Tag Archive: Swart Donkey

By now you may know the drill, Trevor Swart from the Positive Thoughts and Conversations blog, Swart Donkey, have a five comment, 100ish word each, conversation around a particular topic one of us brings up and then we share the back and forth with you. This one is all about Listening Better and has a lot to make you think:

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Following closely in the footsteps of, ‘Breaking Bread [with Trev]: Changing Your Mind’ comes ‘Finding the Words’, the second post in a Tandem Blog Conversation piece which sees a conversation of 5x100ish words each, this time on the topic of the languages we speak [or don’t]:

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Brett: My wife and i started learning isiXhosa just over a month ago which is exciting and long overdue. With a hope of being involved in conversations dealing with race, unity, reconciliation it felt like an absolutely critical part of the relationship building that is happening and still needs to. You are all about connections Trevor and the focus of your blog is on positivity and life. What are some other ways you have discovered that prove helpful when it comes to bridge-building or drawing people together?

Trev: Languages are absolutely key at drawing people together and I am embarrassed that I can only speak English well. I have taken stabs, but need to understand and get over the barriers that stop a proper effort. John Mcinroy is putting in big bridge building efforts. I think that he and Robert Le Brun did this year walking from Cape Town to the start of the Comrades, was an incredible additional step. What we have spoken about though, is how much better it would be for conversations if, while talking, the talking could be in languages which make people feel comfortable and connected.

Brett: i think it is one of the biggest blind spots and areas of entitlement [wow, there’s a minefield word i haven’t gone near yet in my blogging] in South Africa right now. The expectation that someone of another race should speak to me in my language. And i say ‘blind spot’ because it’s not an intentional choice most of us have decided on. We’ve just always had it and so it becomes a natural expectation. Which perhaps is entitlement in its worst form. Hopefully a rich arrogant racist tosser already knows in part that they are that, but for us ‘normal folks’ just trying to live well we perhaps need to be shaken a little bit more by the reality of this?

Trev: I think we need to admit that English is a very useful language. People want to learn it. I found being in Sweden and Finland instructive. They welcomed me speaking English as a chance for them to practice. I didn’t have to do the ‘speak in Afrikaans and then hesitantly mention English’ thing I was taught to do in France. The fact is there are thousands of small languages that don’t have the global support of movies, books, theatre, music etc. that make them easier to learn. Think of the difficulty Gluten Free people face going anywhere other than Starbucks and McDonalds. As Global Citizens, I think showing an effort… learning Please, Thankyou etc. and learning any other languages is the important thing. Learning to empathise with the difficulty of struggling to get your point across.

Brett: Perhaps it is a little different in South Africa because of the sheer numbers. English first language speakers are in the minority and so expecting someone to speak in your language [which might be their third or in some cases seventh or eighth even] feels a little lop-sided. I imagine the same would apply in Sweden or Finland if you lived there – that you would need to make a bigger effort to speak the local language. The first step is definitely learning greetings and the basics but my personal conviction has been that I need to try and learn as much as possible so as to start bridging the gaps. Actually the process of learning from and with someone can be huge as a means of relationship building in itself.

Trev: Absolutely, living somewhere makes a difference to which languages you would choose to learn. I like the idea of being a Global Citizen, and so in trying to prioritise which languages to try I have been looking at where it could open up the most connections. French and Arabic seem to me the most useful in an African context when combined with English. Because of its dominant colonial history, Spanish is one that would open up many conversations. Gabe Wyner from ‘Fluent Forever’ is doing some epic work on language learning. His method starts with the most common words, and getting pronunciation correct. Then it is all about creating connections to words, so you aren’t ‘translating in your head’.

Brett: i should take a look at that as i can definitely use as much help as i can get. My wife and i are studying through an organisation called Xhosafundis  but there is huge emphasis on finding a practice partner to meet with regularly and to just be brave and start speaking to people you meet on the street. The theory can be helpful but you need to dive into what feels like the deep end [what if i mess up? what if i’m embarrassed? /oh no. Really?] to really see how your language is coming along. A little bit of embarrassment, laughter [on their part] and stuttering [on mine] feels like it is worth it if i end up being able to engage in some kind of meaningful conversation starters at least. The Global Citizen question really changes this whole conversation. Mandarin, anyone?

