Mélanie Johnsson


Stories from behind the scenes...

5 things I learnt from living in South Africa


I recently got back to the UK and thought it would be nice to look back on the past (slightly crazy) six months I just spent in Cape Town, South Africa. I just said goodbye to a terrible cold, which is quite funny, as the weather in England is getting nicer by the day for those that survived the past English winter. We can feel spring is in the air! But I think my body isn’t liking the drop in temperature compared to South Africa…And I need to remember that I’ve had almost 10 full months of summer so my body probably doesn’t remember what cold really feels like!

Now, let’s get on with the 5 things I learnt from living in Cape Town for almost six full months. Here they come!

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  1. Trust that beautiful things are coming

This sentence is my new favourite thing to tell myself whenever life gets a bit hectic and stressful. I also like to tell myself that things will happen if they’re meant to happen. I don’t use these quotes as an excuse not to do anything or not fight for the right opportunities, but it helps me relax a little bit when I get overwhelmed, once I’ve done everything that can be done. A month after we got to South Africa, back in November, the amount of work and clients I had started to slightly decrease. Projects were wrapping up and people were starting to think about Holidays and Christmas. For two months, I didn’t have much work at all, and I felt incredibly powerless. Why? Well, I kept on creating, drawing, painting, emailing, trying to find little design jobs to do, but nothing was coming through and money was becoming scarce. Because I was in South Africa at that time and not in the UK, I couldn’t possibly find a full time or part time job in a design agency, which could have helped to get a little money in the bank. So there I was, spending most of time painting, researching eco-friendly brands all around the globe but also Cape Town based brands that I could collaborate with.

It took a little while, but things eventually worked out! I emailed brands that got back to me, eager to collaborate, which was amazing. At the end of January, I knew things were going to be fine. Beautiful things and projects were coming…I’ve been super busy since then, and I know now that I shouldn’t have worried that much (I get so overwhelmed with the stressful aspects of freelance life sometimes that I start thinking that I should drop everything and go live alone in a mountain far away, with no water nor electricity. I could build myself a wooden cabin, bath in wild rivers and talk to trees, ha!).

So, there you go, the most important lessonI learnt on this trip was that I had to trust that beautiful things are always coming…Because they ARE! Don’t you dare giving up.

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2. Don’t fear the unknown

This could apply to basically anything and everything, right? It’s a well known thing: you can’t let your fears hold you back, especially not your fear of the unknown. Why? Because we live in a world of unknowns. We don’t know what tomorrow will really be made of: a brick could fall from the sky and kill us straight away or a loved one could die out of the blue (sorry those are the worst examples! I’m only trying to make a point) or, on a lighter note, we could fall in love, we could wake up very happy for no particular reason, we could get a big money bonus at work because we’ve worked so hard…ect. You get my drift. We all live our lives wrapped up in the unknown, and some of us have accepted it better than others. But now let me get back to what I originally wanted to talk about with this: the great white sharks.

A couple of weeks before we moved to South Africa, I started freaking out about sharks. It is well known that South African waters are full of them: small ones, big ones, enormous and scary ones with mouths full of pointy teeth like the great white. As a matter of fact, we were going to South Africa to spend most of our time IN the water, which meant being WITH the sharks swimming around, patiently waiting for us to fall from our boards to eat us alive. Or so I thought.

Fearing the sharks was basically like fearing the unknown. I didn’t know where they were or what they’d do and of course, I had no idea if they actually were going to be around when I was in the water. I was not going to miss out on all the fun kite surfing and surfing because of that fear.

