Under South African Skies

Forgiveness

September 29, 2009
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A very wise person, perhaps even wiser than the tree from Pocahontas, once said that we hurt the ones we love. Now I do not think I football-tackled Mike Ciske out of love when he tripped me at soccer practice in 9th grade, nor do I think love was what motivated me to ring my neighbor’s doorbell every Saturday night around 2 a.m. for the better portion of my middle school years. But I do think there is some real truth to the idea that the closer and more comfortable we feel with people, the more comfortable we are taking our frustrations out on those people. When you live in a relatively small house with 18 other people, it doesn’t take long to get comfortable.

By no means have the 19 of us living in Kimberley House had any big blow-ups. There have been no threats to return to the states, no relationships destroyed irreparably and no fists thrown. There has just been the little sniping that gets under people’s skin, the irritating comments that cause people to offer suggestions of what the person who annoyed them can do to him or herself. Dishes unwashed, noisy late-night dance parties, people hogging the house phone or shushing anyone who dares make noise while they are watching Dexter are simply the manifestations of our general fatigue of living in close quarters.

Good news, though: we are currently living in a country that is known for the magnanimous way its people—both the majority that was long oppressed by the evil racial classification system of apartheid and the minority that oppressed the majority—came to a place of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. It has been incredibly humbling to meet and talk with people who can compare the way the country was before and after Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election. As we have listened to the personal accounts of those who had every reason in the world to hate someone but instead chose to try to understand them, dirty dishes, snoring roommates and hair-clogged shower drains have all been shown for what they really are: incredibly trite issues that are never worth drawing a line in the sand over.

I have already talked about one of the most obvious instances of forgiveness in a previous blog entry, but the Biehl family’s story is worth mentioning again. Amy Biehl was a Fulbright scholar whose research and work involved womens’ rights and helping South Africa move towards democracy. In 1993, she was murdered by a mob of black men who, after years of oppression under apartheid, were suspicious of a white person’s presence in the underprivileged township Guguletu. In an astounding act of forgiveness, Amy’s parents supported the four men convicted of killing their daughter in their application for amnesty under South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Perhaps as remarkable as the forgiveness was the subsequent work with two of those men—Easy and Ntobeko—in the formation of the Amy Biehl Foundation, an organization that seeks to empower and assist in growing township youths through reading classes, an after-school program and other opportunities. It is the organization through which I teach reading, English and guitar classes, and it is also the organization that allowed our group to hear Ntobeko and Amy’s mother Linda speak about their experiences together. While our questions all seemed to politely and subtly ask Linda how she possibly found it in herself to forgive Ntobeko, their answers seemed to in turn ask how they possibly could have passed up an opportunity to carry on Amy’s work by learning from the people she fought for and trying to help future generations. (Note: A more detailed account of our meeting with Linda Biehl and Ntobeko can be found at one of my housemates’ blogs: cateatthecape.wordpress.com)

Despite these lessons, our house clearly still has questions about how reconciliation can play into our daily lives. After a mid-semester trip that saw tensions build after six-hour car rides, intense games of Mafia and 12 people sleeping in a single room together–deafening snoring and sleep-talking included–I suspect many of us were looking for the secret to preventing World War III. Though we have not found some kind of elixir that cures all of our self-inflicted wounds, a weekend in Hermanus with author John de Gruchy certainly helped us to begin realizing a way forward. The format of our retreat was that Mr. de Gruchy, who wrote a book documenting the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, would answer any questions we had in four sessions over the course of three days. While questions varied from how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to how to understand the Gospel, a few answers de Gruchy gave stuck out in my mind. One of our housemates almost timidly asked de Gruchy how we, who have not experienced schisms anywhere near those South Africa has seen, can learn to be forgiving of each other. There was a sense of urgency in the question, as though we all realized how much we needed to learn how to apply these concepts to our everyday lives.

