A Good Home, Communication, Paintings, Partnership, South Africa

Days Off in South Africa – Part 2

The closer we got to our destination, the more worried I became.  

A paved road took us to a small, whitewashed stone house similar to others in this mountain village.

It was modestly furnished.

I spotted something I hadn’t seen since my childhood in a mountainous part of Jamaica: rubber hot water bottles. They helped keep us warm on cold nights.

Smiling in recognition, I held one against my chest.

“Once a mountain girl, always a mountain girl,” I told Marie.

We laughed for the first time since we’d left Johannesburg.


The housekeeper, a kindly Black woman, greeted us warmly. She didn’t live here – this was an all-White neighbourhood. We chatted with her, relieved to see a Black face.

At the local cafe, we were greeted pleasantly by the White owner-chef.

At our request, she gave us the recipe for her homemade bread, which we ate with delicious squash soup.

I could have hugged these women  for their warm welcomes.

But I was still on edge.


I jumped awake at a sudden sound that night.

The hot water bottles, packed around me for warmth, went flying.

Marie murmured something and I murmured something back.

I stayed awake, tensely listening.

A car drove by.

A dog barked.

Crickets chirped.

It took a long time for me to fall asleep.


Sunday came and the highlight of our trip:  visiting our friend’s farm.

He greeted us warmly. We set off up the hill.

A wafer-thin layer of ice coated parts of the hillside, but Marie and I smiled in anticipation as we climbed.

I stared, mesmerized, at a family of mere-cats, their heads popping from earth-holes in tandem. They’d disappear, then pop up again, movements perfectly synchronized.

“There’s a leopard living over there,” our host said, pointing to some trees on a nearby hill. He was remarkably casual about it.

He had given us sticks to beat the bushes, in case of snakes.

We were near the mountain top.



There they were. 

On smooth, upright stone walls, the paintings.

Protected by the cliff overhead.

Human beings had created them thousands of years before.

Pictures, some of men with spears. And wild animals, some which looked fierce.

Turning my head this way and that, I stared in awe.


Walking downhill, I glanced in the direction of the leopard’s hill and wondered which was more frightening.  Wild animals?  Or angry humans?


We had shared everything, but not this.

Working closely together, Marie and I had resolved challenging situations in both boardroom and training room. I always marveled at this woman’s skill.

As we neared the end of the visit, I knew I had to explain my strange behaviour.  So I did, starting with the warning I’d received.  We finally talked.

As Marie and I talked, true partners again, it hit me: the problem was never mine alone. If I was at risk that entire weekend, then Marie — my loyal partner — was also at risk. It was essential that, in a strange country far from home, we shared what we knew or feared. We would always do our best to protect each other from harm.



Our host had asked us to not reveal the paintings’ location. And that was a secret worth keeping.

We returned to Johannesburg safely, chatting and laughing companionably as we usually did.

We continued to work closely with remarkable individuals at the SABC and some of them became our friends. We, and the rest of our Canadian team, felt greatly privileged to make a contribution at a crucial time in the country’s history.


Marie Wilson was later appointed to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC recently filed its report on the treatment of Aboriginal children in Canada’s residential schools and the impacts on their families and communities. (Click on “What has been the Purpose and Role of the TRC” and other videos to see her.)

A Good Home, After apartheid, Canadians working in South AFrica, Cave Drawings, Cave paintings, Journalists, South Africa, Training Journalists, Weekend in South Afica, Working in South AFrica

Days Off in South Africa – Part 1

While training TV journalists at the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Johannesburg, my colleague Marie and I were offered a weekend loan of a friend’s cottage a few hours drive away.

We could hardly wait.

While there, we planned to visit another friend at his farm.

There, we’d see something extraordinary.


Just before leaving work that Friday, I ran into a journalist I knew.

“Don’t go, Cynthia” she warned.  “A lot of hardcore racists live in that area.”

I shivered.

It was the mid-1990’s and Mandela’s ANC had won the election, putting a public end to apartheid. But Marie and I were Canadians who didn’t know the country well.

