Monday, December 1, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Begging to be Black

With thinking writers like Antjie Krog, South Africa has a mine of greater value than all her gold and diamond mines combined. This daring, forthright journalist-poet goes on inner and outer journeys to help her understand her fellow human beings and herself in depth and compassion. In A Change of Tongue (blogpost 11-19-14) we followed her journey with fellow poets to Timbuktu in West Africa. In Begging to be Black Krog continues the quest motif in three significant ways.

At first it seems like a braid of three strands: a modern day murder, a personal European journey, and a historical search for the phenomenon, Moshoeshoe. But as the book radiates out, we are amazed by the complexity Krog unearths. Rather than a simple braid, we are treated to fantastic beadwork of extraordinary design.

The murder is in the town near her home; the gun is hidden on her porch; she is sucked in. Her travel to post-Nazi Germany is a scholarly and personal pursuit of the roots of Afrikanerdom which bore the fruit of apartheid. Her fascination with Moshoeshoe and his powerful legacy among the Sotho and others led her to research what made this man so different from all others?

Begging to Be Black is a genuine search to understand what it means to be black in post apartheid South Africa. Krog is not a hand-wringing, helpless white woman. She was a member of the ANC and took a number of unpopular stands throughout her journalistic career., taking risks for herself and her family. Her openness to learning from others, history and herself make her a brilliant model for young South Africans today: a model for conversation and dialogue. 

Where is the path to understanding how ubuntu will actually work? In Krog’s book Country of My Skull (blogpost 4-14-14) she documented the TRC for three years. The testimony of Cynthia Ngewu begins to set a pattern for the conversation of reconciliation. She said:

This thing called reconciliation . . . if I am understanding it correctly,
if it means this perpetrator, this man who killed my son,
if it means he becomes human again,
this man, so that I, so that all of us
get our humanity back . . .
then I support it all.

It is said that true bead artists always incorporate a little “mistake” or irregularity in their beadwork to keep it from being absolutely perfect or absolutely boring. Krog has managed the same feat in her writing: she blends in her own personal issues (her Afrikaner family and her Jewish husband), being used by her trusted African friends to cover their own misdeeds, the other-worldliness she discovers as she lives and studies in Germany, where the seeds for apartheid’s eugenic theory were germinated.

Begging to Be Black is also a series of conversations about the many issues that arise when “ubuntu” is the ultimate topic. These conversations, with more significance than the colour of one’s skin, range across privacy and community, space and ownership, loyalty and justice, reconciliation and humanity. Antjie has developed deep relationships with an astonishing variety of people. She has proven herself an able listener. Her gift has enabled her to share deep places in the hearts of those unable to speak or use her hard-earned platform.

It seems fitting that Krog chose Moshoeshoe as her historical figure to bring understanding to her modern situation. He is a significant and universally acknowledged genius of human nature. Both Max du Preez and Rian Malan also referred to him at length in their works on Southern Africa. He epitomises the best of Africa.  His self-observation expresses a humble awareness of the “bigger than we are” quality Africans call ubuntu. “Though I am still only a pagan, I am a Christian in my heart.” 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

a few very short thoughts for Ferguson

When you look at me, you see a little, elderly lady, lots of laugh lines, thinning hair changing from blonde to dishwater, a neck full of wrinkles, bony knuckles, and a waist that’s thicker than I’d like. I’m even shorter than I was back in college and old enough to be someone’s grandmother. Oh, and I’m white, but even that is speckled with scars and age spots I’ve collected along the way. Basically, I’m not that much to look at. Don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t.

Because that is not me. It's the home I've lived in and it hasn't always looked like this. At one point I couldn't walk or talk or take care of myself at all. I've come a long way since then. This body of mine is only slightly more permanent than the pyjamas I wear every night. I do, however, identify with it and appreciate it since I don't change it daily. I've taken care of it and I've abused it--just ask it about the knee and wrist surgeries.

That's me with my friend Geny. We are sporting our aging tents. She is one friend who lived and believed the reality that we are not the tents we inhabit. We are so very much more.

Somewhere things went wrong and people got off track. What started as maintenance and looking after a temporary shelter for the duration of our lives has turned into an obsession with keeping it attractive and impressive to the point that it must not ever be something we move out of and beyond. The value of caring for our tents is obvious. Shabby tents with holes are not as functional as water-tight, sturdy tents. How did we end up so worried about our tents that we completely forgot that we have mansions under construction?

Forgive me, here. I have been accused of being a conspiracy theorist and I do suspect a conspiracy here. Back at the beginning, tents were perfect and did not deteriorate. But the souls who lived in those tents made a critical decision that started the gradual weakening and break-down of the basic structure of tents. A future plan for tent alternatives was briefly explained, but unheeded.

Tents were doomed from that time. But the instigator of tent demolition decided to use the very fact that tents were doomed to reinforce how important they were. He used a truth: that we need to look after our tents or face serious consequences, and turned it into a lie: that these tents are all we’ve got so they are our top priority.

The perpetrator then went a step further and realised that with people making tents their top priority, it would be a clever way to cause separation, divided interests, and potentially, war. One obvious characteristics of all tents is their colour. Visible, identifiable, and superficial. But tents are superficial, we live inside them. We are not them.

The rest is history. His plan was brilliant. Skew a simple truth. Add an obvious lie on top of that. Reinforce it with plenty of repetition. Voilá.

Now people the world over are killing others, judging others, hating others, maligning others, all on the basis of the colour of their tents. 

He is not just smiling, folks. He is laughing out loud.

Every Stone Shall Cry: Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets

History. People either love it or hate it. Most likely to those who hate it, it was fed as tasteless gruel in some school somewhere focusing more on grades than education. Probably a teacher who thought dates and names of wars were more important than the people who fought and what was going on in their minds.

History was written by the victors. Another reason why "who" won seems so important. But history is much more than wars and intrigues. It is stories of real people, leading their own lives, certainly not anticipating inclusion in a dry, school text.

But Max du Preez (see blogposts 7-1-14 and 7-15-14) has turned history on its head in this delightful book of stories. Real stories about real people with foibles more interesting than a schoolbook ever was. Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets is the type of book we should have been given to read, which would have encouraged all of us to be students of ourselves and our ancestors. The subtitle, “unusual stories from South Africa’s past” is understatement.

Du Preez, in his characteristic iconoclasm, insists on seeing the people in his stories as human beings first, before being ethnic or cultural creatures. He has selected some wild and hair-raising tales as well as those which bring us back to the humanity of each of us: ubuntu is his theme.

The stories span South Africa’s past from the 15th century to nearly the present. He begins in “Death on the Beach” with the culturally inappropriate gestures of Dias, da Gama, and Almeida. These ill-fated overtures set the tone for 484 years of miscommunication and bloodshed. When reading this book, be prepared for well-researched, documented tales of sound and sometimes fury.

In “Pacts with Lions” du Preez gives us glimpses of the Bushmen's naturalism which kept them safe from being lions’ prey. While the Leghoya went to the lengths of building stone huts with entrances too small for lions, Bushmen slept and hunted in the open veld without fear. In “A Fatal Attraction” he uncovers a multitude of slave stories and womanising men whose exploits populated the early Cape, broke hearts, and sometimes mutilated bodies.

“The African Socrates” is a sensitive portrayal of Mohlomi, famous seer, herbalist, king, and the mentor of the greatest of all Bantu kings, Moshoeshoe. Cannibalism, did it happen in Africa?, is the subject of “The Graves are Alive.” And Africa’s most infamous chief, Shaka of the Zulus, is treated with perceptive psychological awareness in “Shaka’s Women.”

