What price freedom? What price a human life? These questions are still with me several days after a visit to the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town.
Do you remember Amy Biehl? The white 1989 Stanford graduate who went to South Africa on a Fulbright several years later to work against Apartheid and to register voters in hopes of a free election? She worked hard; she made many friends in the townships, and especially in Guguletu. Then on the evening of August 25, 1993, she was taking two friends home to Guguletu, where according to reports a peaceful demonstration had been in process. But the police showed up and started shooting; the peaceful protest turned violent. This was the very height of the resistance to Apartheid, which finally ended the following year.
When Amy and her friends drove in, a mob formed around them. In spite of her friends’ frantic protests that she was “one of us,” they pulled Amy from the car. She tried to run, but the crowd was faster: a barrage of stones brought her down and knives did the rest.
What price freedom? What price a human life?
The Amy Biehl Foundation, started in 1997 by Amy’s parents, tries to answer these questions every day. Dedicated to Amy’s goal of empowering young people in the townships through education, the Foundation supports a number of programs: after-school creative arts and culture activities in five township schools (they hope to raise that number to 10 by 2014); HIV/AIDS education; sports such as soccer hockey, swimming, cricket, and even golf; “greening the environment” of local communities and schools; computer skills; and reading role models. These programs all aim to teach the value of freedom and the value of human life and to give young people hope that they can better their lives.
It can’t be easy. The township schools I visited are clearly struggling; classes are large and teachers ill paid and overworked. Equipment and materials–sparse or nonexistent. Yet the children, most of whom live in tiny, dusty shacks crammed together in row after row after row, seem overwhelmingly happy to be at school. For one thing, they get a plentiful and healthy meal (one school I visited had its own small vegetable garden and the Biehl Foundation hopes to bring similar gardens to the other schools they support). As one teacher said to me, “We know that children cannot possibly learn on empty stomachs.” In addition, the lessons of the day are augmented by the after-school programs the Foundation brings to them. At one school, the children played drums, whistles and flutes of several kinds, and an instrument that looked like a xylophone made out of leather (these kids were good!) while other children did indigenous dances and sang for us. They took turns performing—and we clapped and roared our appreciation. Sitting in the dirt enthralled by the scene in front of me, I almost didn’t notice when a small hand worked its way into mine. I looked down into the deepest brown eyes of a girl about 6 and held on tight as she crowded in close to me. Another minute – she was in my lap and I was holding her for all I was worth.
Back at the Foundation headquarters, Director Kevin Chaplin gave us a brief history of the organization, and I was impressed by how much they seem able to do with limited resources and a small staff. Asking us to spread the word about the work of the Foundation, Kevin also said “And I beg you to visit our small shop and buy gifts: all of that money goes directly to children, as does the money we make from our Amy’s bread and Amy’s wine projects.” We did go into the shop and we did buy: I coveted some of the children’s art but couldn’t figure out how to get it home, so instead I bought many bead bracelets with clasps bearing the emblem of the Foundation – a black hand and a white hand, fingers intertwined.
So we shopped, looked around, and asked questions about how to volunteer or how to help in other ways. We learned that the Foundation accepts interns from colleges and universities–and I met Michael from Yale, who will be with them for three months; he looked like a young man very happy in his work. When I left the little shop and went back to the meeting room, I met Ntobeko Peni, who works with the after school programs, and a bit later Easy Nofemela, an assistant who also coaches sports teams. We shook hands, I asked a couple of other questions and then thanked them for welcoming our group visit. As we shook hands, I looked into their eyes . . . and for a moment thought I saw something familiar.
Not until I got back on the bus did those eyes come back to me, eyes I had seen before when we watched a video about the Foundation’s history. Beginning with the story of Amy’s death, the video went on to speak of the four men charged with her murder and sent to prison. After five years, two of the men asked to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation process: Ntobeko Peni and Easy Nofemala. I watched them in court as they spoke of that night in 1993 and as they spoke later with Amy’s parents, who had flown to South Africa for the hearing. Amy’s father summed up their feelings by saying that the truth and reconciliation process worked—it really worked—and that he and Amy’s mother felt that they could now live out Amy’s ambitions and hopes and dreams. And they could do so accompanied in part by two of the men who killed her.
I had shaken their hands. I had looked into their eyes. I had felt something deep and strong—and also puzzling. I am puzzled still, though perhaps contemplative or meditative is a better description.
What price freedom? What price a human life? The answers to these questions: inestimable. And can one life make a difference? Yes it can. Yes it has. And yes it will.