Beata Lewandowska-Kaftan – traveller, lover of Africa, passionate about people and life, author of two books about the Black Continent. When and why did she decide to quit a full-time job and go to the unknown?
In search of new places and cultures
– Once I was asked what I was afraid of the most – I answered that of the routine. And what do I enjoy the most? Beginning everything from the beginning – Beata Lewandowska-Kaftan admits. – The scenario was usually the same: I had been working in one place for several years and when I felt that the routine was near, I changed something in my life… I searched for something new, unknown.
Beata Lewandowska-Kaftan has an impressive output. She worked for prestigious publishing houses. She went through all possible career steps – from assistant to the editor, through head of the editorial board, marketing director, publishing director, to vice president. She published encyclopaedias, lexicons, tourist guides, scholarly books, travel books and books for children. In a certain moment she decided to abandon everything and leave. The reason? – Not to put off the dreams, try something new again, learn about new cultures, meet people, see new lands – she says – To travel is to live many times. Africa – my greatest love – gives a sense of freedom, teaches, slows down the pace. When I am there, I try to spend as much time as possible with people, I eat local foods, fruit, it is wonderful to submit to the local rhythm of life and customs.
The hero of our article is a geographer by education, she has graduated from The University of Warsaw. However, she had also considered journalism. Eventually, she managed to combine both fields in her work as a publisher of travel and scholarly publications. – First it was The Encyclopaedia of World Geography at the publishing house “Wiedza Powszechna”. Then I joined the large international company Bertersmann Media and I got caught up in a whirl of activities: a new book, new project, I enjoyed it, this variability of topics, this pace – she recollects her adventure with the publishing world.
The next stop was legendary National Geographic. – We were building the Polish branch from the scratch, a lot of projects were coming up: publishing, business ones. When we were beginning, our staff consisted of five persons. Two years later – fifty. A wonderful adventure! A fulfilled dream for a geographer! – the traveller says. However, Beata Lewandowska-Kaftan has a nomad’s soul – she set out on a journey for next challenges. The new job brought new ones – she became Program Director at PWN. Then at Egmont Beata co-created the series of books for children Czytam sobie. – Over time my work in high managerial positions was more and more distant from projects, I was mainly a manager. I felt that it begins to tire me rather than enjoy me. However, I was not able to slow down, give less than 100%.
Experiencing the Black Continent
For the first time she travelled to the Black Continent 17 years ago. Beata Lewandowska-Kaftan began to look at life in a different way. She set out on a journey, about which she is saying from the perspective of time: – I fell in love with Africa from the first sight, I felt as if I returned home. Everything suited me there – and she adds – Later I came back to Africa many times. When I hadn’t been there for several months, I was beginning to miss. And finally I made a decision. I am quitting a full-time job to have more time for Africa and… for life. I gave myself a gift for my 55th birthday and stopped working from 9 to 5.
Beata’s husband is also a geographer by education, he deals with environmental impact reports, they met at the university. They often travel together. – My husband brings peace into our life, gives a direction, I am impatient and he is my rock. Thanks to stabilisation in my private life I allow myself to look for changes in other areas. I’ve been in the happy relationship for more than 30 years – she comments.
When travelling, she was writing long accounts on the everyday life in Africa to her friends. Her friends were encouraging her to write a book. – I began to feel tempted to try – Beata explains – Finally I did it and in 2016 my first book titled Afryka jest kobietą [Africa is a Woman] was published. Her second publication is titled Zanzibar – wyspa skarbów. Opowieści ze świata suahili [Zanzibar – Treasure Island. Stories from Suahili World ] (2017). For her books Beata was awarded among others with Magellan Award, the title Book of the Year 2016 in the category Literary Travels and the title The Best Book for Autumn.
