Photo: Ingrid 4 or 5 years old, being mostly drawn to animals
I regularly get asked “what made you come to South Africa?”.
Some wonder “what on Earth would make a young woman want to leave safe and prosperous Holland”, others are just curious as to “why South Africa out of all the countries in the world?”.
So what happened?
In one word: serendipity. It was all one giant, freaky, random string of choices that in hindsight eerily feels like fate.
I graduated from university in 2000, and with a little bit of money that was owed to me by my parents I booked a small group tour through South Africa. I wanted to have an adventure before I “settled” in the corporate world. And yes, I was fascinated by Africa. But South Africa was a random choice. It was also a choice to go alone, as I was supposed to travel with a friend. I was just too excited to cancel after she told me the news that it wasn’t within her financial means.
What I was not prepared for however, was the impact South Africa had on me. I was instantly overwhelmed by the raw and diverse beauty of this country, and the awesomeness of its people, but it went even deeper than that. On a cellular level, it felt like I had come home.
The awakening I had experienced was so strong that when I landed back in the Netherlands a few weeks later, everyone who knew me well could see something had changed. My mother knew the moment she laid eyes on me at the airport. My friends knew, and were very supportive…my parents quite the opposite. And after a few weeks of soul searching I knew there simply was no other option than to go back. I called the company I was going to work for that I was no longer joining their programme. I started working full time at the florist where I had worked part-time during my studies, while I actively started searching for work in South Africa. I followed any lead that had a connection to South Africa, met with many people, visited trade shows, even had interviews, and then I heard about a public event in Utrecht organised by Baobab Reizen, who were looking for aspiring tour guides for South Africa. A tour guide by the name of Jeannette Hogenesch was one of the speakers, and listening to her passionate experiences as a tour guide made me apply on the spot. Two nerve-wrecking application rounds later I was hired for South Africa. The universe was on my side. I was almost there.
Three months later I had given up my student room, given away what little stuff I had, and I had saved every penny I had earned (which wasn’t much). With a large backpack and a fluttering (but also heavy) heart I boarded a plane to South Africa, and I never looked back.
I have lived almost half my life in South Africa, and I know without a shred of doubt that this was where I needed to be in order to become the person I wanted, and needed to become. Growing up in the Netherlands was wonderful in many ways, but I always felt different from everyone else. Being different in the Netherlands can be pretty lonely, as its society very much relies on conformity. I was a troubled soul from a very young age. I was bullied and I struggled with self-worth, as well as life’s superficialness. My mind plunged deeper than I could process, and I often felt alone, on the outside looking in, invisible. My search to belong, to feel seen and loved, led me down a self-destructive path, and by the time I was 21 I already felt battered and broken. I left for South Africa at the age of 26, where I intuitively sensed that I could breathe and figure it all out. I didn’t want to walk the conventional path of school-work-man-family, so what did I want? For the first 10 years I kept sliding down the slippery slope of self-sabotage, but once backed against an emotional wall at the age of 36, I finally got to work. More on this later.
Genetically and culturally I am (still) Dutch, but South Africa is the country of my heart and soul. It was here where I eventually did figure myself out, and that was only because I was allowed the time and space to fail forward to that point. South Africa is where I soulfully came home, and for that, she will always be special.
To quote Nelson Mandela quoting Invictus from Henley:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.