A month before a scheduled tour of South Africa, I started coughing and couldn’t stop. I coughed through the night for almost a week, and no medication had any effect. Finally my doctor did a blood test and determined that I had contracted whooping cough, or pertussis, of all things. You expect that in a five-year-old, yet I got it in my fifties, despite a recent DPT shot. Go figure. The doctor said it would linger for about 100 days, gradually fading away.
I still have 10-15 attacks each day of uncontrolled coughing, and am as addicted to cough drops as a smoker is to cigarettes. But the good news is that I can usually make it through the night (assisted by a strong narcotic-laced cough medicine) without coughing, for which Janet is most grateful. And so far I’ve made it through each night’s speaking assignment with only a few choked words, frantic gulps of water and quick swallows, but no substantial interruptions. That’s very good news indeed. I’ve even gone running a few times, my first exercise since I contracted pertussis a month ago. The cough, I can live with, and probably will have to for a few more months. We visited an aquarium in Durban, and Janet identified the sound as exactly like that of a barking seal.
Our schedule turned out to be more grueling than we thought, with additional meetings, rehearsals, lunches, etc. I’m not sure what I would do without my charming wife who can fully take over all those social obligations, and speak for me much better than I could speak for myself.
We’re at the end of our first week, having completed four of the ten meetings. I’m speaking on Grace, and South Africa is one of the best examples of grace in action in recent history. Countries like North Korea and Iran are desperately seeking nuclear weapons; South Africa dismantled theirs. Everyone speaks of the “miracle” of the changeover that occurred a decade ago. The world had expected a civil war and bloodbath, but instead Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu proposed a new way based not on justice but on reconciliation. Mandela invited his prison warden to sit on his inauguration platform and hired a white South African policeman, the dreaded enemy of blacks, as his personal bodyguard. And as you know Tutu led an extraordinary Truth and Reconciliation Commission which became a model to the rest of the world.
This week we’ve already experienced the variety of this country. The first night I spoke, and the theater troupe performed, for an Anglican church, mostly white, comprised of English-speaking people of British descent. The next week we went to the capital, Pretoria, where I spoke to a diehard Afrikaans crowd, Dutch Reformed. They had just moved into a huge new Willow Creek-style facility that seats 7000, a bit of an oxymoron to those of you who know the starched Dutch Reformed tradition. No organ, but a great drum set. The Afrikaans have lost the most in the changeover: power, money, prestige. They’re despised by many as the architects of apartheid. Many fled, and the ones who stayed are more humble and open than ever before. On our last trip here, we met the head of that denomination who discussed the issue of homosexuality in the church. “I’ve learned to be very slow in making moral pronouncements,” he told me. “After all, I was raised hearing apartheid racism preached straight from the pulpit and defended from the Bible. And now my church declares it an official heresy. That gives me pause.”
The very next night I spoke at Ray McCauley’s Pentecostal church, which is 80 percent black and 10 percent “coloured” or mixed race. I’ve got to tell you, no matter what you think of charismatics, it’s a lot more fun to speak to an audience that claps, yells “Amen!” and nods their heads all the way through. The fact that South African blacks embrace Christianity so widely is an astonishing thing in light of the treatment they endured from those who brought the faith to their country.
We also toured the Apartheid Museum, a stark concrete and steel structure built along the lines of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. You enter through separate entrances labeled “Europeans only,” “blacks,” “Chinese,” “Coloured,” etc. and walk through a maze of steel bars on which are mounted actual photo identity cards blown up, with racial categories designated on each one. Each year thousands of people were reclassified from black to coloured, or vice versa, or from Malay to Chinese or whatever. Never was one reclassified from black to white. And, of course, that classification determined where you could live and where you could work, not to mention where you could eat or even sit in a park. It brought back chilling memories of growing up in Atlanta in days where benches and rest rooms and drinking fountains were segregated with the same “Whites only” labels.
The museum also had stark footage of the demonstrations, the riots, the abuse of prisoners like Stephen Biko and Mandela, the black-on-black violence encouraged by the white government. Between 1990, when Mandela was released, and 1994, when the first open elections were held, 14,000 S. Africans died in violence. Yet after that sobering tour, which took us about four hours, we emerged to see blacks, whites, and coloureds sitting together in tables at the café drinking coffee, laughing, socializing. Much healing has happened.
