Because I have travelled and lived abroad, people often ask me for the secret to good race relations. The following story illustrates my answer.
I dropped a screwdriver and pliers onto the dusty red soil and leaned against a convenient power pole. I could feel sweat trickling down my neck but drying before it disappeared beneath my collar. The African sun beat on my head as though focused through a huge magnifying glass.
I stood for a few minutes watching the passing crowd: hundreds of African people – men, women, children, walking, talking, singing, and laughing. Some women carried suitcases or bedrolls on their heads. Some men wore bright, flowery bonnets; others sported woollen stocking caps.
We had volunteered to spend December break at a conference on a mission station to do whatever tasks needed. I wired tents for lights and set up latrines; Anna made beds, cooked and ran errands; our boys helped run a concession stand. As relative newcomers to Africa, we knew we had lots to learn. One lesson quickly got through to me as I reached down to retrieve the fallen tools. “Yeooow,” I yelled, dropping the sizzling pliers. I had forgotten how quickly the African sun heats metal objects. Holding the screwdriver by the wooden handle, I slipped it through the pliers and headed for the shade.
Standing under a gum tree, I again watched the crowd. As a volunteer I could afford to waste a little time. I wondered how I could break down cultural and racial barriers and really get to know these people who seemed so different. I hoped to get some pointers during this conference that attracted 2,000 Africans and a handful of white missionaries from across southern Africa.
About 50 metres away, I saw three boys approaching with arms wrapped about each other’s necks. They shuffled along, kicking up little whirlwinds of dust, and weaving to and fro as they moved through the crowd. The one in the middle seemed to have white skin. That didn’t surprise me, for I had learned of albino Africans; they have white skin and hair and stand out sharply in a crowd of their countrymen.
The boys approached with the sun behind them. I paid scant attention until the one in the middle called out, “Hey Dad, meet my new friends.”
Squinting into the glare, I recognized the white African in the middle as my 12-year-old son, Brian. In two days, he and two boys from Soweto, the African township not far from our home in Roodepoort, had become good buddies. In that moment other new truths began to dawn on me; indeed a whole philosophy of race relations took root.
If you want to understand or identify with another racial or cultural group, make friends with one or two people from that group. Brian learned that lesson well. A few months later, when walking with an African friend, they encountered a railway line spanned by two footbridges, one designated for whites and one for non-whites. Brian chose to defy the rules of apartheid and cross with his African friend.
And of course the other big lesson: when you want to span the bridges between race, culture, or religion, let a child lead you.