by Lyndall Hare, PhD Gerontologist and one of The Respite’s Service Providers
I’m sitting on our living room sofa that’s angled across a corner offering me a view of our entire living room. I look up to the exposed wooden rafters of this 100 year old farmhouse with the back-drop of wood-paneled, loft-like ceilings. The rafters give me a place to display Southern Africa. Woven wool rugs from Lesotho are thrown over one of these old beams, pieces of pottery and carved sculptures of African women from Kwazulu sit on top of another. There are delicately created baskets from Zimbabwe and a couple of Herero tribal dolls from Namibia. I can smell the dust of Africa in this room as I look over to my right and notice the cheerfully rotund clay hippopotamus with intricate designs carved into its polished surface on the small side table.
One of the walls is covered with African masks all the way up to the ceiling’s peak. A giraffe that’s about five feet tall peeps out from behind a chair, as they do when amongst tall acacia trees in the South African bushveld.
I sit in my home and miss home. Always. And even more so when South Africa is in the U.S. news as it has been recently because of Nelson Mandela’s illness and the subsequent outpouring of love and concern for this international leader and revered elder. http://theelders.org/
My eyes are led to the delicate mid-morning light that pours through the small dormer hexagonal window close to the apex of the roof line. A glimmer of sun touches a wire basket that’s about 18 inches high and in the shape of the continent of Africa.
My birthplace, Cape Town, is its balancing point on the wooden girder while supported by the wall behind it. Five generations of my family experienced that most southern of cities before I did.
And as I focus on the basket, I am flooded with the memory of how it came to be here. I remember the young man who made the wire basket but I no longer remember his name. I know I have it written down in a journal somewhere. I do, however, remember the circumstances in which we met and why he was moved to give me this continent made by his grieving hands. We were both attending a five- day workshop in one of the outlying townships of Cape Town. It was 1997, the year the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Hearings began. The workshops were created by an activist priest called Father Michael Lapsley, who I met when the anti-apartheid movement brought him to the United States a number of years before the release of Nelson Mandela in 1991.
Father Lapsley is tough to forget. He has no arms. They were blown off by a mail bomb sent to him by the South African Security Police when he was living in political exile in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. All he now has are claw-like apertures attached to his elbows. The bomb also took the sight in his right eye, but what he continues to see are possibilities for healing. In that spirit he created and led workshops called “A Spiritual Healing Response to the TRC” and offered them to anyone who had been affected by apartheid. In his mind, that was anyone who had lived in South Africa during the apartheid regime.
I signed up to do the workshop during a 3 month doctoral research trip to the University of Cape Town. One of the young men participating was preparing himself, both spiritually and mentally, to attend the TRC hearings the following Monday so he could witness the testimony of those Security Force members who had brutally murdered his father, and to hear his mother request reparations for her husband’s death. It was anticipated that this particular testimony would receive an enormous amount of publicity because his father had been one of the so-called “Guguletu 7” – seven young men brutally massacred by agents of the South African government. The twenty-six year old young man in the workshop, a wire artist and university student, was a small child when his father was murdered. And now, the same age his father was when killed.
On the last day of the workshop, after being a witness to the young man’s mourning for his dead father, he was humble enough to acknowledge that I mourn too – for the loss of country, having left South Africa into political exile 11 years earlier. I left with one suitcase, the equivalent of $500, contact information for a friend in Brooklyn, and the uncertainty that I would ever be able to return. He reminded me of the suitcase as a metaphor for carrying South Africa with me to the United States.
And then, from under his chair he lifted up a wire basket that he had so tenderly created for me with his long and delicate fingers, twisting and turning and bending that roll of wire to capture the continent of Africa, beginning with two small swirls on the base of the basket each the size of large coins. Then winding the wire and creating the bulge of Africa’s west coast, the horn of Africa to the east, and the delicate southern tip where we both now sat – a black and a white South African twisted together in mutual, but such different, sorrow.
“Now you can carry Africa wherever you go,” he said, as he offered the basket to me balanced on outstretched hands; a traditional sign of respect to offer gifts with both hands. Tears pricked the corners of my eyes as we held each other in our different pain. We both spoke of hope for our country that we have such love for, and acknowledged that the workshop was an important contribution to making a small step toward healing unspeakable wounds created by a draconian system.
In that moment, as I clutched the handle that straddled Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, he taught me what I never want to forget. He taught me that even in the midst of one’s own devastating grief and anguish one can offer others unique gifts of solace and comfort.
During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearings that followed, a mother (Cynthia Nomveyu Ngewu) of one of the Guguletu 7 expressed her forgiveness and reconciliatory beliefs regarding her son’s killing: “We do not want to return the evil that perpetrators committed to the nation. We want to demonstrate humanness towards them, so that they in turn may restore their own humanity”.
Guguletu 7 Memorial, Guguletu, Cape Town, South Africa