De Gruchy’s answer focused on tolerance but not in a way I had ever heard it spoken of before. I had always thought of tolerance as a good thing, evidence of one’s ability to live with other people. While de Gruchy did not contest this, he suggested that tolerance implies a willingness to live with but not necessarily accept others’ differences, a capability to stand next to someone you do not like without necessarily trying to understand them. It is not tolerance for others that we should seek, said de Gruchy, but rather respect for others. Respect implies acceptance, understanding and even love.

De Gruchy also touched on the often-overlooked depth of a decision to forgive someone else. Speaking in terms of the Christian tradition, he explained that the cost of forgiveness—the cross of Christ—was beyond-comprehension enormous. It was not the simple looking over of someone’s wrongs but the ultimate sacrifice of a sinless person’s life. The person who can easily say they forgive someone, he warned, is not necessarily forgiving.

This was a tremendous gut check. How often, I asked myself, have I told someone I forgave them for some tiny, insignificant fault they committed against me, while actually carrying a grudge? How frequently have I failed to forgive myself or accept someone else’s forgiveness for something that my faith told me God had already forgiven me for the moment I committed the wrong?

Forgiveness isn’t always the popular route to take. When someone embarrasses you, takes something from you or cheats you in some way, it is seldom difficult to find voices advising you to trust that person no more, disregarding them and cutting them off from your life in the process. People might argue that in forgiving someone, you are simply allowing them to walk all over you. But if we think of forgiveness as John de Gruchy described, it is a struggle, but a necessary and important one. If we at Kimberley House, Marquette, UWC or anywhere else cannot learn to forgive ourselves and each other for our shortcomings—whether they are mistakes at our work sites, disrespect for our housemates or callousness towards the feelings of others—we will surely have serious issues understanding and living with each other when those difficult moments pass. Like I said, none of us have ever faced the challenge of forgiving someone to the extent that Linda Biehl did. But we can all certainly learn something from her and Ntobeko’s story. At some point, carrying the bitterness that results from someone hurting you becomes even more of a burden than the initial pain they caused ever was. Choosing to forgive may make people call you naive or a pushover. But if we take John de Gruchy’s advice and think about it as a way of life, a decision with deep implications that are not to be taken lightly, it is clear that there is nothing foolish about recognizing the need to forgive the people who wrong us, accepting the forgiveness of those we wrong and forgiving ourselves for the times we fail to understand this.


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Leap of Faith

September 14, 2009
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Sometimes I catch myself saying things that suggest I’m in the running for the Manliest Man Alive title. I think it’s out of some misplaced desire for everyone I encounter to think of me as the type of guy who does all of his shopping at Gander Mountain, only eats beef jerky, and listens to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils as he prepares to eat the bear he just shot with his bow and arrow. Unfortunately, cracks generally appear in the façade pretty quickly. It comes out that I suck at hockey, think Sleepless in Seattle is pretty good, and failed in my single attempt at catching a fish bare-handed because I got scared when the fish swam forward and bit my nipple.

Once in awhile, however, I wear the self-proclaimed Mr. Balls to the Wall title so proudly that I have no choice but to buck up and try to prove said manliness. A pretty good example was that time two weeks ago when I acted like jumping off a 216m bridge was no sweat. It actually turned out to be a pretty big sweat.

I had known I would be bungee jumping before I even left the states; the jump from the Bloukrans Bridge was our first stop on the pre-scheduled mid-semester trip that would take us to backpackers’ lodges along the eastern coast of South Africa, with stops in major cities and sites like Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Kruger National Park.

Our group of 12 was picked up from Wild Spirit, the beautiful, forest-surrounded lodge we had stayed at the night before, early on the Saturday morning we were scheduled to jump. Though we were packed into a van like cows being taken to the slaughterhouse, I found a comforting sense of solidarity on that ride, as Grease was pumping through the van’s stereo and I learned that someone else’s chills were multiplying.

