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Sunday, December 21, 2008

WHIVP Consulting trip to Capetown, South Africa: Act II

Act II The 1st words that I heard Archbishop Tutu say were "I will follow you to make sure that you do not steal anything."

The Wharton Healthcare International Volunteer Trip to Capetown, South Africa had started with an alumnus who was a Teaching Assistant for Arhbishop Tutu at an Ethics class at Emory University. A few years later, after reading about the worsening public health situation in South Africa, she wrote Arch a letter asking "Would it be naive to think that a group of Wharton students and alumni could help at all if we offered our consulting services for a short-term project?" Arch connected her with Dr. Toms in Capetown. Dr. Toms' story is Act III.

As a result of her previous relationship, we had the opportunity to meet Arch during our consulting trip to Capetown. Our first interaction was in his new office where we arrived during the blessing ceremony. Another religious figure was conducting the ceremony while all were quiet. Upon completion, he said that he was going to conduct the blessing in other room and Arch responded with joke about following him to make sure that he didn't take anything.

Afterwards we went out to lunch and took turns sitting next to him to hear his stories of the struggles in South Africa and view of the world. I don't remember what he said but you could see his words almost glowing with energy in the air. He has an aura. After an hour, he got up to leave and reached for his wallet. When we told him that we would pay for his meal, a smile spread across his face and he told the waiter, "I will not have to wash dishes today since they are paying for my meal." He still seemed genuinely happy about getting a free meal even with all that he had seen and done in the world.

Towards the end of our trip, we were invited to a private service that Arch was performing. It was early in the morning so only a few of us attended. Since I was Jewish and had not attended many non-Jewish services, I asked about customs, when I should stand, when I should kneel, or anything else that I might not expect. My trip mates told me that I would be offered communion but since this was an Anglican service, I could take communion without offending the underlying theology. So I took my first communion ever from Archbishop Tutu. Afterwards, I told him that was the first communion that I had ever taken and he gave me a funny look that probably meant either I was a really bad Anglican or a really bad member of another religion. The morning ended with a trip to one of one of those symbolic smoke filled backrooms. Actually it was a non-descript restaurant with heavy wooden furniture. Men introduced other men to Arch, each other, and even me. The way names were pronounced during the introductions, no one needed to ask what business anyone was involved in. It was implied that everyone knew the name or why they were being introduced. In between discussion of philosophy and South Africa's future, it felt like some serious business was being conducted.

The planned trip to South Africa had inspired me to do some research about the country and I was in the middle of Rian Malan's "My Traitor's Heart". Malan was related to a prominent figure in the apartheid regime, fled the country because he couldn't reconcile his feelings about his place, and became a somewhat controversial journalist to chronicle some of the poignant tales, contradictions, and how the political forces caused ordinary men to do what they did. The interactions with Archbishop Tutu made Malan's writing that much more powerful as I started to glimpse the people behind what I read. Even though I was just a brief bystander in Arch's amazing Nobel Prize winning daily life, his personal aura and presence just made South Africa's recent history glow for me. Archbishop Tutu combined with the work that we were did in the township's clinics made me feel a strong and powerful connection with the country in just 2 weeks while it had taken me years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay to feel that same connection.

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