Due to the vast influence of Afrikaners on the pages of Southern African history, a number of the stories are about them: some known and details buried, others not well known but should be. Coenrad de Buys (the ancestor of several towns full of people) of “Scoundrel Pioneer” sounds like a modern day Goliath. While “The Case of the Pink Slips” reveals a little known cover-up of the small pox epidemic by none other than Rhodes and Jameson. “Broedertwis” means a quarrel between brothers and tells the hero vs. traitor story of Piet and Christiaan deWet.

Prophets such as the "Boer Nostradamus", Siener (Seer) van Rensburg and that "Bloody Coolie", Mahatma Gandhi remind us that non-violent resistance and the understanding of human nature can be more powerful than physical force. Most intriguing was a story that seemed fantastic in the extreme, but can now be proved by modern day genetics,  “The Black Jews of Africa”.

Including the struggle against apartheid, du Preez has stories of Winnie Mandela (her softer side), the betrayal at Lilliesleaf, and the “Breastfeeding Warrior” Phila Portia Ndwandwe and her exoneration during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

These are just some of the rare gems from the past in which du Preez urges us to know the past and allow that knowledge to unite us. He says: 

. . .  history is not about forgetting.
We cannot properly understand who we are
and why we are where we are today
if we don’t fully know how our ancestors interacted
and what they did to and for each other over time.

History is not about forgetting. With such compelling, readable books, we will be encouraged to remember, and maybe even do a little research ourselves.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: The Expedition to the Baobab

The back cover reads: “A slave woman is the only survivor of a failed expedition into the depths of Africa. She shelters in the hollow trunk of a baobab tree where . . .”

I was hooked. A slave narrative. A failed expedition. A baobab. But Wilma Stockenström’s third novel goes much deeper than a mysterious and fabulous tale. Expecting something of a fable, (also mentioned on the cover), I found to my delight not a story with a moral, but a story incorporating elements of myth and legend—a more pleasing type of fable, for sure.

The Expedition to the Baobab was written in Afrikaans in 1981 and translated into English in 1983 by J. M Coetzee (see blogposts 8-16-14 and 8-21-14) which is recommendation in itself. Since then, it has been translated into seven other languages, winning the Italian Grinzane Cavour Prize, and becoming a French stage play. In this work, Stockenström has written much more than a slave narrative or a fable.

She is the foremost, living Afrikaans poet; this novel, even in translation, is solid evidence. She uses a type of stream-of-consciousness which pursues non-linear abstract thought. When our fascinating, unnamed slave girl says, “There are more tracks criss-crossing in my memory than I ever actually saw in a lifetime”, a picture of the dry wastes of interior Africa spotted with baobabs shimmers into our mental imagery. 

First the reader must willingly suspend disbelief and accept the possibility of a slave girl with the self-awareness and articulation to express these intricate, philosophical concepts. An uneducated, kidnapped and sold while still very young girl without any formal training except as a sex object—to live through four owners (harsh and malicious, self-absorbed, greedy, and protective) and gain wisdom from living in a seaside town during the era of rampant slavery. Not very likely.

The South African timeframe for this fable is still apartheid. So the premise is fantastic in the extreme. After we release our doubt that a slave could progress beyond the basic elements of survival, we realise that we are not hearing a mere slave narrative. In fact, her slavery is incidental to the themes she raises and cycles back on. Two of her “companions” in her life journey are time and fear. She interacts with them and learns from them as they accompany her. This is not a propaganda piece against slavery, although that point is mutely made. It is a journey into ‘what is ubuntu?’ without using the word itself. As she interacts with slave traders, other slaves, and owners, she explores what makes us all human. 

In her lonely, desert refuge, ubuntu comes out in her relationship with the little people (presumably bushmen who do not know what to make of her, her size, her existence in their realm). She tries to communicate, but their clicks sound like the language of lizards and geckos to her. She withdraws. But her awareness grows:

. . . for now I perceive that dreaming and waking do not damn each other, but are extensions of each other and flow into each other, enrich each other, supplement each other, make each other bearable, and that my baobab is a dream come true, and when I see the little people I know they are dream figures that really hunt and really provide me with food and that they really see me but also do not see me because I exist in their dream, and they feed their dream by caring for me. We meet each other and know nothing of each other. We go our ways separately and depend on each other, they on me in that I am as I am, and I on them in that they act as they act.

A reader would expect more Robinson Crusoe-type explanation of survival details in a story about life in a baobab tree in the bush. But our story-teller is on a different plane. She has lived a richly varied life and continually returns to bits of her past, searching for cohesion in her final place. Quite a few readers complained about the confusing chronology: starting at the baobab, we are only able to piece together the life by random mental excursions into the slave’s past. She doesn’t give the people of her past names: they are the Stranger, the Protector and so on, identified by qualities. 

This book is lyrical, even in translation. For someone looking for historical authenticity or a genuine slave narrative, this is not the manuscript. In this work, Stockenström has chosen a marginalised narrator to develop some complexities of relationship and individual identity. By using a female slave who had all her children taken from her when they were weaned, she reinforces that using others in inhuman ways reduces the humanity of us all. 

Although philosophical in nature, the book is still full of simple stories of interactions. She learns what she knows by connecting with and observing others. The story does not lag: her capture, a violent hurricane, the doomed expedition—provide continuous forward motion, even as she reflects. This fable is the work of a truly gifted author. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: A Change of Tongue

An odd-looking fish with both eyes on one side of its head graces Antjie Krog’s A Change of Tongue (2003). It is one of the many poetic images she uses to communicate the transition and transformation process going on in South Africa immediately following the end of apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which she documented fearlessly in The Country of My Skull (1998), see blogpost 4-14-14. 

Why a bizarre flounder to illustrate her reflections? The flounder is born with eyes on either side of his head, and as he grows up, developing the capacity to be a bottom-feeder, one eye migrates to the topside of the head where it will actually see something. It adapts. It transforms to be more useful and productive. Krog’s insight found a variety of natural elements to describe South Africa’s emergence from apartheid, and this is but one.

A Change of Tongue is a poetic philosophy or a philosophical poetry written in flaming prose. It is not one story, but many. There is not one teller; Krog becomes each narrator and literarily grabs your hand, urging you to run and keep up with her.

Antjie Krog admitted she was unsure of how to proceed in writing such a work, following on the success of Country of My Skull. But the poet in her reached deep and brought up personal tales of great poignancy. She writes from the view of all the rainbow colours of her country.

Six sections, each a separate work of art, come at South Africa’s impending “new look” from different perspectives. “A Town” focuses on Kroonstad, predominantly Afrikaner and breaks many of the debilitating stereotypes as well as describing the delicacy of the very first one-man-one-vote democratic elections the country ever held. She brings in the writer’s tension, too, of telling the story as it happened, or telling it to point to the Truth.

“A Hard Drive” is a frustrating, humorous interlude for anyone who has dealt with the downside of technology: two important, irreplaceable pieces must be recovered from a corrupted hard drive. But within that, she holds up a sparkling gem embedded in the interview, thankfully restored by a young and able techie. The voice of a young woman who had been detained, tortured and had her life permanently scarred says: “Ubuntu. The most profound opposite of apartheid. More than forgiveness or reconciliation. More than ‘turn the other cheek.’ It is what humanity has lost.”

“A Change” describes her invitation to and meeting with a group of exiled poets (during apartheid) at Victoria Falls. “A Translation” reveals that she was the one selected to translate Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom into Afrikaans. Her personal encounter with the man she knew only as myth is delightful and up-lifting. “A Journey” follows the fifteen day trek of a select group of African poets to Timbuktu. It is full of life and rustic humour. Her honoured place as a white among people of colour reveals her immense humility. Finally, “An End” reminds us that the transformation of South Africa will take a very long time and much intention. As she opens window after window on the myriad problems of employment, infrastructure, medical care, the damaging effects of fifty years of oppressive paternalism show a need for a new mentality to cope with what is ahead.

