I hesitate to consider the hundreds of mistakes I’ve made over my years in rural South Africa. I envision them like a multitude of colored sprinkles on a frosted cupcake; the red ones are the mistakes I know about, the pink are the ones I suspect and the blue, green, yellow, orange and purple are all the hues I can’t even begin to decipher. Often, I mess up the very simple ritualized gesture of greeting, forgetting the appropriate rhythm with the check out person at the grocery store. It should be, “hello,” pause, and “how are you,” pause, before getting down to the check-out business and again and again I catch myself skipping that second pause. Whether it is the small ignorances or the big ones, they have happened often over the years and I smile not at the mistakes I’ve made but at the generous response of my community in Rooiboklaagte.
This year, as I stressed and struggled over the building project, there was an incident that gave me a first hand glimpse of the peculiarly rich vein of forgiveness that runs through the rural world in which I work. It was a hot afternoon in March, the walls of the studio were reaching higher, higher towards the sky and the new borehole was filling the tank, the tap obediently turning a flow of water on and off. Yet, as I stood within the walls of the studio talking with the foreman about cement and building sand, I could see out the window a crowd of high school kids gathered around our new water tap.
“What are they doing?” I asked Desmond with all my sensors on high alert. He replied something about no water at the high school but before the end of his answer, I was out the door, moving around the building towards the kids like a tightly wound rubber-band, snapping. They were just being teenagers, throwing water, slouching, goofing around but the tap wasn’t yet securely cemented in and I feared they would break our brand new system.
The kids knew me, knew my car with the Obama sticker on the back bumper, remembered me painting their hands to decorate the walls of their grade school and teaching art classes to them in the mission yard. They knew I was mad and, even if their English wasn’t up to a conversation, they knew I was threatening their water source. I tried ineffectively to get them to form an orderly line and then, in frustration, clapped the lock on the tap and marched over to the high-school to demand that the administration provide adult supervision at our precious new tap.
The principal was courteous and listened to me. He wished he had someone to supervise the kids and worried that I was not going to be a good new neighbor. It was all very civil and I congratulated myself on my behavior, neither angry nor impulsive but when I told Desmond about the confrontation the tilt of his head and his silence gave the first hint that a mistake had been made. Over the weekend I knew for sure, though my request for supervision seemed reasonable, something about my entitled attitude was off. So, first thing Monday morning I walked over to the office and knocked gently on the principal’s open door. He was stilted in his greeting and so I just simply said, “I came to apologize for my behavior on Friday. I made a mistake, I was scared that the kids would break our tap but, please forgive me. I was wrong.”
His response was immediate and complete, full-bodied and genuine. He reached out to clasp my hand between his own and his smile was warmth itself as he replied that he understood. I was forgiven for my slip into American flavored imperialism and in that that instant I understood something about forgiveness and something about my adopted world.
Few countries can top South Africa in modeling forgiveness. There are numerous books on the miraculous capacity of black South Africans to forgive the many, grievous indignities of the Apartheid years. There is the universally revered Nelson Mandela forgiving all and inviting his jailers to his inauguration and there is the noble effort of the Truth and Reconciliation committee chaired by Desmond Tutu. Seared into my brain is the image of Tutu putting his head on the desk and sobbing after listening to certain gruesome confessions. So, it makes sense to me that he gave this response when asked what kind of people he wanted to see on the commission: “People who were once victims. The most forgiving people I have ever come across are people who have suffered — it is as if suffering has ripped them open into empathy.”
I learned later, from Desmond, that upon hearing of my action on that Friday, the women of Mapusha immediately went over to the principal to apologize. They never mentioned it to me but it did give me pause to wonder how many times they have apologized for my behavior. In truth, I think the principal will remember my apology more than my misdemeanor and I will remember the warmth of his forgiveness more than anything else. The longer I work in Rooiboklaagte the more I understand how very little I understand about this other world but I do understand that forgiveness reigns. So, I will happily continue to learn and grow, accepting my mistakes and moving forward, trusting in the great heart of those who have suffered.