‘Broadening Horizons’ is an English and abridged version of the original Welsh publication, Ehangu Gorwelion, by the Revd Wynn Vittle, in which the history of Christian Aid in Wales is told through personal impressions and reminiscences. Cambria Nostra will publish the version in instalments.
Part 4 – https://cambrianostra.com/2015/06/18/broadening-horizons-part-4/
By Wynn Vittle
Chapter 18: Lasting Impressions
Throughout my period in office I had a variety of impressive experiences, meeting some notable personalities and hearing of dedicated individuals whose lives broadened the horizons of others in search of freedom and justice.
Among the overseas visitors my wife, Nia, and I had the privilege of welcoming to our home in Cardiff were Bilas Das from India and Amando Lopez from El Salvador – two charismatic personalities, coming from two totally different situations. It was an honour to spend a few days in their company.
I well remember some of Bilas’s comments on the topics we discussed. When we talked about the Christian’s role in world affairs, he said in a nutshell, “The trouble with Christians is that they are too nice. They ought to be a nuisance.” His comment has remained with me over the years, as it’s so true, that through dedicated ‘nuisances’ that changes and revolutions have happened in the world. Apart from his prophetic pronouncements, Bilas conveyed through his personality his Christian conviction, emphasising the need to practise our faith in our attitude and commitment to improve the living standards of the deprived in our communities, be they in Calcutta, his home city, or in western society.
As soon as Amando Lopez arrived at our home it was obvious that he was perpetually living a life of tension owing to the grave situation in his country, El Salvador, where people suffered daily because of the Civil War. Many of the church leaders in El Salvador supported the deprived poor as they sought justice and freedom in their country living daily in fear and trepidation. During his short stay with us Amando frequently telephoned one of his colleagues to know what the latest situation was. One night he couldn’t sleep as he was so worried that he got up about 2 o’clock and telephoned home.
Listening to him talk of the Church’s involvement and also his addresses at meetings was a spiritual experience, especially when he spoke of dedicated Christians who were prepared to suffer for the powerless and voiceless poor.
Two years after Amando’s visit we heard the sad news that the army had entered a house in San Salvador, shooting and killing the five Jesuit priests who lived there. Amando was one of the five. Having Amando stay at our home, we had the honour of sharing fellowship with a person who was so dedicated to his calling that he was prepared to suffer martyrdom. His sacred memory remains with me to-day.
My visits to ten countries further broadened my horizons, especially whilst in South Africa in 1983, where people endured horrific suffering under the government’s apartheid policy. Prior to visiting South Africa, the name of Steve Biko and his willingness to suffer for the sake of others had already impressed me greatly. Although I had not met him, accounts of his commitment on behalf of his people against the apartheid system were well known within Christian Aid circles. Our development officers for South Africa had discussed his country’s problems with Steve and were well acquainted with his endeavours to free his people. It was with deep sadness in 1977 that we heard of his passing, as he died whilst in the hands of the police.
During my visit to East Williamstown my colleague and I stayed with a family who were close friends of Steve Biko. I learnt so much more about the young medical student, who cancelled his studies to form the South Africa Student Movement which he led at protest meetings against the government’s inhuman laws. Although he was imprisoned and confined to his home town, he managed to form A Programme for Black Communities in Durban.
His name has spread throughout the world, as Richard Attenborough produced the film, Cry Freedom, an account of his life and his friendship with the newspaper editor, Donald Woods, who himself was forced to flee the country.
When the history of South Africa will be written, the contribution of Steve Biko will not go unmentioned as this outstanding personality along with many other young people, gave his life for the cause of justice and freedom. Hearing of his commitment impressed me greatly and I shall always treasure everything I heard of the dedicated medical student who forsook his studies to lead his colleagues and others on the long march to freedom.
