Over the last six years living on this African continent, I’ve had the chance to see a few amazing endangered species of animals. Black rhino, African Penguin, Mountain Gorilla. But this past summer we visited Namibia and I witnessed a sort of loss that I’d never before seen with my own eyes: an endangered people, a culture on the very brink of extinction.

You may remember the San Bushmen from the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” That’s them. They are modern humanity’s oldest living ancestors— that is, you (whoever you are) and I can both be genetically traced back to them. The Bushmen have lived as hunter-gatherer nomads around southern Africa for the past 20,000 years, at least. They know how to seasonally harvest and use hundreds of plants in the region for food and medicine, they build temporary dwellings from resources they find and with the tools they fashion, and they hunt with snares and poison arrows. They are people you’d see on National Geographic, peaceful and totally badass.

But then there’s this little idea our world has: land ownership. After independence in 1990, much Namibian land was re-appropriated. Many groups of Bushmen, with no money or concept of ownership, were now trespassing on privately owned land, everywhere their nomadic ways took them. No longer free to roam, they were also no longer allowed to hunt as they once did, as conservation programs and game reserves came with strict rules.

We stayed on a giant farm/reserve where the owner told us that when her family had purchased the land, it included a certain acreage, an estimated number of wild game animals, the buildings, and oh, exactly twelve Bushmen.

We visited the homes of these twelve, where they live as permanent guests on their once boundless homeland. The government gives them some meat to compensate for the lack of hunting rights, and they make jewelry to sell to culturally-curious tourists who pass through. The children ran around with western underwear underneath their loincloths, speaking a language with multiple varieties of clicks while they expertly flicked through photos on someone’s iPhone. I couldn’t make sense of any of it. In one breath I was baffled that I live at the same time on the same planet as these people, and in the next could see nothing but the fact that so much that made them unique was turning to dust.

Only the elders have actually lived that traditional life. Their children and grandchildren, if they even learn those skills, will never use them for survival. Tens of thousands of years of indigenous knowledge is being lost at this very moment, within this one generation. This unnerves me to the core. Extinction is a verb, present tense. I could taste it, and at times I could barely breathe because something once so sturdy was so unmistakably fragile.

Some might argue that we no longer need hunter-gatherer minds among the ranks of our species. After all, we’ve invented tractors and slaughterhouses and the internet… drop the loincloth and go to school, for goodness sake! I asked the Bushmen (through an interpreter) if their lives are better or worse now, and they thoughtfully answered, “both.” They gained some things, lost others.

It seems like a question worth asking all of humanity, and I think we should be periodically called to take stock of the costs and benefits of development. Because tractors, slaughterhouses, the internet, and all the rest, both benefit and cost us something, culturally, if you think about it. Changing the way we live is never an uncompromising straight shot toward “better.”

I am happy for the Bushmen in some ways, and I would also say that there is something to be mourned in our collective unconscious, as that way of life ends. It is the loss of one incarnation of our most raw, survivalist selves, and a loss in our human diversity, the thing that ultimately makes us so strong. I don’t claim we should stop progress, and I know civilizations will keep moving forward. But in honor of that little group I met in the Kalahari that day, I would like to put my vote in for doing so as thoughtfully as possible, please.

Mandela's death

Next week will mark two years since Mandela’s death here in South Africa. By popular demand (thanks, mom) here are the emails and news from what we were experiencing those days on the ground.

Johannesburg (CNN) -- For the Xhosa people of South Africa, death is traditionally not something to be talked about or to be planned for, no matter how inevitable or close it may seem.

But in the final years of his life, secret plans were hammered out between the government, the military and his family as they prepared for a fitting farewell for a great man.

Below is a breakdown of how those plans will unfold over the next 10 days, culminating in a state funeral to be broadcast to millions worldwide and a very private farewell for those closest to him.

According to multiple sources involved with the planning of the final farewell to the South African icon, the 10 days of mourning will combine both Western traditions and those of the Thembu, Mandela's native clan.

hello all, 

so here we are. eyes and ears and hearts on the ground in south africa during this amazing time in history. it is such a humble honor to be here right now. 

we dashed out of school at the end of the day and headed for soweto. (this is a collection of townships where much of the apartheid resistance was organized. mandela and desmond tutu both lived on the same street-- vilakazi. it is still almost exclusively a black area, rich in culture and life and love.) we stepped into one of our most memorable cultural scenes we've ever experienced. the atmosphere was joyous for the most part, in such celebration of the man they love so dearly. they paraded up and down the street, singing songs from the struggle, to which everyone knew the words and dances. 

the energy was so welcoming. as we sat at a crowded outdoor restaurant, where many people were singing under a tent, one woman even came and sat by us. she wanted just to thank us for being there in soweto. she said that this is all mandela wanted: to have whites and blacks sitting at the table together. we were brought to tears again. it is a time of such mixed emotions. rowan seems to be really taking it all in too. 

we'll send updates as the events continue on. there is a memorial at the stadium on tuesday, viewing in the capital wed-fri. not sure yet what the school schedule will be for the week. here are a couple pictures from the afternoon. 

it feels really good to be among the people here. celebrating and mourning. please send us any question you have, or share things you've heard. 

love from a mourning nation.

k, h, and r

CNN- Day 1 to Day 4

Mandela passed away at 8.50 p.m. Thursday (1.50 p.m. ET), surrounded by his family, South African President Jacob Zuma said. CNN understands that during his final hours, Mandela would have also been surrounded by Thembu elders. Importantly, at some stage - either at his home or in the mortuary - the traditional leaders will gather for a first ceremony, a tradition called "the closing of the eyes."