These brilliant pieces (each readable on its own) are skilfully connected by a lace of prose poetry which tie the subjects in a continuous flow. Each written in second person, she brings us back to the reality of nature as the context of the necessary upheaval and fragmentation in change: rain, giraffe, moonlight, willow, river, child, and wing—each helps bind the book into a creative whole.

Antjie is a poet of excellence. This book reveals her also, as a deep philosopher of her treasured South African people. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Long Walk to Freedom--the movie

While the book Long Walk to Freedom is Nelson Mandela’s own story about the freeing of South Africa with his perspective on what was happening in his country and his family, the movie is a wide-screen view focusing on an amazing marriage and what happened to it when history conspired to separate the two key players. Chadwick chose to make the story about the Mandela couple, not Mandela the man. This strengthened the core by highlighting more of the fallout from the enforced separation and the toll it took on family life.

In the review of the book (blogpost March 25, 2014) I mentioned Mandela’s grief and awareness of the cost to his family of being a freedom fighter. But his point of view, from prison, was incomplete. The movie includes parts of the story he could not tell. It pans vast segments of the country’s painful history, particularly violence in the townships. This graphic backdrop is essential to filling in the missing bits of Winnie’s story.

In one of the rare visits she was able to make to Robben Island, she and Nelson sit on opposite sides of an acrylic window. Admiring her spirit, he asks her where she gets the strength to carry on  and she hisses, “I hate them.” Her hatred fed the bitterness that kept her fighting after the battle had been won. She could not release the resentment of how her life and that of her family had been tragically ripped apart. She turned herself into a fighting machine that did not feel.

Naomie Harris, who played the part was intimidated. She said: “She’s so hugely complex, this mixture of tremendous warmth and compassion as well as anger and rage. She’s a warrior as well as a nurturer.” Even today Winnie, the person, conjures up strong feelings both for and against. Where Chadwick showed courage was to allow Harris the decision of how to portray this woman, and in the end, she showed us a genuine person. Even Winnie herself felt the portrayal as just: but acknowledged she would not be watching the movie again; it brought back too much.

In his autobiography, Mandela shared his own secret to Freedom: forgiveness. He had much to resent and did wish for revenge. But he knew he could not hold onto that and be a free man, even outside prison walls. In the movie we see Winnie making the opposite choice. She was not a demon. We cannot begin to understand what 16 months of solitary confinement can do to a person. But Winnie did not come out cowed. She grew up, in her own words, she became defiant, locked into her own private cell of fury.

Ubuntu is the bedrock of Mandela’s forgiveness. We are human beings in context with one other. Much as we ache with Winnie and the price she had to pay in the struggle for freedom, we see her choice as one freely taken. She chose retaliation, violence, and anger. She lost her ubuntu.

For those unable to take the time to read the biography, the movie does a creditable job of telling a painful story and unearthing a past that is already being silted over by time. But the book brings Nelson’s humanity and humility vividly to our attention. His conviction that the best for the people was to move beyond the past and his personal pain shows why he stood with giants in his time.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Numbering the Days

I’m counting the days now. Next month we return to the US and spend Christmas with our kids. You better believe I’m counting the days. Twenty-four to go. So much of life seems to be counting days, anticipating things to come. But is my heart wise enough to treasure those days as they get ticked off on the calendar? 

What I wouldn’t give for a bonafide heart of wisdom. A guarantee of the best decision because experience has paid off. I had hoped by now, I would be wise. Not just able to make best decisions, but even know what decisions not to sweat. Wisdom comes with age, they say. Dad was old and he was wise. But I discover to my regret, age does not equal wisdom.

I say I want a heart of wisdom. Do I even know what that is? A heart to lead my mind to know what to determine to do or leave off. A heart that is wise and loving and humble, because if it were wise and loving it could not be proud.

Lord, You give one method for gaining a heart of wisdom. One. Period. Number your days aright, then you will gain a heart of wisdom. That’s it. Number the days aright.

Teach me, Lord, to number my days. I can count days. But numbering them is so much more.

I am not numbering my days in healthy ways. I use a desk calendar and a phone calendar and I keep track of appointments, meetings, dinners, mentoring sessions, workshops, and writing deadlines. This is not numbering my days.

A pristine morning starts each fresh day. I can unwrap this new, shiny day-gift whether the sun streams in or the rain streams down. The day’s number has arrived. A chance to start anew. Spend time well—with my loving Father who made me for relationship—and with those He gave me. A chance to make up for something I missed in a day I did not number aright. A reconciliation, a word of encouragement, a song of hope.

Numbering days aright is not as simple as it seems. It is so intensely present. I cannot number the days I have finished and accumulate satisfaction from those tasks over and done. I cannot number the days to come—I have no idea how many or few are mine. As a creature who has lived for decades, remembering things that ought to be remembered: liturgies, birthdays, farewells, mourning and celebrating, part of me looks back. As a mini-creator, I have lived for decades planning, anticipating, imagining events to come that I have worked for: classes, journeys, moves, children, so much to plan.

None of this is numbering my days aright. None of this leads to wisdom. Oh, it needs must be done. But it is not enough. 

To number this day aright, I must unwrap it gratefully. Not wish for a fast-forward button. I must treasure it for something that will never return. It is unique. There is no routine day in numbering. This day alone is the one I can redeem at this moment.

If I die today, my projects will remain incomplete. My computer will be untouched, perhaps scrapped: the photos and bits of writing stored in its “memory” will corrupt. The pile of stones I have collected from my hikes will be thrown into the garden. None of it will matter.

Only today matters because it is all I can number aright at this time. 
Each day is God’s gift for us to number with care, to delight in—not squander or regret.

Then, just maybe, I will look inside and find a heart of wisdom.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Nairobi Narrative

Sixty women from sixteen countries journeying on the misty eastern edge of Nairobi. Sixty women of Africa, coming to learn and grow, seek and find, reach out and be touched. From Uganda and Nigeria, Tanzania and Ethiopia; Somalis and Kenyans, Congolese and Malians converged for a journey to “together.”

Nothing quite like this has ever been done before, just for women. Missions conferences and consultations on Muslim ministry proliferate the globe. But this—this was different. This was a journey of women in ministry, telling their stories, learning the issues, sharing heartbreak and hope. These passionate Africans, called to sacrifice and serve, found something very precious on this Kenyan plateau: a vision for the Kingdom they work to bring on earth. These sisters, strangers to one another on Monday, had traveled to a place of understanding and mutual compassion by Friday. 

Each day Nicole led us down the path to awareness of pitfalls in reaching out to Muslims. Reviewing the history of Islam on this continent, she pursued the aftermath of the Arab Spring and what it means to us who belong to the Kingdom of Heaven. Her gentle reminders of the various strands of Islam, as well as its leeching tentacles, brought us to our knees in compassion for our Muslim sisters. Jihad, which we associate with terror, has many guises such as economic and bureaucratic. But the one which touched our hearts most deeply and set the tone for “serving in hostile environments” was gender jihad.

Papers were read and discussion was lively. Samira of “Women Arise” told a harrowing testimony of the psychological wounds of physical mutilation (FGM) and God’s redemption of this in her life. Lucy shared insights from her holistic ministry which uses a woman’s life cycle to raise self awareness and provide opportunities for witness. Rose presented some of the difficulties of helping new believers and the toll on the local missionaries. Her “Spring Flowers of Somalia” left this question in our hearts: how ready is the Church for this harvest? Pauline’s workshop on holistic convert care brought many questions to the surface about how to best walk alongside MBBs and empower without dependency creeping in.