And now, someone who did was urging me to cancel the trip.

Not Marie. Just me.


The difference in our skin colour had never been an issue between us. Not in Canada and not in South Africa.

We shared a small apartment near the SABC building in Johannesburg.  We shopped, cooked, ate supper, laughed, missed our families,  planned the next day’s work together. Though I was the leader on this project, Marie and I were friends and equals, colleagues at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where we both held prominent leadership roles.


Of course we were aware of race – we were in South Africa, after all.

“I was so proud of you today,” Marie had told me after our first day at work at the SABC.

I’d been thinking the same thing — about her. About how privileged I was to have this wise, thoughtful, brilliant woman as my partner on this ground-breaking project.

“It was great to be there and to see the impact you had on everyone,” she said.



South African journalist Sylvia Vollenhoven had told me on a phone call to my home in Canada one night:

“We’re glad you’re sending your team, Cynthia. But you also need to come here yourself. It’s important to us.” 

She paused.

“You’re a woman. And you’re Black. And you’re in charge of all this.” 



Not wanting South Africa’s racial divisions to hang between Marie and me, I did a very foolish thing that weekend.

In a place where race was everything, I said nothing about the warning.

I did not want it to disrupt this trip.


Driving along lonely roads, we consulted our map occasionally, but I was too quiet, lost in fearful thoughts that I didn’t share.

I should have, of course.

My silence was an elephant sitting in the car between us.

The trip was already disrupted.


Dedicated to my friend and former training partner Marie.  Working with you and our S. African colleagues at a crucial time in the country’s history ranks as one of the great privileges of my life.


A Good Home, Friendship, South Africa

South Africa Comes to Visit

South Africa. One of my most favourite countries in the world.

Having worked there, repeatedly, I’d planned to return as a tourist one day.

It hasn’t happened.

But every so often, South Africa comes to me.


Late April, 2015.

I come across a small book in our home library.

“South Africa Stories” is the simple title.

Memories fill my mind.

Blog Photo - South Africa Stories 001


Early 1991.

My CBC boss, Les Lawrence, heeds the call from South African Bishop Tutu and Canadian Archbishop Ted Scott –– eminent persons in the fight against apartheid — and agrees to an important project: to help South African broadcast journalists prepare for the end of apartheid. He and I are the project leaders.

Eleven journalists are in the first group, carefully selected by our partner, the Southern Africa Education Trust Fund. They’re here in Toronto at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to strengthen their skills in radio and television journalism.

Of various races, some are exiles.


Their intelligence, educational achievements and resourcefulness impress us. Their stories alternately shock and inspire us.

Blog Photo - South Africa Stories The Women


We cry when they leave.

But mostly, we rejoice, knowing they are going back stronger than they’d arrived, knowing they have also made us stronger. We have bound some of their written stories into a simple book. Something for them to take home, along with their new-found skills.

They write thank-you notes in my copy. I rediscover it in April 2015.

South Africa Stories.

Blog Photo - South Africa Stories Note from Libby


Late April, 2015

Sylvia Vollenhoven, one of Nelson Mandela’s favourite journalists, arrives at our old farmhouse north of Toronto with our mutual friend Dale. It’s been years since Sylvia was here and we hug her warmly. A woman of stunning achievement and deep commitment to South Africa,  journalism and freedom, she’s in Toronto for the Hot Docs festival.

Blog Photo - Three Wimmen

She tells us about her current project, The Keeper of the Kumm, which will be produced as a play, a book and a documentary. We listen in fascinated silence. She’s one of the most eloquent people we know and Hamlin, Dale and I devour her words like manna from heaven.


And we laugh.

Sylvia is very witty, but her mistake appears to be an honest one.

Blog Photo - Sylvia and Willows

“What are these things called again?” she asks in that beautiful accent of hers. She points to stalks of pussy willows in a container. “Willy’s Pussies, right?”

Blog Photo - Pussy willows

Willy’s pussies. Oh, dear. 