Throughout the ceremony, they'll be talking to Mandela, as well as to his tribal ancestors, to explain what's happening at each and every stage to ease the transition from life to beyond.

i've been feeling really icky inside since the news that mandela died. almost like an anxiety attack, way deep down in my soul. like a stress that i couldn't explain or define, it just churned at me, making me feel... anxious, or urgent, or grumpy. monday night i had a meltdown about it.

i knew madiba's death would be a big deal, but i didn't think it would be personal for me. i mean, he's 95 and hasn't been doing anything in public life for years. moving here, i knew that eventual death was the only news left coming from him. and yet. there it was-- this pit of anxiousness in my gut that overwhelmed me. my wife eventually said, as i cried in bed, "maybe deep down, you body can tell. something in you knows there is a big shift happening right now in the universe." and as hokey or improbable as that might sound, i think it is true. something in this world has changed, now that he is no longer a part of our breathing humanity. and i find myself mourning. 

CNN- Day 5

No formal public events will be held until five days after Mandela's death when tens of thousands of people are expected to converge on the FNB Stadium, known as Soccer City in Soweto for a memorial service.

It was at that stadium that in July 2010 Mandela made his last public appearance at the World Cup final.

Dear AISJ Community,

As you are now aware, the official memorial service for Mr. Nelson Mandela will take place tomorrow. AISJ has made the decision to close school as a mark of respect. We believe this will allow our students, parents and staff to celebrate Mr. Mandela’s life in a manner they choose.

Andy Page-Smith, School Director



·      A total of 53 heads of state had confirmed their attendance at Mandela's memorial service at FNB Stadium on Tuesday. US President Barack Obama would be accompanied by three of his predecessors: Jimmy Carter, George W Bush, Bill Clinton, their spouses, and 26 congressmen.

·      The official memorial service at FNB Stadium will take place at 11:00am on Tuesday, with gates to open at 06:00am.

·      Mandela's body would not be at the service and no cars would be allowed near the stadium. Mourners were asked to travel to FNB Stadium by Metrorail and the Gautrain.

·      "Members of the public who want to attend the national memorial service at FNB... must plan their trips carefully, leave early and use public transport," he said. 

hello again, from the mandela memorial week. 

we went yesterday (tuesday) to his memorial service at the FNB stadium in soweto. we drove took a couple forms of public transit that morning, leaving the house around 5am. trains were full, and crowds were always singing. we were cramped and part of a tremendous river of people, but we always felt safe and amazed to be enveloped in it. people here say that when things are hard, they sing. and when things are good, they sing. it continues to be a week of much song. 

it was rainy. it was cold. we sat in the upper decks with most people, where there was some roof cover. people sang and danced, shaking the cement below our feet . we ate and waited a few hours for things to start. it kept raining. it was like a hollywood funeral, full of black umbrellas. announcements were made as dignitaries paraded in from everywhere in the world. 

did you hear obama's speech? if not, please listen. it was amazing.

obama's speech for madiba

as with most things we've seen here, the mood was celebrational. to the point of irreverence, actually. people weren't even listening to the variety of world presidents and leaders (with the exception of obama). the crowd was scolded over and over, eventually with some fierceness from desmond tutu. sometimes i thought that maybe this was just not the type of event that these people wanted or needed. and then other times, it just felt like a testimony in itself that we were somehow not worthy of him. that we are still so far from achieving what he thought us capable of. 

11 hours after leaving, we returned home wet and cold and SO glad we braved it all. i still have lots of mixed emotions about everything that is happening, and feel a bit sad and lost now that we're all living without him and his vision. we still need it. i still need it.  


CNN- Day 6 to 8

According to sources, Mandela's body will then lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of power of the South African government.

The first day will be reserved for dignitaries. The public will be allowed to file past his casket on days 7 and 8. Viewing hours are expected to be limited to daylight. Long lines will likely form from the very early hours of the morning.

It was at the historic Union Buildings that Mandela was inaugurated as president on May 10, 1994. On that extraordinary day, crowds converged around the building to witness history being made. That day, a former political prisoner achieved what was once unthinkable and became South Africa's first post-apartheid black leader.

thursday i went with a friend to pretoria, hoping to join the crowds to walk past mandela's body. we went to one of the shuttle collection points (you have to be shuttled in-- no driving or walking). we stood in an epic line, unlike any i've ever seen, snaking around the university grounds. it reminded me of photos i've seen of people here waiting for hours and hours for their first chance to vote. the scope of this line was just insane. we met amazing people of all races, and just the ability to have such rich and compassionate conversations, on equal ground with such diverse people, was such a powerful testimony to mandela’s life work. seeing a sense of community at work all day (holding peoples spots in line while they sat in the shade, passing around umbrellas, sharing money and getting drinks for strangers, etc) was so heart-warming.

as time went on, it became clearer and clearer that we had no chance of making it to see his body. yet, people were not deterred. one woman said, “the point is not that i make it there, the point is that i spent this day trying to. i just needed to be here today.” the line kept moving, turning new corners and ever-surprisingly even longer than we’d originally imagined. we waited in line for 5 hours, and we were still at least 2 hours from the buses when they closed for the day. the buses that were only going to bring us to the real line at the union building.

so i did not get to see him, and i simultaneously feel so full, in getting to share the experience of showing up anyway.