Our Journey was a week of stories; mealtimes included the soul food of women sharing their lives and realities to listeners with ready hearts. Happiness told of the work she and her husband started which now sends out teams to unreached people. Cecilia described 28 days of darkness, incarcerated and interrogated for teaching children about Jesus. Her cellmate was a demon possessed woman who could only be restrained by four men. But Cecilia, temple of the Holy Spirit, brought this woman into the Light although they saw no day in their prison. Marta and Fem’s stories of coming out of Muslim families both reminded us of the cost Muslims pay to live free in Jesus.

The worship hymns above all reflected the rustic simplicity. To God be the Glory, Standing on the Promises, and I Know Whom I Have Believed—sung from our hearts, tears flowing and hands outstretched, hymnbooks not needed here. The words are already part of our journey.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Reflecting on the mother who loved her husband more than her kids

Just emerged from a fascinating article by Danielle and Astro Teller entitled: “How American Parenting is Killing American Marriages.” In short, they attribute the child worship of the current American culture to the decline in American marriage and presumably its declining longevity. Their points are well-presented and they have a solid case for the poor parenting that is fracturing the culture at many points--much of which includes ideas of fostering entitlement, solving problems for their children, and sustaining the illusion that they are the centre of the universe. This latter is cause for great readjustment when they realise that they must now play the game in the world of adult rules.

Within the brilliance of the article, an example they used stood out to me: the mother who loved her husband more. Ayelet Waldman wrote a NYT essay back in 2005 in which she stated that she loved her husband more than her four children. The point that she was trying to make was that her love for him provided them with the security they needed to be stable young people. A solid marriage in the family is more valuable than being preferred. 

This simple statement whipped up the fury of lovers of children to ridiculous proportions: she was accused of being a bad mother, physically threatened by strangers, and in danger of being reported to child protective services. The Tellers (authors of the original article) pointed out the similarity to a religion persecuting a heretic; good analogy, folks.

Thinking about this comment of Ayelet Waldman which made her such a target brought a new understanding to me. 

She loved her husband more than her four children. Why did she feel compelled to say that? Who asked her to compare her loves for him and them? How could she sanely make the comparison and be taken seriously? 

We live in a society that thrives on comparing things. In scientific methodology, it is helpful and diagnostic. If we could not compare things, we would not be critical thinkers. But sometimes we have turned it into an unhealthy competition by using it to evaluate two things that are unlike and attempting to raise one up or put the other down. We use comparing ourselves to others to both make ourselves feel better or worse (depending on our emotional setting at the time.) We also thrive on comparing accomplishments (our own, our pets’, our children’s, yes--our spouse’s) with those of others. We compare brands of toothpaste, or anything for that matter. Advertisement is choked with comparing and putting down.

So, from that unfortunate mindset, Waldman made the absurd remark that she loved her husband more than her children. And she was castigated by a society that didn’t even see the absurdity. No one questioned if her love for her husband was of a different type than that for her children. Love is love. So it can all be on one huge scale. Her love of pizza is somewhat lower on the scale than her husband, therefore that much lower than her children. 

Oddly, it took me a while to realise what a mess she was in as I asked myself the ridiculous question: do I love my husband more than I love my two children? I do not love them in the same way. It is not a continuum. Phil is my friend, my confidant, my support, my sounding board, my “rooster”, my debater, my bringer-down-to-reality, and many other things. He is not my child. He has not been dependent on me for life the way they have. He has not needed me for the same things. I love him differently than I love them.

Now, if someone were so rude as to ask me whether I love my son or my daughter more, I could easily laugh in his or her face and say that is a meaningless question. It is not a competition. In our society, we do not have favourite children--or don’t admit it. We may not have them. That is unfair. Evidence for this is especially strong in our cultural reaction to the Joseph narrative in the Bible where we soundly condemn Jacob for placing Joseph in the unhappy position of being dad’s favourite. And we all know that “teacher’s pet” is no compliment.

Parents--mothers and fathers--know instinctively that children are individuals and each merits his or her own shape, colour, and style of love. The love I have for Luke is not greater or less than the love I have for Isabel. It is different, because he is different and he brings a wide spectrum of different memories and treasures to our mother-son relationship than Isabel brings to our mother-daughter relationship. If I had two sons or two daughters, the reality is still the same: their souls make me love them in different ways.

So if I am exempted from having to choose between my son and my daughter, where on earth does the expectation come that I must prefer either my husband or my children? It should follow reasonably that my love for Phil is different because of our husband-wife relationship.

Fellow humans, let’s drop the false weight of comparisons. Leave comparing to science and engineers and when we do critical thinking.  Let us make comparing more than a value judgement. We are free to prefer some types of art, music, movies, books, without the “better than” or “worse than” labels. And we especially should do that where people are concerned. I have quite a few dear friends. In modern lingo, a 20-something would call them BFFs. How can you have more than one “best” friend? I don’t know, but we do it.

Nobody calls us on that. It’s great that my friend Marcia is my best, and Debbie is my best, and Jarm is my best, and Fozy is my best, and May is . . . you get the picture. I could fill a very long paragraph. We see our friends as individuals, loving them for who they are. And who they are becomes what they mean to us, and each has her or his own category of love. 

Please, let’s take love out of the competitive mode.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God”

1 John 4:7

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: The Unbroken Song

Back in 1981, Es’kia Mphahlele wrote:

“Some years to come, when the house will no longer be divided, we may chat about these times of pain. And the season of creations will encircle the season of harvesting which will embrace the season of death which will encircle the season of waiting and enduring, spinning out the unbroken song of a people.”

What hopeful words for an exile from his homeland riven by apartheid. 

Now, those years have come. The house is no longer divided: it is a rainbow nation. And the time has come to “chat about these times of pain.” 

The Unbroken Song is a compilation of Mphahlele’s selected writings, short stories and poems. It was written over his years of teaching in the homelands, exile in Nigeria and sojourn in France. He was warned that to compete with whites in the field of letters could break him. He was advised to stay in his own territory and not be threatened with unequal competition. There were few enough publishers for black writers back in the 40s, so Mphahlele wrote because of his “desire to create strong and beautiful words.”

This he has done. In this day of tweets and posts, short stories are a powerful option to dipping into the past and gaining insights in less time than a novel requires. Finding the best authors is important. 

Mphahlele writes from a life segmented by exile, hope, dreams, and longings. He understands, though, that life is all of a piece and is strung out in unbroken music: hence the title of this collection of short stories and poetry.

Many themes are covered in these pages. “A Point of Identity” focuses on the exalted African quality of ubuntu: our humanity contingent upon interaction with other humans. His experiences and insights from Nigeria resonate in “The Barber of Bariga.” The secondary, submissive position of women is pronounced in “A Ballad of Oyo.” While “Grieg on a Stolen Piano” illustrates the choices of selective knowing and understanding in a world where you do not play on a level playing field. 

“The Suitcase” connects with the desperation of a man struggling with survival and providing for family. The arrogant god-complex of well-meaning whites is satisfactorily covered in “Dinner at Eight.” The tenuousness of life and reality of demonstrations under apartheid rule is vivid in “The Coffee-Cart Girl.” 

Each story is a lesson of life in itself, as truly good short stories are. The one which revealed the depth of Mphahlele’s insight into the mindlessness of white complicity was “The Living and the Dead.” His suspense and the aura of impending tragedy are brilliant in this story in which a white man’s dawning awareness of something he had persistently disregarded unfolds. As his servant describes the unjustified beating he received at the hands of two random white passers by, Stoffel “sensed agony in every syllable, in every gesture of the hand. He had read the same story so many times in newspapers and had never given it much thought.” There is a point where this man realises he has no connection with his servant, Jackson, there is no ubuntu in his soul. He reaches a state akin to anger within himself and seems at the tipping point of action. This outrage against another human being almost brings him to admit the inhumanity of his society. But the wave which peaks and breaks upon us a hope for his soul, ebbs back. 

