TEDWomen 2013: Reflections on Boyd Varty’s, What I learned from Nelson Mandela

By Michelle Wildes, MS Science

One of the strongest messages for me from the 2013 TEDWoman conference came, ironically, from a man.

Nelson Mandela died the morning the TED Talks began, so it was quite poignant that Boyd Varty, a friend of Mandela’s, was scheduled to speak to us that afternoon.

Boyd Varty is an environmental activist and is the fourth generation custodian of the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. He builds African wildlife corridors to restore the African ecosystems. But in his Ted Talk he didn’t talk about lions, tigers, and bears, as I had initially expected. He talked about Mandela.

When Varty was 9 years old, Mandela took refuge on his family’s wildlife reserve after being released from prison. (Lions are a strong deterrent to the paparazzi, Varty joked.) Varty recalled Mandela in a track suit and slippers, contemplating life amidst the gardens.  Varty said Mandela was the embodiment of the African saying, Ubuntu, which means I am; because of you. I found this saying profound, and my mind began to wander.

I am because of … who?

My mom and dad, of course. My friends and colleagues, too, I suppose. But then floods of people I have encountered, some even momentary encounters, entered my mind — especially the “challenging” ones.

Then I heard Varty say, “We get to experience the deepest parts of our own humanity through our interactions with others”.

Yes. I thought. I deeply agreed with this universal concept. Our own well-being is deeply tied to the well-being of others.

I am certainly tied to the well-being of many others in my life as a wife, a mother, a sister, and certainly as a teacher. I am also learning and growing as a person because of the interactions and relationships I have with the people around me — especially in the work I am doing — and have done — at Beaver. There are days when I am mustering my last ounces of patience — digging deep — and I think about the profound level of humanity in our work. The fragility of the human spirits we work with, and how we must instill and nurture the ideas of compassion, empathy, and perseverance. And how sadly, at times, we come across a broken spirit. We do so much more than “teach” at Beaver. Think of how many lives we touch — and those that touch us.

So to my colleagues and students: Ubuntu.

Read more about Michelle Wildes experience at TEDWomen here.

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