Saturday, January 22, 2005

Apartheid Reflections

I spent a few hours today at the Apartheid Museum here in Johannesburg, South Africa. Over the past few years I have been to some incredible museums and historical sites which have marked some of the more gruesome and despicable events in recent human history: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, The Holocaust Museum (DC), the KGB Headquarters and now the Apartheid Museum. The opening sentence in the museum’s pamphlet sums it up pretty succinctly: “Segregation is exactly where it belongs – in a museum….the Apartheid Museum.”

It was an incredible 3-hour journey.

As a child in the USA, I remember hearing about “apartheid.” My mother told me about it after she did some reading and studying about it in the context of her reading about world missionaries. As a child, it didn’t take me long to recognize the deep inhumanity that the system embodied. But it was a system in a country half a world away from the security of my homeland. Later, as I got into college, the struggles in South Africa were more prominent and students on campuses all over the USA joined to call for divestiture from companies doing business in South Africa. And then, of course, as an adult I have watched as Nelson Mandela has led a new South Africa. But all of that came into much sharper focus today in the Apartheid Museum.

I only knew the broad strokes but after my experience today, I have a much, much greater appreciation for the struggle that this country has been through. They have truly come through some very dark days but there is so much hope here. I was struck by a number of things:

• The system of apartheid was aided by religious and theological reasoning that subverted the Gospel. From what I can see, the situation was like that of the explicit and implicit support of the German church for the Nazis. A similar support of many American Christians for the racial segregation in America, both during the years of slavery and in the years of discrimination since then. I am always saddened beyond word to see the love of Christ turned so hatefully against people.

• It is miraculous that this country didn’t end up in a blood bath once apartheid fell. It is a credit to the leaders like Mandela and others that a repressed majority of blacks and colored didn’t just wipe out the oppressors. In my travels and my work over the past 10 years, I have seen black and white South Africans working together. It’s not all ironed out yet but it’s working.

• There were a couple of pictures that really touched me: one was of a classroom of black children during the apartheid years. There were often up to 100 students in each class. One principal requested 60 copies of a textbook for his school and was sent only two. How do you make up for such poor schooling of the majority? How long does it take for a country to re-bound and catch up? The other photo was of voting day on that first vote for President in which all people were allowed to vote. The lines were miles long at each voting place! Virtually everyone came out to vote. Never having had the vote, they were not going to miss the chance to participate. What a stark contrast to the laziness of Americans, half of whom don’t take the opportunity to vote. We have grown complacent in the luxury of our “free society.”

• In the Bill of Rights of the new South African constitution, the very first tenet is that no one shall be discriminated against because of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or language. How come such a young country like theirs can “get it” but a far older, and more experienced democracy like our American one can still systematically allow for discrimination in some of those areas? For goodness sake, when Americans try to get wording like that into our Constitution – about gender or sexual orientation – it gets voted down? Maybe it takes an oppressed people to write the words for a free society. What would our Constitution say if we allowed women, African Americans, gays, Native Americans and Hispanics to re-write the Constitution without the help of the “majority” in our country? What would our Bill of Rights be like then?

My journey today was a good one. I marvel at how this country has come through the past few years of such dramatic change. We “big kids on the block” have something to learn from the experience of these new-comers, I think.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Ephrem's Family

I don't know whether or not you know about our "adopted" Sudanese son, Ephrem. He's a young man, now almost 30, whom Debby and I met in our early years in Cairo and whom we have helped put through college in the USA and brought into our family circle. Since first meeting Ephrem in the early ‘90s, we have tried for several years to try to find Ephrem's parents and siblings, all of whom were stranded in southern Sudan during the most ravaging parts of the war there. Ephrem was able to escape, obviously, but he has not seen his parents since the late 1980’s when he fled.

There was one exchange of letters and some money (which I sent) via the Archbishop of Canterbury who visited Cairo on his way to Khartoum about 10 years ago. And then there was this incredible phone conversation that I was able to cobble together when I got a lead that someone in Khartoum had met up with Ephrem's father. That was in 2000 and, by then, Ephrem's parents had fled to Khartoum to join the millions of displaced persons there. Ephrem's father, Michaiah Duku, is an Episcopalian priest and we've always tried to make contact through the church.

