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La Chica reveals all…

March 23, 2012

…in Melbourne’s Weekly Review. Journalist Sarah Marinos has written an article about La Chica’s life. See ….   http://www.theweeklyreview.com.au/article-display/Out-of-Africa/4796  ….or read it below.

 

Out of Africa
12.44PM  8-3-2012
Sarah Marinos
Tracey Sawyer with her friend Nakai and another Masai girl.

LAURA MORGAN

Tracey Sawyer was living the good life in Hong Kong, working for an international law firm and earning a six-figure salary. Home was a luxury flat on the 46th floor overlooking the harbour. Her wardrobe was filled with beautifully tailored Armani suits and every six weeks she had her short, sleek hair trimmed – an exercise that cost her $300 a time.

Most weeks Sawyer flew business class to other Asian cities, New York or London, where she stayed in five-star hotels while she liaised with colleagues about the law firm’s growing business opportunities.

But then her life began to unravel.

“My working life in Hong Kong was good for the wallet but bad for the soul. Hong Kong is about making money – it’s very materialistic,” says Sawyer, 47.

“People go there and get premature promotions, and there’s a lot of arrogance that comes with that and with the money. It corrupts the soul. I was there for three years – until I had a meltdown.

“I pushed myself to the limit and didn’t spend more than a week at a time in my apartment because I was always on a plane or in hotels. That might sound amazing but it was lonely and exhausting and I ended up seeing a life coach because I began to wonder what I was doing with my life. I had got further in my career than I thought I could get. I was earning more money than I thought I was entitled to earn – but what was it all for?

“I spent any spare time I had in a gym to try and release some stress. But while I was physically fit, inside I was falling apart. I had to take pills to sleep at night because I didn’t want to dream or think. And I was lonely because I’d put 200 per cent into my career and wasn’t in one place long enough to have a relationship.

“So I saw a life coach and that’s when I had that breakthrough, my ‘aha’ moment. There was an instant when she was asking me questions about my life and myself and I remember suddenly saying, ‘I just don’t want to face myself’, and then I gasped …”

Sawyer’s life today couldn’t be further removed from her life as an international lawyer, accountant and marketing executive. The “meltdown” forced her to take time off and to travel – this time to work out what she wanted to do next rather than as part of a demanding business schedule.

She spent time at healing retreats in Greece and Scotland but with her 40th birthday approaching in 2004, Sawyer felt an inexplicable desire to explore Africa. It was a trip that really did change her life and gave her the peace she was searching for.

During the last hour of her trip to Africa, while she explored the bustling cobblestone streets of Zanzibar, she met an imposing Masai man, Lesaloy. Tall and striking with ochre in his hair, he was selling traditional Masai jewellery to tourists.

They began talking and Lesaloy asked Sawyer to stay in touch with him via email so he could improve his English. During their email exchanges, Sawyer said she planned to return to Tanzania later that year to explore the country further and Lesaloy invited her to his village, Longido, to watch a traditional coming-of-age ceremony.

 

Tracey with her Masai hut builder Oleborlala (his name means ‘white teeth’ in Maa).

KASHANGO

During that visit she was introduced to Lesaloy’s brother, Olengunin, and his wife, Namnyak, who is now one of Sawyer’s best friends. She says they and the rest of the village helped her find a new purpose – raising $35,000 to establish a reliable fresh-water supply to the village.

That has led Sawyer to set up Testigo Projects Inc, a charity she hopes will not only bring fresh water to Longido but eventually raise money to help other underdeveloped communities access fresh water and grow crops.

“My workaholic approach to my career has been transferred to this,” Sawyer says, laughing, during one of her stints in Melbourne. She now divides her time between Melbourne, her hometown, and Longido where she has her own traditional Masai mud hut, or boma.

Despite the stark differences between the two places, Sawyer says Longido and her hut, with views of Mount Kilimanjaro and the African bush, is as much her home now as her Melbourne birthplace.

“I was blown away from the moment I first arrived in Longido. It sounds strange, but I can only describe it by saying I felt I’d arrived home. I think my heart was opened,” she says.

After years of studying – first at Vermont High School and Methodist Ladies’ College and then at Monash University doing degrees in economics and law – and then climbing the career ladder in Australia, London and Hong Kong, Sawyer has discovered peace in a small Masai village alongside the main road from Nairobi in Kenya to Arusha in Tanzania’s north.

“On my first visit to Longido I remember arriving by taxi in this dusty village with very basic buildings on either side of the main road. There’s no electricity but there are a couple of cafés, including one with a concrete floor, walls a few feet high and a woven leaf roof,” Sawyer says.

“The Masai live in traditional bomas, or mud brick huts, further back, and they build these in groups with thorn-bush fences around them. The first time I visited for the coming-of-age ceremony I had to hang out with the women because the men, the warriors, take part in a separate part of the ceremony.

