Our inaugural Inspiring Women feature celebrates Vennetta Johnston, the British founder of Wild Lotus Glamping in Antigua. We talk to her about what life was like growing up as a black child in 1960’s Britain, the solace found in green spaces that ultimately lead to the opening of Wild Lotus Glamping, wellbeing and her favourite places in the UK to spend time in...
Vennetta Johnston, founder of Wild Lotus Glamping
1. Vennetta, we’d love to start by knowing a little bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and life growing up in the UK?
I’m a baby boomer, born in the swinging sixties. Life growing up as a black child in the UK at that time was only tough on reflection, as a child it does not occur to you that you are different until someone points it out. Yes, sure, I was the only black child in my school throughout all my school years. My parents came to England to support the mother country. They responded with excitement at the prospect of being invited here to work.
My mother trained as a nurse and my father worked in a Bakelite factory. I grew up with tales of life ‘back home’. My parents saw their move to England as purposeful; to save money to buy land to build property back home, and to have better education opportunities for the children. Our family had a very strong work ethic; both parents often had two jobs, the older siblings looked after the younger ones, it was vitally important to do well at school and as black people, we were acutely aware of our visibility, and as such our responsibility to been seen to be behaving as respectable citizens.
These were the days when children were seen and not heard. Playing outside in our family especially for girl children, was simply not done. Most summer holidays we were confined to our back gardens and the allotments across the back entry.
Simply being outdoors was a means to escape. When my parents were at work I would sneak out and spend hours in the allotments which were largely abandoned, building dens, and dreaming about hiding there and staying overnight.
I found I could lose myself in the countryside surrounding me, providing the perfect escape had it not been for the attitudes of some other people.
The pressures on our family were great. Sadly, my parents divorced and the children were taken into the care of social services. This was my first experience of living with people from other cultures, and it was a real eye opener. Throughout it I clung to my values. I found it strange that there were children who refused to go to school, whose respect for adults was non-existent and whose behaviour was shocking.
But here, in care, I was also free to enjoy experiences that my parents considered unsafe. On Sundays, the social workers would arrange trips to the countryside. These were a challenge, in the countryside there were even fewer black people and the stares, finger-pointing and outright racist abuse was harsher. I now totally understood and respected my parent’s concerns. And yet in spite of the deep sense of non-belonging, I found I could lose myself in the countryside surrounding me, providing the perfect escape had it not been for the attitudes of some other people.
2. How has the colour of your skin shaped both your identity and the way you’ve navigated life?
I coped with the visibility, the constant scrutiny by striving to be the best. I’m not sure that this was always the best strategy. Occasionally it would evoke admiration, but most often it led to a constant battle with peers, and a very harsh self-critic. Because no matter how good you were it rarely led to acceptance and ultimately, that was all you really wanted.
It is not impossible to be accepted as a black child, all you had to do was accept that you had to work twice as hard to get half as far. Then on top of that, accept and even laugh along with racist jokes, turn a blind eye to the times that teachers discriminated against you, just small things most days, like not smiling at you as they would the other children, not praising you when your work was of high standards whilst making a point of praising and encouraging others…such small things that perhaps they thought you were not even human enough to notice.
So I was not accepted, but I made a virtue of this! There were plenty of social causes to fight for, I think it is no accident that I eventually became the second black woman to hold the post of Director of Adult service, and I expect I am still the only person who was a child in the care of a local authority to eventually go on to lead a social services department.
3. What are you favourite places in the UK and worldwide to spend time in?
I’m lucky to have my favourite places very close to my doorstep. I love Derbyshire, and in particular Monsall Head. I still go for drives on a Sunday and I can spend hours just watch the river Trent roll by.
Scenery along the Monsal Trail in Derbyshire
Or occasionally we will drive along the B roads up to Wenesley Dale Heifer in North Yorkshire. I have always loved pubs and real ale. One of my first practical applications of chemistry lessons was to help my father brew beer at home. I love pub buildings, though now so many of them are losing their historical features in the relentless march towards modernisation.
