Sharing cross-continental stories of trauma provides a mutual learning experience
By Charles Hallman
When tragedy strikes, such as the recent Boston Marathon blasts, the people directly affected are “tested,” said the daughters of renowned South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Twin Citians last week met and heard from these two women with extensive knowledge of what it means to be so tested.
Nontombi Naomi Tutu and Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe spoke on trauma, faith and community healing at two scheduled events: April 23 at Shiloh Temple in North Minneapolis and April 24 at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union. Prior to the events, the two women also talked to local reporters at Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) April 23.
People sometimes blame God for bad things occurring, said Tutu-Gxashe. “God was not the one who held the gun or put the bomb together. When you don’t give credit [to] God for some of the good things that happen in your life, why do you want to blame God for the bad things that men do to each other?”
“Being a person of faith does not guarantee you that good things will happen,” believes Tutu. “The faith I was raised in was the faith that in those dark places, those times of struggles and stress and in those times of fear, you are not alone.”
However, she added, “When somebody needs to question their faith, I don’t think I need to be challenging them. You have to respect people’s processes. I know there have been times when I questioned my faith.”
Tutu also said that her father told her that “it’s completely OK” at times to be angry with God. She also reminds herself “that I was fully human no matter what was happening in our community, and [it] also reminded me that the person doing these acts also was fully human. We can use any number of excuses for acts of evil and for acts of cruelty.”
When the MSR asked the two sisters if they ever envision themselves following in their father’s social rights-activist footsteps, Tutu responded, “No, not really.”
“Especially when he became an activist-priest,” added Tutu-Gxashe, who recalled the death threats Archbishop Tutu received because of his anti-apartheid positions. “No, definitely not.”
Nonetheless, both women are social activists in their own right: “This is part of the work I find myself called to and passionate about,” admitted Tutu, an anti-violence program coordinator at the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town in her native country.
Tutu-Gxashe holds a biology degree and master’s degrees in international health and behavioral sciences and health education. “Because of the work Thandeka is doing around health research, particularly HIV and AIDS, she brings a different perspective to my activist background. It’s fun to be able to play off one another,” noted her sister.
The Tutu sisters’ visit was part of UROC’s “Critical Conversations” series. “I’ve always known in working with underserved communities that faith plays an important part of how people go about doing their everyday business,” explained UROC Executive Director Heidi Lasley Barajas. “We also know that trauma isn’t just about the individual; in underserved communities, trauma hits you in a very different way than it would hit other people.”
Both women warned that they are not experts. “We come out of an experience in South Africa where we’ve got a lot of people telling us this is what we should do, and [we] know how irritating it is to have people come in for a day or a week and be the expert on the issue facing your community,” said Tutu. “We are not here to be lecturing but to be in conversation with the people of North Minneapolis.”
Black South Africans are still dealing with the remnants of apartheid, which was the law in South Africa from 1950 until 1994 when democratic, multi-racial, general elections took place, noted Tutu.
“It’s not the country we [thought] would be at the end of the rainbow — that we imagined it would be — just because we elected [our leaders] and everyone could vote. We thought that if we beat apartheid, everything would be wonderful,” reported Tutu-Gxashe. “We were very naïve, and the reality is that building a democracy is excruciating hard work, and it is a process.
“You can’t vote politicians in and just leave them to do the right thing, because a lot of the time they don’t,” she pointed out. “For a while we took our eye off the ball, and now we have to backtrack in so many ways.”
Tutu added that the South African government was too slow in “being serious about HIV-AIDS” in her country. She said, “We had a democratic government, and we believed that they would do the right thing, but it didn’t do the right thing until citizens stepped in and demanded they do the right thing in health care.”
“The people here have something to offer us” to take back to South Africa, said Tutu-Gxashe of last week’s Twin Cities visit. “We’ve come from a society that has gone through multiple traumas. We still have fractured communities. We are still trying to work through our trauma.
“It can only be a mutual process of give and take. We have a lot to learn as well,” she said.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.