CNN- Day 9-10

Thousands of mourners are expected to line the streets from Mthatha airport to watch as the military transports Mandela's casket on a gun carriage to the remote village of Qunu, where the former leader spent his childhood years.

Along the way the procession is expected to pause for prayers to allow ordinary South Africans to pay their respects.

Once at Mandela's house, the military will formally pass responsibility for his remains to his family. The South African flag that is expected to be draped over the coffin will be replaced with a traditional Xhosa blanket, symbolizing the return of one of their own.

The funeral will take place under a large tent nestled in the hills where Mandela ran and played as a child. At midday - when the summer sun is high in the sky - Mandela will be buried into the rocky soil of his homeland. It will be, according to custom, a homecoming.

The event will be broadcast to an audience of millions around the world.

we will watch the funeral in qunu on TV tomorrow, at a friends house, and hopefully get some closure on this emotion-consuming week. we're on holiday break now... though we almost forgot to notice!

much love to all of you, from all of us. have a lovely holiday season. 




Sixteen years ago I started a tradition with a man named Adam Mellema, who would later become my best friend. It began in Chicago, on a whim, when we had trouble deciding between two restaurants. In this one fateful moment, instead of choosing one or the other, we decided to eat at ALL the restaurants that we wanted to try, sharing one thing at each place, and seeing how much we could taste in a day. Our first Restaurant Crawl was born.

We loved it, immediately deciding to make it a tradition. This was a bold move in our fairly new and fairly rocky friendship. And yet there was something about a tradition and a commitment that must have compelled us. Over the coming years we sometimes loved the Crawl more than we loved each other. Through eras of highs and lows, growing apart and together, we remained committed to this annual ritual, each year in a different city. And perhaps not surprisingly, very important parts of the woman I’d become were forged on these days of eating and talking and exploring the world with him. Our friendship grew up too, and we both learned an invaluable lesson on what the practice of commitment looks like.





Traverse City

Traverse City

San Fransisco

San Fransisco

Cape Town

Cape Town

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic, she writes about her commitment to become a writer, and how she invented her own rite of passage to commemorate a vow she made to a creative life. It reminded me that beyond the ritual of marriage, our culture offers very few traditions and expectations for serious, long-term commitment. In some ways I get it. We are ever changing and we shouldn’t bind ourselves to too many things we’re not sure we’ll always want to honor. After all, look at how often people switch majors in college, and later in life, careers.

And yet, the Restaurant Crawl created in me a strong faith in traditions, and in sticking with them through thick and thin, no matter how we come of age over and over. Our culture is a bit short on traditions around commitment, but that is not to say we can’t invent them for ourselves. The Restaurant Crawl is one of the ways my bestie Adam and I know we’re never alone or unaccountable in this world. It is how we remind each other that we have committed to trek this life together, no matter how our paths diverge. It is a vow of friendship (which at one point did include actual Friendship Vows) that makes us each stronger inside, safer. And once a year, fatter.

So cheers from the 16th Annual Restaurant Crawl, in Bangkok. Inventing your own traditions with the people you wander this life with makes everything more delicious.





Please shoot this black man, South Africa

“Excuse me, can you please shoot this black man?”

Believe it or not, someone said this to me last week. It was a greeting of welcome and friendship. It’s not hard to guess that I am far from the streets of America.  

I was at Joseph and Royal’s wedding in the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens, where for some reason my family and half the wedding guests were expected to attend the wedding photos. Walking around with my camera, some strangers approached, and wanting to be included in the festivities, asked me this question.

For starters, in a city known for its crime rate and gunshot wounds, “shoot” is also the word they use for taking pictures. If you’re passing any number of black children and you have a camera, you will hear shouts of, “Shoot me, shoot me!” It takes some getting used to.

The black man I shot, and his friend.

The black man I shot, and his friend.

But aside from the shooting, there was another surprising part to being asked to shoot a black man: the man's oh so casual reference to race. In South Africa, your race is a non-taboo identifying feature. This felt uncomfortable at first, and also feels like a huge relief. No one is offended by being called black, white, or coloured (which is anything in between). It’s just a fact. Every skin color carries a story and identity and relationship to privilege. And I’m finding it is so much easier to talk about privilege or inequality when we’re not uncomfortable acknowledging out loud in mixed company that we each have a race.

I was singled out at the wedding on many occasions for being a white woman, and I also shot a black man that day. Many of them, in fact. And we had a great time together.

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