So for me, the countryside is country pubs, quaint antique shops and home-cooked food.
4. What made you want to start a glamping business and why did you choose Antigua?
I would never in a month of Sundays have started a glamping business in the UK. Given the choice of setting up a glamping site 4,000 miles away, in a region of the world where no one had heard of glamping, and where hurricanes and tropical storms could simply blow your assets into the sea, or setting up a glamping site as a black woman in the UK, setting up I Antigua was far easier.
Wild Lotus Glamping, Antigua
I have much of my life being the first black person to achieve whatever and sticking out like a sore thumb in the process. It Is very wearing. So in my retirement, I have chosen to enjoy being somewhere that I can be blissfully anonymous.
5. How important is wellbeing to your own physical and mental health and what does wellbeing mean to you?
A combination of having Caribbean parents who were farmers and limited resources (I was 11 before we bought our first fridge), meant that we ate fresh food by default.
Much to the dismay of our neighbours, my father dug up the back lawn and turned it into a smallholding for fresh vegetables. We bought live chickens as it was cheaper to buy them and butcher them yourself, so not only did we eat fresh meat, we ate less fat.
Wellbeing for me comes from being able to live a meaningful life and to have a sense of being in control of your destiny
At school in the 70’s we had 40 minutes of physical education 4 out of 5 days per week, plus at least 2 hours per day in the playground. Being physically active was just normal.
I loved sport and I still go to the gym and play squash at 60. Yet eating well and being physically active isn’t the whole story. Wellbeing for me comes from being able to live a meaningful life and to have a sense of being in control of your destiny. Being engaged in social issues, changing things for the better, talking social problems; these are the things that give me the deepest sense of satisfaction and wellbeing.
6. Do you consider yourself a typical outdoorsy type?
Life is lived outdoors in the Caribbean. People live on street corners, women fire up BBQ’s on the streets, every house has a porch or veranda used as the outdoor living room. In the Caribbean, it’s a bit like there has been no industrial revolution so there is not the same urban/rural divide that you would find in the UK.
You will see cows grazing on the school playing fields and goatherds chasing their flock through the town centre. Here, everyone keeps chickens, whereas in the UK it’s a hip fad for the suburban middle class.
In the Caribbean, you grow your food and you rear your meat. I remember being made to feel ashamed that my father did this. I envied my friends who could afford to eat ready-made chicken curry. I had to learn to season meat and cook my own.
As a family now we spend most Sundays exploring the countryside nearby, choosing to run the gauntlet of negativity, stares and outright racist comments we often hear.
On reflection, my experience has turned out to be an asset. The UK has managed to raise a generation of young people who eat fast food and have no connection to the environment.
I love the English countryside and the million shades of green found there and I am grateful to my carers for having discovered the Youth Hostel Association and exposure to the values of that social movement.
As a family now we spend most Sundays exploring the countryside nearby, choosing to run the gauntlet of negativity, stares and outright racist comments we often hear. We know we were pioneers, and we rise to the challenge. God’s nature is everybody’s birthright wherever in the world you might be, regardless of skin colour.
7. What do you think about the representation of BAME people in the outdoors leisure & wellness industry?
The collision of the COVID-19 pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement brought issues of black representation into sharp focus and no less so in the outdoor and wellness industry.
The wellness industry in Antigua is associated with wealth and luxury. The images of white, blonde skinny females as the ultimate look for women, or trophy for men, is what were are meant to aspire to being or owning.
Wild Lotus Glamping, Antigua
In the UK, it seems that wellness is a bit like keeping chickens, it’s only aspirational when the white middle classes are doing it. Glamping is intrinsically an outdoor pursuit. However, the kaleidoscope of both urbanisation and sedentary lifestyles underscores the exclusion of black people from outdoor wellness activities.
I rarely see BAME representation in the marketing and the management of the wellness industry.
Since outdoor wellness activities are aspirational, who can blame the marketeers for not choosing black people to represent their products unless it opens up new markets that they wish to serve? So presently, in either the Caribbean or Europe I rarely see BAME representation in the marketing and the management of the wellness industry.
