Heart of the Treasure Valley: ‘Africa is a great teacher’

A Boise woman opens her heart to different cultures, and to herself

kjones@idahostatesman.comOctober 20, 2013 


    Jeannine Antoniou Smith recently published a book — part memoir, part poetry, part biography. An advocate of putting oneself in challenging situations, she calls writing a way out of her “comfort zone.”

    But long ago, she had an experience, and she knew she had to find the heart of the story and write a book someday. As she walked along a path in Africa — three miles one way to teach English in a remote, rural school in Swaziland, she took off her shoes to wade across a creek and continued barefoot, past the royal burial ground of ancient kings. It was there that she felt an inexplicable tingling beneath her feet. Voices spoke to her — inside or in her head, she can’t remember.

    She writes: “ … The mysterious voices pleaded, ‘Write the story.’ This time I heard, not with ears, but from every nerve in the souls of my feet.”

    She didn’t tell anyone about her experience until nearly 30 years later when she needed to write about it honestly, even if it made her look vulnerable.

    BOOK LAUNCH: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, at Zoo Boise. Books are also available at Hyde Park Books in Boise, Chapter One in Ketchum, Amazon.com or by contacting jeanninesmith@aol.com.

She was in her early 40s when her children went off to college and she found herself newly divorced. Every pillar upon which she had built her life was crumbling at her feet.

So, at the invitation of a friend of a friend, she went to Taiwan. She was running away, perhaps, or in retrospect, it was really a running towards. But she knew it was time to leave her old life behind.

She says: “All I knew was what I had been taught over the years, and I was really questioning that. So every day, I’d go out and I’d walk around two blocks (in downtown Taipai) and try to find my way home. … Then I’d go the next day about four blocks. … It was like a crash course in life, almost.

“I got to start all over. I felt like a baby. … I went through a lot of things by myself and I learned: I can do this. I can think, I can deduct. … In the process, I learned a little Mandarin …”

Those years were the beginning of many questions. Nothing was off-limits, and she examined everything: her religion, her values, her dreams.

“I just wanted to start new. To see what I believed … and how I would land, when I had things come to me that were difficult to experience.

“I wanted to know what I was made of.”

She discovered that travel helped her put those questions into perspective, so the next time, she went to Africa — and then she went back. And again and again and again.

She writes: “Like the worn edges of my passport, I turn the page from one culture into another. In the end, I rediscover my own.”

Jeannine Antoniou Smith is 70 years old. Her heart has taken her to Africa — South Africa, Kenya, Ghana — at least 20 times since that first trip in 1986.

“That’s pretty much it. I can’t stop going. I turned 70 (several weeks ago). … I say age is just going to have to follow me all the way to Africa because I’m not going to give it up. I feel alive there. I feel centered. I feel my internal compass is reset every time I go.”

Her trips aren’t of the tourist variety. She stays with families of friends and friends of friends, in their Africa, and her trips are explorations of both herself and the country.

“(I think you need) to do something often that scares you. Because when you get out of your comfort zone, you begin to know who you are.”

For a year, on her second trip to Africa, Jeannine lived with a family in Swaziland, which was, by in large, still living in the old, traditional ways. She experienced the Swazi culture from the inside out — the snakes, the food, living in a hut, walking three miles every day to school to teach.

“When I went to Africa (to) live in Swaziland, it was tradition to bow to every man. And I promised myself that I would do the things they do over there and not say, ‘Well, I’m an American woman and I don’t have to bow to anybody.’

“But I also promised myself to be authentic. So when I bow, I can’t be thinking, ‘Ach, I don’t have to do this at home.’ I just can’t. …

“I had to really bow gracefully — inside and out. And then something kind of happened inside. It was like: I can do this. I can bow. I can give honor. … I found that when I would bow, like in the Japanese culture, you really are giving respect to that person. And it comes back 100-fold.”

Jeannine is one of those intensely curious people who asks questions of everyone. When she heard the haunting cry of the leopard at night, she got villagers to tell stories of the illusive cat, stories that became, and still are, a touchstone for her.

“ … (I learned that leopardesses) trust their instincts. I felt like that was one thing I needed to learn to do — to trust my instincts … to trust intuitively without necessarily having the answers.

“(One woman told me): ‘There is an ancient intertwining with leopards. We learned to dance around each other.’”

When Jeannine pondered tough questions, some of the answers she found inside herself. Once, after attending a three-day wedding celebration in the bush, she had to wait for three weeks to get a ride back to her village — three long, tedious, excruciatingly boring weeks in which she had nothing to do but think.

“It became a sacred time … for me to question: What does everybody want out of life? What is it that you really, really want?