The author of Zanzibar – wyspa skarbów has already visited Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Namibia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and a few other countries. What advice would she give to beginner globetrotters? – I advise against being everywhere in two weeks because the essence of travelling is meeting people, feeling the atmosphere of a place, and someone who wants to be everywhere spends time mainly on moving – she tells with enthusiasm – I prefer to have accommodation in small pensions rather than in large hotels, eat in local small restaurants, spend time with inhabitants, learn about their life as much as possible. To try to understand what makes them laugh, what they are afraid of. To learn the local language.
She thinks that the regions which she visits are peaceful and stresses that during her stays there she was never afraid of people. When asked about the most dangerous situation which she experienced, she tells: – Once an elephant chased us, it became scared when we passed by too close to it. We were afraid that it would ram our jeep but it only frightened us. And what about a beautiful scene which she remembers? She tells about the birth of an antelope. – I am always moved by the beauty and power of the African nature – she reveals.
What in her opinion distinguishes a charismatic woman at every latitude? – You must have courage and determination because without them you won’t take a risk. When doing new things the man shapes, strengthens this charisma in themselves – she explains. – Then people are more willing to pay attention to such a person, take their opinion into account. The source of charisma is the sum of experiences. However, we also need to have “this something” inside ourselves which causes that we bring taste and character to our life. And we don’t resign our dreams.
Women on the Black Continent have delighted Beata. – I have always been moved by them the most. They are radiant, light, some vital strength emanate from them – she says excitedly. – They are persons with the incredible will for existence. Women from African savannahs are full of dignity – they have a sense of harmony, love the place where they live. Life has taught them solidarity, eventually they are tribal and clannish cultures.
For example the Turkana women… They are nomads inhabiting dry savannahs and deserts. Men are shepherds, they leave villages, set out with their herds in search of water and pastures for eight-nine months a year. Women remain alone, they look after children and elderly people. Polygamy is a common practice among the Turkana. As the author of Afryka jest kobietą explains, it is due to tough conditions in which the tribe lives rather than their religion. The wives of one husband work, look for combustible materials, build houses, cook, take care of children together.
The Turkana people deal in a special way with a situation when a woman turns out to be infertile. What happens to such a woman? She receives the most wonderful gift that a woman can dream of from other wives of her husband: she obtains children from them and becomes a mother for these children. – I don’t mean taking care of them, such a woman raises the offspring she was given as her own. She has the right to her daughter’s dowry or her son’s trophies. She is a true mother – the traveller explains.
How does dignity of women of savannahs manifest itself in practice? Beata is telling the following story: – Not a drop of rain had fallen for two years and people began to suffer from hunger, there wasn’t enough food for animals. During one of our expeditions we reached the region of Lake Turkana, the stone desert – she tells. Under a half-withered acacia we saw women roasting on a fire a little nanny goat – the last one from the heard. I wanted to share water and food with them. However, our guide – also from the Turkana – told us that we could not do it just like this. Women would feel offended. He told that we could offer the exchange: food for their jewellery. We did so – flour, sugar, tea, powdered milk for two bracelets and a necklace. The exchange took place in a silent and serious manner. Before our departure the oldest woman beckoned to me and when I approached her, she gave me one more bracelet – as a gift. She did it with dignity, showed her generosity. And in this way it was me who was given a gift. I’ve been wearing the bracelet until today – as the greatest treasure.
The Black Continent is also the nature, picturesque landscapes and sometimes surprising situations. Once I observed zebras and antelopes pasturing together among grasses. Suddenly this large herd calmly moved apart in two directions and two lionesses walked in the middle. We were stunned, no stampede, no escape. The local guide explained – they remained calm because they felt that lionesses were not hungry.
Beata Lewandowska-Kaftan has been travelling to the Black Continent for many years and has a lot of friends there. However, people still surprise and move her. When Feruzi, the old fisherman, one of characters in the book Zanzibar – wyspa skarbów, read a story about himself, which was translated into suahili for him, he uttered the words which will remain in her memory: – You know what? I will never die because even when I am not here, my grandchildren will be able to read about me.