Trev: It does. Zulu, my first stumbling attempt at a third language has 10 million native speakers. Roughly the same as Czech. Xhosa, my second stumbling attempt at a third language has about 8 million. About the same as Belarussian. Mandarin (935m), Spanish (390m), Hindi (310) and Arabic (295) are in a different league. Borders are stupid. I think we live under a system of Global Apartheid where passports are dompasses. Learning to get over the emotional stumbling blocks and getting to the point of a Xenophilic exchange of flavour is very exciting. We can choose the best from everywhere and build a bigger tribe. Social media helps make borders redundant, but I am very aware that all of my exchanges are currently in English. Learning a new language is like getting a new passport. It opens up the world.

by Jroehl

Brett: That is true. But it does feel very overwhelming and when you put it like that [in terms of your border talk] even more so. One language we can all speak and understand feels like the way forward but i imagine none of us will be too quick to volunteer that that language not be our own. We clearly can’t learn every language and be able to have everyone in our tribe or community and so it makes sense to me that this becomes an area we are intentional about. Understanding which language groups of people are most going to be in the circles i choose to move in i should make my language learning decisions based on that. But at the very least be prepared to step beyond the comfort of just doing and expecting everything to be done in my own language.

Trev: I think the key point is a shared journey of going beyond our comfort zone. I am no expert on the starting, but think most of the barriers are emotional rather than walls that can’t be broken. Google Translate and Artificial Intelligence might help us with the factual translation. Imagine a world where we have personal UN style translators sitting in our ears. I am a big believer in making small attainable goals. Creating habits. Your suggestion of having groups and people who want to learn helping each is a good one. Partnering with someone who wants to learn English and speaks a language you want to learn sounds like a great idea. Like a running buddy, feeling some sort of responsibility towards them gets you out of bed early. After all, it isn’t the language that is the important thing. It is the relationships.

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You can take a look at Trevor Black’s first guest post on my blog, titled ‘One Person who Gives me Hope in South Africa’ as well as taking a look at his blog, ‘Swart Donkey’.

[To see our conversation about People Changing their Mind Mid Conversation, click here] 

They say you can’t really be friends with someone you’ve only met on the internetweb. i say pot-ah-to. Trevor Ruddock Black [or Trev, to keep things, you know, moving along] is one of a number of those people. He has guest posted on my blog and allowed me to do the same on his. The thing i like most about Trevor’s blog aka Swart Donkey, is that he seeks out stories and posts of good and positive and learning and growth. It is a very positive place to hang out.


So this week,combining the brevity of 100 words with the Improv nature of TheatreSports we decided to try a new form of mutual guest post: 5 posts each – someone starts. You get roughly 100 words on each round. You go with the rules of Improv and go with the flow, attempting to build on what the person before has said, rather than shooting it down. Here goes:

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I have never met someone who has changed their view mid conversation. Slowly, I am recognising the power of listening and gaps. Of making points and dots rather than threads. Dots can attach where they resonate. Threads tend to be too personal and have too many bits that scratch or irritate. I have also had my view altered so drastically that I now approach things with a lot more humility knowing that in order to change minds, your mind needs to be open to change. In order to grow community, we need to connect dots together.


Different people process in different ways. My chief means tends to be a delayed reaction. Kind of ‘No… No… No… Oh!’ Probably hindered by the fact that I typically don’t take very long to respond to something I read or hear. Often requiring me to return later, tail somewhat between my legs with a statement of ‘You know, actually, come to think of it…’ Which is good in that I do to to do that, but bad in that a stronger focus on listening deeper, earlier, might save a whole lot of in between trouble and unnecessary push back?


Perhaps there is not enough space for conversation. Everyone is very busy, and so when we chat, our intention is to extract information or give information quickly, i.e. not to ‘take very long’.We don’t kuier. When you kuier, you are very relaxed and so people can tell you their story without you feeling the need to respond automatically. You can listen, breathe, perhaps take another sip or two. Dunk your rusk. Ponder.  A challenge I face is my ‘unnecessary pushback’ often comes through body language. Even if I hold my tongue and listen, my disagreement is written in my posture, eyebrows and comfort level.


