8 June 2014

A STROLL WITH LEE SWAN (For World Oceans Day)

"We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean will still be missing something." ~ Mother Teresa

Popularly called the 'World's toughest race', the polar race to the Magnetic pole covers over 700km across the frozen Arctic ocean, from the inuit town of Resolute in Northern Canada to the magnetic North pole. Plus, did I also tell you racers will have to cover all of that distance by foot and ski only? Yes. No snowmobiles, No kites; every ounce of energy needed to complete the race will be provided by the racers body. Not forgetting the fact that the racer will have to risk being attacked by hungry wild bears, snow storms, and even being frozen to death because, the temperature could get as low as -79 degree Celsius. I mean SEVENTY NINE! Can you even imagine that?

It is after putting all these factors into consideration that my guest, Lee, decided to retire from her regular life of wearing high heels, eating chocolate, and drinking red wine to rewrite history by leaving her footprints on the surface of the Arctic ocean. After training for 18 months, Lee partnered with 3 other racers to make up Team International who embarked on the polar race and NO! They didn't get eaten by hungry wild bears, and they also managed to survive every storm nature brought their way.

On April 27th, 2011, Lee Swan became the first African woman to make it to the North Pole to the delight of her country South Africa and the rest of the African continent. She shared her experience with me, as well as her views on Ocean management and sustainability. Here's my conversation with Lee;

Ebenezar: Thank you for having this stroll with me Lee.

Lee: Happy to share with you.

Ebenezar: Whenever I remember your feat, I'm always blown away by the fact that you were just a regular lady who decided one day to take walk to the North pole, and you did it. I mean, what inspired the decision to forfeit your regular life for this very dangerous and demanding project?

Lee: It happened in a heartbeat. The moment I had the idea to walk to the Magnetic North Pole my imagination was gripped; my heart skipped a beat, everything went quiet and I felt as if the planet stopped turning for just a second to make sure that I was paying attention. It was an important and powerful moment in my life!

Ebenezar: Wow, that's powerful. As the only female in your TEAM--the team who made the walk--did you ever feel intimidated by the guys in course of the expedition?

Lee: Rob and Ryan were both amazing men. Ordinarily I would have felt intimidated by them; who wouldn't be?... they're both strong athletic guys who had already achieved so many great feats before we attempted to reach the pole. Lucky for me, these two amazing guys were on my team and not competing against me. We all helped each other throughout the race, like a good team does. Of course there were tough moments along the way and plenty of disagreements, but these teething problems are par for the course when you are in the wilderness and trying to achieve something extraordinary. There were tough moments for sure, but we all had the same goal in the end and that helped us to solve problems along the way. It was tough, but so worth it.

Ebenezar: You're also the First African woman to make it to the magnetic north pole, and we know about some African women around the world who are at the top of their careers around the world. But, that number is very minute compared the number of women on the African continent who aren't allowed to find themselves and realize their potentials. What do you think can be done to help more African women get to the 'top'?

Lee: That is a great question; and I wish I had the perfect answer to it. I would love for all women to have the space, freedom and good fortunate that I have had to pursue my dreams, but unfortunately that is not the reality. What I would say is that every great achievement starts with a heart-pounding dream, and if the dream is big enough you'll find a way to make it happen. I had a huge amount of good luck throughout my training and on the race - it is amazing how good luck seems to follow you when you are truly committed to achieving your dreams. When the universe somehow knows that you are never going to give up it starts helping you. There are so many 'lucky coincidences' in my story - so many people went out of their way to help me when they saw how committed I was to the goal.

Ebenezar: Okay, today is World Oceans day and the aim of this observance is to create awareness on how we can care for and preserve the ocean. You walked on the Arctic in course of your walk to the magnetic North pole, and I'll like to know what you think about the state of the World's oceans.

Lee: The health of our oceans is absolutely critical in diagnosing the health of our planet - and I can't say that it is looking good. Levels of over fishing in various places worries me along with the level of waste we leave in our ocean. On our walk across the frozen Arctic ocean we came across plenty of waste - bags and bags of electronic waste left floating on
the ice sheet, certainly not what you would expect to see in the middle of the Arctic hundreds of miles from civilization. It has often perplexed me as to how bags of electronic waste landed up in the middle of the Arctic ocean - it certainly didn't land there by mistake. As a species we seem to adopt the philosophy that if it is out of sight it is out of mind - that bothers me.