The country still faces enormous challenges. Everyone speaks of crime. Ask any S. African about crime and they tell you how many times they’ve been “housebroken,” their odd word for break-ins. A woman here stands a one in three chance of being raped at some point. S. Africa has more people with AIDS than any other country, and around 700 die of the disease each day. How do you plan an economy when so many are dying and needing treatment? The infrastructure in places is much closer to a Third World culture than a developed society: electricity blackouts, pot-holed roads, huge unemployment. And yet, and yet…there is a great spirit of achievement and of hope.
I feel very honored to be here. Last night in Durban the host asked how many in the crowd of several thousand had read What’s So Amazing About Grace? and about two-thirds raised their hands. The message of grace and forgiveness hits people here like nowhere else I travel. For most of the last couple of years I’ve been holed up writing a book on prayer. It feels good to get out and see that my work done in isolation does indeed eventually cross barriers and even oceans and touch people.
We have only two nights remaining of the ten planned meetings. We are in Cape Town now, and yesterday was certainly the most extraordinary day of the tour. To set the background, let me quote a passage from one of my books:
On a trip to South Africa [in 2004] I met a remarkable woman named Joanna. She is of mixed race, part black and part white, a category known there as “Coloured.” After helping in the struggle against apartheid, Joanna decided to tackle the most violent prison in South Africa, a prison where Nelson Mandela had spent eight years. Tattoo-covered gang members controlled the prison, strictly enforcing a rule that required new members to earn their admittance to the gang by assaulting undesirable prisoners. Prison authorities looked the other way, letting these “animals” beat and even kill each other.
Alone, this attractive young woman started going each day into the bowels of that prison. She brought a simple message of forgiveness and reconciliation, trying to put into practice on smaller scale what Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu were trying to effect in the nation as a whole. She organized small groups, taught trust games, got the prisoners to open up about the details of their horrific childhoods. The year before she began her visits, the prison had recorded 279 acts of violence; the next year there were two. Joanna’s results were so impressive that the BBC sent a camera crew from London to produce two one-hour documentaries on her.
I met Joanna and her husband, who has since joined her in the prison work, at a restaurant on the waterfront of Cape Town. Ever the journalist, I pressed her for specifics on what had happened to transform that prison. Her fork stopped on the way to her mouth, she looked up and said, almost without thinking, “Well, of course, Philip, God was already present in the prison. I just had to make him visible.”
At each meeting on this tour I’ve told the story of Joanna, who embodies grace and reconciliation. And yesterday we visited Pollsmoor Prison, where she works. It’s an amazing place, five separate prisons linked by underground tunnels, holding 8000 prisoners in all. It was built for less than a third that number, so conditions of overcrowding are unimaginable. Prisoners here wait as long as four years for their trial, and bail for violent crimes is unavailable.
Prisons assault the senses. They’re ugly places of concrete and steel; the stench of body odor, clogged toilets and disinfectant fills the nose; doors slam and prisoners yell as you walk through the tunnels. In a controversial move, the prison authorities have installed free condom dispensers in the hallways: sodomy is a fact of life, they figure, so they can at least try to prevent the spread of AIDS. Interestingly, the prison is divided into rooms for “gangsters” and “non-gangsters.” Every cell and meeting room has a sign on it, “Gangsters only” or “non-gangsters only.” You can tell the gang members by their distinctive tattoo markings.
Several hundred men crowded into a kind of exercise room, and Joanna led the service. She has a remarkable presence, greets each prisoner by name, and commands respect from inmates and authorities alike. Joanna and Julian bring in speakers, a keyboard, and CDs, which gives the prisoners a taste of normal life. Most days they’re only allowed out of their cells for one hour, so a chance to attend a church service is a welcome relief. I’ll not soon forget the sound of several hundred male voices, the sound echoing off concrete walls, singing lustily, “Soon and very soon we are going to see the King…No more crying there…No more dying there…”
The inmates loved the funny skits put on by the British actors, and I spoke to a truly “captive” audience. After the meeting we went into one of the three cells which the prison has designated as “Christian cells.” Forty-nine men sleep in a room about the size of my living room. They have three-tiered bunk beds, and a few sleep on pieces of foam on the floor. They all wear orange uniforms, and as you look around you see a sea of orange, with black faces. Laundry hangs from the bars. The prison has no heat, and Cape Town gets cold, but with so many people in the room it warms up quickly. On every wall the prisoners have hung the words of hymns. The most touching to me was “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place”—a remarkable fulfillment of Joanna’s mission.
