was the deluge of happy emotions coursing through my body. Perhaps it was how acutely present I felt, how content I was to be driving along that random highway on my own – alive, at peace, grateful.

Ever since confronting my mortality for the second time, my gratitude for life has felt markedly heightened. It’s as if I keep waiting to come down from a high that only persists. The world continually bring tears to my eyes. It’s been said before but pain really does change you. I feel so much appreciation sometimes, it’s as if it’s spilling out of my soul. Appreciation for the small delights, for the simple sensations and the emotions, all of them. For the beauty of nature and the joy of dancing. For the chance to wake up everyday and experience the world.

The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies recently published a study called “Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health”. It’s an obvious truism, but one we easily forget. Nature’s ability to heal us:

“…Studies have shown that time in nature — as long as people feel safe — is an antidote for stress: It can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood.”

I relate deeply to these words because of how curative this week beside the sea was for me. Staying with a special friend, everyday we’d wake up, grab our boards and run down to the beach to play in the waves.

Surfing has always had a profound impact on me and if i’m honest I think this has very little to do with the actual waves. It’s always been more about spending time in the sea. The salty water, the sun on my skin, being totally at the mercy of nature’s capricious temperament. Bliss.

I drove back towards Cape Town feeling inexplicably high on life, marking the final leg of my trip at a friends lodge in Wilderness – where rustic cabins teeter on the precipice of a hill that looks out across indigenous forests and the formidable Outeniqua mountain range.

The retreat was spent connecting with a group of authentic and powerful women – being raw and vulnerable together, bathing in the river and under the waterfall, eating delicious vegan food and sitting in ceremony together. It all still feels like a dream.

So sacred was the experience it seems futile to even try and describe it.

There was one particular moment, right after a cacao ceremony, that I’ll never forget.

It was a sweltering Sunday afternoon and after drinking our cups of bitter chocolate potion, we put on music and began to dance together, freed from all inhibition, trepidation or hesitation; our hearts open as pure feminine power permeated the room.

As I danced I shed, I shed the pain, I shed the sadness, I shed the fear, I shed my clothes, I shed my grief, I shed it all. I danced myself out of the dark and into the light. I will never forget how connected I felt in that moment or the lesson it taught me – to never underestimate the power of a group of unapologetically, liberated women.

When I flew back to London a week later, I realised I carried only my suitcase with me and none of the same grief or melancholy I had brought with me.

This trip was never about remembering who I was before everything happened, rather it was about recreating myself. It was about meeting the new me and falling in love with life more deeply than ever before.

I am forever grateful for the medicine of my African home and how it healed me.

2 Comments

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  1. This is a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. B”H
    Dear dear Michele – you cannot begin to imagine the joy this brought to the hearts of those who are following your “journey”… i have no idea of course why you have had to go through so so much, but I must comment that you chosing to share your journey with such humanity and humility and beauty is the greatest gift of hope and faith you could possibly give to all of us… this last “story” is so so touching and inspiring, it gives such hope that all of us – your friends and families and all us strangers you have chosen so generously to ‘befriend’ – that at any age, and at any point of life, disease and healing, a person can breathe, and live, and hope, and reach new horizons with love and previously uncovered courage …. i am so so grateful, and in so much awe… and also in prayer; prayer that your story from now on will truly be a narrative of complete and perfect healing of mind body and spirit, of great joy, of great travels, of great success in whatever you desire to achieve, of true love embracing you fullheartedly….

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