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Author Oriane Lee Johnston on finding love in and for Africa

Oriane Lee Johnston

She lives in Canada and writes extensively about her time in Zimbabwe. She is travel writer and author Oriane Lee, and her memoir The Geography of Belonging captivates. Our interview is below and, as you’ll see, our conversation sparks her love of southern Africa and her relationship with the people and animals there.

Disclosure: This sponsored post features a woman author inspired by Africa to write a book about her time there in such a way that it inspires the reader to consider what “belonging” really means. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases through links below.

Interview with Oriane Lee Johnston

In her memoir, The Geography of Belonging: A Love Story of Horses & Africa, Oriane Lee Johnston recounts an unexpected liaison with an African horseman and how it bridges cultural divides. She takes the reader from her home on the west coast of Canada into southern Africa in a way that is inviting and celebrates the human connection.

She also writes of her love for horses in the book, and I asked her about that in this interview. The second edition of the memoir is newly released.

Welcome, Oriane Lee! What inspired you to write The Geography of Belonging?

I was writing the memoir to say: Here’s what can happen when you follow an inner call to do something. And, here’s what can happen when you respond to an invitation you sense from a particular geographical place. In my case, “Go. To. Africa.”

Back home on Vancouver Island after the first two months in Africa, Canadian Horse Journals magazine invited me to publish the story “My African Horse Safari.” I continued writing after that, what I thought was a travelogue, until a young poet-friend said, “Where is the love story?!”

Well, then, the travelogue pivoted and became a personal memoir, inviting the reader into the story of my unexpected liaison with an African horseman.

Intriguing! Please share a bit more about the book with us.

The story follows an inner call to the Mavuradonha Mountains in the eastern edge of the Zambezi Escarpment. How mythic that seemed. The quest to preserve this wild and unspoiled bioregion reminded me of the campaign to protect the Great Bear Rainforest in the mid-coast of B.C. Canada, where I was born. Horses are wise guides through the story, giving me a purpose and a way of engaging deeply with people and wild places.

Traveling between the west coast of Canada and present-day Zimbabwe, formerly colonial Rhodesia in all its political, economic, and ecological complexities, I write about longing and loss, about questions of identity, the ethics of generosity, and the intimate terrain of the heart, the body, and the earth.

Canadian OLJ in Zimbabwe
Oriane Lee Johnston on the Ngamo Plains of Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Photo via OLJ.

Did anything unexpected happen while writing The Geography of Belonging?

I hadn’t expected or imagined returning to Zimbabwe again and again. So, the real-life story continued to unfold and I continued to write, as it was happening. Writing the first draft was not looking back at the past but transcribing, fresh, straight out of my field notebook.

Much later, deep into revisions of the manuscript, it became clear the writing allowed the whole experience in Africa, every morsel, to seep deeply into my psyche and cellular memory. A whole-body sensory assimilation of what I have witnessed, experienced, and wrestled with.

On a more practical note, I hadn’t planned in advance that scenes from individual chapters would become scripts I‘d read, with photos and music, as fundraising presentations for families and projects in Africa. Quite unexpectedly, this laid the cornerstone for the readership of the book.

The book title refers to a sense of belonging. In what ways did South Africa affect your identity?

The book includes several extremely humbling incidents where my inclination to “fit in” blew the cover off my self-identity as liberal, open-minded, racially unbiased. When I returned to Canada, the colonial mindset was evident everywhere, as if I had stepped back from an unconsciously assimilated white lens.

I came to question my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ personal versions of Canadian history. Who am I, the one descended from these forbears? Who were they, as individuals? How were they the same, and different, from the Europeans who colonized Africa, India, Australia, South America? How is it that white people didn’t become the majority in Africa, unlike North America? This was the beginning of “reconciliation” for me, very personally. A reckoning with the facts of my own ancestors’ role, here, a century and half ago.

Secondly, in Africa was the opportunity to be with people who had no knowledge of my previous life nor the North American society that defines us; who didn’t relate to me as who I’d been “before”. It’s wonderful and refreshing to be brand new each day––to put aside my opinions and usual preferences and to be more aware of my pre-conditioned mindset.

I initially went to Africa fresh out of a long-time relationship, a long-time career, the responsibilities of parenting, and with one parent passing away while I was in Zimbabwe the third time and the other shortly after. That’s a pretty clean slate.

When I asked a Shona friend, as you’ll read in the story, “Do you prefer being out here with horses in bush camp, or back at the stables at the farm, or at home in your village with your family?”  He said “I prefer everywhere.” Imagine that layer of preference-based identity, dissolving. Liberating, I must say.

Have you always loved horses?

Not at all. I wasn’t a horse-crazy girl. Rather, in my early 50s, on holiday in Costa Rica, my then-partner and I had to walk through a field every day where a horse came galloping toward us, and I was petrified. Right then, I vowed to move beyond that fear. We went for a day-long trail ride from cloud forest to ocean shore (different horse!), and when we got home to Cortes Island, I began natural horsemanship lessons.

The first year was groundwork, no riding, to learn about true partnership with a horse, about building trust with a horse. After that, I learned to ride, bareback with rope halter.

Then one day, a meditation teacher gave me the book The Tao of Equus by Linda Kohaov, and that changed the course of my work in the world. Equine Guided Learning, aka Horse Spirit Medicine.

Wonderful! Back to the book, how does the second edition of The Geography of Belonging differ from the first?

The original cover had a mystical symbol-based design by a friend, a legendary Zimbabwean graphic designer; the subtitle was simply A Love Story. Online sales from my own connections and networks were good. . . less so in bookstores.

