In a powerful new memoir, Lisa Duncan delves into her struggles to balance fear and guilt with self-care. As she watched her dad and her brother suffer from neurological diseases for several years, she began to lose her sense of identity. It took great courage to regain her adventurous self by traveling to Africa alone, and she writes about this experience in Chasing Africa: Fear Won’t Find Me Here – A Memoir.
Disclosure: This sponsored post intends to get to the heart of self-care issues, especially for women, by highlighting Lisa Duncan’s experiences as penned in her memoir Chasing Africa.
Interview with author Lisa Duncan
When author Lisa Duncan agreed to an interview, I was eager to ask her about how she balanced her love of travel with her fear of leaving her family, who were battling Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. I wondered how she overcame the guilt of self-care and how she regained her identity by exploring Africa. Also, it must have been an emotional process to write about it all.
Understandably, there was a lot to talk about! Our interview follows.
What struck me about your memoir was how you felt torn between going to Africa and caring for your father and brother. Can you tell me a bit about that time in your life?
I had a pretty good childhood, but there was a lot of tension and fighting between my oldest brother and my dad. This caused me a lot of stress and shame from a very young age.
By the time I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to escape my family home. As soon as I qualified for student loans, I moved out (at age 19). That same year I learned of my dad and brother’s depressing prognoses.
Whenever I went home to visit, which was almost weekly, I couldn’t shake the feelings of guilt and obligation. I don’t recall anyone saying anything explicitly to make me feel guilty about leaving, but I did feel very bad for my mom. In her twenties, she looked after physically and cognitively challenged children before getting married. Then she became a full-time homemaker and raised four kids.
Instead of enjoying her retirement years, she was forced to watch her husband and grown son’s health decline month after month, year after year. My mom became my dad and brother’s sole caregiver, ultimately always putting their needs first. I helped out whenever I visited (as did my sister), but unlike my mom, I was not their caregiver.
My visits home made me feel like I was helping everyone cope in a small way. I was torn because I knew if I ever moved away or went traveling for a longer period, I would have to overcome feelings of guilt and put aside my fears of what might happen while I was away.
Do you think that what made it so difficult was that sometimes we consider self-care to be selfish? It’s not selfish, by the way!
Prior to my dad and brother getting ill, I never felt it was selfish to want to follow my dreams as a young woman. But in the years after their diagnoses, I felt like I had to compromise the type of life I wanted.
This resulted in me having travel adventures closer to home in the form of shorter road trips to fulfill my love of rock climbing and outdoor pursuits. Even though I had always envisioned myself traveling more and living/working overseas, I’ve remained living close enough so I could visit and help out (which is still true today). Over time I became fearful of leaving.
Since my mom, dad and brother weren’t able to fulfill their dreams, within a few years, my desire to follow my own dreams seemed selfish and, at times, frivolous. At the same time, I recognized that this wasn’t a healthy way to live and that I needed to break free from those crippling emotions. The only way for me to do that was to fulfill this trip of a lifetime.
Why do you think so many women struggle with making time for their own dreams yet are so giving of their time to help others?
Traditionally, women have usually taken on the nurturing, caregiver role. These expectations have been reinforced by society and passed down from one generation to the next. There is something fulfilling in the act of helping others, but there needs to be a balance between meeting the needs of others, and meeting one’s own needs.
After establishing a fulfilling teaching career and having many life experiences and travel adventures under my belt, I discovered the joy of becoming a mother. I relished this new identity, but prior to traveling to Africa when I was 24, and even in the years that followed, marriage or having a child hadn’t been on my radar.
I think it was because I saw the toll it took on my mom and how tied down she had become as a wife and mother. Thankfully society’s expectations of women have changed for the better since my mom’s generation. At least from my experiences living in Canada.
Have you always loved to travel?
I’ve always been curious about different cultures and enjoy learning foreign languages. My mom immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands when she was 28. She had a sister and brother who moved to South Africa and New Zealand. As a young child, I was enthralled by the letters and postcards that arrived at our house from around the world.