“No. Better continue treating him as a name, not as another human being. Let Jackson continue as a machine to work for him. Meantime, he must do his duty . . . He was a white man and he must be responsible. To be white and to be responsible were one and the same thing.”

As this story fades, the reader is left with “responsible” reverberating; but responsible for what? Clearly, Mphahlele wants us to consider responsible for whom. (Mindful of another question: but who is my neighbour?)

This quality of short story will help us “chat about those times of pain.” If we do not reflect and learn from what happened, we will lose the benefit of those who endured before us.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sonnet on the beach

Like the sighing of the ocean waves upon the sand
Is Your voice that calls me to a place of rest.
The tidal ebb and flow marks wetness on the strand;
Your paw prints fill with water as I strain to keep abreast.
It’s the purring of a Lion, it’s the soughing of the sea
That pulls me out of fretting to a place you call delight.
When I feel the anxious chatter and the world things beckon me,
Turn low the blaring volume and pull down the shades for night.
Your voice is indistinct, and when I reach, You seem to fade--
Sound-bytes, trailers, blogs and twitters clamour for my brain:
Or apathetic “chill; don’t sweat it” threatens to pervade--
So doff the sweater called “whatever”--seek a lost refrain:

I’ll know You when I see You and hear Your voice anew;

You’re not tame, You’re wild and free--You’ll do what You will do.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Out of the Black Shadows

Imagine yourself a seven year old with a younger brother and baby sister. You live in a township outside a major African city. Your mother brought you three into the unfamiliar city on a busy afternoon. Then, telling you she had to use the toilet, handed you the baby and told you to hold your little brother’s hand. And left. Sorry about the spoiler, but that is what Out of the Black Shadows is about: aloneness. 

Some twelve years later, a violent, confused, self-hating teen with a bag of petrol bombs sets off with his gang to attack a bank in Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe). He and his buddies see an evangelistic tent meeting on the township’s edge and decide it would be a much better target with many more casualties than a solid concrete bank. After reorganizing their game plan and countdown, they duck into the tent to blend in with the crowd.

But the Holy Spirit had other plans, and  Stephen Lungu’s life changed irreversibly that night. Out of the Black Shadows (co-authored by Stephen Lungu and Anne Coomes) is described as a “spiritual thriller” by Michael Cassidy, founder of African Enterprise. But it is much more than that: it is the spiritual autobiography of a self-described loser, a young man who carried the weight of abandonment and rejection within his soul to such an extent that death often seemed his best option.

The Black Shadows was the name of the gang Stephen led, the only family he had, and the ragtag mob of boys he slept under a bridge with. It derived from a wild west movie and the fantasies they lived on to supplement their diet of digging through white people’s garbage cans and tips from chasing tennis balls.

Stephen lived under much blacker shadows than the name of his gang. Abandoned so young, Stephen carried the weight of responsibility, self-hate and bitterness. But this amazing account, after focusing on the impossibility of redemption or humanisation of this street boy gone “terrorist”, reveals a most unusual story of hope and grace.

The vehicle for this grace was the South African based Dorothea Mission. These missionaries came with their own apartheid issues, but God was greater and used their desire instead of their faults. The “coincidental” finding of Stephen by Hannes Joubert after his conversion and Joubert’s loving discipline cover us like a soft warm blanket after the chilly hard ground of Stephen’s grave-bed under the bridge. Although Stephen was from Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and abhorred the apartheid mentality from the south, he was not as scarred by it as those directly under its domination. His resentment focused on his own family who betrayed him and let him down.

Most heart-warming is the delightful friendship and sparring partnership that Stephen developed with (now world famous) Patrick Johnstone. Stephen knew him before “Operation World” and Johnstone is a model for many who wish to lead and challenge others to reach beyond what they think they can achieve. Much of the credit for the man Stephen Lungu became he gratefully credits to Patrick and Patrick’s nurturing of him and confidence in him.

This book reads like a simple story told by a simple man, but the undeniable power which changed him makes it a rich story, complex in life, relationships and grace. It can be compared to Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy, story of a young street boy who makes good and arrives in America to escape apartheid’s oppression. Their experiences of hunger, abuse, cold, and self-hate are similar. But while Mark gained the privilege of education and leaving, Stephen was burdened to share his wonderful gift with anyone who would listen and Africa became his mission field as well as his home.

This book reminds us of the difference we can make, one person at a time, when we are willing to step out in faith and let God do what He will do. 

(Unlike Mathabane’s book, this one can be read to younger listeners.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ordination in the Township

Ever since my first encounter in 1976 with high holy days, ancient tradition has enchanted me. A service with people called acolytes, deacons, priests, bishops, thurifers, and crucifers, wearing, not robes, but vestments called chasubles, dalmatics, surplices, stoles, copes, albs, and cassocks--even pointy hats called mitres--this was celestial. If that weren’t enough, they carried huge candles, ornate candlesticks, intricately designed crosses, thuribles, monstrances, shepherd staffs and chalices. And the music--ah--the music.

My parched, low-church, evangelical spirit soared with the heady fragrance of incense, the tinkling of musical bells (in all the right places) and the richness of liturgical prayers and responses with angelic choir voices glorying and alleluia-ing in a seamless whole which left me breathless and inspired. No wonder the medievals built such lofty cathedrals: room for their spirits to ascend to empyrean and be reminded that no matter how small they were, God in His bigness, came down to them.

My favourite has always been the midnight Easter Vigil ending the mourning and meditation of Lent, bringing the “alleluias” back into the calendar and brass triumph insisting that we not find the resurrection hum-drum. It matters not the decades we have known He is Risen. He is RISEN, people--and that is a miracle beyond all our imaginations, bells, incense, vestments and prayers combined. Risen. Centurions flat on their backs with amazed faces. And the Lord smiling, walking barefoot from His empty tomb.

Over the years I have attended so few festival days (living in remote non-Anglican parts of Africa), that I relish each one. When we at East Mountain heard that our three Anglican students would be ordained in September at a truly high ceremony in Langa township, I knew we were in for a treat. I just didn’t know how much of one.

As Americans, we predictably arrived early for the 3 pm service. We rejoiced with our students, Mphumelelo, Sazi, and Khaya. We met the presiding bishop and the local rector as well as another visiting bishop. 

The ordination was held in a community hall, much like a gymnasium, because the churches were too small. Excellent idea because it was filled to capacity in less than 45 minutes. The hall was draped in red and white cloth, probably to cover up the non-ecclesiastical feel of such a secular place. An added touch was that all the ordinands were given stoles in matching red and white with the PX symbol like a large football insignia on their backs.

The service itself was truly an inspired blend of the best of the church's liturgical, medieval tradition with the fluidity, vibrance, and volume of the African township. I was entranced. The choir was dressed in brilliantly patterned dresses (no men that I noticed). Some wore the pattern in shades of red, orange and yellow, others in green, blue and yellow. But their outfits were nothing compared to their voices--at least three of them could have competed with Whitney Houston, and won. 

As I was taking it all in: the decor, the elaborate altar draped with festival linens up front, the chalices and candelabras, the chairs set out for bishops, priests and the multitude of acolytes scurrying about in their white surplices and shiny white Nikes (or were they Adidas?) something else caught my eye.

Over behind me and to my left, up in the balcony section of the hall sat three men. Not noisily jostling and greeting all the folks around them, quietly smiling and enjoying the ruckus before we started. The procession was attempting to untangle itself in too small a space at the back, the thurifer checking his incense pot for the fifth time, acolytes running up to the front to get the lit candles they had forgotten to bring up in the procession, and these three gentlemen just soaking it all in.

