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TEDWomen 2013

Boyd Varty: What I learned from Nelson Mandela

December 5, 2013

"In the cathedral of the wild, we get to see the best parts of ourselves reflected back to us." Boyd Varty, a wildlife activist, shares stories of animals, humans and their interrelatedness, or "ubuntu" -- defined as, "I am, because of you." And he dedicates the talk to South African leader Nelson Mandela, the human embodiment of that same great-hearted, generous spirit.

Boyd Varty - Environmental and literacy activist
In his native South Africa, Boyd Varty builds wildlife corridors to restore the environment and literacy centers to restore the human spirit. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm a man who's trying to live from his heart,
00:12
and so just before I get going,
00:16
I wanted to tell you as a South African
00:19
that one of the men who has inspired me most
00:21
passed away a few hours ago.
00:24
Nelson Mandela has come to the end
00:27
of his long walk to freedom.
00:30
And so this talk is going to be for him.
00:33
I grew up in wonder.
00:40
I grew up amongst those animals.
00:43
I grew up in the wild eastern part of South Africa
00:47
at a place called Londolozi Game Reserve.
00:51
It's a place where my family has been
00:54
in the safari business for four generations.
00:57
Now for as long as I can remember,
01:01
my job has been to take people out into nature,
01:03
and so I think it's a lovely twist of fate today
01:08
to have the opportunity
01:11
to bring some of my experiences out in nature
01:13
in to this gathering.
01:16
Africa is a place
01:18
where people still sit under starlit skies
01:20
and around campfires and tell stories,
01:23
and so what I have to share with you today
01:26
is the simple medicine of a few campfire stories,
01:29
stories about heroes of heart.
01:34
Now my stories are not the stories
01:37
that you'll hear on the news,
01:39
and while it's true that Africa is a harsh place,
01:41
I also know it to be a place
01:43
where people, animals and ecosystems
01:45
teach us about a more interconnected world.
01:50
When I was nine years old,
01:54
President Mandela came to stay with my family.
01:56
He had just been released from
his 27 years of incarceration,
01:59
and was in a period of readjustment
02:03
to his sudden global icon status.
02:05
Members of the African National Congress
02:08
thought that in the bush
02:10
he would have time to rest and recuperate
02:12
away from the public eye,
02:15
and it's true that lions tend to be
02:16
a very good deterrent to press and paparazzi.
02:20
(Laughter)
02:24
But it was a defining time for me as a young boy.
02:26
I would take him breakfast in bed,
02:29
and then, in an old track suit and slippers,
02:31
he would go for a walk around the garden.
02:33
At night, I would sit with my family
02:36
around the snowy, bunny-eared TV,
02:37
and watch images of that same
02:40
quiet man from the garden
02:42
surrounded by hundreds and thousands of people
02:44
as scenes from his release were broadcast nightly.
02:47
He was bringing peace
02:51
to a divided and violent South Africa,
02:53
one man with an unbelievable sense of his humanity.
02:55
Mandela said often that the gift of prison
03:01
was the ability to go within and to think,
03:03
to create in himself
03:06
the things he most wanted for South Africa:
03:08
peace, reconciliation, harmony.
03:11
Through this act of immense open-heartedness,
03:14
he was to become the embodiment
03:17
of what in South Africa we call "ubuntu."
03:19
Ubuntu: I am because of you.
03:23
Or, people are not people
03:26
without other people.
03:29
It's not a new idea or value
03:31
but it's one that I certainly think at these times
03:33
is worth building on.
03:35
In fact, it is said that in the
collective consciousness of Africa,
03:37
we get to experience the deepest parts
03:40
of our own humanity
03:42
through our interactions with others.
03:43
Ubuntu is at play right now.
03:46
You are holding a space for me
03:48
to express the deepest truth of who I am.
03:50
Without you, I'm just a guy talking to an empty room,
03:53
and I spent a lot of time last week doing that,
03:56
and it's not the same as this.
03:59
(Laughter)
04:02
If Mandela was the national
and international embodiment,
04:05
then the man who taught me the most
04:08
about this value personally was this man,
04:10
Solly Mhlongo.
04:12
Solly was born under a tree
04:14
60 kilometers from where I grew up in Mozambique.
04:15
He would never have a lot of money,
04:18
but he was to be
04:20
one of the richest men I would ever meet.
04:21
Solly grew up tending to his father's cattle.
04:24
Now, I can tell you, I don't know what it is
about people who grow up looking after cattle,
04:26
but it makes for über-resourcefulness.
04:31
The first job that he ever got in the safari business
04:34
was fixing the safari trucks.
04:36
Where he had learned to do that out in the bush
04:38
I have no idea, but he could do it.
04:41
He then moved across into what we called
04:43
the habitat team.
04:45
These were the people on the reserve
04:46
who were responsible for its well-being.
04:48
He fixed roads, he mended wetlands,
04:51
he did some anti-poaching.
04:53
And then one day we were out together,
04:55
