Even though my hair color increasingly gives me that appearance, I am not yet an elder.
But not yet inhabiting that status will not stop me from giving praise to Pumla Godobo-Madikizela, psychologist, teacher, former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner, author and convener of the third Engaging the Other conference Dunreith and I attended this past week.
It was an enormously stimulating and meaningful experience.
People from two dozen countries and more than 50 organizations, all of whom are deeply involved in the work of bringing healing to the world, gathered in the heart of Alan Paton’s Beloved Country.
We met two women, one Christian and one Muslim, from Nigeria who have forged a bond across the murderous divide. We met Americans wo are traveling across the planet to work for gender reconciliation. We connected with Marguerite Barankitse, a Burundian genocide survivor who witnessed the murder of 72 people in a church and, far from being shattered, has gone on to nurture tens of thousands of orphans whose parents were murdered during the same period.
We met the sons and daughters of Nazi perpetrators and Holocaust survivors who have struggled together during the past 15 years to understand the different legacies they have inherited while living in the land where the Hitler regime conceived and carried out their genocidal plans.
We met a survivor of the survivor of the 1996 Worcester bombing that left her unable to stand for long times and have the physical strength to raise her children. She stayed silent about her pain and anger for 13 years and, when the killer expressed the desire to meet her and other survivors, said she would say nothing to him.
Yet, after meeting him and hearing his tearful confession, she claimed him as a son, thereby granting him the forgiveness he sought and the family he had never known.
I could go on and on, and you get the idea.
Beyond the individual participants, the session had daily plenary sessions in which psychoanalysts and philosophers and neuroscientists added to our information and pushed us both to recognize the limitations of our knowledge while at the same time challenging us to think in different ways.
There were also dozens and dozens of parallel session in which clinicians and literary scholars and survivors and healers and lawyers shared their thoughts.
The pace was punishing-there was literally no time in between sessions-and I unquestionably felt overstimulated on more than one occasion.
But then Pumla would call us to engage the other through food and drink. Together we unwound through food and fellowship, dance and drink.
We also had the opportunity to present about our family trip to my father’s hometown in Germany in May 2012. It was the first time Dad had been there in 73 years.
Thanks to the tech team at the University of the Free State, Dad was able to join us in the room through audioconference while Dunreith read German teacher Gabriele Thimm’s statement and I showed the pictures my brother Jon had taken that ushered the audience through the week’s events.
The trip was one that I had wanted to do for many years.
Being able to realize that goal helped solidify an emerging belief that we can live out of our deepest dreams and most basic values.
Presenting about the experience and receiving positive feedback from participants from South Africa to England, Rwanda to Germany, strongly affirmed our sense that what is true for us can also be true for others.
Participating in the conference with Dunreith in the country where I had lived 17 years earlier also helped cement a sense of weaving a life out of experiences and relationships that integrates past and present.
The goal for me is not so much to have the past be silent, but rather to move to a place where the meaning of the present is heightened precisely because of what has occurred before.
These are all gifts I received from Pumla, and I hold profound gratitude to her for them.
Attending the conference also gave me a chance to understand anew the journey she has taken since we first met in the late 90s, and to see how she has continued to use her experience of serving as a commissioner to teach me as a writer-her book A Human Being Died That Night, about her dialogue with notorious apartheid killer Eugene de Kok, has been an important source of education for me-and, now, as a convener of people across the planet dedicated to a common cause and committed to learning from each other.
The experience was not always easy, but was always, always worthwhile.
I know that we will continue to maintain our connection and am excited to see where things go next.
In the meantime, though, I want to take a minute, as the elder in Achebe’s novel did to the ultimately doomed Okonkwo, and say, as my South Africans friends have taught me:
We thank you very much, Pumla, for calling us together and working so hard with your tiny staff to create an environment where we could be with, learn and draw knowledge, inspiration and courage from each other.
Siyabonga ka kulu.