Part II: Touching the Sky with The Boy Who Flies
Earlier this week, I posted my interview with Benjamin Jordan, the director of The Boy Who Flies, a documentary about a young Malawian man’s journey to becoming his country’s first paraglider pilot. His interview, which I transcribed, was such a pleasure because he was so candid about some of the personal conflicts he faced while making the film, his biggest life lesson, and he shared invaluable advice for those who have a dream but don’t know how to bring it to fruition.
In this interview (Part II), I catch up with the starring paraglider himself, Godfrey Masauli. As a child, Godfrey always dreamed of learning to fly in hopes of following in the footsteps of his uncle who was one of Malawi’s first black airplane pilots. But economic setbacks forced Godfrey to put his dream on pause, and after he completed school, he settled for a construction job and selling firewood. But Godfrey never lost sight of his dream of learning to fly.
A chance meeting with a white guy named Ben during which Ben was teaching Malawian kids how to fly kites lead to Godfrey confiding in Ben about his aspirations to fly. From that day forward, Ben, an avid paraglider, set out to teach Godfrey how to paraglide while documenting the journey on camera. The result is a heartfelt documentary about Godfrey’s unrelenting journey to pursue his dream in the face of adversity and the criticism of his Malawian people.
The Boy Who Flies dream team recently wrapped their promotional tour through the U.S. and will soon be touring through Europe. Since filming, Godfrey has given a Ted Talk and is now in the process of finalizing plans for the School of Dreams, a paragliding school that focuses on free flight and personal development. Godfrey’s hope is that the School of Dreams will foster hope in the hearts of Malawian kids by encouraging them that they too can pursue and achieve their dreams. Read on…
How old are you?
I am 24 years old and I learned to fly when I turned 22.
Before paragliding, what was life like for you in Malawi?
My life was all about working hard, trying to earn a living. I started by selling firewood at a local market, and years later I got a job in a construction company installing play pumps. Financially, life was tough. I had a family to support, and at the same time I was trying to save every penny so that I would learn to fly 35 years later.
Where did you get your adventurous spirit?
I have no idea and I didn’t know about this spirit in me until after I met Ben. Like I said, I was working full time, having no time to play. This is the case with most Malawians – we have no time to reflect on our personal lives, emotions, and talents hidden within.
In a previous interview, you said that when you first saw Ben teaching kids to fly kites, it was really hard to approach him. Why is that?
To begin with, Ben was doing a childish game – flying kites – something very odd that every Malawian knows very well does not put food on the table. Children were cheering. They were loving it because they love to play, but older boys were mocking him. So I had to come out of my comfort zone – I had to forget that the older boys were going to mock me too when approaching Ben.
Secondly, I was heavily discouraged to follow my dream to fly by a white man that I had met a while ago. I had approached this white man for two reasons: to practice speaking English and also to share my dream with someone that I thought was better exposed than most Malawians. Instead of being encouraged to follow my dream, he told me a painful reality. He asked me to forget about my dream on grounds that our economy wouldn’t support it and he asked me to dream of becoming a farmer like most people. Because of those reasons, I found it hard to approach Ben.
Why did your fellow Malawians object to your desire to paraglide?
None of them had ever seen anyone fly before and most of us in our country lack the self-confidence to know that we can do new things or achieve the desires of our hearts. I was no different from them, I had the same skin color, spoke the same language, lived like them, and so who was I to break new grounds despite our challenges?
What’s the dream of most Malawian people? To clarify, apart from making a living, do most Malawians that you know have dreams like yours that are seemingly impossible, or do you find that many people feel hopeless given the socio-economic conditions in the country?
Half of Malawi’s population is children and some of them have wonderful dreams depending on what they have been exposed to. They say their dreams with confidence. I have met a lot of children with dreams to become pilots, lawyers, doctors – you name it. However, as they grow up and start seeing life’s challenges, they start to lose faith and give up. When I ask teenagers their dreams, the story changes and they say, “Whatever comes our way because we do not know what life has for us.” A lot of them lose focus of their dreams when they start seeing the challenges surrounding them. But with a little inspiration, they get back on track.
