By Dorothy Brown
I was standing on a high mountain near the town of Wellington, South Africa overlooking the most beautiful mountains and flowers framing a valley of wonderfully designed colorful huts, each in different vibrant colored detail.
People say that Los Angeles was named the City of Angels because the first people to see it said that it was so beautiful it must be a place where only angels lived.
If that was true then those angels must have never saw Africa, a place so beautiful that it could take your breath away.
Then I turned away and walked into the prison that I had come there to visit.
The Journey To A South African Prison
Prisons in South Africa are situated far from cities and towns and most of the access is across mountains for those unwilling to take the much longer roundabout route. I quickly regretted that we had not taken the longer route.
We arrived there by taking an uncovered jeep ride through mountains so high that closing my eyes for most of the trip was the only way that I was able to avoid vertigo… and my eyes were closed for most of the trip.
At least they were closed until we came to a sudden stop in front of a group of about five gorillas sitting on the road blocking our only pathway. After a few minutes, most of the group got up and slowly walked away into the jungle side of the road. I say most of them because what must have been the giant alpha male got up and turned towards us resting on his backwards facing hands in a challenging position, as if daring us to come any closer.
I don’t remember any grunts or sounds just the way he stared at us while the driver and other young man in the jeep just froze while glancing slightly away but still keeping a lowered eye on his next move. Bear in mind this was an uncovered jeep with sudden death down on one side and instant jungle death on the other. He didn’t move and needless to say, we didn’t either.
After what seemed like two years had passed of this long stand-off, I innocently and very quietly suggested to the driver that maybe honking the horn would make him move, (Hey, don’t judge… I was a grey-haired middle aged, city grown North American. The only aggressive animal I ever faced was a wild horse!)
The driver answered me very quietly without moving an inch and without looking directly at the gorilla, who might have viewed a direct stare as a threat. “Madame, if we blow the horn we will make him mad, and we do not want to make him mad.”
I was scared before but became heart-stopping petrified after that. I think this same or similar event has happened to these men before, and I later found that there was a round-about route that we could have taken and avoided the mountains completely. But when these guys had a chance to speed through the mountains at horrendous speeds, they jumped at it smiling.
Me, I just thought… “WHY?!”
‘King Kong’ eventually decided to let us live, I guess, and he slowly walked away onto the jungle side of the mountain, but not without a few backwards glances to warn us that he won this standoff, and don’t you dare think that I can’t still return if you move an inch.
Needless to say, we didn’t, we stayed where we were until he joined his group and they all vanished in the foliage. Only when they were totally out of sight did we take off and for the first time during this trip, Mama didn’t utter a word of complaint or even worry about ending up careened over the side of the mountain because of the excessive speed.
When I tell this story, people always say, “too bad you didn’t get pictures of this adventure”, and my standard answer is “Ghosts don’t post!”
I really thought working with prisoners would be the most terrifying situation that I would face and the hard-looking, grim-faced guards walking with scary vicious dogs didn’t help allay that impression. We were warned not to make any sudden moves and walk slowly around the prison courtyard, but I kept thinking that the look on the faces of those dogs said anyone not wearing guard colors could be dog chow.
Interacting With Inmates
The prisons we visited were mostly full of male inmates, with some young boys and girls in desperate situations occasionally entered into prostitution to avoid being incarcerated for some of the minor offenses these young men committed, which sometimes was stealing bread or stealing money to get bread for their family.
One told me that he had never been sentenced and wanted us to look into his case, but we were instructed to only pray or give spiritual counsel, nothing else, and nothing was really all we could do.
When I first arrived as an intern to the retreat, I met two young people living in surrounding cabins. One young man from Kenya told us that the women in his village hid him during a raid by marauders who were killing all the men and boys. Later, the women smuggled him away from Kenya into South Africa, where our organization put him to work in the intern program as a chef in our kitchen. He was ignored by most of the South Africans who resented him for taking a job from their fellow countrymen.
My other friend was a young Buddhist woman from Japan, who had been living there for two years researching the AIDS’s epidemic at a local hospital before beginning her position at the World Health Organization. She told me that her country had arranged housing for her at our retreat because they knew she would be safe living alone among a Christian community. As the only Asian person living in this town she was also isolated and ignored. She once told me that she believed that I was the first Christian that she had actually met there.
Our Retreat’s Living Environment & My Experiences
The retreat had offices, living quarters and a chapel where I loved having my morning coffee watching the playful zebras and impalas frolicking on the mountain above us. The larger animals had been removed and the only somewhat aggressive animals were those mean little monkeys that we avoided whenever we crossed their path. I once sent a beautiful scenic postcard of the retreat jokingly commenting “This is me slumming in South Africa”.
One day on an outing to the nearby mall there was a blood donation drive for a local hospital and we stopped to give blood. My friend’s blood was taken, but when my turn came the nurse arrogantly stated, “We don’t take blood from coloreds”, and that if I insisted she take it then they would just throw it out, which is their normal procedure. I didn’t care to argue the point and to tell the truth, I was more upset about that ‘colored’ remark.
My adventures in South Africa began with my church mission group arranging to a trip to Rwanda in 2004 in remembrance of the 1994 genocide. After making my initial deposit, I was instantly beset by such a number of physical, emotional and monetary mishaps that one night I told my church group that I keep praying for God to open a door but then another one shuts in my face. Another member looked at me and stated, “Honey, God may indeed be closing the door so why are you still trying to climb in the window?”
That stopped me from any other attempts and with envy… or without much envy… OK, maybe with just a wee bit of envy, I watched my friends depart for two weeks of praising, singing, spiritual encouragement and whatever else I imagined people doing when in Africa on a Church mission. Meanwhile, I binged on every chocolate bar I could find in retaliation.
When the group returned home they advised me that they had met one of the directors of a mission retreat located in South Africa and after hearing my story about my failing to go on the Rwanda mission, she suggested that I come to Pietersmaritzberg, South Africa, and assist her with translating the mission newsletters from standard English to American English, thereby making it more palatable for American’s. Did I mention free room and board in exchange for working at a beautiful resort-like community surrounded by an animal preserve?
After a year I returned to America, and I won’t say that I kissed the ground when the plane landed, but there is a certain sense of complete security that you feel being in the States that I have always taken for granted.
I originally thought that I would be staying in Africa for a few years more and I will always miss my friends that I still communicate with on Facebook. Of all the places that I have visited and lived, my time in Africa is still the most memorable and I think the crowning achievement of my life so far!
However, it’s not the prisons or the gorilla that I think about on nights when I can’t sleep. Memories of us singing hymns deep into the night, loud enough to drown out the sounds of chanting, or those days when we’d notice the sudden absence of chickens and small animals in the area that means the sounds of a Zulu ritual nearby, never haunt my dreams or disturb my sleep.
The things that I think about are memories of collecting newspapers to take to a small village where we were teaching classes, and discovering the newspapers were for the outhouse not the school room.
I think of the young boy that the organization found living in his neighbor’s doghouse after all his family died from the AIDS epidemic and I wonder what became of him after his schooling ended in that village where he has no prospects for employment. And I remember the face of a little deaf boy that I taught to sign ‘Jesus Loves Me’ in American Sign and how he tried to reward me by sharing his lunch of one banana.
My parents used to laugh when I pointed to a globe and talked about all the countries that I planned to visit when I grew up. They explained to their silly little chatterbox daughter that for poor people like us, the only way we would see that kind of life is if it just happened to come knocking at our doors. And for me, after a time, it did!