Michiana Chronicles: Sailing with Desmond Tutu
A new year is a chance to chart a new course – even as we remember what has been lost in the past year. In late 2021 the world said good bye to Desmond Tutu, the church leader who struggled for peaceful dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and for human rights around the world. In 2005, I had the opportunity to cross the Atlantic with Desmond Tutu en route to Cape Town with a Semester at Sea voyage of 700 students and 25 faculty, and now look back on my notes:
23 Sept. We can feel the chill of southern currents as we leave the tropics. The water temperature hasdropped from the high 80’s to the high 60’s, and the air temperature reflects this. It is spring. Our ship, the MV Explorer, is pointed on a long diagonal from Salvador, Brazil across the Atlantic toward Cape Town, South Africa. To help us prepare to better understand southern Africa, Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah, joined us in Brazil to make the crossing to their hometown. Desmond Tutu’s biography is long and distinguished: Nobel Peace Prize winner, statesman, archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, champion of the fight against apartheid and now champion of the cause of peace and reconciliation. That is a long list of titles for a man we are getting to know here face to face on our swaying ship, a person of small stature, few words and an easy laugh. We see that he delights in small gestures of kindness more often than complex geopolitical arguments. Mrs. Tutu was feeling poorly after a long flight with many delays followed by a rocking ship in the Atlantic. My 10-year-old daughter, Anna, made her a get-well card and gave it to Desmond to take to his wife. Later that afternoon, he met me with a deep bow and a handwritten note of thanks for Anna’s kindness. Leah Tutu was up the next morning and gave Anna a huge South African hug, saying she was feeling much better and was sure the card had helped.
The students are quite taken with this jovial man who sits with them in the cafeteria, joking and clowning and taking care to learn and remember everyone’s name. One noted in true student fashion: “I’m not a Catholic, but if Bishop Tutu throws a mass, I’ll so be there!” The Anglican archbishop hasn’t “thrown” any masses but he and his wife are most welcome at the sea socials -- the Tutus really know how to boogie, whatever the playlist. Aboard ship, as often in our lives, the jovial, the absurd and the gravely serious often come side by side. Watching the film Red Dust and talking with Tutu about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission have made students realize the depth and extent of the horrors and atrocities of apartheid. And to begin to understand what it means for that nation and its people -- perpetrators and victims -- to find a process by which they can hope to be reconciled.
Students and faculty went on to visit the chill of Nelson Mandela’s stark cell on Robbin Island and the warmth and soaring windows of the archbishop’s church, St. George’s, where he would have diverse parishioners clasp hands in the air and proclaim, “Look about you, you are the rainbow people of God!” But we also remembered Tutu, not just as the Nobel Laureate who became one of the elder voices of conscience for a generation, but also as the spry, gracious man who tried to learn everyone’s name and always matched seriousness of purpose with an easy laugh and obvious joy in life. And that is something we can all carry into 2022.
Music: "Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain" by Ladysmith Black Mambazo