When I was growing up in Cameroon, one of the worst things that could happen to you was to be picked as a cobweb remover. The cobweb remover was the person we children would choose to walk ahead of everybody else on our way to the fields.

Our parents or guardians (in my case, it was my great-aunt) would leave at dawn to do as much work as possible before the scorching midday sun. We would follow them about three hours later with breakfast.

It did not matter in the slightest that in reality, the adults who had gone before us would have removed any cobwebs from the path. The idea of being laughed and pointed at as the cobweb remover was just anathema to us. So much so that we had to come up with ingenious tricks to pick someone and force them to fulfil that role. One of these tricks was to agree, when we played games such as hide-and-seek, Statue or Hopscotch (which we called pousse-pion), that the loser would be the cobweb remover the following morning.

I smiled as I remembered all this a few days ago. My outlook on many things relating to my childhood has radically changed, and my perception of the notion of cobweb remover is a case in point. I now view it as a positive concept. Far from being mocked and ridiculed, this role should be praised, cherished and applauded.

Make no mistake about it: no matter how gilded, pleasant or wonderful your life is, you will need a cobweb remover sooner or later. Life cobwebs are the challenges, fears and doubts hindering your personal development and the achievement of your goals. Some are so crippling and overwhelming that they are effortlessly identifiable and, paradoxically, easier to start tackling. For once you identify and acknowledge a problem, you can begin to devise and implement a strategy to overcome it.

Other life cobwebs are more subtle and insidious and, consequently, trickier to tackle. More often than not, you will need someone else to not only perceive but also start to confront them. You will need a cobweb remover.

What triggered my smile a few days back was a sense of relief and gratitude, as I realised that a lady, whom I hardly knew, had unwittingly acted as my cobweb remover. She and I met when we were both selected as mentors in a leadership development programme for young African women. She e-mailed me the same day, expressing interest in learning more about my leadership and personal development programme, which is inspired by the Bantu life philosophy. I e-mailed her back a few hours later, and sent her a copy of the first chapter of my manuscript – about 5,000 words!

I regretted doing this as soon as I pressed the ‘send’ button. I felt that I had, once more, failed to take the time to get to know someone before sharing with them things they could find too intense, uninteresting, perplexing, boring or even offensive. This has happened to me on so many occasions that nowadays, I often strive to abide by a self-imposed ‘no wave, no weight’ policy: unless I have checked that an individual and I are truly on the same wavelength, I should not make them endure my deep thoughts.

Obviously, I miserably failed to follow this rule in the case of my fellow leadership mentor. But I needn’t have worried. Not only did she get back to me with one of the most positive feedbacks my programme had ever received. She also shared with me so many inner feelings, and revealed such a deep identification with, and understanding of, the Bantu teachings that I felt as though I had reconnected with a long-lost best friend. Furthermore, we met up last week, and agreed to design and implement concrete projects together.

Personal development is, like life, a journey, a constant process, not an event. It lasts as long as you are alive. Beth, for that’s the name of this wonderful lady, has turned out to be a cobweb remover on my path to personal development. I am grateful to her because she has removed a huge cobweb from my path: the insidious fear of spontaneous human exchanges that had been gnawing at me for some years now. She has restored my faith in the marvellous power of honest and yes, deep conversations with people you barely know.

By Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell         Contact Sylvie