When I first got to South Africa, I used to think about sharks quite a lot when I was in the water...but little by little, I started living with the fear, thinking to myself: So what? What if I loose a leg to a great white? Wouldn’t it be an amazing story to tell? I knew the chances of me getting eaten alive were very slim, and also, I started thinking about it like this: I would be lucky to see a shark from up close. Sharks are wonderful wild animals that deserve to be protected and not feared. Thinking about it that way helped a lot, and by the end of the trip, you could find me seated on my surfboard, waiting for the good waves, not caring at all that both my legs were dangling above the dark blue sea…


3. Make art for the sake of it

When things weren’t going that well work-wise and I was finding it hard to find new work, I did what any healthy freelancer does when money is running out faster than it’s coming in: I panicked. But the panic phase really couldn’t last long, it wasn’t healthy and it was definitely not helping the whole situation! So after a certain amount of necessary panicking and sending out a lot of emails to brands that fit my values and could potentially like my work (which I rarely do) the only thing I could do was to start creating for myself again. Start doing only what I really wanted. Paint. Draw. Experiment. Make a mess. It was so GOOD. Doing stuff just for myself, not caring about the result or pleasing anyone but myself. It helped me refine my illustrations and create a library of paintings that I still refer to today whenever I start a new illustration job. I had SO much fun making art for the sake of it, and seeing everything I was producing daily really helped alleviate my stress.

When work picked up again a month or so later, I felt more inspired than ever! Now I just wish for this to happen again, so I can just make art that makes me happy…

4. Focus on the bigger picture

As I was feeling crap because of work (or no work), hormones and other challenges during the winter months, I forgot to look at the bigger picture. Winter months? Where? I was avoiding those by moving to South Africa for six months. In December in Cape Town, it is minimum 30 degrees and the sun is shining almost everyday: it’s basically summer in full swing! I almost took it for granted, but then I realised how lucky I was. I feel better in the summer, happier, healthier, full of vitamin D. I love waking up to blue skies and sunshine, it immediately makes me happy and excited for the day ahead. That’s one of the reasons I loved this trip to South Africa so much, I experienced almost 10 months of summer and sunshine (I’m counting the British summer, which was great! Fingers crossed this year is the same).

When I was feeling a bit down, I also realised that I had made this whole trip possible (with Mike’s help obviously) and that was something we should be proud of. Leaving the UK to go live on the other side of the world for six months, only six months after we met…that was a gamble! But we survived and we now know, understand and love each other even more (sorry for the cheesiness). I’m not saying it was easy, we had our fair share of arguments (we’re both quite hot-headed) and crazy times, but we made it through. I think we’re lucky that we want the same things in life and dream of a similar path…Although it doesn’t change the fact that we’re both really into our really different careers and quite ambitious. Anyway, bigger picture? I was lucky and in love with an amazing support system. What else can you ask for?

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5. The sea needs you as much as you need it

To be totally fair, I already knew that the sea needed us to make a change before going to South Africa. But things got more intense over there. I kite surf here in the UK, but once I got to South Africa, I had to learn how to surf too…because the waves are great there! So I did. It took a little while (surfing actually is pretty hard!) but I succeeded! I fell in love with the sea all over again. I would surf almost everyday, for an hour or more, and it made me feel so great. I really believe the sea has magical healing powers…

Except every time I’d go surfing, I’d have to fill up my wetsuit with bits of plastic that were floating around. It wasn’t like this but it was still too much to bear. It made me crazy every time! We all know by now that plastic is killing the planet, little by little, and we all know (or do we?) to be more conscious about it. I don’t understand how supermarkets are still giving away plastic bags, or bars; plastic straws. If they don’t change, it’s our responsability to change first and show the way. There are so many great blogs, instagram accounts and youtube channels about living plastic-free. It’s tough though, and annoyingly expensive to avoid plastic at all costs, but every little counts, and if we’re aware, we can make it work! It takes a lot of discipline, but you can start small and think ahead so you don’t rely on plastic and its supposed ‘convenience’.

Here are a few instagram accounts that you could follow to see how to help the sea/live plastic free and sustainably (also zero waste!):

And here are some good plastic-free online shops in the UK:

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So these were 5 important things I learnt from my trip in South Africa. It was such an amazing experience! I really encourage anyone to jump in and go live abroad for a while if they ever are able to…It’ll change you forever.