The actors did a few skits in a tiny square of space surrounded by the prisoners, which the men roundly applauded. Then we heard some of their stories: “I’m a murderer in for life plus 38 years…I’m a rapist…I killed my wife.” Each told of how God has changed their lives, and how they seek to live for him even if they never get out. Joanna and her husband Julian run a program of restorative justice in which they walk the men through stages of confession, repentance, then victim restitution. We sang a few songs and walked out into the shockingly fresh air and the beauties of Cape Town.
That night the service was held at St. James church. Everyone in South Africa knows this place as the scene of one of the most horrifying massacres of the struggle against apartheid, in 1993. One night during the Sunday evening service three terrorists walked in a side door and raked the congregation with machine guns. Everyone dove under the pews. They tossed two grenades covered in six-inch nails, and fled. Eleven people died and more than fifty were injured, some permanently disabled. The event was so horrible that it captured the nation’s attention and many look on that as a turning point away from the cycle of violence. Ironically, St. James was one of the most integrated churches, and had strong outreach programs in the local black townships. Amazingly, St. James responded with gestures of forgiveness, and today is a kind of beacon of reconciliation. We couldn’t have had a better venue in which to speak about grace.
That’s not all. Joanna and Julian, the prison-workers, showed up and sat on the front row. I told their story and introduced them to the crowd. And to complete the cycle, as I was signing books an elegant woman came up to me and introduced herself. “You spoke of Nelson Mandela inviting his prison warden on the platform at his inauguration. Well, that warden of Pollsmoor Prison was my husband. He died three years ago. Thank you for honoring him.”
All in all, a most remarkable day. It took a toll on my voice, speaking three times during the day, but like the theater troupe, we’ll remember this day above all others on the tour.
I am writing this in a bouncy van on the way to the Victoria Falls airport. We’ve spent the last two days in a wonderful game park called Chobe in the country of Botswana. I haven’t thought about speaking or the book I recently finished or much of anything the last four days—the purpose of a vacation, right?
Instead, a few days ago we sat on the terrace of the Victoria Falls Hotel, a colonial relic built in 1902, and watched tourists bungee-jump off an iron railroad trestle bridge with the mist of the falls rising in the background. The African name is “the smoke that thunders,” and you can see the cloud of mist, rising like a nuclear mushroom cloud, from thirty miles away. We had high tea in the garden, a British tradition served by waiters in tuxedos, which is periodically interrupted by a troop of baboons that sweeps through and grabs the scones and finger sandwiches, scattering tourists right and left. Ah, Africa.
Zimbabwe is a basket case country. Its dictator Robert Mugabe recently bulldozed the homes of squatters in the capital city in an operation called “Drive out the Trash,” leaving 700,000 people homeless. The inflation rate stands at 1000 percent annually, so that every week the currency buys 20 percent less. (It kept rising, until it eventually reached 231 million percent!) You pay more Zimbabwe dollars for a battery today than you would have paid for ten autos just ten years ago. Foreigners are required to pay all bills in foreign currency—a sure sign that the economy isn’t working. I paid one bill in dollars and got the change in Zimbabwe dollars: four $50,000 Zimbabwe bills worth a grand total of $2.00 U.S.. I kept one as a souvenir, and gave my assistant a $50,000 raise with another. People take bags full of money to the store to buy bread and milk, that is if it’s available.
Most of the economic turmoil traces back to Mugabe’s policy of confiscating white-owned farms and businesses (Zimbabwe used to be known as Rhodesia, and was white-controlled, just like South Africa). In a few years Zimbabwe has turned from the breadbasket of Africa to a net importer of food. I remember receiving a letter a few years back from a sincere Christian farmer who said, “We’ve been studying your book The Jesus I Never Knew, especially the part on the Sermon on the Mount. Our farm is surrounded by villagers with guns who make nightly raids, who have murdered our neighbors and raped their daughters. Tell me, what should be the Christian response? This farm has been in my family for almost 300 years. We employ scores of locals, and treat them well. I know that if I leave, the farm will deteriorate to nothing. No one here knows how to keep tractors running and irrigation pumps going. Should we pack up and leave? What should we do?” A year later I talked to the same farm family in England; they had left everything and become simple shepherds in southwest England.
Victoria Falls is the one tourist draw left in Zimbabwe, and you see little of the chaos here, except for beggars following you on the street and artisans trying desperately to sell their wares. You feel guilt, of course, but also know that 30,000 people have work because of the tourist industry here. The North/South divide in a nutshell.