You may touch on this in the film, but for those of us who haven’t seen the film yet, what was going through your mind the first time you went paragliding on your own?
Honestly, every part of my body was telling me not to do it! I was so scared. When I was on the edge of the mountain, I felt that it was not normal. I had never seen the piece of fabric fly before and I remember thinking that I was going to die and appear in the headlines of the next day’s newspaper. I heard voices of judgment telling me not to do it. I just did it afraid.
How long did you have to train before you were able to pilot your first solo flight?
We trained on the ground for about six weeks.
What was the biggest fear that you had to overcome to paraglide down Mulanje?
The fear of death.
Do you have any fears when you fly now? If so, how do you overcome them?
Yes. I still get nervous when I am about to launch, when I encounter severe turbulence in the air, and when I am flying at new sites. Fear is temporary and I only overcome it when I face it. I have realized that every time I overcome it, I grow a little and every time I run away from it, I die a little. I think of fear as entering a thermal (i.e., air that gives you lift when flying). You come across sinking air before meeting the rising air. Sinking is not fun even though it is temporal. It is just important to embrace the fact that behind every sink, there’s lift.
Have you ever had any “close calls” while paragliding?
I have come close to landing in trees and I almost peed on myself once when I entered a spiral.
Is The Boy Who Flies tour your first time visiting the U.S.?
Yes it is. It has actually been my first time to travel outside of Africa. It was my first time in a big plane too.
I am not sure if I can select one thing yet. I am still overwhelmed with a lot of things like the dogs that live in houses and ride in cars.
What has been your most memorable paragliding experience you’ve had here in the U.S.?
Flying with the equipment of my size for the first time and also, out-flying my instructor, Ben, in Colorado.
What is the thing that you miss most about home while on tour?
Our staple food, nsima with field mice. This food has magic hands that touch a special place in my heart.
What is your vision for the School of Dreams and what’s motivating you to open it? When do you plan on opening the School of Dreams?
I plan to start building the school this summer. My vision is to have a paragliding school that will double as a community center in the off season. The community center will focus on building self-confidence in children as well as adults. It will be a place where programs like motivational talks, kite building workshops, and career talks will be conducted, and it will be supported by the income generated from training international pilots and doing tandem flights.
I would like to continue to use flying as a metaphor for achieving dreams. Not everybody has a dream to fly and not everybody will learn to fly but regardless of how challenging people think that their dreams are, I would like them to know that they can be achieved just like I achieved mine. I believe that more than aid, my fellow Malawians need inspiration and the self-confidence to know that they too can do anything they want in life.
The goal of the School Of Dreams is to help reduce the school dropout rate which is very high in Malawi. Even though primary school is free, 74% of students do not finish eighth grade and the percentage is higher for girls. I believe it is time that my sisters know that there’s life beyond early marriage, and this is the gap that the school will bridge in our country.
The main reason I stayed in school and finished high school is because I had a dream to fly, and my uncle who was one of the first black Malawians to fly an airplane told me that if I were to fulfill my dream, I would have to stay in school and learn to speak English. Many were the reasons I wanted to quit school had it not been for my uncle’s motivation. I am what I am today because of him, and it is my desire to share the same with Malawians through the School of Dreams.
What’s the biggest life lesson that you’ve learned in this whole paragliding/moviemaking journey?
Anything is possible and you have to be careful of what you dream of because you do not know how it unfolds other opportunities. I have learned the importance of sharing your dreams with others. The day I shared my dream with Ben, my life changed forever. I became our country’s first paraglider pilot, I became an inspirational figure to children in Malawian schools and ultimately gave a TED Talk. I also have had the opportunity to travel to the United States. I never saw all this happening. All I had was a dream to fly and I shared it with that crazy white man.
What’s been the most gratifying and rewarding part of this whole process?
To have the opportunity to bring inspiration to children in schools because of my dream. When a child is motivated and promises me to work hard and stay in school, that brings joy to my heart because I know that a life has been changed.
For more details on The Boy Who Flies, to find out how to host a film screening, to make a donation to the School of Dreams, or to download the documentary, click here.
Now that you’ve read Godfrey’s story, what’s your excuse for not going out and fulfilling your dreams?