After living in the States for nearly two decades, Leigh Barrett decided to come back to SA – and fell in love with her homeland.
I left South Africa in 1998 – not for any of the usual reasons people use to leave South Africa, but simply there was another world out there. I packed up my 5 dogs, and hit the plane to New York. We meandered across the continent eventually landing in a town I’d never heard of before: Eugene, Oregon. Aside from a two year interval in Los Angeles (a ghastly place overall), this laid-back, casual and friendly hippie enclave was my home until February 2016.
There was a long period of culture shock, trying to adapt to life that in odd and subtle ways was very different. I had some fun with that, at times: Americans might not believe we live in huts, but you could confuse them by saying zebra meat is black and white all the way through!
A chance meeting at a local public radio station resulted in a surprise gig. I’d worked in TV and print in South Africa, but radio was a first for me. When a stranger called to me from across the room and asked if I wanted to present Women In Music, I wasn’t about to tell him I had no idea what that was. The next week, I was a radio DJ, and I spent the next 12 years having fun on the airwaves. I presented weekly music shows, where more South African music was played than had ever been heard there before. A second radio station offered me a timeslot where I created a weekly news show focusing on Africa, and it became the ‘go-to’ place to find out what was happening on the continent.
Beyond my unpaid radio gigs, however, I found life less than satisfying: initially, I had tried to utilize my South African television documentary production experience, but local TV in America is limited and the most creative I could get was to make sure the camera was pointed in the right direction. I had to pay the rent somehow, so I used my basic knowledge of QuickBooks and delved into bookkeeping. Of course, I was bored stiff. Did life really come down to breathing and doing anything to pay the rent?
I spent two years unemployed when the economy nosedived in 2008, eventually finding a position in the finance department of a global software giant. My job was mostly spent being a listening companion to my manager, whose staff had been outsourced to India. So, for the next 5 years, in return for a salary with benefits, I spent a couple of hours each day listening to her recount the minutiae of her uninteresting life. It was, in some respects, the perfect job: I had all the time in the world to start focusing on what I really wanted to do, and Facebook opened the door to that very opportunity.
I connected with a woman who had a foundation focusing on humanitarian issues, and when she asked me to create podcasts on some of those topics, I jumped at the chance. It wouldn’t pay anything, but I started to relocate my passion as I researched, wrote, interviewed, scripted, and audio-edited shows. They were well-received, so she asked me to write articles for the Journal she was publishing. Again, I dived in. It was still unpaid work, but I didn’t really mind – my “real” job kept the rent paid, and I was feeling that fluttering in my gut that told me I was on the right path.
And then, my cushy job went away in corporate restructuring. I wasn’t surprised, but it started to sharply focus my mind towards that question of what life really is. One morning, I awoke with a thought of absolute clarity and deep certainty: it was time to come home.
It had been a long 18 years since I had left. And while I’d kept up with the news, reports cannot truly convey the reality of a place, even one that was once so familiar. I had always rejected the idea of coming back before, concerned that perhaps I had changed too much to ‘fit in’. A laughable concept – I’d never “fitted in”. An introverted outsider since birth, society had never been a comfortable place for me.
I cast myself into South Africa with a solo road trip that extended to almost six weeks. I journeyed from Johannesburg, through the Free State, the KZN Midlands, Eastern Cape, Garden Route, and the Karoo, before finding my feet in Cape Town. I navigated dongas, ditches, tyre blowouts, potholes, incredible hospitality, some of the best food and coffee I’ve ever had – all the while dealing with Shirley, my car’s GPS who never seemed to have a clue where we were. And I fell in love.
For 18 years, I had followed American politics closely and seen, first-hand the disillusionment of so many who understood what had happened to their country, but ceased to care. In South Africa, we play our politics out in the open. We are not an acquiescent people. We shout, we scream, and we break things when we feel we must. We demand democracy. The issues we face – corruption, state capture, mismanagement – are to a large extent considered “Tuesday” in countries like America. In South Africa, we rage against them. We have a vibrant, healthy democracy and we fight for it, every day.
On my way to Cape Town, I envisaged my new job. The gut-fluttering I’d felt before made it a “no-brainer”. I wanted to focus on the humanitarian and current affairs stories that don’t always get the attention of the news media. March saw the launch of Perspective: Africa, an idea born while I was on some highway Shirley called “off road”. It contained several excellent essays on the mining battle playing out on our Wild Coast, simply stunning photography, and various op-eds and articles from people in different parts of the world who also love this continent. The fact that it’s possible to produce this level of publication, with no financial backing, no advertising, and no money of my own to support it, is beyond my imagining.
Just over a year ago, I made the decision to come home to live a fulfilled life. Now settled in a studio apartment above a garage on a little vineyard, I take stock of the list of experiences, gifts, skills, and talents I have developed over the years. It may happen that I’ll need to find a boring bookkeeping job soon – but this is South Africa! Opportunities abound, and my love for this country knows no limits.
This may be one more leap into the unknown. But what I do know with unwavering certainty, is that I am so fortunate to be back – and this time to offer all I have to this extraordinary country.