Monday, July 25, 2016

I Survived Eight Months In An African Village; One Died

Those of you who know me well are familiar with an interesting part of my life from 1993. I left Port Elizabeth, South Africa. I spent 8 months in a Xhosa tribal village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.
When I arrived the young people in the village were delighted to see me. They were honored that a Europeans would want to live among them and come to understand them better. The older people in the village were sullen and skeptical. They kept calling me "baase" and "master." When they did this I would smile at them and tell them that I was no one's boss or master.
When I arrived in the village I felt self-conscious. I was six feet-tall and the average village inhabitant was five feet-tall. More obviously I was white and everyone else was black.
After about three days something miraculous happened. I stopped feeling self conscious. I stopped seeing the people in the village as black.I started to see them as people with strengths,weaknesses, and problems like all of we humans.
The people in the village were amazing. The average person only had two years of formal education. Yet everyone spoke English, Afrikaans (The Dutch language), Xhosa (their tribal language) and another tribal language like Zulu. They were not dumb or primitive. I felt sad that they had not had more chances in life.
I could write a book about my 8 months there. But it was one of the most beautiful and uplifting experiences in my life. It led to my being allowed to vote in the first all-race election in South Africa.
At about the same time a very idealistic 26-year old woman from Newport Beach,California, started to do the same thing in a township near Cape Town. Her name was Amy Biehl. She was a distinguished young academic with a bright future. Her experience did not have the happy ending that mine did. She was literally stoned to death by some inhabitants of the township.
What happened to Amy has haunted my psyche for 23 years. Why did she have to die and why did I survive the same experience?
Yesterday I was reading the New York Times book section. I discovered a book about Amy, her tragedy and what happened afterwards. The title is We Are Not Such Things. I was touched and bought a copy.

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