Case

Lola Akinmade Åkerström & Geotraveler Media Sweden
Notes on carving your own boundaries

Introduction

I remember that day clearly. Walking up onto that muddy rugby pitch. Burly men stopped playing and watched in silence as I approached them. They peered down at me as I stopped within their midst. “I am Lola,” I introduced myself. “I know you don’t have a women’s rugby team but I will help you start one.”

Moments of silence followed until their English captain reached out his mud-covered hand and shook mine.

Since starting that competitive women’s rugby club, our team went on to win many divisional awards and was the team to beat for many years.

I considered that simple act fundamentally mould breaking because if we can wire ourselves to take initiative and not wait on others to do things, we may all begin to operate at our maximum potentials as individuals. Life demands that the “real” you show up to participate and share those unique gifts only you can provide.

But how do you find the “real” you?

For me, it was a long arduous journey of self-discovery and exploration. It meant trying new things, moving boundaries around, pushing limits, bursting through comfort zones, and working through humiliation to find the “real” me.

Background

My love of cultural exploration was ignited the second I was old enough to absorb my surroundings. Growing up in Nigeria, a society where community took precedence, and everyone was your aunt and uncle, I began to appreciate the true solidarity that we humans share. This solidarity transcends culture, language, race, and religion. It is shared through the eyes – “I see and acknowledge you”. It is shared through a smile – “I celebrate your existence with you”. It is shared through a touch – “I understand where you’ve been”.

Studying geography as part of my degree, human and social geography drew me more because it gave faces and voices to cultures that spread out across my map. With a passion for travel and adventure, working as a journalist with Eco-Challenge Expedition Race in Fiji was my first foray into photojournalism – telling stories of the enduring human spirit.

My true education began as I traveled as an African in countries where Africans seldom traveled, and began to connect across my skin, through my eyes and ultimately through my lens with others. Each face and life story was remembered and brought back with me through photography.  From dispatching stories about indigenous Sami culture in Swedish Lapland to documenting the plight of sex trafficking victims in Cambodia, I began to see myself slowly move outside my comfort zones.

The words “boundary” and “limit” began to lose their meaning to me

Professional Challenges

I left my top-level Geographic Information System (GIS) Architect position of 10+ years to pursue my passions of travel writing and photography during depressing economic times when everyone else was clinging to their jobs.

It was the biggest career risk I’d ever taken. I’d started building a travel writing and photography career on the side but was it enough?

I was frustrated, confused, scared, and unsure. Did I need to pull those boundaries I was wildly carving out closer? Was I pushing them too far out to manage?

In 2010, I attended a travel festival in London which I’d been looking forward to for weeks. It seemed the perfect chance to meet the editors of top travel magazines and to network with fellow travel writers and photographers.

Quickly scanning the small room to take a mental census, I settled in the first row. Mostly women. Older women to be exact. Hobbyists trying to push their boundaries maybe? I wasn’t too sure.

I sat next to an older lady, maybe in her late fifties. We began to make small talk.

“So what brings you here?” she asked. I answered.

“Haaa. I see. Have you published any work?” she continued. I told her. Mostly travel writing in a few publications, I told her.

“Really? I thought you had to be extraordinary to be published in National Geographic?” she retorted.

Extraordinary?

I held her gaze for about two seconds to let her condescending remark settle, and let out a half smile.

“You have to be able to craft a good story and pitch it well,” I told her.

Extraordinary?

It wasn’t rocket science so why did I have to be “extraordinary” to be published in a top travel magazine?  Because the challenge I keep fighting while pushing my own boundaries professionally is that people begin to see you operating at a higher potential than they originally presumed you were capable of.

Pushing boundaries inches us closer to our maximum potentials as individuals in whatever areas of our lives we carve them in.

My life philosophy can be wrapped up in this famous quote by E.E. Cummings….”to be nobody but yourself in a world that's doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight. Never stop fighting.”…

To discover the “real” you, you need to keep pushing and carving. Because only then can you truly begin to unearth your passions, your strengths, weaknesses, joys, vices, what turns you on, and what turns you off in life.

Personal Section

That one incident on a small rugby pitch in Dayton, Ohio remains vital to the way I approach life situations. I never let my background and ethnicity limit me in whatever I choose to pursue as long as I have some control over the situation.

I also remember sitting in Mr. Kayode’s geography class in secondary school, an atlas in hand looking at political boundaries; countries beyond my sphere. “I will reach the North Pole,” I often said to friends and family, oblivious to the fact that I was sitting in tropical sub-Saharan Africa and had never seen snow at that time.

Reaching the Arctic Circle seemed a precursor; this imaginary line I’d only traced fingers across on a map so last summer, I took a road trip along Sweden’s eastern coast towards the circle with my parents. Marshmallow-white clouds sat against soft blue sky. Beneath them, yellowish-green pine trees and spruce dotted rolling pastures. As we pressed on, I glanced over my left shoulder at the back seat.

Those green fields were now rolling over Mom’s black sunshades as she rested. Thin white wires ran from her ears down to the iPod hidden under her black scarf. She was listening to her own African soundtrack personalized for the undulating Swedish countryside; a mix of strong drum beats with synthesized voices singing in Pidgin English as we passed ox-blood Falu red cottage after cottage strewn across the landscape.

Next to her was Dad. In one hand, a red hardcover atlas which he occasionally flipped through with such familiarity befitting a geologist. My wanderlust clearly fashioned after his, I’d done the same for years.

We finally arrived at the “sign”. Getting out of the station wagon, Mom casually tossed her black scarf over her shoulders, sunglasses resting on her nose.

“Where is it?” she asked.

“This is it,” I responded.

“The Arctic Circle?” She wasn’t sure.

“Yes!”

“But where is the thing?” She prodded.

“There is no ‘thing’. It’s an imaginary line.” I tried to explain.

“Hmm…Ok then, let’s get back in quickly before a moose gets us…” and with that, she started towards the car. Dad and I exchanged a knowing glance before reaching for his worn camera…

Exploring beyond boundaries underlies my work as a professional writer, blogger, and photographer who transparently shares places through words, photography, and multimedia. I imagine their pride the day I finally land on top of the world, screaming at the top of my lungs… ‘I’m a loooong way from Africa!’

Proud the only boundaries in life they had taught their daughter were imaginary ones she was willing to draw for herself.