Finding your Tribe – or high performance cult

A land that flows with Milk and Honey… and avocadoes.

There is a place where you can see the sun rise over coffee orchards and set below hazy mountains. It hugs the contours of hills that are at the ideal altitude for coffee cultivation. The temperature drops degree by degree as you slowly wind along the red dusty roads leading to its gates. Down below in the valley, humidity and heat weighs the air down but at its gentle perch on the hills this place catches the breeze and there is a sweet release from the surrounding oppressive heat.

The valley of the silver mist

Gazing out on a winter morning you may witness the legend of “The valley of the Silver Mist” as pockets of frigid air snake their way in white streaks across the landscape. And in summertime as the sultriness grows to an impossible point of endurance you hear the thunder come rolling in. If you face South West, you can feel the wind picking up and licking your skin. The clouds seem to gather up from nowhere and tumble their way ferociously over the distant peaks as the thunder quickens it’s staccato pace over the valley. Lightning bolts streak and crack and illuminate the mounting clouds like gigantic neon bulbs. Then the rain bursts onto the scene, approaching like a great white wall.

It’s a place we once called Alon Farm. Some have called it paradise, I called it home.

***

Flanked on every side by silvery blue gums, if you looked at it from a distance, Alon farm took on the appearance of an oasis. A vivid green patch of land dotted with palms and enormous old trees. Seen by night, this cluster of homes, communal buildings, halls and workshops could easily be mistaken for a village. And indeed, over time that is almost what it became.

The road that curled it’s way down the farm from top to bottom.

By the end of its dynasty, the high-performance cult of Alon boasted nearly thirty homes; a boarding school; both a carpentry and metal workshop; an events hall overlooking our Olympic-sized swimming pool that could be hired out for functions; not one but two fully equipped industrial kitchens; green houses; vegetable gardens; orchards of fruit and nut trees; a water bottling plant; a coffee roastery; two restaurants; guest houses; fleets of vehicles from buses to tractors; numerous properties both in South Africa and abroad and a network of professionals, artisans and nimble volunteers who made all this possible.

The Alon we moved to

When we arrived in 1996, bringing with us the coldest winter I’ve ever known, Alon Farm was attractive in a modest, meagre kind of way but still a far cry from the successful organisation it would grow into. The buildings on the farm were ill-equipped for frosty weather, with neither a fireplace or heater to break the chill. When we heard that there was snow in the mountain village of Haenertsburg just across the valley, everybody seemed astonished. And it was surprising, even for newcomers like my mother and I who had anticipated the balmy subtropical climate we’d enjoyed on our holiday.

It was so cold and dreary in fact, that I was certain we’d come back to a different place. Where was all the sunshine, friendly faces and mountains of tropical fruit? Instead I was confronted with endless days of mist and damp and greeted every morning by slimy porridge and a sea of weary faces in the communal dining room. It was almost like the weather mirrored my mood, waiting for me to accept my fate and allow the light to shine onto my new reality.

Then slowly my melancholy little tweenage heart began to thaw so that by springtime my brain had burst into hopeful action and I decided to simply bide my time and make the most of it because we wouldn’t be here for long. My mother was more miserable than I’d ever seen her and I assumed this meant we’d be back in Cape Town before the year was over.

But this isn’t how these things work. If only life were so simple. Then we would assess our lives and predicaments with the uncluttered frankness that children possess. Perhaps my mother would have looked herself in the mirror and realised that fulfillment isn’t embodied by self-sacrifice. Maybe she would have been able to see that loneliness couldn’t be filled with people who demand your devotion by breaking you down. Possibly, she would have understood that purpose and belonging should go hand in hand with happiness and self-love.

Instead, she mistook her straining towards freedom for a wrestling with God much like Jacob of old who had wrestled through the night and secured God’s blessing. Alon was Jacob’s ladder and my mother wasn’t going to let this one go.

But why stay if it’s so hard?

I cannot tell you why every other member of Alon Christian Community chose to devote their lives to communal living but I can say that we got there riding on my mother’s need for kinship, and I believe that most of us face this quandary at some point in our lives. We need to find our tribe. And some of us find a high performance cult instead. It happens more easily than you think.

An eccentric divorcee in the evangelical church scene of the 90’s wasn’t an easy position to be in if you were looking for a sense of belonging. The holy spirit was moving and the church bands were rocking but a child from a broken family was still not accepted in Christian schools and a single mother floated on the periphery of many social circles.

Yes, we had lovely people ranging from pastors to friends who filled our lives in numerous ways, but my mother still lacked the security and identity of a tribe.