“So Namnyak took care of me and the Masai women sang songs for the girls who were coming of age. As it grew dark, everyone formed a circle and the singing continued throughout the night … it’s a magical experience that just takes you somewhere else.

“I remember when I needed to sleep Lesaloy found me a sleeping mat and I slept in a hut with baby goats and puppies around me.”

Sawyer has since returned regularly to Longido and her Masai friends recently gave her a parcel of land and helped build her own traditional boma.

“It’s a few kilometres out of the village and in one direction I can see Mount Kilimanjaro, and in another direction Mount Meru, and then bush. I walk out of my place and there are giraffes and ostriches walking around,” she says.

 

Tracey in traditional masai dress with village children.

ADRIAN BROWN

The Armani suits and slick hairstyle have long gone. Today Sawyer is happiest in jeans, a sweater and with her hair longer and loose.

“My house is made with traditional mud and sticks and a woven roof, and the garden has been landscaped with stone walls and seats. But there’s no electricity. I use kerosene lamps. I hate cooking, full-stop. So when I’m there, Namnyak cooks for me and I pay her for my food.”

Sawyer is using her considerable professional experience and contacts to grow Testigo Africa – the African division of Testigo Projects Inc.

After qualifying as a lawyer, she joined KPMG as a tax accountant – but hated the restrictive nature of that career.

“At school I loved history and I wanted to do arts and history, but that wasn’t very vocational so I did the ‘right’ thing and did vocational degrees. I did a year at KPMG but it didn’t suit my personality and who I am. The tax work was compliance focused – checking tax returns of high net-worth individuals or doing fringe-benefits tax returns. The part of my job I enjoyed was doing roadshows to universities to get new grads on board. I loved that.”

She moved to London in 1994 to take on a role with Sweet & Maxwell, a British company that began publishing legal books in the 1700s.

“It was such a shock because I went from a dynamic young publishing company (Centre for Professional Development) to a company that was very English and conservative. They’d have garden parties in the barristers’ chambers – green grass, white linen tablecloths – and we’d have afternoon tea. But it stifled me,” says Sawyer.

So she studied marketing at night and then moved to an international law firm in London to manage its information centre.

Part of her role involved travelling to the firm’s 25 global offices to do an audit of how they could better manage and access its information system. The job took Sawyer from Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, Madrid, Warsaw and Moscow to Rome, Milan, Turin, Dubai and New York.

When she was approached by a headhunter and offered a job as business development and marketing director with the biggest law firm in Asia, based in Hong Kong, Sawyer felt she had nothing to lose. It would be another experience.

“They offered me an obscene amount of money and I thought what the heck?” she says, shrugging her shoulders.

But the long hours, pressure and the Hong Kong lifestyle took its toll.

 

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“I want the energy behind this project to be because I’ve inspired people.”

JOHN DONEGAN

“At the time I had my meltdown I was sick and my heart wasn’t in it, so I stopped. But that was a big decision for me because then I was lost. I didn’t know where to go. Being a professional, wearing a suit and working in an office was all I’d known,” she says frankly.

The trip to Greece to a retreat and then time spent at a Tibetan haven on a remote Scottish island helped the healing process. But it has been in Africa that Sawyer has truly found a new purpose and happiness.

In the interim she has taken on jobs to pay the bills, including a recent stint with National Australia Bank’s legal department in Melbourne. She has also studied documentary making so she can depict the beauty and the harshness of life in Longido.

A recent three-year drought in the area decimated the livestock, leaving many villagers without income, food and status.

“The drought affected everything. Young boys and girls had to find water for the surviving livestock so missed school to do that, and there was fighting in the villages over access to the scant water supply,” says Sawyer.

“About 90 per cent of the livestock died, and that is the villagers’ wealth. They sell livestock when they need money and so villagers were down to eating one meal a day – mostly rice and beans. And there were suicides because they had lost everything and felt they had nothing and had no hope. For the Masai, self-esteem comes from ownership of their livestock.”

The drought has broken but life is still harsh for some villagers who have to walk long distances to access water. After months of campaigning and fund-raising, Sawyer and her supporters raised $35,000 to have bores drilled in the village in the hope of providing a water supply so the women and children don’t have to walk as far to get fresh water. She also hopes the water supply will enable the villagers to grow more crops.

“I could go back to my own career, earn the money in a few months and give it to the project. But it’s not the right way. I want the energy behind this project to be because I’ve inspired people,” she says.

“I’ve never been happier. I am doing what I’m meant to be doing. Now I like getting up in the morning and I’m passionate about what I do again. I lost that for a while. I’ve no doubt this project is what I am supposed to be doing with my life now – and I won’t give up.”

For more information about the Testigo Projects Inc, go to www.testigoafrica.org/

 

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One Comment
  1. Your story is so inspiring Tracey ….. looking forward to seeing it all again!

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