Kalahari Night - Hamilton Wende

Thoughts on a mirror and its meaning

I was commissioned to write a piece about my face years ago and for various reasons it never saw print. I thought it would be interesting to post now.

I think first, of stars, spread out across a night sky. The universe mirrored in its vastness. My career as a filmmaker and writer has meant that I have spent months in places like the Kalahari, the Congo, the deserts of Helmand province in Afghanistan – they are all places that you go for weeks without looking into a mirror. 

You lose touch with the daily reality of seeing your face, of watching it age and change. You look instead into the landscape in the day and the canopy of the stars at night. 

You lose the self-consciousness of the first wrinkles that appear far too early in life – sometime in our mid-twenties.  They arrive stealthily, touching first the corners of our eyes as light as bird’s feet, their appearance haunting our youthful brightness as the first real harbingers of our mortality. 

To live without a mirror is a necessary experience from time to time. To not see one’s face for day after day is to return to some small part of our primal existence, a human experience older than language, a truth that finds its first expression in Greek myth in the story of Narcissus who so loved his own image that he lost his soul. 

In daily life the mirror can become a mask, our obsession with our face and its changes and growing imperfections becoming a daily of fog of negative impressions and vain hopes for change. 

To not see one’s face then for a time is to turn inwards, to be stripped slowly, day by day, of the artifice of a created, protected self and to enter the shadowed labyrinth of self-awareness, to begin, unlike Narcissus, to discover one’s soul.

And yet, even in these remote, sometimes dangerous places,  I cannot abandon completely the physical needs of my face.  To me, a clean shave is a necessity even in the most arduous of circumstances.  It is, in equal parts, a matter of vanity and of comfort. 

I look and feel ridiculous with a beard. In remote places, where there are no mirrors, even the simple act of shaving becomes a matter of guesswork, made easier perhaps by an electric razor – but I hate the dry tearing of the whirling blades, so I prefer to hack away at my face with soap and a little water from a plastic bottle, using a blade razor and my fingers to feel where the remnants of my scraggly beard remain.  A clean shave is a snatched pleasure, a way of affirming that I am still who I am despite the discomfort of my surroundings. 

I always come back from places like Congo and Afghanistan changed, often profoundly, knowing that I have seen things that I must bear witness to for years to come.

To see my face again in a mirror when I return from such places is always something of surprise. Like the pleasure of unexpectedly meeting an old friend, of remembering how it was then. It is like watching the years turn his face into a map of laughter and shared sadness that marks out our journey through life.

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.