This past week, I began a trip to Africa to visit two schools -- one in Khartoum, Sudan, and the other in Maputo, Mozambique -- to interview for the position of Director. Getting to Khartoum has been something of a goal for me since having met Ephrem and when the opportunity came to interview at the school, I jumped at it. At the very least, the trip would get me to Khartoum and, at the most, I might actually have the chance to live and work there. Either way, I thought I would try to make contact with Ephrem's family. Well, when I got to Khartoum this week, I had the information that Ephrem had given me that Rev. Michaiah Duku was probably living in an area called "Mayo," an unofficial settlement near Khartoum that does not appear on any official maps. Armed only with that information, I dropped it in a number of places as I met and talked with people at the school. On the last day I was there, I got word at noon that Ephrem's parents had been located! The Director of the school had sent two of her workers out to find them and they had succeeded and had met with Ephrem's mother, Joyce. When I heard that, I asked if I could commandeer the two fellows as translators and driver and I took off in this beaten up Toyota mini-truck out into a part of Khartoum that few foreigners have ever seen.

After about an hour of riding through incredibly crowded streets, over dusty, un-paved roads, we came to Mayo.....a huge settlement of mud-brick houses. As I passed through the door/gate to this little compound that was Michaiah Duku's home, I had no idea what to say. Was this really Ephrem's mother? Had they found the right family? This tall, ram-rod straight lady stood. Her face showed no emotion and her eyes looked skeptical. I'm sure she was wondering who this white foreigner was. But her face was Ephrem's. There was no mistaking her. It was his mother! She invited me and the translator into what I could see was their living room. It was painted a bright blue with linoleum on the floor. It was spotlessly clean and simply furnished with a small bed, a few chairs, a desk with Rev. Duku's books. On the living room wall there was a big framed picture of Ephrem in the center. Little else, except for some cheerful poster/pictures adorned the room.

As I explained who I was, Joyce seemed to soften. As she talked, I marveled at how her voice, her mannerisms, her gestures were the same as Ephrem's. She told me some of the details of the family and I scribbled notes so that I could tell Ephrem. She explained that her husband had gone out "to work" and would not be back until evening so I was not able to meet him. When I asked if I could take a picture of her to give to Ephrem, she was embarrassed. She excused herself and left us in the living room. I took the opportunity to look around a little bit, fascinated by how someone could make a life in this area. There was a small dining room connected to the living room…..with a simple table and four chairs in the room next to the living room. Outside, in the simple courtyard of the compound a small flock of scrawny chickens wandered around foraging for food. The compound was enclosed in a tall, 2-meter high mud-brick wall just like every other house in sight. Gathered at the open gate/door of the compound were perhaps a dozen children, staring at and whispering about the “ha-waga” (foreigner) who had arrived. Their dusty faces were as cute and full of mischief as those of children in any country.

I realized that there was no electricity here although later I found out that many of these houses are hooked up to generators that provide some basic electricity at certain hours of the day or night. Perhaps more importantly, there is no running water. Any water that people have comes from men with donkey carts who make their way down the lanes selling water out of large steel drums perched on their donkey carts. From this point in Mayo where the Dukus live, it is about a mile to the main road where one can get a seat in one of the battered up mini-vans that provide transportation into Khartoum. It is a long, long walk from home to the main road in that intense desert heat. In the rainy season, this entire settlement is endangered. All these mud-baked houses are liable to fall apart. The lanes become flooded and virtually impassable.

As I took all this in, Joyce had gone to change her clothes and she came back wearing a bright blue dress, rather than the housecoat that she had had on upon our arrival. We took a few pictures and then we were on our way back to Khartoum. I still couldn't believe that I had actually found the family! I was just disappointed that I wasn’t able to meet Rev. Duku but my schedule and his absence made that impossible

That evening, I was invited to the home of one of the Board Members from the school. They were having a dinner party for a visiting delegation of African-American leaders from the USA. Following the dinner, I was going to be taken to the airport to catch my flight south to Johannesburg. I had been told that a driver would come to pick me up at 7:15 pm to take me to the dinner reception and, at the appointed time I was waiting at the guest apartment where I was staying. My bags were packed and I was ready to leave Khartoum.

This guest apartment was located on a major road near the airport but, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you would never find the place. I was all alone in the apartment and that evening, while waiting for my ride, all I could do was to reflect on what an incredible confluence of people, events and circumstances had brought me to this point.

