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The Testimony of Ahmed Kathrada

As I mentioned, over the last few weeks, news stories related to President Obama's trip to South Africa have been floating around the internet.  One of those stories included an interview with the man who gave President Obama his tour of Robben Island, the small island that long served as way to isolate and punish society's criminals.  It was also the island where the enemies of Apartheid were held, including Nelson Mandela.  Ahmed Kathrada himself spent several years in one of the prisons located on Robben Island.  As fate would have it, Ahmed Kathrada also graciously guided our Wabash Pastoral Leadership group back in October of 2012.  

After meeting Mr. Kathrada and being moved by the tour, I was inspired to write a piece that was part reflection, part commentary on the wisdom and grace I witnessed in this man.  As it so happens, we will be discussing the story of Gamaliel in Acts 5 this week, and it strikes me that Gamaliel and Mr. Kathrada share a lot in common:  two men in the center of a dramatically shifting landscape and culture who practiced gentleness and level-headedness in times when those two traits were not highly prized or celebrated.  The little I know of Ahmed Kathrada and the even less I know of Gamaliel strike me as men whose examples are still needed.

The Testimony of Mr. Kathrada
by Rev. Wesley Kendall
Inspired by our fortunate time with Mr. Ahmed Kathrada on Robben Island
Monday, October 15, 2012
through the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Project
along with our hosts, Murad and Mila Velshi

His feet shuffle over the remorseless concrete, moving without haste towards a spot he's 
stood on a hundred times already. This place was home to him, or whatever a home might be 
given its spartan conditions. There is no life. Nothing organic in its shape or contours. Everything is rigid and motionless and stern. But the man is his environment's very antithesis: relaxed, softened, and in his dress earthen and warm.

From his coat pocket he unveils a small handkerchief and draws it lightly to his mouth, 
holding it in front like a sacrament, touching it to his lips. He waits in silence for the crowd to settle themselves upon the benches before him, aware that his age and experience afford him respect. 

There is no blustery pride, only dignity. He calls no direct attention to himself. But, eventually, the 
room stills to silence. "This was our recreation room," he says and stares at nothing before him, 
recalling not just another time but another life. "Down there were the lavatories, and in between 
these two rooms was the dining hall. This is where we spent most of our time."

Most of the audience sit transfixed. Some have pad and pen in hand, earnestly copying 
his words or capturing particular facts. A few are standing with cameras trained on him. He 
continues his story, floating through his memory as it circles back upon suffering and sacrifices, 
upon dates and trials. He lets the names of his fellow prisoners spill out of his memory as well. 

Most in the group only recognize one, the famous Nelson Mandela. They are eager to hear 
particularly about this man. What made him a great leader? Did you have any sense he would 
become president of South Africa? Did he?

Patiently, Mr. Kathrada answers the questions - explaining to them, teaching even, the 
history of Mandela's people, recalling a man he knew through his equal number of days of 
imprisonment and struggle. "You must understand that he came from a royal ancestry, and that 
from his very birth he was trained to lead his people. But, what truly won the favor of so many was how he behaved within these walls. He refused to be granted any special privileges. He insisted that he face the same restrictions as the rest of his black inmates," and for a moment Mr. Kathrada begins to dip back into the trove of humiliations and ongoing monotony of prison. He pauses occasionally, returning the handkerchief to his lips, waiting for another question to emerge. The room goes silent, but only for an instant. CLANG! From further back in the bowels of the prison a gust of wind from the ocean slams a steel door hard against its frame. Alarm and shock travel through the crowd. Mr. Kathrada merely folds the rag and moves it back to his pocket. 

"What is it like for you to be back here?" someone asks him finally.

"It does not bother me now," he answers politely, long used to such questions intended to 
open a window into the suffering of his soul. "But it was difficult for me the first time I returned. A 
French television station wanted to document my story, and preferred to shoot some of the footage here. I was very overwhelmed when I did come back," and again he is speaking beyond the room, merely speaking beyond a wall. That is all. He will not allow himself to return fully. He has no need. It is not that he has made peace with his past. It is merely and forever contained and confined, spoken of and recalled, but never lived again, never touched or felt. Most of all, not in this company. 

He has no one left now in his family. His father died while he was young, his mother while 
he was in prison. And even when she was alive he refused to let her come to him, preferring to 
keep her heartache at bay.  He never married, and so never had the agony of isolation from touch and memory. He never had to face the cruelest twist of his sentence: of his best days spent aging, of knowing every moment was a moment stolen from what should have been his marriage, his family. But, that in itself was his agony: the perpetual reminder of his singular life, the finitude and emptiness of it, the candle that would extinguish but in a moment and - then - be gone forever. Yet even in this terrible isolation something else was born, the very contentment and humanity the existentialists laud.

"Towards the end, it was the simplest things I came to appreciate. We would gather for 
tea every morning in one of the cells down towards this end of the hall. This was later when things were much more relaxed, you see. Those were some of the most special times for me."
And then he tells the crowd of what he longed to see most of all. "Children. Do you know 
what it is like to go years without seeing a child? None whatsoever? For your whole life to be lived only around other men. I used to look up out of my cell through the small window - the one like the very ones in this room. And I would look up at the sky and think that across the water there were children in Cape Town. One time, as well, my lawyer came out to visit me. Again this was later on when things were beginning to come undone. My lawyer brought with him his daughter. I could not talk to my lawyer. I was too distracted. So for thirty minutes I simply sat watching this child playing."

No one stirs while he shares these words. They simply let the images float through their 
minds until the sterility of the room and the soft sounds of ocean tide and coastal breeze sweep 
around the concrete walls. There are a few more questions, but after the arms begin to go up one after another, he says, "Yes, well, I don't want to hurry us too much, but we must start on before the rest of the group catches up with us. It is a very small area as you can see, and we will make it harder for the others if we don't move on." And with that he accommodates the group as they approach him to give them their awe and respect, holding out their hands to him or pressing the chance to still ask a question.

He remains, but he is gone. Ever polite still, tirelessly polite, but he is already walking out 
of the room and beyond the gate. He has left the courtyard and passed beyond the walls of slate and concrete; he has walked indifferently underneath the towers that menaced him even in their unapproachable height for all those years. He has stepped beyond the perilous shore and 
traversed the troubled and troubling waters between his prison and his future. He has emerged no longer that man of many years confined. He has stepped back into his place, into this world, a man among many, an equal, an elder, a saint.


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