They appeared to be a family, three generations. One definitely with his white hair seemed more patriarchal, but their closeness and knowing glances made them feel more like brothers. No one seemed to notice them or go over to greet them, they were clearly visitors, not members of the families or parishes of the ordinands. 

As the procession processed and the choir began the entrance hymn, I jumped at the sound of a gunshot. What was going on? We’d joked about violence in the township, but this was guaranteed a peaceful Sunday afternoon. No one else jumped. Hadn’t they heard it? Then it went off again. Why wasn’t anybody doing anything, and how could they keep processing like nothing was wrong? The three gents were smiling and nodding their heads in time. When the third gunshot went off, I realised it was in time with the music and it was not a gun. One, no two, of the choir members had small dense cushions strapped to their hands and belted on them like portable drums. It definitely syncopated. Then another choir member picked up a metal cup and started banging it with a spoon and the percussion section was well underway. Cowbells, gunshots, and rich amber voices created music you will never hear in a cathedral in Europe. I was transported.

The three gents in the balcony were, too. I saw the bliss and sensed their delight in everything that was going on. No matter that the thurible was over-filled and the incense reached such an intensity that I was looking around to see what was on fire. The service carried on--a picture of unbridled enthusiasm barely held in by the centuries-long format of “ordination service.”

We made our confession, sang the Lord’s Prayer in isiXhosa (so we Americans just thought it in our hearts), we heard the readings--some in English, but the gospel chanted in isiXhosa: now that is something to hear complete with clicks and pops. And the congregation all nodding along, hanging on every word. This may be ritual, but it is not boring or solemn: all of us facing the deacon in the aisle with the tiny acolyte holding up the Bible.

When the activity heads front and centre, chairs up there start getting rearranged, blankets for the ordinands to prostrate on, just a little chaos and confusion so we can all settle back and gear up for the next part. Over my shoulder I see the three gents, watching with interest and appreciation. The rest of us are restlessly resettling, it’s been going a while, but the three are entirely focused. At intervals during the service bursts of mayhem are evident. Well-intentioned confusion: books handed around, papers in plastic sheathes with the words of the next part passed from deacon to priest. Stoles brought for the ordinands, draped, admonitions. Priests switching sides and discovering where to stand. Deacons helping ordinands to stand from being prostrate on the floor. You try that, without stepping on your cassock and ripping it off. (Besides, one of them is carrying a bit of weight which makes it more difficult for him.) The choir director starts and is stopped for announcements. The bishop is intermittently taking his mitre off and putting it back on, depending on what is happening and whether he is permitted to wear it at that moment. He has Parkinson’s, so he needs a little help from a nearby deacon to get the little ribbons lying correctly down his back. He sits for his sermon which is straight from his heart. He believes in these men. He reminds them of the responsibility ahead. A responsibility he has carried for years and will soon lay down.

The Passing of the Peace is utter pandemonium and Rodney sitting next to me (somewhat a stranger to liturgy) asks if it is half-time. Apparently there is a lot of peace in Langa, because it takes a while to pass it all around; the three gents are not passing it, however. They are practically ignored by everyone, which seems strange to me. But they don’t mind in the least, they are revelling in the abundance of joy milling around them.

And then, when I have given up on Eucharist because it is now so late, and to have mass at this point would make the service interminable, the chant introducing the Lord’s Supper commences. To my amazement, we have communion, we share the broken Body and we share the cup of our Salvation. It is not interminable. In our eagerness for this blessing and perpetual reminder of how much we have been given, we tumble forward in orderly chaos. One of my own students gives me my wafer and whispers not “the Body of Christ” but “you can eat it.” My heart bursting at the significance of this moment.

On my way back to my seat, I look up at the three gentlemen. They are not in their seats. I scan the aisles. Not there. The doors haven’t been opened. But they got clean away. Odd. They were clearly enrapt by the whole proceeding. You’d have thought it was all for them.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: The Help

**This week in a step away from South Africa (where we currently life) I'm looking at an American book/movie, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and it’s contribution to the conversation-in-story we have been pursuing about apartheid and colour issues.  It has been difficult to decide whether to blog on this book or not, because it has generated a lot of discontent in that it has a white female protagonist and focuses mainly on her, rather than the black women she is attempting to help. There are flaws: the author was naive and brings her own baggage of having been raised by a black servant who was closer to her than her own mother--parallel to the character in the story. I would suggest, however, that this book is closer to having a trinity of protagonists that merely one who is pale and not extremely heroic. Rather than complain that this story is not written by a person of the correct colour and background, let's attempt to learn what we can from her efforts. 

I live in a very pale neighbourhood  where women of colour push babies without colour in little prams on smooth sidewalks leafy with shade. My neighbourhood is a few kilometres from the neighbourhood I suspect a number of these pram-pushers live. Let’s just say there aren’t any shady or smooth sidewalks for pushing prams there, and few enough prams. 

Reading The Help and watching the movie again brought me some unsettled feelings, especially when I encounter pram-pushers in my neighbourhood walks.

If you’ve seen the movie, The Help, the book (as usual) is ten times better. The movie is delightful, humorous, ironic, and involving. The 60s decor, news, technology, and fashion are amusing and remind us how far we’ve come. But have we? The book gives us more to reflect on, more opportunity to look into our hearts as we get to know characters as more than caricatures.

The depth of the book is in its three alternating narrators and the issues each struggles with. Skeeter is the gangly, white college graduate and aspiring novelist. She wrestles with her lack of sex appeal, her towering height, and a tyrannical, faded beauty queen mother. Aibileen is an older, prayerful, coloured maid who has raised 17 white children and loved each with mother-love. She wrestles with the seed of bitterness germinating since the death of her only child, her 24 year old son. During a work accident, his boss dumped him at the coloured hospital which did not have the facilities to treat his crushed lung. Aibileen watched him die on her sofa at home. Minny is an outspoken maid, famous for her cooking; but she cannot keep a job very long because she speaks her mind. She wrestles with mothering five children (while working) and a brutally abusive husband.

When the story opens, Minny and Aibileen are working for Skeeter’s two best friends and Skeeter has just come from from college. We soon realize that Skeeter is different from the other women in the League and the bridge club. While consulting Aibileen for advice for a column she writes, she sees past Aibileen’s colour and discovers a woman she would like to get to know. Hence, this story: the perspective of the maids serving across colour lines. We hear tales of love and gratitude and others of scorn and abuse. Each one has been true in some time and some place; this is one work of fiction full of much truth. Many of the stories shock us--we try to comfort ourselves that that was the 60s and the Civil Rights Movement was just gaining momentum. Back then, people were ignorant and callous. That was then. This is now.

We don’t hear anyone called “the help” anymore. And few would admit to having a servant. But I have heard enough tales of woe about “domestics” to know that at the heart level, this story still needs to be heard, and needs to go to the heart.

It is true, young black men are no longer being beaten and blinded by tire irons for using the wrong entrance, and as far as I know, there are no segregated bathrooms. However, the truth of the matter is: apartheid is alive and well under the surface. I am sorry. I know people are weary of the “colour issue”. Most of us would like to think that we personally are not prejudiced in terms of colour. My goodness, wasn’t it Hilly Holbrook herself (the queen of colour-bar) who warned Skeeter that there were some “real racists in town” and she had better watch what she was reading? Hilly, of all people.

But after we smugly look away from Hilly’s pernicious attitude, we need to reflect on ourselves more deeply. The Help is a story about two women of colour and one without colour who started out clearly unsure of each other and protective of self-interest.

Then something happened. They developed relationships. From wary observation to interest, from there to beginning to share and finally trust, they risked relationship. That process of building relationships is how apartheid in the heart will be eradicated. Distrust across colours is a deterrent to finding out how how precious others are. Reasons for distrust abound: many are historic and some are current stereotypes. What spoke to my heart was hearing the battles each woman was fighting. “Be gentle” is the watchword--everyone is engaged in her/his own battle. 

