Our trip has now finished, and it’s time to begin our long way home. Our final experience capping off the trip was a safari at Entabeni Safari Conservancy. We stayed in a bush lodge, quite rustic, and were fairly astonished when we checked in and were warned not to wander out of our rooms at night — the park elephants had wandered through just a night or so before, and can be quite aggressive. Not to mention the pythons and cobras that could greet us, or the mischievous meerkats, or the gnu that actually did wander through in the night…
Entabeni is a “Big Five” park, meaning all of the Big Five African animals can be seen: Elephants, Rhinocerous, Lions, Leopards, and Water Buffalo. So after a late lunch we piled into the Land Cruisers and headed out, and… well, pictures will be included at the end of this post, so you can see for yourself.
Our final presenter before leaving Johannesburg for Entabeni was Bishop Kevin Downling, of the Rustenburg Diocese, a Roman Catholic bishop that I was immediately convinced was my look-alike. Throughout our trip we’ve had extraordinary presenter after extraordinary presenter, and after each one our group said to itself, “Well, it can’t get any better than that.” And then another presenter came along and was better in a new way than the previous. Bishop Downling was exactly that: after a week of incredible conversation, he brought us something entirely new, and entirely stunning, inspiring, and moving.
Bishop Downling grew up under apartheid as a white, lower-middle-class boy. He told us that by law, by law mind you, he was forbidden to have any constructive relationships with anyone of any color, whether Indian or Black or in-between. If he had any black friends they were not permitted to come to his house, and if he’d gone to theirs he’d have to be back by sunset — by law.
As a new parish priest he was assigned to a parish on the Cape Flats outside Cape Town, which is where the townships are today. So as a white parish priest, assigned to this parish, for the first time he was permitted, even forced, to have significant relationships with black Africans. He said he found them to be wonderful — open, giving, generous, gentle. He heard their stories and got to know their lives, and he shared one in particular with us.
A young single father asked for some time to talk with him as his priest, and when they sat down, he poured out his story. Under apartheid, as we’ve said, your race classification by the Race Classification Board meant everything: what quality school you could go to, where you could live, where you could shop, what kind of job you could get, who your friends could be. This man’s family was technically “Coloured,” meaning native African but so fair-skinned, they passed as Whites by the Classification Board. So the children growing up went to white (meaning “good”) schools, lived in a white (meaning “nice” or even “decent”) neighborhood, and the father had a good job.
Then this young man was born, and he was born with dark skin. He could not pass as white, quite clearly. So what this family did, was give him the bedroom at the back of the house — because whites were allowed to have a live-in maid or houseboy. They sent him across the rail line to the Coloured school. When people came over for dinner, he was to go to his room and not be seen — to pretend he did not exist. And when he was 16, his family told him to go across the rail line to the Coloured township and make his way in the world.
And this young man, the single father of 6 kids, sat in his priest’s office, his tears streaming down his face, and asked how he was supposed to see himself, what to think of his life. And his priest, Father Dowling, sat with his own tears and didn’t know what to say.
This set Bishop Dowling on a path of prophetic justice ministry. He was involved in resisting apartheid in his parish and when he was made Bishop of the Rostenburg Diocese. He told a harrowing story of going on behalf of his parishioners to negotiate with the police chief, and as he and his fellow pastors walked away, hearing the command from behind him, “Shoot the pastors.” He talked of dodging tear-gas canisters with lethal metal tips, of hearing the pop of live ammunition and watching his people get shot, of police and soldiers indiscriminately firing into houses in the village with shotguns. His church was even bombed, and forensics said it was a clearly sophisticated bomb that must have come from the security police of the Homeland his diocese resided in.
Bishop Dowling gave us many astonishing horrifying facts and figures. South Africa has at least 22 million people living below the poverty line, living on less than $1 per day. South Africa is the most economically unequal nation in the world, so along with that mass living below the poverty line, you also have a small number of almost unimaginable wealth. There were many more, which we’ve asked him to make available to us. But no matter how many statistics I might gather, as Bishop Dowling quoted someone, “How can I understand a statistic unless I’ve held the hand of the person it represents?”
In his area are some of the world’s largest platinum mines, including Lonmin, which has been in the news lately for the miner’s strike and violence against them. He described the mine areas — at the mine head there are a number of buildings, plus a hostel for foreign workers. The mine bosses recruit men from distant areas, who come to stay for months at a time without their families. As they stay longer, the families come and follow, and set up illegal squatters’ camps around the mine head — tin shacks, no electricity, no water, no sewage or toilets, no services like trash collection. It is a place of almost unimaginable squalor, terrible diseases because of the conditions, and crushing poverty.
It’s also a place where HIV and AIDS are running amok, because as Bishop Dowling said, in these camps there is nothing to do or occupy your time except beer, drinks, and sex. And it’s the young people who are most vulnerable — Bishop Downling said that unemployment is running at 60% in his diocese, and young women are being forced into “survival sex”: when these young girls come to the camps from rural areas, hoping for work, there is none to be found, but an older man might give her a room, or a few Rand (South African currency), something like $2.50, and she provides him with sex.
But many of these men are infected with HIV and AIDS. And it is spreading like wildfire. South Africa’s former president, Thabo Mbeki, for a long time publicly said he didn’t believe AIDS and HIV were real. Traditional cultural influences give men the idea they have the right to demand sex when and where they want, and women the idea they must submit — not mention in situations of survival, or rape, which is horrifyingly frequent: in South Africa, a woman is raped every 26 seconds, and police say up to two-thirds of rape cases are not reported because of fear of reprisal or the woman’s economic dependence on the rapist!
Bishop Dowling presented us with many more statistics, but one I caught was that South Africa has an estimated 5.6 million cases of HIV and AIDS infection. 1,500 people are newly infected every day. Before anti-retro-viral medicines (ARV’s) were available, 300,000 were dying each year. One out of three women aged 25-29 is infected. Maybe most troubling of all, in all age groups over 15, there is a decline in accurate knowledge about HIV and AIDS. South Africa has approximately 2 million AIDS orphans, and 3 out of ever 100 homes is “child-headed”, meaning a child is head of the household providing care and shelter for other siblings.
In the face of these kind of statistics, and having walked in the camps and held the hands of dying children and young men and women, Bishop Dowling has begun a program called Tagologo, which in the local language means “peace and rest.” He began with a single nurse and a shipping container as a place to provide care for people infected with HIV and AIDS. The program has grown to multiple buildings, providing holistic care, ARV’s, medication, social work, counseling, and nursing, and a clinician’s attention. He has recently added hospice care for those who are beyond the reach of medication, so they can die a peaceful, dignified death.
He described one little boy who died of AIDS. The sisters found this little boy, 7 years old, curled up in his shack. He was blind from AIDS and related illnesses, and had been discharged from a government hospital because he was beyond treatment. The sisters brought him into hospice and put him in a bed, but he remained nonresponsive for a couple days. The Bishop visited him after several days, and found him sitting up, his legs dangling off the edge of the bed. The little boy said, “It’s so nice here. The sisters bathe me every morning, there’s clean sheets and good food to eat. And they love me.” He died after several weeks, peacefully among people who love him.
We wondered what can be done, what role U.S. Churches might play. The Bishop cautioned us, “Apartheid cannot be righted by charity” — the effects of government brutality, violence, and a systematic policy of limiting an entire population of people doesn’t disappear simply because of charity. And, as Stephen Lewis, UN AIDS Envoy said in 2005, “It will take the combined forces of principle and anger to defeat this pandemic.”