15 Minutes with
Author and Photojournalist
By Nan Bialek
MKE Lifestyle - Jun 24, 2022
Shorewood’s Jeannée Sacken is Indiana Jones with a camera. She knows what it’s like to climb too close to the edge of Mt. Kilimanjaro, photograph the world’s deadliest snake, and record lemurs serenading each other in the treetops of Madagascar. Her big adventure began while visiting the Mosquito Coast, where she jumped right off a train and into her future.
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I have always dreamed of adventure. Exotic places. Intrigue. Magic. Romance. But where I grew up in suburban New Jersey, there wasn't a lot of adventure. So I fueled my imagination by reading voraciously, daydreaming my way through school, and creating my own stories.
Then I went to high school and college and graduate school, and found that studying left little time for daydreaming and writing. Later, as a college English professor, I helped students write their stories, but there wasn't much time left over to write my own. Until . . .
. . . one day, most improbably, I found myself sitting with my soon-to-be-husband on the dirt floor of a mud boma in western Zimbabwe. Smoke from the cook fire was wrapping itself around me, making me more than a little dizzy.
Facing us sat a gray-haired n'anga, whose deeply wrinkled face was the picture of wisdom. He put four small, intricately carved bones onto the palm of my hand and curled my fingers into a fist around them.
I wasn't quite sure what to do. I was supposed to ask the bones for help, but I didn't have any major problems that needed solving or enemies that needed cursing. In fact, life was pretty good. So I asked the bones a totally generic and very unimaginative question, What should I do with the rest of my life?
The old man cupped his hands beneath mine to take back the bones, held them for a moment, then threw them onto the mat between us. He took a long time studying them. A very long time.
Finally he looked up. "You are a teacher," he said, taking me by surprise. A lucky guess, I told myself. "Writing," he said. "You teach writing. And stories." I gaped. How could he possibly know that?
He looked at me closely, locking my eyes to his. "But you must tell your own stories. This is where you will find your joy." He rested his hand on my arm, and a powerful charge surged through me.
One more thing," he said, raising a cautionary finger. "Be careful of hippos and crocodiles." I gulped. "As you make your way up the river."
Soon after that day in Zimbabwe, I decided to follow my dreams and become a full-time writer and photographer.