The Help offers a beautiful description of community at work in Aibileen’s church family. Community is people getting together and helping one another through those battles. Courage is risking for others, as her pastor poignantly brought home. Here in Africa, we call it “Ubuntu”, which means that a person is a person in relation to other people.

Although this book is about the US in the 1960s, it speaks people on any continent today. What do I believe about those different from me? Where did my beliefs come from? How do my beliefs align with Truth, eternal and unchanging? When we walk through this process, then we will be ready to step out and build relationships with people unlike ourselves. Take a risk. Possibly start a change that could spread like wild fire.

Read The Help, then reflect.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Cape Town Coolie

Réshard Gool takes on the challenge of a retrospective look (written in 1990) at the advent of apartheid in Cape Town Coolie, the story of an Indian lawyer living in the Cape who finds himself caught up in a political frenzy he barely anticipates and his own personal life gone haywire. Our protagonist is Henry Naidoo. For the most part, we learn his story told from his Afrikaans best friend, Adrian, but as the keeper of Henry's letters and diaries, we are treated to excerpts which unfold the story.

We have a premonition, since it is Adrian telling the story, that things do not bode well for Henry, but his outcome is unclear till the final pages. That we are reading a tragedy is not immediately obvious, but it is grey-toned, despite the beautiful Cape sunshine and surrounding wine lands. In the first paragraph, Adrian introduces the CID men sent to check him out, his comic “with gangster hats belonging to a dated Hollywood movie” does not prepare us for tragedy within tragedy; but this is all one can expect from a pawn in a doomed social construct.

The year is 1948 and the wheels of apartheid can be heard coming down the track. But Cape Town is the most enlightened of the provinces and least onerous on its non-white inhabitants. In Naidoo’s own words, describing his feelings upon first arriving in the Cape from Durban:

Traditional liberalism still made it possible for an outsider like me, an Indian, a Hindu moreover in a predominantly Cape Coloured and Malay community, to retain some human dignity, even if the right to sit anywhere in a bus, or to elect a fellow “Non-White” to a Municipal Council was not more than a privilege reluctantly granted and daily threatened. The liberty of the Cape bemused me. I recognized my kinship in spirit with other under-trodden South Africans, in fact, with the under-trodden throughout the world.

The backdrop of the story involves the presaged takeover of District Six. Before the actual removal of 60,000 residents of colour to clear prime real estate for exclusive white living, there were businessmen wheeling and dealing, devising ways to profit from another’s misfortune. After a call from Shaik-Moosa (one of these infamous business people) Naidoo ruminates: it registered an industrial wasteland of impersonal machines and neurotic tycoons and faceless toiling millions in whom life had grown as precise as a clock and as bereft of depth as an advertising slogan.

While Naidoo, a diligent lawyer in straightened circumstances, finds himself sucked into working for men he cannot respect, he develops a love-interest that clouds his thinking and waxes the slippery slope. With the inevitability of a Greek tragedy we watch something happen that “could so easily have been avoided” but will not be. As though Fates station themselves throughout the book, the system which feeds on breaking relationships grinds on. While describing community among the coloureds, Gool in fact high-lights the ways in which they are torn out from it by the very outside pressures which made them pull in together initially.

This book is not for everyone: replete with political dialogue, it is a valiant attempt to verbalize and give audience to the schools of thought to counter nationalism: communism, marxism, and liberalism. Writing in hindsight, Gool is able to know which of his characters had flawed ideas and predictions, but still manages to give them plausibility. Gool also reaches earthy depths in the relationships of his characters: they live desperately in desperate situations. Normal expectations and constraints are sidelined for the urgency of crises. (This is a book for the robust reader.)

The blending of personal lives against a historic backdrop of change is a popular technique which works well in Cape Town Coolie. We are intrigued by the plot even as we learn more about the machinations behind the District Six evictions. It is very gratifying now (in 2014) to see a vast weedy emptiness in the heart of Cape Town: the very place where so many lives were uprooted and cast aside is a desolate reminder of the selfish potential in each heart. 

Beyond the politics, Henry Naidoo learns about liberty and love. “A little liberty is insufficient, what I hankered after was a freedom of a more positive kind, one coupled with equality and responsibility . . .” And as we know in looking back, that kind of liberty was not to be had for another half century. He developed that further with the understanding that: “there is only one kind of true love, and that is responsible compassion.” So responsibility resonates in Naidoo's mind and when he learns the truth about his own father's depth of responsibility, it almost overwhelms him. (Another facet of personal tragedy in multi-layers of pain.)

He wanted justice. That is why he became a lawyer. But, as noted by the lawyer in André Brink’s Dry White Season, justice and law were not on speaking terms in South Africa in those years. So Henry lost faith in the pacifist answers inherited from his Hindu mother and Gandhian tradition.

Though this story does not pull us in--even the narrator seems emotionally detached--it is capable of evoking the sense of futility and helplessness the wider spectrum of humanity must have felt as apartheid gained momentum and found its way into the laws and underpinnings of the whole nation. So while the Tenants’ Association attempted to stem the tide which would lead them to losing their homes and neighborhood, the clever business people turned into sharks in a feeding frenzy. 

Once again, this is a story about brokenness. Broken hearts. Broken relationships. Broken laws. Broken morals. Broken people. All in context of a broken society.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: July's People

In 1981, more than a decade before apartheid’s end, Nadine Gordimer wrote July’s People, a hypothetical “apocalypse”--a “what if” scenario of apartheid’s end on the terms so many believed would be the only way: war and violent bloodshed. Rather than sensationalize and desensitize her audience, she does not pan across graphic scenes of carnage in the cities and visualize dead bodies in shades of terror. Rather, with the story-teller's gift, she focuses on a single family and their “escape.”

The Smales were a typical, prosperous white family in Johannesburg with two live-in servants. Bam and Maureen Smales saw themselves as different from their peers and silently protested the injustice of apartheid by treating their servants kindly and fairly. Sensing those feelings of superiority over other whites who did not “do their bit” for fairness, Gordimer looks into their hearts and perceives: “They sickened at the thought that they might find they had lived out their whole lives as they were, born white pariah dogs in a black continent.”

Mwawate was their gardener and handyman, but they never knew him by any name other than "July". His faithful service and humble demeanor gave them confidence to trust him when he suggested that the family flee to his own rural home for safety as their white suburban neighborhood would soon be a battleground. The book opens with July, at the door of their room, subserviently asking if they would like tea. But it is not their room. It is his own mother-in-law’s rondavel which she has had to vacate for July’s white family to live in. From this daily routine of morning tea, Gordimer proceeds to draw out deep and basic truths about who we are in the mundane. She does not wax grandiose, but reminds us that despite the greatest calamities, life goes on step by step. Cup of tea by cup of tea. Describing the Smales in their first hours of adjustment to bush life as “people in a hospital waiting room in the small hours, not looking at one another”  she jars us into the awareness and the insistence of ordinary life.

The point of view of the story flows between Maureen (Mrs Smales) and July because they were the ones who had a reasonable level of communication, although she had never bothered to learn Fanagalo (let alone Zulu) and his English was kitchen-level at best. Gordimer uses culture and life style to celebrate the differences between people and accentuate how much we are all required to adapt to one another for harmony in community. The Smales have never lived in such close proximity to others, particularly those very different from themselves. Hope for understanding ebbs and flows like a tide. When Maureen through signs asks July’s wife for the herbs she uses for her coughing children and July finds Maureen preparing them, he vigorously protests that what is good for his black child is not good for the white child, and they must find medicine in a shop. As Maureen pushes back, insisting that what is good for children does not regard their color, we begin to realize the historical extent from which the misunderstandings and mistrust have roots. “There was in his dark profile the painful set of his broad mouth under the broad mustache, a contempt and humiliation that came from their blood and his. The wonder and unease of an archetypal sensation between them, like the swelling resistance of a vein into which a hollow needle is surging a substance in counterflow to the life-blood coursing there; a feeling brutally shared, one alone cannot experience it, be punished by it, without the other. It did not exist before Pizarro deluded Atahulpa; it was there in Dingane and Piet Refief.”