Salmonberry, the publisher, and I decided to experiment with a different cover and subtitle so that the content of the story would be more obvious, and perhaps attractive, to bookstore browsers. On this second edition, the front cover is a photo of me riding into the African wilderness. On the back cover, the close-up of an elephant encounter.

It is essentially the same book inside, though last month in Zimbabwe, I wrote a brief postscript to the Epilogue, “on location” in the wilderness bush camp, while I was revisiting sacred places in the story.

What took you to Zimbabwe last month, and what was your favorite moment of the trip?

My Shona family, the extended family of my beloved in the story, Stephen Hambani. Especially the grandchildren and the elders who are growing up and growing older. After not traveling during COVID, it was time to go!

Oriane Lee Johnston with Zimbabwe family
Oriane Lee Johnston sits with Stephen’s granddaughters in Zimbabwe. Photo via Oriane Lee.

Beyond that, I wanted to offer the book to the spirits of the land where “the call” to Africa originated. To return to the Mavuradonha Mountains, book in hand.

A favourite moment? Bloomer is the first character in the story, in the opening sentence of page one. I hadn’t seen or heard from him at all since then. A few months ago, he sent me a WhatsApp message out of the blue, curiously, just as the book was going into production.

Then, can you imagine, he passed through the safari camp when I was there last month, in Hwange National Park where we’d met all those 13 years ago. On his way to an anti-poaching assignment. I had one copy of the book left from the few printed in Zimbabwe — obviously meant for Bloomer!

Oriane Lee hands book to Bloomer, who is in the memoir. Photo via Oriane Lee.

The most truly memorable moment? Presenting the book to Stephen. And then whenever we would meet, reading aloud with him the stories of our times together over the years.

Stephen on horse in Zimbabwe
Stephen Hambani in Mavuradonha Mountains. Photo via Oriane Lee Johnston.

What is something you wish more people knew about Zimbabwe?

When I asked my Zimbabwean friends, of every stripe, what I could do as one foreign visitor, every one said in their own words … Please tell your friends, show the world, what the news media does not. That our country is beautiful, our people are peaceful and generous, our culture is rich and alive, that we are proud to be Zimbabwean, to be African.

Mission accomplished.

I will tell you, as well, in my experience, Zimbabwe is safe and hospitable for travelers. From wilderness camp to village community to the capitol city of Harare, there is not the fear-inducing racial tension of the neighbouring country to the south.

There are fewer tourists in Zim than other safari destinations, so whether you’re tracking wildlife on foot or vehicle “game drive,” very likely you won’t come across another group of people doing the same. Zimbabwean safari guides’ reputation is among the best in Africa. I’ve read the professional guide-training and apprenticeship curriculum outline––extraordinarily comprehensive, and jaw-dropping inspiring to know you’re out in the wilderness in those safe hands. Especially on horseback with lions in the vicinity!

Who is The Geography of Belonging: A Love Story of Horses & Africa meant for?

I imagined so many different readers over those years of transcribing the story from my field notes onto my laptop. I was writing to say “You, too, can follow a dream to its fruition, no matter how far-fetched it seems. Here’s how I did it.”

What do you hope readers take away from the read?

In addition to what we’ve talked about, two more things I hope readers receive:

An understanding of the value of horses to humans beyond the traditional. You know, in my field we wouldn’t say someone is a “Horse Whisperer”; what really happens is “Horse Listening”. A mutual responsiveness between horse and human. It’s not about dominance, it’s about trust going both ways.

Secondly, the value of spiritual practice, prayer, and ceremony, generally downplayed in secular North American society, or at least in my family. What emerged in my adult life, alongside meditation, is the wisdom of sacred ceremony as practiced by Ancestors in every culture worldwide.

How could I write about the supernatural in a down-to-earth believable way? Anthropologist and explorer Wade Davis’ books showed me how to describe this earth wisdom, and my experiences of this presence in nature, in a “reader-friendly” way.

Reviewers have called your book “courageous” and “inspiring.” Did the feedback surprise you?

Yes, it was surprising to be identified as “courageous”. I didn’t feel courageous; I was simply choosing to respond to the deep conviction to follow the inner call to Africa to its full blooming or early demise, come what may.

What did take courage, when the book was ready to be published, was standing behind my observations of white-African characters, knowing they would likely read the book. And to stand by the intimacy in the love story. I found the truthfulness and transparency in Darrel McLeod’s memoir Peyakow inspiring, liberating even, and our correspondence about that was helpful. Similarly, Sharon Butala’s memoir after her husband had died, Where I Live Now.

To quote from The Geography of Belonging, page 56: Courage is what happens when I say “yes” with all my heart, and don’t look back.

Perhaps the fact that I am in a grandmotherly time of life is inspiring.

The Geography of Belonging Book Cover
Click the image above to get The Geography of Belonging by Oriane Lee Johnston today.

Get your copy of The Geography of Belonging now

Find The Geography of Belonging: A Love Story of Horses & Africa on Amazon and other popular online booksellers now. If it is not already on the shelves of your favourite bookstore, ask them to order the book for you. Bookstores can order through Ingram.

There is also a music playlist! Find a soundtrack companion to the story on Spotify.

“Thank you very much, Christy, for sharing/supporting my Zimbabwean friends’ request to ‘show your friends . . . ‘ ” – Oriane Lee Johnston

Connect further with author Oriane Lee Johnston

Find Oriane Lee Johnston at Here you can get more details about the memoir, other interviews, her travel writing, and tarot card reading services.

She is on social media too. Follow Oriane Lee on Facebook and Instagram.

Thank you for being here, Oriane Lee Johnston. I love your inspiring adventures and how you share love in the new memoir!

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