When we arrived at Bloukrans, most of us wisely made one last run to the bathroom before strapping on our harnesses and making our way towards imminent death. While most of the group opted to walk to the center of the bridge, I joined a few others in taking a zip line to our jumping spot. This was very fun but also pretty stupid. As I hung from a rope and slid out to meet my friends at the bridge’s center, I looked down to see what I would be jumping into. Trees. Water. Rocks. That would hurt if I hit those things falling from a high distance, the voice of reason that was growing quieter told me. I would definitely be dead, it added. Really dead. And I was about to jump off a bridge situated right above those very trees, water and rocks.

I got to the takeoff point to find that two of my compatriots had already jumped, leaving me on deck. I was soon led to a chair where a member of the bungee staff connected my legs with two cushioned pads. As he wrapped bungee chords around them, I asked him if they were really tight enough. He looked at me with the eyes of someone who is used to people questioning him daily on whether or not he is doing his job of keeping them from death. He assured me that my legs weren’t getting free.

With one bungee staff person on either side of me, I was lead to the edge of the bridge like a prisoner being taken to his execution. I muttered a quick prayer and promised Ryan Corr my Pokemon card collection if I died. As the two staff people moved away from my side, they began to count: “Five, four, three, two, one…BUNGEE!”

 

Trying on new duds

Trying on new duds

IMG_9453

 

 

 

After the fall

After the fall

I bent my knees and hurled myself head-first from the bridge. I had expected to feel the greatest adrenalin rush of my life (which I did) but surprisingly found it kind of peaceful. I had never felt so light or heard the wind so clearly and as I neared the end of my five seconds of free fall, I felt myself pulled back towards the bridge as if by the will of some invisible hand.

This process of bobbing up and down eventually ended, leaving me hanging upside down over the aforementioned trees, rocks and water, blood rushing to my head all the while. I don’t really remember what I thought about as I was dangling, but I remember getting the kind of relief I hadn’t felt since Toaster Strudel announced its wild berry flavor when the bungee staff person came down on a harness to bring me back to the bridge.

I joined the group in cheering as each jumper stepped to the edge of the bridge but was caught in a perpetual daze the rest of the day, from swimming in a forest pond to exploring Port Elizabeth’s night life at the end of the day.

Though nothing else we did that week matched bungee jumping in terms of providing a pure, unadulterated rush, we did get to see and do some pretty spectacular things. At a backpacker called Buccaneers in Chintsa, I made the Indian the third ocean I’ve swam in, making my way out far enough to allow large waves to carry me back to shore. In Durban, we visited a market consisting primarily of Indian vendors who provided us with shirts, hats, necklaces, spices and whatever other trinkets we wanted to bring home to our families. And in Johannesburg and Soweto, we visited a church, museums and Nelson Mandela’s former home, all of which to some extent documented yet kept alive the stories accompanying the South African struggle against apartheid. As we saw the site where the first student was killed in the Soweto Uprising against an exclusively white government that planned to force black Africans to speak their language in school, saw the horrendous conditions at the Constitution Hill prison where many anti-apartheid activists had been kept along with common law criminals and looked at the bullet holes that had interrupted a struggle movement meeting in a church, one began to get a small sense of the incalculable sacrifices of many of those who opposed apartheid.

We also had an opportunity to take a tour of the Zulu village Emaphephethieni. Though the word “tour” seems to drip with connotations of Americans walking around, cameras snapping and brochures waving, we had no need to worry.  Nogu and Thami, our two guides, showed us around in a way that taught us about Zulu culture while also opening our eyes to some of the things Zulu people do in their daily lives. The two showed us the bracelets girls make for male suitors before the males embark on the long process (sometimes ten years) of making four payments including cash, goats, calves (11 of the girl is a virgin, ten if she is not; to receive only ten calves is very embarrassing in Zulu culture), and general gifts the girl’s family requires. Only after that can the man and woman wed. Nogu and Thami also took us to see a sangoma, a traditional healer. The sangoma did not speak English, but through translation, she told us that sangomas do not seek their profession but are called, sometimes through physical pain inflicted by their ancestors. This particular sangoma was called around the age of 15 back in the 1950s. Because her mother was also a sangoma, she did not need to go through the typical training.

