“To live will be an awfully big adventure.”― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
As many of you know, we recently traveled to the Samburu region of Northern Kenya. We did so to meet up with our friend (and Josh’s former boss and mentor) Jane Newman. Jane is one of the most inspiring persons we’ve ever met. Some of you have also met her during the tours of our farm during Sharon Springs Festivals. She’s the unassuming, pretty English woman who leads tours of the flower garden, sharing her knowledge. Little did you know, however, how amazing she truly is. Here is her story…
The pale, gangly English girl focused her gaze on the short runway ahead of her.
A tree just over the site line crossed its limbs in a bloated posture. “I dare you,” it seemed to say.
She took off. Foot over foot, elbows pulling back like spiny plucked wings.
And then she leapt.
While Jane Newman’s first childhood attempt at flying resulted in a few scratches and bruising, (as jumping from a porch while pretending to be Peter Pan often does) it never really kept her from trying again.
Early in her career, she decided to up and leave the Mother Country and move to Chicagoland. From there it was on to NYC and Madison Avenue. It took a woman with Jane’s restless spirit and sheer British fearlessness to move to New York in 1982. This turned out to be a pivotal moment in the history of US advertising. Not only was Jane a woman in an industry just-slightly-evolved-post-Mad-Men, but she was a Planner when account planning was unheard of in the US (she played an integral role in the famous Apple ‘1984’ commercial.) Now it’s impossible to imagine a world without the consumer insights and strategic muscle of planning, so integral has the discipline become in agencies of all stripes. (Jane will be inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame this year.)
But self-admittedly, this devotion to career took its toll on Jane and her family. Is there a limit to how much you can plan for life and still have time for living life as it happens?
13 years ago at the age of 50, Jane heard that a friend had plans to drive across Africa. Those sorts of adventures don’t come around that often, so Jane harnessed her wanderlust and hitched a ride.
Days into the trip, the arid dessert air pressing down on their back, they barreled down the road.
When driving across Africa, the darkness can envelope you. So many swaths of land are so large and largely undeveloped that the stars actually touch the horizon. There’s a since of isolation that feels oddly similar to diving into a deep pool of water.
And then it happened. Surrounded by everything and nothing, the truck stopped running. The friends had seen no one on the road for hours. No one knew their location, and this was years before cell phones and GPS.
As her friend walked off into the night searching for help, Jane, alone, confronted the fact that she might die there.
When out of bush walked a group of children. Followed shortly by a group of women.
They were mothers from the Samburu tribe—nomadic goat herders who constantly roam northern Kenya. They took care of her and her friend for several days until one of the warriors from the tribe could walk into the nearest village and find help to fix the vehicle.
Jane promised the group that she would one day return to help them, in any way that they wished.
She finished the trip with her friend, flew back to the US and decided, at the age of 50 and the top of her “game” to retire.
Completely by herself, she set off on a backpacking trip around the world. She wrote a letter, and posted it to the closest village to the tribe. She told them she was keeping her promise to return and that she would be there in a few months time—on Feb 15.
She had no way of knowing if they would ever receive the letter. Nor if they could read it. And as the date grew closer and her journey back to that spot nearer, she began to have doubts.
“What if they don’t remember me?”
“What if they don’t want me to come?”
But one foot in the front of the other, back erect, she took another leap.
This time, she hitchhiked her way into remote northern Africa, riding along with the lonely transport trucks that drive through the night. She arrived at the designated spot on February 17, and there was the entire tribe to greet her. They had been waiting patiently for 2 days.
The Samburu are an incredibly hospitable group of people, and when Jane asked how she could repay them for their kindness. They were at a complete loss. “Repaying” for kindness was nothing they have ever heard of.
Thinking her way around the issue, Jane asked the mothers what they wanted for their children. Unequivocally, the mothers said that they realized that many things were changing around them, and that their children needed an education in order for their culture to survive the encroaching world. Formal education had eluded them because of the transient nature of their lives.
Then everything Jane had ever worked for came into play. Every strategy meeting, every planning session paid off.
She devised a way to build a school that traveled WITH the families. A teacher would be assigned to each group and could construct an entire classroom around an acacia tree when they got to the next grazing area. This became The Thorn Tree Project (click here).
For the past 12 years, we have supported one of these schools and we traveled to Samburu this year to see the first of our students graduate from high school (and head off to college!)
He, too, is ready to soar.
And Jane, like both a proud parent and a planner—works on solving all the issues that prevent kids from doing their best in school.
So if you ever find yourself on your 50th birthday backpacking through the lesser-explored areas of Africa, in the middle of the night, and you come across a woman sitting at a wooden table scribbling notes by the light of a paraffin lamp…
See Jane run.
Run, Jane, run.
You can buy a bracelet and support The Thorn Tree Project by clicking here.