and he came across the tracks of where
a female leopard had walked.
04:57
And it was an old track,
05:00
but for fun he turned and he began to follow it,
05:02
and I tell you, I could tell by the speed
05:05
at which he moved on those pad marks
05:06
that this man was a Ph.D.-level tracker.
05:08
If you drove past Solly
05:12
somewhere out on the reserve,
05:14
you look up in your rearview mirror,
05:15
you'd see he'd stopped the car
05:17
20, 50 meters down the road
05:19
just in case you need help with something.
05:21
The only accusation I ever heard leveled at him
05:24
was when one of our clients said,
05:27
"Solly, you are pathologically helpful."
05:28
(Laughter)
05:31
When I started professionally guiding people
05:34
out into this environment,
05:37
Solly was my tracker.
05:38
We worked together as a team.
05:40
And the first guests we ever got
05:42
were a philanthropy group from your East Coast,
05:44
and they said to Solly, on the side, they said,
05:47
"Before we even go out to see lions and leopards,
05:49
we want to see where you live."
05:52
So we took them up to his house,
05:54
and this visit of the philanthropist to his house
05:55
coincided with a time when Solly's wife,
05:58
who was learning English,
06:01
was going through a phase
where she would open the door
06:02
by saying, "Hello, I love you.
06:04
Welcome, I love you." (Laughter)
06:07
And there was something so beautifully African
06:09
about it to me, this small house
06:12
with a huge heart in it.
06:14
Now on the day that Solly saved my life,
06:16
he was already my hero.
06:23
It was a hot day,
06:25
and we found ourselves down by the river.
06:26
Because of the heat, I took my shoes off,
06:28
and I rolled up my pants,
06:31
and I walked into the water.
06:33
Solly remained on the bank.
06:35
The water was clear running over sand,
06:37
and we turned and we began
to make our way upstream.
06:40
And a few meters ahead of us,
06:43
there was a place where a tree
had fallen out of the bank,
06:45
and its branches were touching the water,
06:48
and it was shadowy.
06:51
And if had been a horror movie,
06:52
people in the audience would have started saying,
06:55
"Don't go in there. Don't go in there." (Laughter)
06:57
And of course, the crocodile was in the shadows.
07:00
Now the first thing that you notice
when a crocodile hits you
07:04
is the ferocity of the bite.
07:06
Wham! It hits me by my right leg.
07:08
It pulls me. It turns. I throw my hand up.
I'm able to grab a branch.
07:10
It's shaking me violently.
07:14
It's a very strange sensation
07:15
having another creature try and eat you,
07:17
and there are few things that
promote vegetarianism like that.
07:19
(Laughter)
07:23
Solly on the bank sees that I'm in trouble.
07:24
He turns. He begins to make his way to me.
07:26
The croc again continues to shake me.
07:28
It goes to bite me a second time.
07:30
I notice a slick of blood in the water around me
07:32
that gets washed downstream.
07:35
As it bites the second time, I kick.
07:36
My foot goes down its throat. It spits me out.
07:38
I pull myself up into the branches,
07:41
and as I come out of the water,
I look over my shoulder.
07:43
My leg from the knee down
07:47
is mangled beyond description.
07:49
The bone is cracked.
07:51
The meat is torn up.
07:52
I make an instant decision that
I'll never look at that again.
07:54
As I come out of the water,
07:58
Solly arrives at a deep section,
08:01
a channel between us.
08:03
He knows, he sees the state of my leg,
08:05
he knows that between him and I
08:07
there is a crocodile,
08:09
and I can tell you this man doesn't
slow down for one second.
08:10
He comes straight into the channel.
08:13
He wades in to above his waist.
08:14
He gets to me. He grabs me.
08:16
I'm still in a vulnerable position.
08:18
He picks me and puts me on his shoulder.
08:20
This is the other thing about Solly,
he's freakishly strong.
08:21
He turns. He walks me up the bank.
08:24
He lays me down. He pulls his shirt off.
08:26
He wraps it around my leg,
08:28
picks me up a second time,
08:30
walks me to a vehicle,
08:31
and he's able to get me to medical attention.
08:33
And I survive.
08:37
Now — (Applause)
08:40
Now I don't know how many people you know
08:44
that go into a deep channel of water
08:47
that they know has a crocodile in it
08:49
to come and help you,
08:51
but for Solly, it was as natural as breathing.
08:53
And he is one amazing example
08:56
of what I have experienced all over Africa.
08:59
In a more collective society,
09:02
we realize from the inside
09:04
that our own well-being is deeply tied
09:07
to the well-being of others.
09:10
Danger is shared. Pain is shared.
09:13
Joy is shared. Achievement is shared.
09:17
Houses are shared. Food is shared.
09:20
Ubuntu asks us to open our hearts
09:24
and to share,
09:27
and what Solly taught me that day
09:29
is the essence of this value,
09:31
his animated, empathetic action
09:33
in every moment.
09:35
Now although the root word is about people,
09:37
I thought that maybe ubuntu was only about people.
09:41
And then I met this young lady.
09:44
Her name was Elvis.
09:48
In fact, Solly gave her the name Elvis
09:49
because he said she walked like she was doing
09:51
the Elvis the pelvis dance.
09:54
She was born with very badly
deformed back legs and pelvis.
09:57