I gasp for air between bouts of loud laughter.


We tell Sylvia we hope she will come back a year from now – with her book and her documentary. She tells us she hopes we can come to South Africa to see the play. We eagerly say Yes.

Blog Photo - Sylvia and Keeper of the Kum 002

Of course, it’s most unlikely that I will be able to travel that far. But as I sit on the verandah with three dear friends who love South Africa, it is such a warm thought.

I  remember.

And imagine.

And am happy.

Blog Photo - Sylvia here at lunch


Dedicated to Sylvia and the journalists of South Africa… especially “the first eleven”.

 Photos by Hamlin Grange

A Good Home, Book Editor, Book lovers, Books, Canadians, CBC Television, Creative Writing, Life Challenges, Mentoring Writers, South Africa, South African Journalism Training, Tim KNight, Writers

A Terrific Writer-Editor

Tim Knight is a brilliant writer.  

Blog Photo - Tim Knight CU

He’s an Emmy-winning documentary-maker.

On location: “Inside Noah’s Ark”

And writing coach.

Luckily for me, he’s also an excellent editor.  

I know this because he taught me to write for television and edited many of my stories.

And because when I came up with the crazy idea of producing a book  — at the worst time in my life — Tim calmly agreed to be my editor.

It was not a job for the faint of heart.

I first met Tim just before my graduation from journalism school. Tim Knight, head of TV Journalism Training for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was already a legend. He interviewed me for the best job a TV Journalism graduate could land: an apprenticeship with the CBC’s prestigious trainee reporter program.

Blog Photo - Tim when I first met him

Each year, CBC TV picked the top 6 students from journalism schools across Canada. That year, I became one of the six. But my journalism professor wasn’t pleased. I was a Canadian citizen, but one who’d come to Canada from Jamaica. He argued that the job should go to a real Canadian. 

Tim overrode his objections and I got the job.

Tim’s been looking out for me ever since.  Not that I gave him much choice.

I sought Tim’s advice before every career move. Producer-director. Executive producer. And when Tim decided to leave the CBC to write his first book,  he recommended that I replace him as head of CBC TV’s journalism training.  His word carried so much weight that the job was offered and I took it.

Blog Photo - Tim's book

We worked together to train South African journalists at the end of apartheid.  For us Canadians, this was a remarkably moving experience.

Blog Photo - Tim and S. African journalists

Blog Photo - Tim and Madiba

Years later, I had a car accident.

In ‘Type A’ style, I thought I could return to work soon.

Not so.

Something happened to Tim when he realized the full extent of my physical, intellectual and emotional states post-accident. His cool manner slipped: he was worried about me.

Tim became one of the few people who knew just how bad things were. He’d watched me struggle — to write, speak, think.

He must have been surprised when, years later, I said I was producing a book and wanted him to edit it. Not that he showed it.

“Send me the manuscript,” he said.

I did.

“This book could be great,” he replied. “Not just good, but great.  It needs more work.”

More work! I was already exhausted.  How much more work?

Some chapters were excellent, Tim said. Some would need substantial work. But he would help me.

It was not easy for anyone to help me back then. Blog Photo - Tim, wearing hat Sometimes, Tim had to stop our conversations abruptly. I’d start stuttering badly again, lose track of what was being said to me, but refuse to admit I was in trouble.  

His voice would become very firm.  “Cynthia, we’ll talk again later.” Tim never babied me, which was important. No matter how unwell I was, I always sensed when people were trying to baby me, and I didn’t like it.

Mostly, Tim said, I needed to make the music consistent throughout the book.

The music?

The music.  The storytelling.  The rhythm, the pace, the cadence of the writing. And so we went to work, to create the music in every chapter. agoodhome_cynthiareyes


Every good writer needs a good editor. Considering the shape I was in, I especially needed a good editor.

Tim not only edited my first book, he also edited my second.

What a blessing to work with such an excellent editor, trainer and communicator.

Thank you, Tim.