This is the very reason for the Deep Diver Conversation Dinners tbV [my wife] and I have been doing. Inviting a group of people, who may not all feel the same, and preferably don’t, on a particular topic, to sit and break bread with one another. And have a four to five hour conversation [without phones – they go in the phone basket – so distraction-free] and the invite to really kuier and, I would add, wrestle.  Face to face with food tends to slow things down, and help you focus on the whole person’s response, and attitude, and hopefully words too. Where have you found this kuiering to be most successful?


I haven’t tried the group discussion thing yet, but am keen. I have a bias toward books. It lets me have a visceral emotional reaction to barbs in people’s speech without them knowing. I recognise that much of our softer communication is carried in body language and physical interaction (which is why emails are often hand grenades) but books tend to be very considered. I’m trying to read more by a wider variety of thinkers. For personal interactions, I am trying to shift from debate to listening. To understand people’s stories for what they are, not for how they affect my story.


One of my biggest shifts in recent years is diversifying the people I choose to be informed by, much like you. So refusing to only read white, male, Christian authors [which was probably my natural disposition before]. I seek out black writers, and women, and people of different faiths and experience journeys, as they are more likely to have something to teach me than those who say what I already believe, and think, and think I know. I love you last point on hearing stories for what they are, and not for how they affect your story.


I grew up in the Church and the circle of people I exchanged ideas with changed quite significantly over time. Because of disagreements, people ended up parting ways. I have actively been trying to re-engage. I like the idea of a ‘Bull Quota’ similar to the suspension of disbelief we use in movies. If the movie is great, a few inconsistencies add flavour rather than causing us to leave the cinema. We all have some crazy ideas. As long as they don’t get in the way, a poker face can be handy. With sufficient in common, perhaps it is easier to fix disagreements that do matter?


I LOVE that idea Trevor. Saw two people challenged on Facebook today, and both immediately walked away. I would love to see us embrace the ‘uncomfortable’ as well as the ‘not what I think/feel’, and not fell pressure to change our mind. But be open to trying to see the different perspective that presents. I also saw a long and quite in-your-face argument/conversation between two women of different races result in one apologising, and changing their position. It is not frequent enough, but it does happen. That give me hope to continue engaging in hard conversations.


Spot on,  but they can’t always be hard conversations. You have to ‘play enough Ping Pong’. Meaning, you can’t always be on the attack. You have to make space for open time, fun time and silly time. You seldom change your mind to agree with someone you don’t have some sort of relationship with. There is no incentive for uncomfortable conversations with someone you feel you have no connection with. Walls are cheaper than bridges. We don’t change our mind mid conversation. But if we want the conversation to continue, we seem to prioritise each other over our divisive beliefs. That’s what gives me hope.


I think for the most part, I agree with you in terms of the majority of people. But sometimes you get the odd exception who really just are wanting to learn and will engage in the uncomfortable conversation despite the lack of relationship. But for the most part building genuine relationships is key. Because space for grace, and honest listening, makes such a difference when things get uncomfortable, and awkward, as they likely will. You need people who will commit to push through, and be around for the long haul.

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What about you? If given 100 words to respond and add to this conversation, what would you say? Let us know in the comments. 

Hopeful Socks

By Trevor Black

One person who gives me hope in South Africa is John McInroy.


There is a lot of noise in the world. The more you care, the harder it is to filter things out and focus on things that are important in your immediate circle of concern. It is hard to filter these things out because if you are an empathetic person, you know that you focussing just removes that pain from your awareness, not from the world. One person who gives me hope in South Africa is John McInroy. John will always emphasize that he likes the story of the work being done to be the focus. John’s story is not about John. John’s story may focus on South Africa, but it is not even about South Africa. It is about the fact that we exist beyond our circles of focus. Even when we have to focus on other things because we have limits, we can remember what is going on elsewhere. We can take steps to help. We can allow people to help us. We can help ourselves.