Now and then in the story, the questions are raised: why did July save his family? And what is going to happen now? We never find out. July’s offer to protect his family seems to have been instinctual: doing the right thing as he had done it for fifteen years. His natural bent toward community and responsibility as a parent and elder made him the savior in a hopeless situation. We are also presented with the conflicting sense he has that whereas once he was their servant and completely dependent upon them and their kindness for his livelihood, the positions are reversed. And the reversal is painful on both sides. When he asks Maureen if she isn’t going to pay him that month, she tries to assure him that they would, but that the tables are now turned. They cannot begin to pay him for salvation. But July “refusing to meet her on any but the lowest category of understanding” reminds her, “African people like money.”

More than anything, July’s People is a good insight into how cultures criss-cross, befuddling one another. The sameness of bush life (chopping wood, tending fires, washing clothes, squatting over maize) is a jolt to those living from a veneer of busyness requiring clocks and calendars. In so many ways, Gordimer details “an acceptance that produced restless fear in anyone unused to living so close to the life cycle, accustomed to the powerful distractions of the intermediary or transcendent--the “new life” of each personal achievement, of political change.”

July’s People is less about the end of apartheid and more about how we relate to each other. Gordimer’s fascination for human relationships is paramount.  From different elements of primitive life she asks: how do we relate to one another? how do we build bridges? how do we erect walls? what short-circuits the process and breaks us apart? Part of those answers are reflected in the undercurrent of child activity. The Smales have three children, bred to elitism and class, but when they are immersed in simple bush life, they adapt and make friends in surprisingly simple, straightforward ways. We smile when son Victor discovers, astonished, that the peanuts they bought in packets in shops are the very same as the ones they've dug up from the ground and shelled with their own hands. She indirectly reminds us we have much to learn from the child-like. No wonder, then, that we must become like children to be citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Although Gordimer does not wrap her story neatly, (we are practically air-lifted out of the village by helicopter and left wondering what happens to Smales), her point is crystal clear. As human beings, we were made to live in relation to one another. Developing and nourishing relationships is delicate business, complicated by culture and language. But we can learn; there is hope for us. She reminds us that there is not An Answer. We are journeying to a place, not filling in blanks in a worksheet. Reading someone who writes so profoundly is a good place to start asking ourselves those questions about how we relate to and nourish one another.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Age of Iron

For a man, the challenge of writing a first person narrative with a woman’s voice is fraught with disaster. A presumptuous risk. But Coetzee adds three elements to make it nearly impossible: the woman is in an aging, brittle body, she is dying of cancer, and she lives alone in Cape Town during the final ghastly decade of apartheid, coming face to face with a reality she had never permitted herself to encounter.

Age of Iron (1990) is composed as the letter of a dying mother to her daughter who has fled South Africa and its burdens for America and a better life. As Elizabeth Curren wages the battles of aging, dying and living alone in fear, her own personal “angel of death”, a tramp named Vercueil, appears within her property. He becomes her companion to the end: the one with whom she works out her final scenes.

The chaos of apartheid and predicted revolutions are such that she tells her daughter:
“Since life in this country is so much like life aboard a sinking ship, one of those old-time liners with a lugubrious drunken captain and a surly crew and leaky lifeboats, I keep the shortwave radio at my bedside.” In her fear and certainty of disaster, she clings to the thing which will announce the end, bring the bad news, and break her heart. 

Elizabeth’s letter becomes many things: accusation, lament, dirge, eulogy. Her quiet world, ordered and cleaned by her maid, Veronica, is broken open. When Veronica’s son is in a bicycle accident, the other boy is taken to the hospital and disappears into the medical bureaucratic maze. He is simply nowhere. Seeking a child evading police is not what Elizabeth had on her bucket list after the cancer diagnosis.

When she chides Bheki, Veronica’s son, for hanging out rather than attending the bantu education school provided by the government, he retorts: “What is more important, that apartheid must be destroyed or that I must go to school?”  The realization dawns that the assumptions and foundations for her life and her country’s existence are precarious. She has long felt the nagging unease of the disparity of whites and blacks, but becoming entangled in their lives and problems brought on by her system gives her a chance to be one person making a difference.

During a rambling, circuitous drive in the township, she reflects on the contrast between her childhood (long sun-struck afternoons, the smell of dust under avenues of eucalyptus, prelude of what was meant to be a life without trouble) and that of the ten-year old urchin commandeered to give directions (a child of the times, at home in this landscape of violence). These seeming asides are where Coetzee’s power come through: his mastery of the word and sensory evocation draw us into the withering, breaking heart of Elizabeth. Even as she fights the system and her cancer, and aging, she rages indictment against those creators of the Age of Iron. Comparing them to bloated grasshoppers, she says:

“What absorbs them is power and the stupor of power. Eating, talking, munching lives, belching. Slow, heavy-bellied talk. Sitting in a circle, debating ponderously, issuing decrees like hammer-blows: death, death, death. Untroubled by the stench. . . . The new Africans, pot-bellied, heavy-jowled men on their stools of office: Cetshwayo, Dingane in white skins.” 

The title, Age of Iron is reminiscent of empires which imposed iron rule, extending authority which was heartlessly efficient and brutal. The Romans, the Nazis, Stalin . . . history’s examples of power run amok and people dehumanized in the progression.

Coetzee does not allow apartheid the entire screen, however; Elizabeth is suffering from a cancer in her body, just as South Africa is infected with a cancer in its land. Elizabeth knows she will die. Mentally she accepts it, then she suddenly feels “the shock of pain that goes through me when, in an unguarded moment, a vision overtakes me of this house, empty, with sunlight pouring through the windows onto an empty bed, or of False Bay under blue skies, pristine, deserted--when the world I have passed my life in manifests itself to me and I am not of it.” Was this the sudden vision of whites in those days when “black on black” violence seemed to become the norm?

For lovers of words, Coetzee is a master craftsman. He picks them up, looks at the sun shine through them, turns them around and upside down until we are dazed by their incandescence and depth of meaning.

Elizabeth is a well-educated woman who desires to share the wealth of knowledge she was blessed with by her heritage. Although it falls flat on Vercueil, Veronica, and Bheki, it is those words (written to her daughter) that convey the emotion of the lament, bringing reality to the tragedy that is unfolding in her South Africa.

Referring to the message of the oppressors (the arguments and vain rationalizations of apartheid), she philosophizes: “Their message stupidly unchanging, stupidly forever the same. Their feat, after years of etymological meditation on the word, to have raised stupidity to a virtue. To stupefy: to deprive of feeling: to benumb, deaden; to stun with amazement. Stupor: insensibility, apathy, torpor of mind. Stupid: dulled in the faculties, indifferent, destitute of thought or feeling. From stupere to be stunned, astounded. A gradient from stupid to stunned to astonished, to be turned to stone. . . .A message that turns people to stone.”

Searing as these words are, Coetzee has chosen to lash at the mindlessness, thoughtlessness, the insensibility that turns hearts to stone. He does not rant and accuse the people (who uphold the system by their silence) for deliberate cruelty and intentional torture and murder of their fellows. Rather, through the rasping of a dying old woman, he turns her whine into a coherent voice. He draws us to the deep issues which lie side by side with the shallow ones of our daily chatter. How can we not see what is right in front of us?