I don’t want to lift too heavily from John Denver, and I do know when I’ll be back again, but it is true that my bags are packed and I’m ready to go.
To Durban, South Africa, that is.
It’s been a hectic few days, between gathering the latest batch of business cards, printing out the various documents that attest to my being authorized to attend the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Conference, making sure I have the correct transformers and adapters to ensure that my electronic equipment does not become a conference casualty, and at least 20 other things, and I’m just about there.
We’re about to turn in so that we can get up early for our last walk for a couple of weeks, put the final touches on the packing-this means making sure I don’t forget toothpaste, my recently acquired reading glasses and my pajamas-and then heading into the taxi at 9:45 a.m.
The flight will be lengthy and indirect.
We’ll fly from Chicago to Dulles to Dakar, Senegal to Johannesburg and then Durban in South Africa.
I can’t wait.
Heather King, the other Climate Change Media Partnership fellow from the United States, will already be at least five hours into her journey when we board the same plane at O’Hare. I’m looking forward to meeting and learning from her as we swap notes.
I’m also eager to have some time to fully wrap my head around the enormously rich, varied, and, I am told, frenetic environment in which I’m about to plunge.
As many of you know, this trip to South Africa is freighted in many layers of meaning for me.
It was 26 years ago that I first learned about Alan Paton’s Beloved Country during the state of emergency declared by P.W. Botha, the intransigent Afrikaaner known as The Great Crocodile, during what proved to be one of the early death spasms of the apartheid regime.
The courage and moral clarity of the African people standing up and, in many cases, giving their lives to topple the racially-based government, transfixed me and bred in me a deep desire to go there.
A decade later, that chance arrived
It came in the form of a Fulbright Teacher Exchange year at the Uthongathi School in Tongaat, just miles from where we’ll be staying.
The Zulu word for “A Place of Importance” and “It’s Something Because of Us,” Uthongathi was one of the country’s first private, multi-racial schools. The school’s houses were named after Mahatma Gandhi, whose first steps toward justice came in South Africa, Paton, the novelist and politician, and Chief Albert Luthuli, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former African National Congress head.
The naming was just one of many that sought to convey to the students and the community the seemingly commonsense, but still radical notion there and here, that children of different races can benefit from being around each other in large numbers.
The country and the school were both undergoing fundamental transitions during the year I was there.
Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was holding hearings throughout the country to give apartheid’s survivors a chance to say publicly what happened and to provide perpetrators the opportunity to expunge their sins and obtain legal impunity if they gave an unvarnished accounting of their actions and could show that they were taken for political reasons.
Natal Province, where Uthongathi was located, held its first free and democratic elections in the spring of 1996.
At the school level, Uthongathi was trying to figure out how to make its way in a land where its signature feature, that of being multi-racial, was no longer something distinctive, but rather the law of the land.
The effort ultimately did not succeed, and the school no longer exists under the same banner.
This is just one of many changes I anticipate seeing while I am there.
The Greenway Hotel where we are staying, for example, is a multi-million dollar green hotel, the largest of its kind in the country.
It stands right next to the largest shopping mall in the southern hemisphere.
None of this existed when I was there.
Yet, amidst all the changes, there will be a couple of constants.
The first is Vukani Cele, my exchange partner.
When we met in Washington, DC in August 1995, we were young, unmarried teachers.
Now we are middle-aged husbands and fathers working in different fields.
But the bond we forged is still there, and will be renewed when he picks me up at the airport and, later, introduces me to his family.
Some of my former students and soccer players are in South Africa, too.
I’ve become Facebook friends with a number of them and put out the word that I’ll be returning.
About half a dozen have responded, saying they’ll make the trek and the time to get together.
When I left in August 1996, I didn’t think that I would ever see many of them again.
This trip, then, will not only be a place for nations of the world to come together to wrestle with what we will or will not do together to lessen, and perhaps push back, the pace of environmental destruction.
Being a witness to that process will undoubtedly be a professional and a life thrill.
Yet it will also be a time when I will have the great fortune to return to a place that has held great meaning to me for more than a quarter century, and to be again with those people who helped me realize a decade-old dream and believe in my ability to make other such visions come true.
The journey begins in less than 13 hours.