My Turn: An encounter with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

  • Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, left, holds a microphone as Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama gestures, as they interact with children at the Tibetan Children's Village School in Dharmsala, India, April 23, 2015. AP

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Fifty singers stood backstage, awaiting the arrival of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We were to perform a few songs before the South African human rights activist addressed 2,000 people packed into the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center.

Singers were from two groups: ”Barwa,” South Africans studying or teaching at the Five Colleges, and “Amandla,” U.S. citizens living in the Pioneer Valley. At age 28, I’d directed Amandla for five years.

The Archbishop was on a 1992 speaking tour. We regarded him as a hero on par with Nelson Mandela, for whom we’d sung in 1990, after his release from 27 years in prison.

Tutu’s backstage arrival inspired an awe-filled hush. The silence was dispelled when a South African singer approached the Archbishop and said that he’d baptized her. Tutu engulfed her in a hug, emitting a cascade of laughter so contagious, the rest of us joined in.

Tutu exclaimed, “I can no longer pick you up and pour water on your head!” Laughter continued until a stage manager said it was show time.

I was to direct the first song, so I took my place next to Tutu in the wings. An onstage voice intoned Tutu’s accomplishments, including the Nobel Peace Prize. I heard an excitable whisper just below my right ear: “Ah yes! The Nobel! The Nobel!”

I turned to nod in agreement and was surprised to see Tutu wore an impish expression; his body shook with silent laughter. I was confused: was he joking about his Nobel Peace Prize?

Tutu said, “My child, I offered the same message before the Nobel, during the Nobel, and after the Nobel. Not a word of difference. Yet the Nobel gave me re-le-vance and le-gi-ti-ma-cy,” he said, emphatically drawing out those words.

With a more somber affect, Tutu whispered, “People around the world say the same thing — human rights for all — but are ignored. That’s why we’re here tonight.”

The stage manager cued us, and we poured onstage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation for the Archbishop.

The brief exchange reminded me of something I learned a few years earlier. In my mid-20, I lived with my dear friends Wally and Juanita Nelson in their home atop Woolman Hill in Deerfield. At the time, the Nelsons were 80 and 66, respectively.

The Nelsons were lifelong activists and lived as simply as possible. With the help of friends, they built a small home, one without electricity or indoor plumbing. At a stage in life when many of their contemporaries had either retired or died, Wally and Juanita continued to work hard, growing organic produce in their garden plots and making soap.

I relished working alongside them, preparing produce for the farmers market, chopping wood, drawing water from the well, and lighting the kerosene lamps — existing much as my mother and her family had in a tiny village in Québec.

The Nelsons received public speaking invitations from organizations interested in their experiences as African American civil rights activists, war tax resisters, homesteaders and land trust proponents.

Wally and Juanita welcomed a steady stream of visitors, and given that they had no home phone, they never knew when folks would stop by. Visitors included old friends, admirers, students doing school reports, and people of all ages curious about what was going on at “The Bean Patch,” the land where they lived thanks to the generosity of the Woolman Hill Board of Directors.

I met people from near and far while learning about gardening, self-sufficiency, community building and how to make cornbread in the oven of a wood-burning stove. Being with the Nelsons was a great gift.

One category of visitor, however, inspired interesting reactions in the Nelsons: some folks acted a bit like gawking tourists, fawning fans, or both. Wally and Juanita patiently welcomed each person, clearly having learned to set their faces in neutral expressions no matter what.

But when people said things like, “The way you live is amazing. I wish I could live like this,” the Nelsons’ neutral expressions were challenged. Wally’s would veer toward amusement, while Juanita’s edged toward irritation.

Following the departure of some visitors, the Nelsons wondered aloud why people express admiration and yearning for a certain type of life, but take no discernable steps in the directions of professed desires.

I thought of this while hearing Desmond Tutu’s remarks about his Nobel Prize. Tutu was lavishly praised during his later years. In some ways, acclaim was probably welcomed by one who’d been vilified for his anti-apartheid stance. But it must have been frustrating, too.

Following Desmond Tutu’s recent death, he was hailed as “the conscience of his nation.” I wonder what the Archbishop would say to that?

Eveline MacDougall is the founder and director of Fiery Hope, formerly known as Amandla. She’s an artist, musician, teacher, and mom. She’s a freelance writer for the Recorder features pages.