I spent a month in Western Europe when I was 13 with my parents and sister. We drove from the Netherlands to Paris and then to the coast of Normandy.
That trip opened my eyes to a whole new world. The following year I traveled to Japan on a two-week school trip where I stayed with a host family. I was completely smitten with the country and its people.
After studying Japanese at high school for two years, I returned to Japan as an exchange student when I was 17 to study for a year. After graduating from university, I began rock climbing.
Since then, adventure-seeking road trips have been a huge part of my life. As a teacher I have had the pleasure of passing down my love of travel by taking groups of students to Japan on three separate trips.
And then you explored Africa. I’m curious, what do you enjoy most about Africa?
Before traveling to the continent, I was intrigued by the landscapes and wildlife I had seen in magazines and documentaries. I also loved listening to several African musicians: Salif Keita from Mali, Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, Angélique Kidjo from Benin, Manu DiBango from Cameroon, Papa Wemba from DRC. I was also very interested in learning about Africa’s colonial history, in particular, South Africa and its oppressive apartheid regime.
During my four months backpacking, I had the pleasure and privilege of traveling from South Africa to Kenya in a pre-digital world where a lot was left to chance and circumstance. Of course, having the opportunity to visit places like the Cradle of Humankind, the Drakensberg Mountains, the Namib desert, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe/Zambia, Lake Malawi, Zanzibar, and the Masai Mara was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But equally important were the wonderful people I met there that made my travels so memorable. It is unfortunate that “Africa,” which consists of 54 distinct countries, is often depicted as a place plagued by poverty and civil war. That was not my experience at all.
There’s a lot to learn there. What did you learn about yourself while traveling in Africa?
I discovered I wasn’t the solo traveler I set out to be. While moving around as a backpacker, I always started out on my own. But then I would meet fellow adventurers or friendly locals who kept me company—sometimes just for a few hours, others, for days or weeks. My backpacking experiences were much richer because of the wonderful real-life characters who found their way into my journey.
I also learned that often the hardest thing about doing something scary is taking that first step. In almost all the major life decisions I have made, feelings of fear and anxiety dissipated the moment I committed to what it was I wanted to achieve.
What is your next project? Another book? Another trip?
Since Chasing Africa just came out, I’m not thinking about a second book yet. But I just completed the Whistler Writer in Residence program with author Shaena Lambert in October and worked on some shorter nonfiction pieces that could be the start of something.
Most of the new writing focuses on what happened after Africa since my dad and my brother’s health kept deteriorating, especially since my dad had several stays in psych wards due to the psychological effects of Parkinson’s and his meds.
Although some of it is humorous, most of the pieces are serious in tone. Writing about these struggles has taught me that despite the solemn and depressing circumstances we may find ourselves in, there is almost always a way to find light, laughter, and love.
My last major trip was a year ago, in Nov-Dec 2021. I went to Costa Rica with my husband and our daughter, who was 7 at the time.
We spent a month traveling around the country and celebrated my 50th birthday in style! As a family, we do a fair bit of backcountry mountain exploration, camping, and ocean adventures close to our home in BC. Recently we talked about traveling to Croatia in 2023, but nothing is booked… yet!
A few last words from Lisa Duncan
I hope readers of Chasing Africa will feel inspired to do their own travels (close to home or abroad!) and find the courage to do something out of their comfort zone.
Thank you for being here, Lisa Duncan!
She is honest, upfront, and turning the spotlight on many things here. Lisa discusses the loss of identity that can come with caring for loved ones and the paralyzing feelings of guilt accompanying self-care for many women.
She talks about the beauty of Africa and the ability to connect with new people on trips. There is so much love, grief, wonder, and courage mixed in here.
I encourage you to take Lisa Duncan’s lead and have the courage to take time for your own needs. Recharge. Balance.
Top photo by Grace Gorman. Used with permission by Full Complement Communications.