I felt like I’d been lied to all of my life. When I was growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I’d never heard or learned anything positive about Africa or Africans. In fact, I’d mainly heard negative stories, except for the ones about the animals. Within my own family and among friends at school, to be called an “African,” was a fighting word. And of course, the media didn’t help. Most TV and newspaper stories then highlighted only negative stereotypes of Africans, like starving children with bloated stomachs and flies flitting about.
So when I first landed in South Africa in 1994, I didn’t expect to see anything much different than what I’d always heard. For sure, I definitely didn’t plan on staying longer than the three weeks I was there to cover the first democratic elections. My goal was to gain international TV news reporting experience, return to the US, and land myself a big-time anchor job with CNN.
I was a bit nervous about traveling alone to South Africa; I was aware of the anti-Apartheid movement there, and understood the similarities between that and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. In addition to the White Afrikaners, I’d learned about Zulu Chief Mathole Buthelezi and his warring attitude towards Nelson Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC).
But it was Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his freedom speech that actually inspired me to find a way to travel to South Africa in the first place. I had already created a Good News TV news segment that was based on Good News Magazine, something I created and published in Los Angeles following the Rodney King civil unrest. I knew I had broadcast chops. The magazine was designed to bridge ethnic and cultural gaps in Los Angeles, to spotlight cross-cultural commonalities instead of differences.
So I decided to pitch my TV idea to broadcast ‘good news’ to a local television station, however, good news wasn’t an easy sell. I was very persistent, nonetheless. I called and visited the station, and I even secured meetings with the news director. I’ll never forget how many times over the next nine months that I heard him say no. But I still didn’t give up. I was relentless with my pitching (begging) him to give me an opportunity to bring the magazine stories alive on TV. Finally, I suppose I wore him down with my hounding because he eventually gave in. The news director agreed to air my stories each day of the three-day elections, and connect me with CNN to satellite the videotape back to the US!
The only problem was that I had to find enough money to cover the costs of travel, food and lodging. I also had to find and pay for my own camera crew there, and then conduct, produce and edit multiracial, exclusive on-camera interviews of broadcast quality to air in the US. Whew! That was a tall order, right? But in my mind, I’d gotten this far so it couldn’t be impossible.
Although I never doubted if it could be done, it was just a matter of how, and how long it would take. So I developed a plan of action, and took the following steps:
— I called multinational advertisers that supported my Good News Magazine, and pitched my idea to them, citing potential “barter” and branding possibilities
-—I called dozens of personal, political, and news media industry contacts to identify a local camera crew in Johannesburg to hire (sight-unseen); and
—I followed leads on contacts in South Africa to arrange a series of exclusive interviews that represented a cross-section of the South African population (Blacks, Coloreds, Whites, Indians, Afrikaners, etc.).
Done! I was on my way! But, I didn’t realize how biased my expectations of Africa were, until I arrived. As my South African Airways Boeing 747 jet landed at the Jan Smuts International Airport (now Johannesburg International Airport), I was shocked to see such beautiful, California-like palm trees lining the paved highways, and tall skyscrapers rising against a modernized city’s skyline. As I got off the plane and walked into the airport, I was even more surprised to see Africans neatly attired in western business suits, and ATM machines at every turn.
“This is not the Africa I was expecting,” I thought to myself. It was a wonderful surprise though, and I had many more on my taxi ride to my hotel. I’d never imagined an African country with infrastructure like we have here in the US. Where were all the wild animals, starving children dying from HIV/AIDS, and half-naked tribal warriors with their drums and spears? Could it be that my preconceived notions of Africa were wrong? Could it be that I’d been lied to through TV shows like Tarzan and Jane, Hollywood movies, and my inadequate public education?
Within a few hours of arriving at cosmopolitan Johannesburg, I saw more positive images of Africa than I’d ever imagined. Why had these truths been kept from me? My eyes filled with tears as I stared out of my taxi window, feeling like I’d been cheated from having a true understanding and appreciation of my real ancestry. If my mother had only gotten a chance to see this for herself…if she had only known a more balanced truth of Africa, she might have had a different attitude toward, and appreciation of her heritage, I reflected. She might have also raised me to have a different view and appreciation of Africa myself. And, she might have lived and died more at peace with who she really was – and where she came from.
I felt thrilled, yet embarrassed. I felt like hugging the trees and kissing the dirt—and I felt very much at peace.
Post script: After my first trip to South Africa, I decided I wanted to live there. No fear! My years in South Africa turned out to be critical to my life's calling. I went through many struggles but eventually founded my PR company there, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Julia’s 'Fearless Living' tips:
1) Don’t accept stereotypes. Go see for yourself; and get to know others.
2) Be open to learning, even though you may be going to teach.
3) Be persistent and consistent. The more times you say something, the more you believe it and are able to convince others.
4) Follow-up and follow-through. Do what you say, and say what you mean. Deliver.
5) Be flexible and open to revising your initial plans if new information warrants a change.
Until next time: May the curiosity of life keep you aware, the power of love push you forward, and may the love of life, keep you living in the spirit of "Fearless Living!”
Julia A. Wilson is the CEO and Founder of Wilson Global Communications, a DC-based international public affairs consulting firm. A US Department of State Fulbright Grant recipient and international lecturer, Wilson has lived, studied and/or worked in Africa, China, France, Israel and Brazil. In 2013, she participated in President Barack Obama’s White House Initiative on Africa, and serves as the international consultant to the National Urban League and as the US-China liaison and representative for the China-United States Exchange Foundation in Hong Kong.