Letter #11

March 12, 2011 — People, people everywhere and Tutu

Sunday I make my way to St. George's Cathedral to meet Farzaneh and Wandile for a bite before church. Archbishop Tutu only shows up there one Sunday a month and on Fridays, so he's not there. The Cathedral is imposing and as formal as any High Episcopal church I ever attended. It contrasts sharply with the Wild-Westness of Z.A., bringing to mind descriptions of South Africa as a land of contrasts. But the parishioners are typically warm and friendly South Africans, and the day is heavenly.

After mass, we drive across Lion's Head to Camp Bay, a pristine white beach on the Indian Ocean side overlooked by pricey residences in endlessly varied and fascinating designs and colors. The restaurant we pick is a happy exception to the rule that the food's quality is inversely proportional to the beauty of its location.

Both Wandile and Farzaneh are in film and other arts. He is a painter, but has concluded that making fine art is a hard way to make a living. However, his other passion is museums. He’s studying museum management and experimenting with the use of film and other media to make exhibits interactive and bring the museum experience alive, especially for children. He hopes to win scholarships so he can attend university for a degree in that.

Farzaneh’s job involves investigating health issues throughout the country and creating film to educate people in ways to improve their health. Her last project was to make a film publicizing the fact that every year 70,000 babies are born with HIV/AIDs, and not one of them has to be: With information, every mother can ensure her baby is born HIV/AIDS-free.

The project she’s on at the moment is even more massive: It involves defining patient information needs at individual hospitals; identifying ways to create a complete, easily accessed patient file on each one; and then training people to use the resulting system. What a task that is—we’ve been grappling with that challenge in the U.S. with a whole lot more resources for decades and are only just now getting over the hump (except for the Veterans Administration, which has been doing a spectacular job in that for a very long time).

At lunch, we explore what it’s like to be a mixed couple living in South Africa today. Wandile and Farzaneh speak of their visit to his township (an 8-hour drive from Cape Town). “They had never seen this before—two people, black and white, associating in a way that would have been highly dangerous during apartheid, but is now safe. Many people crowded around to get a look at us. It was very encouraging for the people,” he declares, “and they were very happy to see us.” Farzaneh wasn’t so sure; she had been uneasy and uncertain of their reception. Surely there are people who are angry about their lot, I think to myself. While it’s true that the black Africans have done way more than their share of pardoning the harms to them of apartheid, others must remain who are not so open-hearted, forgiving, or trusting. How would I feel in their position?

 

More on the Townships

Monday is the trip with Bazil Christians to the “townships,” the areas to which forced removals sent all non-whites.

Bazil is a careful and thorough guide, showing me both the desperate and the hopeful of several different townships. I include here some pictures, which will give you an idea of what South Africa is up against.

 

 

The townships, like many ghetto areas, have a law unto themselves. Long electrical cords snake routinely across roads to deliver pirated power to private parties. In an attempt to provide electricity at reasonable cost, a few solar power devices have been installed. For sure there aren’t enough of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t mention this, but part of the enormous challenge of creating opportunity and healing in the townships has little to do with apartheid per se, although most certainly apartheid is a great wound. But added to the burgeoning populations of residents native to South Africa, several huge waves of refugees fleeing various forms of genocide in their native lands (Rwanda, Congo, and others) have surged into South Africa. The immigrant pressure, on top of the fact that women in the black and colored communities bear an average of 6.5 children each. Such population pressure renders any sustained progress virtually impossible. One step forward, three back.


A Township 40 minutes outside Cape Town.
Why do I hear nothing about population growth as a focus for remedial action? Perhaps the Catholic Church has a stranglehold. Perhaps living conditions make birth control impossible. But even without such influences, the African culture itself sources the problem. It elevates procreation way beyond many other values: In one tribe, a man can’t even be considered for the tribal council unless he has at least 6 children. Whatever the barriers are to lowering the birthrate, the very survival of the country may depend on it.

The only factor that has consistently been linked with slowing birthrate is the education of women. But there is a curious disconnect between that known fact and the policies one would hope would flow from it. The link between women’s education and slowing birthrate was identified in the 1940s!—and the first initiative the World Bank took to make use of that fact didn’t occur till 50 years later, in the 90s, I believe it was. Even the Hunger Project, although their strategies had included women, didn’t make women’s empowerment their explicit primary focus until 1998. And even now, despite a large number of programs focused on empowering women, the historical reluctance to do so persists. So far, from what I can see, the prospects for slowing population growth are dim.

And yet, points of light are visible in all kinds of places. I get to sit in on a class for a literacy program that Bazil works with women, mostly. Later, as a parting gift, Bazil gives me a magazine, a compendium of personal stories his students have written. I’m moved to read, over and over, how people trapped in the shame of complete illiteracy have broken through to the self-respect of learning at any age to read, to write, and even to teach others. Reading is such a miracle.

Meeting Tutu? When I get back to the Guest House, I see Father Karl—The Revd Canon Thomas Matthew Karl Groepe, to be precise. (Groepe, by the way, is an Afrikaans name, which is loosely related to Dutch and quite guttural. Gr is pronounced as if it were an H, but you have to clear your throat with lots of saliva before the H to say it correctly.)

 

The Reverend Canon Thomas Matthew Karl Groepe
Father Karl is an articulate man who has seen a great deal in his long career with the Anglican Church. His current position there puts him in the unenviable position of superior over some very white parishes who haven’t fully stepped into this century. I’ve been moved and impressed by his accounts of what it’s been like to deal with them.

Karl invites me to have a beer with him this hot day:
“Yes, I’d love a beer, thank you.”
“Have you called Desmond Tutu yet?”
“Excuse me?” Karl’s Afrikaans accent makes it easy to misunderstand him.
“Have you called Bishop Tutu yet? You should call him. He may be out of the country, but try him.” And he rustles up the Anglican directory that gives all public and personal phone numbers of all clergy and support personnel.

 

Omygoodness! I have the home phone number of a live, flesh and blood, force of nature in history. The father of the TRC, a Nobel Prize winner who, with Mandela, piloted this country through a bloodless transition from apartheid to a largely black government. I’m pretty good at cold calling—it’s easy for me, in fact—but this gives me pause.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It takes me a few minutes to remember that I’m not calling the shots here, just following opportunity each day as it shows up, and my job is to say yes. Of course I call Desmond Tutu’s number. His wife, Lee answers and tells me he’s in San Francisco and won’t be home till after I leave. She suggests I call the man who heads up the Tutu Foundation, Dan Vaughan, and perhaps send a copy of the book.

 

When I speak with Dan Vaughan, I learn that the Tutu Foundation is being folded into the Desmond Tutu Peace Center in Cape Town, and Dan himself has just taken on the presidency of “Lapdesk,” a company that addresses the needs of the 80 million African students who don’t have desks. Use of the product increases student powers of concentration by 80 percent or more. http://lapdeskcompany.blogspot.com/2010/07/archbiship-emeritus-desmond-tutu-hands.html

I’ve since received word that our forgiveness book has arrived at the office, will be offered to Archbishop Tutu, and afterward remain in his library. I reply with a request for any suggestions he or anyone else might have for making the book more useful for a South African audience. Given the enormous life he lives, it’s a long shot that any one as much in demand as he will actually read and respond to the book, but I’ll follow up—and who knows? Stranger things have happened.

Trusting that this letter finds you all very well and following your hearts.

In peace,

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