She arrived at our reserve from a reserve
10:01
east of us on her migratory route.
10:03
When I first saw her,
10:05
I thought she would be dead in a matter of days.
10:07
And yet, for the next five years
10:09
she returned in the winter months.
10:12
And we would be so excited to be out in the bush
10:15
and to come across this unusual track.
10:17
It looked like an inverted bracket,
10:20
and we would drop whatever
we were doing and we would follow,
10:21
and then we would come around the corner,
10:24
and there she would be with her herd.
10:25
And that outpouring of emotion
10:27
from people on our safari trucks
10:30
as they saw her, it was this sense of kinship.
10:32
And it reminded me
10:35
that even people who grow up in cities
10:37
feel a natural connection
10:39
with the natural world and with animals.
10:42
And yet still I remained amazed
that she was surviving.
10:45
And then one day we came across
them at this small water hole.
10:48
It was sort of a hollow in the ground.
10:51
And I watched as the matriarch drank,
10:53
and then she turned in that
beautiful slow motion of elephants,
10:55
looks like the arm in motion,
10:59
and she began to make her way up the steep bank.
11:00
The rest of the herd turned and began to follow.
11:03
And I watched young Elvis
11:08
begin to psych herself up for the hill.
11:10
She got visibly -- ears came forward,
11:13
she had a full go of it and halfway up,
11:17
her legs gave way, and she fell backwards.
11:19
She attempted it a second time,
11:21
and again, halfway up, she fell backwards.
11:23
And on the third attempt,
11:26
an amazing thing happened.
11:28
Halfway up the bank,
11:30
a young teenage elephant came in behind her,
11:32
and he propped his trunk underneath her,
11:35
and he began to shovel her up the bank.
11:37
And it occurred to me
11:41
that the rest of the herd
11:42
was in fact looking after this young elephant.
11:44
The next day I watched again
11:46
as the matriarch broke a branch
11:49
and she would put it in her mouth,
11:51
and then she would break a second one
11:53
and drop it on the ground.
11:55
And a consensus developed between all of us
11:57
who were guiding people in that area
12:00
that that herd was in fact moving slower
12:02
to accommodate that elephant.
12:05
What Elvis and the herd taught me
12:09
caused me to expand my definition of ubuntu,
12:11
and I believe that in the cathedral of the wild,
12:14
we get to see the most beautiful parts of ourselves
12:17
reflected back at us.
12:19
And it is not only through other people
12:21
that we get to experience our humanity
12:25
but through all the creatures that live on this planet.
12:27
If Africa has a gift to share,
12:31
it's a gift of a more collective society.
12:34
And while it's true that ubuntu is an African idea,
12:38
what I see is the essence of that value
12:42
being invented here.
12:47
Thank you.
12:49
(Applause)
12:51
Pat Mitchell: So Boyd,
13:15
we know that you knew President Mandela
13:17
from early childhood
13:22
and that you heard the news as we all did today,
13:24
and deeply distraught
13:27
and know the tragic loss that it is to the world.
13:30
But I just wondered if you wanted
13:34
to share any additional thoughts,
13:36
because we know that you heard that news
13:38
just before coming in to do this session.
13:40
Boyd Varty: Well thanks, Pat.
13:43
I'm so happy because it was time for him to pass on.
13:45
He was suffering.
13:48
And so of course there's the mixed emotions.
13:50
But I just think of so many occurrences
13:52
like the time he went on the Oprah show
13:54
and asked her what the show would be about.
13:57
(Laughter)
14:00
And she was like, "Well, it'll be about you."
14:01
I mean, that's just incredible humility.
14:05
(Laughter)
14:07
He was the father of our nation
14:11
and we've got a road to walk in South Africa.
14:14
And everything, they used to call it Madiba magic.
14:21
You know, he used to go to
a rugby match and we would win.
14:24
Anywhere he went, things went well.
14:27
But I think that magic will be with us,
14:30
and the important thing is that we carry
14:33
what he stood for.
14:36
And so that's what I'm going to try and do,
14:38
and that's what people all over
South Africa are trying to do.
14:41
PM: And that's what you've done today.
BV: Oh, thank you.
14:44
PM: Thank you.
BV: Thank you. Thanks very much.
14:46
(Applause)
14:49

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Boyd Varty - Environmental and literacy activist
In his native South Africa, Boyd Varty builds wildlife corridors to restore the environment and literacy centers to restore the human spirit.

Why you should listen

Everyone has felt that connection with nature. Through the Good Work Foundation, Boyd Varty is building a movement around it. The fourth-generation custodian of the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa calls it a psychology of restoration. “We would like to be pioneers of the age of restoration,” says Varty. “Restoration of land, people and the human spirit."

By providing environmental, English and computer education to the people who live and work in Londolozi, he’s also creating an economically and socially sustainable model for conservation.

The original video is available on TED.com
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