By David Crutchley
Editor’s Note: Crutchley, a native of Zimbabwe, Africa, is chair of the religion department at Carson-Newman University. He has led a group of C-N students to Africa for nine years.
We arrive in Cape Town, South Africa, after a 12-hour flight from London. Home again … African soil. Table Mountain peers down from her lofty throne and welcomes us. Our group of 21 has traveled 10,000 miles to walk in this breath-taking corner of God’s creation. The heart races with joy as memories and nostalgia surface. A gaggle of wide-eyed students stare with wonder as we drive through the hills and suburbs. I kick into guide mode and for the next two weeks we will share the paradoxes of Africa. The physical beauty of the southern part of the continent makes even the angels marvel and yet the land yearns to exorcise the demons of apartheid and heal from the shackles of its past.
This is the ninth group of Carson-Newman University professors and students who have come on the annual trek to South Africa. Each year students discover in class and through cultural encounter the imagination and spirit of the African continent. I press students in the early days of their African “apprenticeship” to define their understanding of spirituality. Over the fortnight those definitions are amended and rewritten through mind and heart experiences. We begin to understand why the modern nations might drink from the spiritual wells of Africa.
Our schedule offers unforgettable scenes etched in the mind: standing in Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, the South African Alcatraz; listening to the rich harmony of music sung at an ethnic Sabbath service as tears run down our cheeks … how can so few, sound like so many; sitting in the doctors’ gallery overlooking the theater in the original Groote Schuur hospital where Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant on 53-year old Louis Washkansky in the early hours of a Sunday morning in December 1967; holding young children whose smiles and lives search for meaning and love in Kids Clubs, and witnessing lives snatched from the brink – children abandoned at taxi ranks and train stations in the past or casualties of family violence and addiction – finding sanctuary and hope.
From our team house we glance across at the massive Atlantic waves that break upon the beach and combine the images with lectures that explore a new vocabulary and African narrative. Our T-shirts carry the fundamental Xhosa or Zulu word “Ubuntu” meaning “humaneness,” “compassion,” and “fellow-feeling” that undergirds the mood and genius of the land. We unpack the concept and discover that Africa’s gift to the world is not in the field of technology and mysticism but in the realm of relationships. What of this earthy spirituality that offers complementarity, reciprocity, and interdependence confronting our altars of rugged individualism and independence. Africans value people for who they are rather than for what they do. We recognize after some days of study that Africa marches to its own cadence and rhythm. Life seems less cluttered here, time less restless, and the pursuit of self is consigned more to the margins. Living takes on a holistic framework and the goal carried into the streets of life is to be more fully human.
As the sun sets and we fly north on the return journey our hearts and minds reach for a treasure trove of memories. We leave behind our footprints in a new geography and new world. Not one of us returns home empty and perhaps we have learned that we need Africa more than Africa needs us.