Chobe National Park, in neighboring Botswana, was a wildlife watcher’s dream. We took Jeep trips and sunset cruises on a pontoon boat and saw hundreds of elephants (the park has 50,000, Africa’s densest population). They come to the river to splash and play and blow dust on each other and roll in the mud. There are newborns and adolescents and entire families, all watched over by a massive bull who weighs some 10,000 pounds and whose tattered ears bear the scars of battle. Sometimes the young bulls practice charging each other, sometimes they trumpet loudly and chase away the herds of watching impalas. All the elephants look out for the babies, who look exactly like the big-eared cartoon character Dumbo. The babies have not yet mastered the art of conveying water to the mouth through their trunks, so they dip their entire heads underwater to drink. When the mother swims to an island, the young one wraps his trunk around her tail and holds on for dear life.
We also saw a lioness stalk a baby Cape buffalo. She crept through the bushes above a group of six adults and two babies; we could see her from the river though the buffalos could not. When she made her charge, all the adult buffaloes wheeled and charged back, kicking up clouds of dust. The lioness took off and everyone cheered for the underdog: Buffaloes 1, Lions 0.
Chobe has 450 species of birds: red-billed hornbills that live in trees, pied kingfishers that dig holes in the bank and entertain us with their fishing prowess, Egyptian geese, fish eagles that look like bald eagles with an extra dash of white paint, a stunning seven-colored bird called the lilac-breasted roller, and a host of others. We also saw a jackal, giraffes young and old, a lioness with cubs, and several kinds of antelope. In the river vast pods of blubbery hippos float and snort and eat grass and blow waterspouts and yawn widely to warn the boats away. (Hippos actually kill more people in Africa than cats, rhinos, and buffaloes combined.)
All in all we spent several refreshing days in a place ruled by animals, not people. Warthogs rooted in the lawn outside our room, and banded mongoose and velvet monkeys patrolled the outdoor eating area for leftover french fries and tidbits. (When Janet went jogging one morning, a ranger advised her to turn around as she was entering lion territory.) It gave us a reminder of both the beauty and the savagery of creation, and a respite from the crowded shantytowns and AIDS-afflicted cities.
Tonight, our last in Africa, we’ll stay with friends who run a shelter for pregnant women, AIDS orphans, and recovering drug addicts. Botswana has the highest infection rate in the world: 38 percent of its citizens are infected. How do you plan a future in light of that?
Our trip here was arranged by an AIDS orphanage in Durban, and one day we visited a cemetery. Saturday is funeral day in South Africa. In that cemetery several funerals were going on simultaneously, and you could hear the mournful chanting and wailing rise up simultaneously from each. Outside the gate, a long string of passenger buses was parked. Most working class Africans can’t get off work on a weekday, and with the AIDS pandemic, Saturday has become funeral day, a ritual almost as regular as church on Sunday. Half the children in the orphanage had AIDS, but the government had only allotted anti-retroviral drugs for half of these. The others will no doubt join their friends and classmates in a plot reserved for the orphanage.
While on this trip I read a book by Andrew Walls tracing the history of missions in Africa. A century ago, no one seriously thought Christianity would take root here. Missionaries were looking to India and China for the future; in the great missionary conference in Aberdeen in 1910, Africa was barely mentioned. Not until colonialism fell did the faith take off. Missionaries had translated the Bible into local languages, and in suddenly Africans started interpreting it for themselves. Now there are more Christians here than on any other continent. People speak openly about their faith; Christian slogans decorate buses and taxi cabs; public schools teach the Bible.
The church faces enormous challenges, of course, especially in a place like South Africa with its poisonous history. And yet we leave with a sense of hope tempered by realism. After each meeting Janet and I signed books, and I wish you could hear the stories we heard. A Muslim woman who converted to Christianity three months ago, was banished from her family, and still gets up at 3 a.m. to say her prayers. A man who was locked in the bathroom for six hours and spent the entire time reading a book which brought him to faith. The murderers and rapists and gang members at Pollsmoor Prison, which has become for some a place of redemption and not devastation. A red-haired woman who asked how to apply principles of grace to her husband, a heroin addict. One church that had studied my book The Jesus I Never Knew had sweatshirts printed with the cover graphics and the line “Help us to see the world through your eyes.”
We leave with these memories, and many more.
Copyright © 2006 by Philip Yancey