Interview: are Anthea and her Dreamcatcher vision still relevant today?

Notoriously private in personal life and reticent to speak about herself (preferring to shift the media spotlight to her organization or to those she empowers) the following interviews offer valuable insight into person behind the scenes.

1. Interview 23 Years Ago (with Helene Steyn, historian & journalist – 1990)

Who inspires or motivates you to do this work? “Nelson Mandela inspires me. If he did not believe in what he was fighting for, he would never have done what he did. Rather, he would have bought his own freedom by selling the freedom of those he represented.

Few people think that township based, or as you call it, community based tourism is viable or has a future, particularly in South Africa. How do you keep going when no one else believes in it? “Of course this is going to work! People are just not seeing it yet. Quite frankly if Edison did not believe in what he was doing, you would not see me now: it would be dark in this room. If Alexander Graham Bell did not believe in what he was doing, we would still be delivering messages on horseback, or with pigeons, or with smoke signals in the hills.

Frankly though, sometimes it really is hard to keep trying to change the status quo. Especially in the current “dog eats dog” environment of the tourism industry, at times it has been pretty daunting to pioneer and change mindsets. The people calling the shots today are the predominantly white male decision makers. They actually would prefer to ignore insignificant me and discount my approach, but my ideas are not going to go away. Something is speaking within me, calling me to carry on.

Anthea with kamammas at vakantiebeursI believe in the viability of the product I am building with the people in their township communities. I am personally enriched by the experiences I enjoy there. They who have so little find so much joy in association, in spite of hardship. I have laughed and learned more about life and myself in the townships than anywhere. If people only knew how much fun I have on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, sitting unpretentiously with my friends, in tiny homes, learning and having so much fun sharing their mouth watering local food. Meanwhile, other people are content to sit in front of their huge televisions in their large luxurious homes, enjoying barbecues and beers. If they only knew what they are missing they would understand what fires me on and gives me wings. This is humanity at its true source. This is authentic magic. I consider myself both privileged and lucky and I am determined to make such experiences available for visitors. Integrating cultural exposure with what the country already offers can change the status quo and contribute to the growth of tourism and lift those in poverty.

Otherwise, quite frankly when you look at African tourist brochures marketed abroad, everyone is marketing the same thing: various safari type packages. Period. This is especially true for South Africa. Every African country has animals, smart hotels, glitzy bars, and spas. We have so much more. I truly believe that in the future, this same old “safari as usual” approach will become old hat and enlightened tourists of every age group, will yearn for something different and meaningful, something more engaging and worthwhile. What I am proposing IS different and meaningful; engaging and worthwhile. It’s a uniquely valuable authentic cultural exchange.”

2. And 12 years later (with Greta Wilson, writer & public relations professional – 2002)

You are still at it Anthea, do you have any regrets about the path your career has taken? “When I consider the current state of the world around me: I am pleased that I made choices that would not only work for what I passionately believed in, but also for those I encountered along the way in their struggle to survive. I made a personal commitment, when no one else would. I feel even stronger now about what I believe in and stand for. Even back then, as it is to this day, experiencing South Africa as a country is about much more than animals, mountains and nature. Though this country’s wonderful wildlife, vistas, and landscapes are important, the routine safari experience ignores the cultural context of the people who live here and make this the Rainbow Nation.

I had the rare privilege, by default actually, of meeting “Madiba” (Nelson Mandela) once in Oudtshoorn. He listened attentively to everything I told him about what I was trying to do in the few minutes I shared with him and he “got it” immediately. He told me that my concept was very important for the future of the people of South Africa. Tourism, to be a meaningful industry, should be about doing something significant actually. My approach does do something about creating dignity, jobs and a down-right gobsmacking experience for tourists in communities all across South Africa. That’s positive stuff. The world is full of negativity. I don’t do negative – too many people are doing that already!

Who else inspires you to carry on in what must surely be a pretty lonely world out there changing people’s perceptions? “I am also inspired by Maya Angelou. “ I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” are brilliant. Suffering immensely in personal life, Maya manages to turn a tear into a smile. She is funny, enlightening and quirky and I have learned so much from her.

I also keep the sincere and trusting face of Moses, who beseeched me to do something for his people, in my minds eye. I have to change the thinking in the tourism industry and in the mindset of many people both in South Africa and overseas. I believe I have found the road or path to a different way of poverty relief and bringing people together. I am committed to changing gears and lanes to another way that works. I take my cue from Moses. He lived in hope he said, that some day he would meet the person who would help. He died soon after.

The elders say: Hope is the last to die. It is hope which makes me rise with invigorated spirit each day.

