By Fr. Patrick Hartin
THIS SUMMER I WAS IN JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, the city of my birth, for a month prior to the commencement of the FIFA World Cup Soccer Tournament. It was such a privilege to connect once again with my origins. It reminded me of what I treasured about living in Africa, apart from the ever present deep blue sky, sun and wild animals in their natural environment. Let me share with you some thoughts on what Africa can teach us and why Gonzaga students should consider traveling to Africa.
While there are many reasons to go to Africa, in my mind, one reason stands out above all others: to discover what it means to be human.
In Africa, we refer to this as Ubuntu. Ubuntu is the recognition that we are only people because of other people. Ubuntu is the discovery that no one exists on their own; we are all interconnected.
Here are examples of Ubuntu from my recent visit to South Africa:
COMMUNITY: Returning to Africa after living in our individualistic society of North America, I was reminded what a treasure it is to be a part of a society where community is at the heart of life. You are connected with everyone in a relationship of some form or another: Brother, Sister, Mama. Everyone is concerned about one another. I discover my humanity in my relationship with others. On one occasion while giving Joyce, a nurse who cared for my 92-year-old mother, a ride to the bus stop, we stopped twice to give a ride to two other women walking on the side of the road. How can you pass someone by if you have room to give them a ride? Joyce told me she was happy to care for my Mom because my mother had helped her when she had been struggling through a divorce. My Mom had cared for her, and now it was her turn to care for my mother. This is Ubuntu.
THE JOY OF LIFE: While there is so much poverty in South Africa, people find happiness in the simple things of life. Despite the wrinkles and lines on people’s faces, they still demonstrate a tremendous joy and happiness with life. I stopped at the side of the road where a group of eight men were busy crafting replicas of animals for sale to tourists. All they had was some wire and different colored beads. Using their bare hands and a pair of pliers, they were crafting “the big five” – elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo. I spent an hour with them. Despite the hot sun, they worked together under the shade of a tree completely engaged with each other and with what they were doing. They were innovative. They never complained about their situation or the difficulties of their work. They clearly enjoyed what they were doing because they were doing it together.
RELIGION: If you want to truly understand religion, go to Africa. Religion is at the pulsating heart of life. It is not confined to the perimeters of life. Christianity is not an individual religion but a community experience. If you have ever been to a Catholic Mass in Africa, you know what it means “to celebrate Mass.” The singing, the dancing, the exuberance is contagious. You are all one with each other and with God in your worship. My humanity is celebrated in my connectedness with others and with God. No wonder Christianity is thriving in Africa. Africa truly is the future of Christianity.
Next, I want to share a turning point from my young adult life. This episode shaped my thinking about how the people of Africa will reach their potential:
In South Africa I was opposed to the apartheid “system and structures” and as such considered myself a “white liberal” who was totally opposed to any form of racism. However, I had a “wow” moment when I got to know about Steve Bantu Biko and read his writings. He was a young student leader (the same age as myself) who championed what he termed “black consciousness.” For him, the greatest enemies for the advancement and freedom of blacks were “white liberals” with a paternalistic condescension who think they know what is best for blacks: “I am against the superior-inferior white-black stratification that makes the white a perpetual teacher and the black a perpetual pupil (and a poor one at that),” wrote Biko. Biko believed blacks had to take a pride in themselves and attain freedom for themselves without the help of “paternalistic white liberals” (like myself).
On Sept. 6, 1977, Biko was arrested by the Security Forces. Six days later he was dead, murdered at the young age of 30 while in police custody. This horrific event was devastating for me and totally transformed my life and my way of thinking. Instead of speaking up for others and telling them what I think they needed, I came to realize that Steve Biko was right: Blacks must be empowered to do it themselves. My role was simply to encourage and support when my help was needed.
(If you want to know more about Steve Biko, watch the movie “Cry Freedom” with Denzel Washington as Steve Biko). Biko’s vision and message still challenge South Africa today and, dare I say, the United States as well.
As Gonzaga students travel to Zambia to teach and to work in partnership with the people, my wish is that they, too, might hear Biko’s message and understand the power of their coming alongside to encourage and support.
[Fr. Patrick Hartin, a New Testament scholar, came to the United States in 1992 on an eight-month sabbatical at the Claremont Colleges to work with an international team on the reconstruction of the Greek text of the “Sayings of Gospel Q.” After a short return to South Africa, he returned to Claremont to continue his research and serve as their Catholic chaplain. He began teaching at Gonzaga in 1995 and became a U.S. citizen in 2006.]