The story of Red Sock Friday began with two South African friends living in Ireland with one due to move home. John and buddy Ian Symons had heard the story of war veteran Sidney Feinson who got captured in the Battle of Tobruk during World War 2. He and two friends made a pact that should any of them make it back alive, they would wear reads socks to always be together no matter what. John and Ian decided to wear red socks every Friday to do the same. John has been spreading this idea through http://www.shooops.com/ and trying to ‘connect the world’ with passion and positive energy.

His journey also led him to start the Unogwaja challenge (http://www.unogwajachallenge.com/). Participants in this event cycle from Cape Town to the start of the Comrades Marathon, which they then run. But the story isn’t about a joy ride and a plod. It is about changing the world and connecting people through passion and the pushing of boundaries. It is about having fun. Bringing people together. Thriving. Inspiring others. Positive Energy. Participants raise money for charities focussing on helping people help themselves.

I do think there are individuals who are able to act as sparks, but they release the passion that is already there. It just needs a push. I meet lots of South Africans and lots of people from around the rest of the world who are bursting with energy to move forward. You can’t solve problems if you don’t hear about them and communicate about them. We shouldn’t be upset by some of the noise. It means we know about it and are doing things about it. Tribes united individuals. Religions united tribes. Countries united religions. We can go further than that. We can share stories and recognise bits of ourselves in others. If hope is a belief that people will learn, and overcome difficulties then I haven’t met many people you don’t give me hope. John is providing the red socks to help them remember each other while they get on with it.

[For more from Trevor Black, who wrote this piece, go and take a look at his blog over here: www.swartdonkey.blogspot.com]

Also who is someone that YOU think is doing something positive in South Africa that gives you hope. Drop me a line at brettfish@hotmail.com and let’s talk about how you can get their story up here…

[To read another story of hope, this time from a mom who lost her young daughter, click here]


A few days ago i wrote a piece on ‘Freedom of Speech’ and the fact that i feel like i may be the only person in the world who doesn’t think it’s such a great idea.

To be honest, i was expecting a bit of a backlash, but no-one seemed particularly interested – in commenting either way.

Then i read a really great piece by Megan Butler on a friend’s blog, titled  ‘We need to talk about Charlie’ in which she reminded us of the November achievement of landing a spacecraft on a comet hurtling through space, which didn’t seem to get quite as much attention as the scantily-clad gun-toting women who featured on the shirt of Dr Matt Taylor, who gave a press conference about the event.

Megan basically shouted out a call for consistency in the things we do and don’t allow, if we are calling for freedom. She ended off her piece with these words:

“I need to point out that I think both Taylor’s shirt and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are awful. But freedom means that people are free to choose well as well as to choose badly. I’m Catholic and have very limited experience in the headscarf-wearing department. However, for me, supporting free speech and freedom of expression means supporting more than the right to publish drawings; it means supporting the right for people to wear what they choose even if it isn’t what I would choose.

So, while “Je suis Charlie” is the campaign gathering the media attention, we need to be able to say “Je suis Susan” or “Je suis Matt” with as much conviction.”

i still wasn’t completely sold on the idea of free speech, but the idea of being consistent if we’re calling for it resonated strongly. And then i read this comment by Shingai Tichatonga Ngara on a Facebook share of Megan’s post:

My only question/caveat is that freedom of speech does not imply freedom from consequence. The power of being able to speak freely comes hand in hand with the responsibility to deal with the outcomes of that free speech.

And i really liked that. The idea that freedom of speech allows you to say stupid, mean or even hurtful things. But that it doesn’t condone the saying of those things or mean that you will be free of consequence. So yes, you can post that racist statement on Twitter, but also you just lost your job because your company doesn’t have to hire a racist. Or something like that.

i don’t think this pulls me completely across to the ‘Fight for everyone to have Freedom of Speech’ crowd, but i do think that it paints a broader picture that is helpful.

What about you? Do you think everyone should be able to say whatever they want to say all the time? Or should there be some systems or controls?

[To see the rest of Megan’s article, head across to Swart Donkey over here]

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