by Claudia Horwitz, March, 1999
I recently spent two weeks in South Africa and still I struggle to make sense of all that happened there. In particular, I keep noticing the constant juxtaposition of joy and pain that is South Africa, that is so many places of struggle around the world, that is our life here on earth. South Africa is a fledgling democracy. Oppressed under an apartheid government for far too long, blacks, (who make up 80% of the nation’s population) finally have political control. The road has been paved with blood and spirit and death, and the journey to the promised land is far from over. Along the way, many have lost their lives. Lost their sanity. Lost their family members. Lost their land, their homes, their livelihood.
And still, South Africa thrives and her people find ways to celebrate. Still there is powerful music, vibrant theatre, and dancing in the streets. Still children laugh and play games and tease each other, just as they do in Bosnia or Somalia or Guatemala. Amidst destruction, there is life and this life is growing every day.
On the first night of our arrival in Johannesburg, the price the world pays for freedom came right to our door as we learned that one of the women in our fellowship had been murdered in Colombia. Ingrid Washinawatok and two other Americans had gone to Colombia two weeks prior help the U’wa tribe set up educational and cultural programs. On their way to the airport all three were abducted, presumably by rebels. (Rebel groups often kidnap foreigners and hold them for ransom as a way of raising money. The Colombia military, on the other hand, has the benefit of $200 million handouts from the U.S. government.) A week later, all three were found dead, not far from the Venezuelan border.
The news of Ingrid’s death rocked us to the core. It still shakes the foundation of my faith in God and keep me awake at night, as I continue to unravel the story and piece together what little information is available. Ingrid’s was not just another innocent life lost. She was one of the good ones, one of the best. She spent her life protecting the rights of other indigenous people around the globe, and ensuring their economic and spiritual survival. I feel certain that I will continue to meet people whose lives were impacted by her commitment until I go to my own grave.
So what did we do with this immeasurable pain? We cried and held each other and fell silent and talked some. After little sleep, we gathered the next morning and spoke what we could out loud about Ingrid. About her intense love for human beings and her incredible anger as a Native American who had seen far too much exploitation of people and land. Many of us prayed, and set up altars in hopes that we could aid her soul’s safe passage to the other side. We did whatever it was we could manage to do. And later that afternoon, we attended our scheduled drumming workshop at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. In the black curtained auditorium of this historic place, we danced and chanted and learned to play the drums. In the many photos I took of this jubilation I notice that every single one of us is smiling or laughing. It was a time of release, and perhaps some tiny bit of healing.
This back-and-forth went on throughout my time in South Africa. In Cape Town we spent a day learning about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For two years the country listened as victims of crimes committed under apartheid told their stories, many for the first time, and got information about the whereabouts of loved ones who were murdered. Members of the security police and others could tell the truth about the crimes they committed under apartheid, in exchange for amnesty.
We were privileged to hear the stories of two who had testified, one white woman and one black man. Both were members of the ANC who had been accused of crimes they didn’t commit, arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the police. Then we gathered in small groups to discuss the whole notion of reconciliation, and whether or not it is possible. I felt undone by the day’s events, undone in the best possible way, when one’s ways of thinking and feeling have been completely pulled apart and reorganized.
At the end of the day, I stepped out into the glory of a summer afternoon in Cape Town. Cape Town sits at the top of a peninsula, nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Table Mountain. If you travel 70 or 80 miles south, you come to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. It is the most glorious city I have ever seen and on that afternoon, it gave me a kind of strength I had not anticipated. To be able to see, in one scan of an eye, the great mountain and the ocean, made it somehow easier to take in all that I’d just heard.
I wondered that afternoon, and many days since then, why life swirls us through these continuous cycles of joy and pain, connection and loss, bondage and freedom, presence and absence, love and heartache, birth, death and, if we are lucky, some kind of resurrection?
It is the yin-yang, the Chinese circle which joins male (yang) and female (yin) energies. The symbol embodies the sacred union of seemingly opposite forces. The circle is divided in half by a curving line; one half is black, the other white. But the yin-yang rejects the notion of pure duality. In the black half, the yin, there is a small circle of white, and likewise in the yang, the white half, you find a small circle of black.
In this way, yin-yang is like night and day, birth and death, heaven and earth. You cannot separate one from the other. You cannot have pure joy in this lifetime because, as Buddhism teaches, all things are impermanent and everything we love will eventually be lost to us. And yet, life is not pure pain either. There is always the time of release, of coming together, of lifting one’s upward toward the sun, or outward to another human being.
Maybe this is the paradox life begs us to hold. Maybe this is why, for a week my hometown newspaper made room on the front page for photographs of Albanian refugees and Duke athletes, playing in the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championship. Maybe this is the challenge: to be present to the suffering that surrounds us and still find the place and time and attention for joy.