Part of the problem is that Wellness is an industry where BAME people are perceived to be aspiring to the same products as white people, and indeed actually aspiring to be white. Just look at the sales of skin-lightening creams in the beauty industry. Therefore the perception could be that there is no real need for BAME people to be reflected, indeed their logic may be that greater BAME representation could actually put off both their traditional and the aspirational BAME market.
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However, there is now a growing body of socially conscious black entrepreneurs that have ownership of the means of production, i.e. land property and expertise who have the desire to challenge the status quo. Meaningful diverse collaborations are being forged, especially with mainstream businesses that support the BLM movement and who are willing to take positive action to be inclusive of the talents and resources of BAME communities.
We are proud to operate in partnership with a local Antigua family that own the beachfront land and operate the Nest beach bar and restaurant. They have steadfastly refused to sell-out to overseas developers wanting to build another identikit hotel.
Wild Lotus Glamping, Antigua
Our therapists care passionately about tackling inequalities in health, and each of them provides personal and insightful holistic wellness consultations.
Wild Lotus has created a learning portal of internationally accredited online therapy courses that have been augmented with local expertise to create a new body of knowledge that is relevant to our culture and the particular muscular and skincare needs of client base.
Working with black outdoor wellness content creators is a key tenet of our social media marketing strategy – and that’s how we found Camping with Style!
I was extremely saddened by the impact of COVID-19 on BAME people. Having worked as a nurse in the NHS and as an ex-Director of Adult Social Services, it was heartbreaking to see so many black healthcare professionals die of COVID-19 whilst caring for others.
In that moment I decided to develop a wellness product for black people. I know if I get it right for black people I will get it right for everyone.
The fundamental element of the product is Sunshine. We know a great deal about the impact of too much sun on white skin. Whereas in contrast, we know nothing about the impact of too little sun on black skin. As the relationship between the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and Vitamin D deficiency became apparent I saw that it was time to act.
For black people living in the Northern hemisphere where there is insufficient sunshine for darker skin to produce Vitamin D the key message is to travel to wellness. The body can store Vitamin D for up to 60 days. Our wellness retreats are scheduled November to March and all the activities are outdoors, either on the beach or in the rain forest.
But until you can travel, get outdoors as often as possible and eat a Vitamin D rich diet. We send 2 months’ supply of Vitamin D3 to every paid booking, to help boost your immune system until you get here.
Our wellness team are internationally experienced Antiguans, black British and Black Americans who have decided to make Antigua their home.
We create a safe space for black professionals to reflect and share experiences with therapists who understand their reality. This positive affirmation promotes mental well-being.
In our outdoor environment, they can experience a range of wellness therapies including Yoga at sunrise, CBD oil massages in the rainforest, and cardio-drumming around a campfire on the beach.
8. What do you think makes Wild Lotus Glamping unique?
The uniqueness of Wild Lotus Glamping is its beachfront setting. You are just 20 steps away from the shoreline on a beach that for the most part is completely deserted. The sound of the sea is mesmerising. I promise that as well as a transformative wellness experience you will not have a better night sleep anywhere.
9. How do people find out more about Wild Lotus Glamping?
Wild Lotus Wellness is a 4 night retreat that runs every week, Thursday to Monday from January – July 2021.
Would you like to nominate someone to be featured? Do you know an inspirational woman you’d like me to interview? Get in touch and let me know!
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Shell loves all things travel and outdoors and is a nature-loving, comfy-camping kinda girl. Shell started the Camping with Style blog after a serious snowboarding accident which left her with a broken back. Despite this she used the outdoors and healing power of nature to aid her recovery and she continues to spend time outdoors whenever she can.
From open water swimming, snowboarding and kayaking to hill walks and meditation, Shell shares her travels and microadventures here on the blog and in various publications she’s written for, Shell has a particular interest in promoting wellbeing and the many benefits of nature therapy.
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