The highlight of our time in the Zulu village, however, was lunch and dancing in a large, open hut-like structure. The meal, which we ate with our hands, consisted of maize, spinach, tomato, onion and squash. While fantastic, it was no match for watching little Zulu girls kick their legs frantically to the beat of a makeshift bucket drum. Thami and Nogu soon had each of us on our feet, embarrassing us as we tried to keep up with their killer dance moves. If bungee jumping was the adrenalin high of the trip for me, experiencing the culture of new friends in Emaphephethieni was the spiritual and emotional apex.

 

Zulu girls got the beat, what what?

Zulu girls got the beat, what what?

Because our Zulu guide Nogu liked my Livestrong bracelet so much and looked considerably better wearing it than I did, I decided to part ways with the Lance jewelry.

Because our Zulu guide Nogu liked my Livestrong bracelet so much and looked considerably better wearing it than I did, I decided to part ways with the Lance jewelry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any of these experiences would have been great on their own, but we topped the whole trip off with a safari in Kruger National Park. Kruger is not like visiting a zoo in the states, where one is guaranteed to approach a given cage and see a given animal that might occasionally scratch itself in between nap breaks. There are no guarantees on safari; visitors might get lucky and see all of South Africa’s Big Five (cheetah, lion, elephant, rhino and water buffalo). On the other hand, they might only see the boring, deer-like impala.

Our group got lucky. Split into two jeeps with the unforgettable guides Marcus and Verner, we began to drive through the park at 6 a.m. the two mornings we were at Kruger, scanning both sides of the road in the hopes of seeing something extraordinary.

Even Kruger’s normal was extraordinary for us. We watched elephants dipping their trunks into a huge, man-made trough, giraffes feeding from the top leaves of tall trees and a warthog darting out of its sanctuary hole. We also got to see things that our guides told us were particularly unique. Half of our group saw a cheetah lank across the road, mere feet from the jeep. We saw two wild dogs of which there are only about 300 in the entire park. We saw an outcast lioness lurk by two giraffes before she decided she was no match for them. And we even watched from a bridge as two crocodiles did the dirty deed in the murky waters below. Nature sure is beautiful.

 

They had the right of way.

They had the right of way.

 

It was impossible not to feel satisfied with our trip as we flew from the Kruger area back to Cape Town.  But I felt more than satisfaction; I felt a strange sense of relief and encouragement. Though studying abroad in Cape Town, even on the most responsibility-filled days, is really like a perpetual vacation from what we are used to in Milwaukee, Wis., our semester trip was, for me, a much-needed getaway from what had started to sometimes feel like a routine. Even more than that, however, it provided a new sense of direction for our remaining months in Cape Town. The irony of that new sense of direction is that it actually provides no direction at all. As a man who loves a plan, I find it difficult to get into something with very little description, structure or goal in mind. I’ve realized that that is probably the source of some of my greatest frustrations at my work sites. With no directive for how exactly I should measure the reading, English and guitar levels of my students, no indication for how I am expected to teach my classes and often lacking self-assurance of my abilities to teach anybody anything, it is helpful to learn that great things can be done and great experiences can be had in moments of total uncertainty. You might never see a lion at Kruger, but you’ll never know if you go out and try to find one. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and trust that something good will come from teaching a child to play Every Breath You Take on guitar, taking an AIDS and Development class or reading Twilight with a group of 12 and 13-year-olds. Though the proof of the success of these endeavors may not be readily available to us or may be seemingly small and insignificant, we often might be surprised by what we can learn from taking a chance. So if your friend tells you to jump off a bridge…think about it.


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About author

I'm a 20-year-old Marquette student currently studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. I like to play the guitar and piano, watch the Mighty Ducks trilogy, read, travel and write. My favorite Judd sister is Winona, and I share a birthday with Dan Quayle.

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