“I just finally admitted to myself I wanted to be in a really healthy relationship, to have a companion in my life. I was afraid to admit that. … I had been single about 10 years by then. I had to learn to trust myself, my own decisions. That’s why the leopard has this huge meaning for me — because she does.”

In time, she would return to Portland, where she was living, and meet and fall in love with dentist Mark Smith. They married and he went to Africa with her. “I get my own unique experience of Africa, compelled by Jeannine’s enthusiasm to dive head-long into new cultures,” he says. Africa calls to Jeannine, but he is a supporter and partner in the work that she does now.

That work evolved from Jeannine’s visit to Ghana in 2001 when she found herself standing in front of the entire village.

“I made nine promises. The chief had me stand up in front of the whole village and say, ‘I promise.’ I came home and I didn’t know how all that was promised could be accomplished.”

The promises were about student and teacher education, and clean water. It took a few years for Jeannine to figure out how to fulfill them. By then, she and Mark had moved to Boise, where Jeannine didn’t know many people or have many resources.

“Even though you’re afraid to do something, maybe fear can be a friend toward accomplishing whatever is ahead of you.”

In 2002, Jeannine started Small Village Foundation. Every other year, Small Village takes a handful of teens to rural South Africa, each of whom would choose a project, enlist support, involve others, raise money and return as ambassadors. They would go to a village (Jeannine made pre-planning trips) and ask, “What can we do to help you?”

“Letting Africa mold the kids. (She whispers emotionally.) … Africa is just a great teacher. A great teacher.”

The goodwill went both ways. Students from Boise built a playground and a basketball court, learned how to build mud huts and mend thatched roofs. And they made friends.

Alumna Dana Capps: “The people of Bamboi comprised a small village where relationships, kindness, generosity and gratitude trumped a dire lack of material and money — a way of life I try to channel every day.”

Small Village has taken six trips to Africa, and now under a new director, Louise Poole, will continue to take more. Jeannine is delighted that the organization flourishes under new leadership and new ideas.

“For (Small Village) to really be viable, it has to thrive without me.”

Now she has turned her energy to a new place in Africa — always in Africa. She hopes to be involved in Zoo Boise’s restoration project with Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique and soak up the conservation passion of Idahoan Greg Carr.

“I love to be inspired by big ideas and big vision. And I want to be part of that somehow.”

When Jeannine travels, she makes a point of seeking out people whom she admires, and records their conversations — like, in Africa, human rights lawyer George Bizos; Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of Ghandi; Nontsikelelo Biko, widow of activist Stephen Biko. With these conversations, a passion for human justice was born.

“It’s really important for me to be involved with something bigger than myself. … and have something that inspires you. Always.”

“(Jeannine) is like a force of nature that makes good and amazing things happen,” says her husband. Taking advantage of an opportunity — a question like, “Would you like to meet Nelson Mandela?” Jeannine met the great and humble leader as he raked leaves in his front yard. It was only for a moment, because non-blacks rarely ventured into Soweto at the time.

She writes: “His hand met mine as it disappeared in the warmth of tenderness, his eyes, journey tired, still sparkled with a father’s twinkle. That day I was the recipient of a heart without limits to the love it can give.”

Those kinds of moments, and the stories of people who struggled against apartheid and sacrificed so much, touched her and inspired her. In America, she sought out South African students to listen to their stories, and became active in human rights groups.

“(In Africa, I learned) what’s really important. I know what’s really important, and for the South African people, no matter where you come from, it’s relationships. … You don’t wear a watch because you don’t leave a conversation until the conversation says you can leave…”

The idea of relationship, she learned from a sangoma, a traditional healer, transcends humanity. “My words spring up from the bones of my ancestors,” he told her, and that connection has come to shape her own spiritual journey.

“The rock has a spirit, the tree has a spirit, the river has a spirit. …

In her curiosity, Jeannine would often ask people about their legacy, about their gift to the world. Her own travels and years of living have given Jeannine her own words of wisdom, ones that she shares with her grandchildren and the youth of Small Village.

“That it’s really important to know who you are. To have a big picture in mind. To go beyond what you think you can do.

“Even though (there will be times you’ll) be scared…You’ll find a way to be OK. You won’t be OK every day, but you’re going to learn those skills and that inner strength that’s going to help you to be OK.

“(But) most of all, really open your heart to people who are unlike yourself. We don’t do much in life if we’re concentrated on ourselves.”

And most of all, she hopes people will go in search of their own Africas.

“It’s like (life has) it’s own path. I can go to Africa and say, ‘I’m going to do this and this and this,’ and I say to myself, ‘Jeannine, why do you even make detailed plans? You know that Africa is going to have its way with you.’ …

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