My ride was late, it seemed. 7:15 came and went. I wasn’t really concerned, having learned that schedules in this part of the world were fluid. By 7;45, however, I was beginning to get a little concerned. Had I misunderstood my hosts? Was there some problem? What should I do? It occurred to me that perhaps the driver was waiting for me downstairs. By now, it was dark outside and I didn’t have a clear view of the dusty parking/turn-around area in front of the building so I decided to walk down to the gate to see if anyone was waiting for me. There were only a couple of darkened vehicles out in the large, dirt area. None were the modern car that I knew would be coming for me so I turned and went back up to the apartment.

Just a few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. My ride had finally arrived, it seemed. I opened the door and, instead of the driver I was expecting I saw Patrick, the school worker who had accompanied me to Ephrem’s parents’ house that afternoon. By his side was a tall, somewhat portly, distinguished looking man……with Ephrem’s smile! His arms opened as he walked to embrace me. Ephrem’s father had arrived home late in the afternoon after I had left. Joyce had told him of my visit and, at about that same time, Patrick had gone by the house since he (Patrick) it turns out, actually lives in the same neighborhood. Rev. Duku had prevailed upon Patrick to help him find someone to take them the 1-hour ride back to Khartoum to find me. Patrick, it turns out, knew how to find the building where I was staying but, in the dark, they were unsure of which building it was and were reluctant to start knocking on gates and doors. While sitting in the turn-around area, Patrick saw me come to the gate and look out before turning to go back into the building. That’s how they located me……while I was looking for my ride!

While Rev. Duku came in to sit with me, we both were talking at once, sharing things back and forth. He speaks wonderful English and communication was no problem. He wanted news about Ephrem and seemed justifiably proud of how well Ephrem had done. Rev. Duku gave me more imformation to pass along to Ephrem about the family. The wonderful news is that ALL of Ephrem’s brothers and sisters are alive and well. The youngest is a student in Khartoum with Micaiah and Joyce. One of the sons got stuck in Uganda during the fighting and has not been able to return to Sudan. He is married with children. All three of the sisters are now back in Juba. One of the girls is married with a few children. All are working there in Juba and some of them are living back in the family’s house there.

Micaiah and Joyce look wonderful. They look to be in good health, robust and energetic. A far cry from the picture that Ephrem received about 10 years ago at the height of the war when the family was on the run. Micaiah is the pastor of an Episcopal Church in that settlement of Mayo. I drove by it and saw it the other day. It is a humble building but well-kept and clean as a whistle. Rev. Duku has a cell phone – they are available in Sudan and other under-developed countries. I was able to give the number to Ephrem so that there may be phone conversations between him and his family now. I have pictures for Ephrem, too.

Ephrem’s father kept muttering, “Praise God” throughout our short time together. I don’t think he ever stopped smiling, even through the tears that both of us shed. The strength of his embrace is something I will not soon forget. I hated to say good-bye to him when my ride finally showed up to take me away to yet another airport. This will, I hope, be the first of many times that I see these people.

A half hour after leaving Rev. Duku, I was driven into one of the most incredibly luxurious compounds I have EVER seen. Ever. It was the home of the Board Member from one of Sudan’s most influential families. What a contrast to the sights and sounds I experienced just a few hours before. As I entered the reception hall, my hostess came out. “Oh, Phil, I’m so very sorry we’re running so late tonight! Please forgive us for being so late in picking you up!” I didn’t know what to say! Her gracious excuse masked a miracle that had perhaps been a long time in occurring. In that moment, I saw the hand of God in a way that I have never seen it before. What could I say? All I could do was smile and be thankful. Praise God, indeed!

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Epitaph

The other day, I read that Shirley Chisholm had passed away. That feisty, rabble-rousing African-American politician from New York City who served in Congress and had her name placed in nomination for President of the United States. Her obituary on the AP wire commented: “Once when discussing what her legacy might be, Shirley Chisholm commented, ‘I'd like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts. That's how I'd like to be remembered.’ "

What an epitaph! A person with guts, with courage. I could ask no more for myself. But, guts and courage have their price, often a big one.

What I remember about Shirley Chisolm was that she was a pragmatic individual as well as a highly idealistic one. She mixed those two qualities to become an outstanding member of Congress. Her constituency reelected her many times over. But it couldn’t have been an easy life for her, or for anyone who wants to be known as a person who has “guts.”

I wonder how my life will be summed up at its end. I’d like to think that all the hard work that I’ve put in will have amounted to some good and will have meant something to those whom I have served. I’d like to think that I made a difference in some small way, that the world might be just a smidgen better for my having passed through it. But, I guess, as much as anything, I wouldn’t mind joining Shirley Chisolm in being known as a person who had guts, who had some courage.