Anthea_with_kidFurthermore, the world is changing at a fast pace. I experienced 9/11 in the USA, narrowly missing being on one of those two ill-fated flights into the Twin Towers from Logan International Airport in Boston. Afterwards, for five days, I sat stunned on a train full of terrified Americans traveling across the country; with an empty purse, hungry and terrified myself. Since that experience, I have thought a lot about my life’s purpose. I recognize now I would choose to do what I have done all over again. I have found joy in my true purpose and the chance to positively impact those around me. To bridge the divide between people, nations, and cultures through tourism. And also to suggest that no special credentials or attributes are required. Anyone traveling could make a difference if they were given the opportunity, should they choose to take it. Some people may opt out. That is fine too…the world is full of all kinds of people and I of ALL people understand and appreciate the diversity we share. That, after all, is the crux of my message!

I think I taught myself long ago to tune into watching each day or each situation unfold. For example: I knew deep within me, that the day would surely come when critical thinking travelers would tire of sitting passively in front of a bus window. Many of them might then develop a yearning to know more about—and more from—the people of the country outside the window. Especially South Africa. And that day finally came. Since the international tour buyers tend to buy from their contracted suppliers in South Africa, who in turn choose not sell the community based experiences I am advocating, it is difficult to get business and bookings. But we have a solution. The Kamammas and I plan to “don our own traveling shoes,” as Maya Angelou inspires us to do. If they will not include us in their agendas and help pioneer our new interactive approach to tourism (“life-seeing” instead of merely “sightseeing”) we decided to go abroad to do the job ourselves. Experiences of nature, animals and environmental wonders of South Africa should not exclude our most precious attribute: our diverse, wonderful people. We will tell our own story.

Tourism is an international industry but tourism happens where people live. That is my first lesson to the micro entrepreneurs I mentor. Tourism could be world’s largest job creator. I had my eye on the benefits it could bring to those I fell in love with at grass roots, thanks to the example of my parents and the quality of my early life. You see, I understand that the true soul of the country is its people. They are the custodians of the very nature we live in.

They are funny, often loud, happy, patient, strong, and forgiving. Their vibe is creative, suffering yet smiling, with so little – yet so grateful for the little they do have – it’s awe inspiring. It’s all about their innate dignity and their humanity. It’s about the light in the eyes of the children when they see me. That’s the world I love, it is their world, it is my world. I want to share that one true world. It’s mine, it’s theirs, it can be everyone’s. It fills me with such joy to realize that I have been able to help others believe they will wake up to a better tomorrow. In this lies a richness of the soul one cannot buy.”

What about your childhood? “I am eternally grateful to my incredible parents for their visionary parenting and the ‘colorblind’ childhood I enjoyed. It was one where we were encouraged to think outside the box and to engage others regardless of cultural heritage, with the same level of respect. I grew up in a multi-cultural neighborhood on the side of the town which would be considered working class. Scottish families, Italian, English, Irish, Jewish, Afrikaner, Indian were all represented. I fondly remember stopping over at “Stripe” my dad’s Indian friend’s restaurant for mouthwatering food.

And believe it or not…remember this was actually illegal back then…our black house-help Siena often slept over on her bed in our kitchen (the kitchen was the only place there was room for an extra bed in our cramped house). If it was raining or Siena didn’t seem to be feeling well to my mums eagle-eye, she would stay over. Mum would never consider sending Siena home after dark, or when she was ill or just overtired.

We learned from an early age to be compassionate and have self respect; show respect; revel in our diversity and to learn as much as possible; to laugh a lot but to get a job done; to share and be compassionate; to live and let live. My parents both taught by example. The most lasting lesson I learned might be summed up: ‘work is love made visible’.

I remember helping my mum make stacks of sandwiches either for poor kids in the neighborhood or for my dad to take to work and share with his teams of Xhosa and other indigenous cultures workers. Often to make do for the next month or pay for our school fees and books, my multi-talented mum would sew fashionable garments for wealthy families. How incredibly privileged I was to have such a grounded childhood.”

What are your closing thoughts? “Some of the Kamammas call me their mother. In Africa this is a special way to pay tribute to someone. I feel humbled, honored, and enriched. Monetary riches are relative. Though I am still a volunteer with Dreamcatcher Foundation, I am happy to be so. There is something to be said about not merely talking about increasing the quality of life but actually taking steps to put an end to poverty and lack of opportunity. Walking the talk to put an end to aid without end: its a great place to be.”

Helene Steyn & Greta Wilson (Journalists, South Africa)

Helen Keller once said: “The only thing worse than being blind, is to have sight but no vision. “Anthea Rossouw is a true visionary equipped not only with intelligence and foresight but also the necessary stamina to persevere. Still she is humble and approachable, courageous and magnanimous. Bestowed with an incredible wealth of talents, she could have achieved anything she put her mind to and become anyone she wished to be. Yet she followed her original vision, marched to her own drummer, and believed in something few could grasp all those years ago in South Africa. Yes this Dreamcatcher is making Nelson Mandela’s dream of ‘a better life for all’ work.”