Ebenezar: Yeah, it does right? On World Ocean's Day last year I strolled with Garrett McNamara, the daredevil world record holding surfer, and he told me about the plastic pollution of the Atlantic, and advised we find a way to work on it. Do you have any idea of what we can do individually and collectively as a world, to protect the oceans for posterity?

Lee: As a South African it is part of my DNA to subscribe to the philosophy that it only takes one inspired and committed individual to change the world. With this in mind, I would say each of us should acknowledge that even the smallest of actions can have a massive impact. If we each became more 'ocean-conscious' we could collectively make a difference to the health of our oceans. Even simple acts of picking up litter from the water or off the beach, or choosing the seafood we eat a little more wisely by supporting sustainable fisheries can make a difference. Small acts add up in the end.

Ebenezar: I've seen your TED talks and you explained that in course of the expedition, you and your team had to deal with camp fires, bear attack, snow storms, just to name a few. The most shocking for me was when I read about you guys surviving at -79 degrees! I know how I fold myself in bed when it is, just 15 or 13 degrees, talk about -79! What does that feel like?

Lee: It is so cold that the pain is almost unbearable. In temperatures as low at -79 C you wish you were dead rather than suffering.

Ebenezar: Do you plan embarking on any other expedition any time soon? Perhaps
the south pole this time?

Lee: I will probably attempt the South Pole in the next few years, but for now, my focus is on helping African businesses to improve their sustainability practices. We need African economies to grow, but my focus is on achieving this growth in an environmentally and socially sustainable way. It is a somewhat warmer adventure than the last one!

Ebenezar: One final question, I strolled with Robert Swan for World Environment Day a few days ago. Robert is the first person to walk to both poles and he did that to draw attention to climate change--just like you did--and since 1992 he has been working with Governments all around the world to foster his message of Environmental conservation. Now, my question is, how do you intend to spread the message of environmental conservation here on the African Continent?

Lee: It is my day-job to engage with African businesses on environmental and social sustainability issues every day. I spread the message by working with businesses so that they can understand and engage with environmental and social issues in a meaningful way and then make good decisions about their business activities with this in mind. I do a lot of work in the mining, aviation and energy sectors which are key sectors to influence if we are to stand any change of improving the environmental and social sustainability of our continent. Outside of my day-job, I spend time speaking to young people about sustainability - I am an ambassador for the LEAP Science and Maths School and also the Wildlands Conservation Trust. Our future is in the hands of our youth so I make an effort to influence their perceptions around our planet and its health.

Ebenezar: Thank you so much once again for having this stroll with me, Lee. I wish
you success in all your projects.

Lee: It has been a pleasure.

For more about Lee, visit www.leeswan.com or follow her Facebook page Lee Swan Polar Racer

The health of the Ocean can be seen through the state of our city drainage. It breaks my heart when I see people drop stuff in the drainage absent minded. It is those little actions that add up to the global climate situation we find ourselves in today. So, please henceforth let us all make saving the oceans our priority.

Just in case you're like me who noticed the surname connection between Mr Robert Swan--whom I strolled with for World Environment Day--and Lee, let me happily inform you that this is the most beautiful co-incidence you'll ever find. Despite the fact that Robert is the first person to walk to both poles and Lee is the first African woman to walk to the North Pole, they are not connected in any way, even though they have the same 'Swan' surname ☺. When Lee told me on WhatsApp, I really couldn't believe it. It's such a beautiful co-incidence.

But I think they are connected by something louder than a name and thicker than blood. The perseverance to chase those big dreams despite the risks involved, and a desire to preserve our planet for posterity. That is what connects them, and this is the force that should connect the whole of humanity.

Till my next stroll on June 10th, Ball Point Pen day; when I'll be strolling with Nigerian writer and Spoken word artist, Dike Chukwumerije, Jesus Loves you.

"When the Ocean was born, I set its boundaries and wrapped it in blankets of thickest fog. Then I built a wall around it, locked the gates, and said, "Your powerful waves stop here! They can go no farther" (Job 38:8-10 CEV)

A Stroll with Garrett Mcnamara (For World Oceans Day)

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