Whilst in South Africa, I heard of the many remarkable people who contributed towards the emancipation of women during the apartheid struggles. I never met Elizabeth Wolbert, but knew of her magnificent gesture in support of the black women living in Soweto. She was born and brought up in South Africa as her father held a very high post in Johannesburg. Unfortunately his wife passed away when Elizabeth was a baby and so he employed a black nanny, Maggie Magaba, to nurse and look after his baby daughter,
Elizabeth’s father died in 1997 and she by now was married and lived in London. As she had inherited her father’s wealth, she returned that year to Soweto and visited the Zamani Sisters organisation in order to use her father’s money to establish a Trust which would benefit the women of Soweto. The reason behind her decision was to atone and ask forgiveness for the way her farther and many white people had taken advantage of the black and coloured people with the meagre salaries paid to black servants, thus making vast sums at their expense.
On visiting the Zamani Sisters organisation in Soweto I was told of Elizabeth’s memorable visit and gesture. She wished to name the trust The Maggie Magaba Trust in memory and in gratitude to the woman who brought her up. This Trust would give a new hope to the women of Soweto enabling them to have a firm foundation for their community and that the name of one who lived and worked among them in the past would continue, especially that the Trust would be a sign of the penance shown by the generous Elizabeth Wolbert. She insisted that the Trust’s officers would be members of the Zamani Sisters Organisation. Her story greatly impressed me and I frequently mention her example of practical reconciliation when thinking of people’s willingness to forgive and act accordingly.
It was through others whilst in South Africa, that I learnt of people like Steve Biko and Elizabeth Wolbert and I am indebted to everyone for telling me of the heroic and the committed individuals who supported the black and coloured communities of the country, in their struggles against the government’s devilish apartheid system. But not only that I heard of the many who stood and suffered for freedom and justice, I was also privileged to have fellowship with some notable personalities.
Meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu crowned my visit to his country. The first three days of my stay was at the South African Council of Churches Conference. At the time, he was the Council’s General Secretary and listening to his addresses as well as spending time in his company during the conference was a never to be forgotten personal experience. The world knows of his charismatic leadership. He led many marches of protest against the government and his frequent pronouncements on the government’s in-human laws against the black people, together with his Christian commitment to fight injustice are well known. His dedication to alleviate the plight of his people will be indelible in the history of South Africa.
Publicly and in conversations, Desmond Tutu left a lasting impression on me and I shall always be indebted for the opportunity and the privilege of a lifetime to meet and hear one of the twentieth century’s greatest personalities, whose forthright Christian prophesies have influenced millions throughout the world.
One of Desmond Tutu’s successors as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches was the Revd Dr. Beyers Naude. When I visited the former Dutch Reformed pastor at his home, he was serving a ‘house arrest sentence because of his involvement in protests against apartheid government laws. My colleague and I spent two hours in his company and I shall always remember the quiet unassuming manner of his words as he spoke of his past and the reasons why he left his church and denomination. It was a very brave decision.
He decided to leave because his own denomination generally agreed with the government’s apartheid policy. Leaving his denomination enabled him to personally support the black and coloured oppressed people of South Africa in their struggles to achieve the equality and freedom of the white people living in the country.
Although he suffered persecution because of his steadfast standing alongside the deprived, he formed the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, an ecumenical movement to promote reconciliation. But unfortunately the organisation was later forbidden by the government. Nevertheless, Dr. Beyers Naude continued to work diligently to support equality for people of all colours in South Africa. Spending an afternoon in his company you could not help feeling that you were in the presence of a unique person, and his personality has had a lasting effect on me.
Among the women I had the honour of meeting in South Africa was Ellen Kuzwayo, the Leader of the Zamani Sisters Organisation in Soweto. Ellen was one of the most optimistic and courageous persons I’ve ever met, who inspired women in various capacities and impressed me greatly during the morning I spent in her company. It was Ellen who told me of Elizabeth Wolbert’s remarkable gesture who she founded The Maggie Magaba Trust for the benefit of the women of Soweto,
Two years after my visit, Ellen’s book, “Call Me Woman” was published and the preface written by the Nobel winner for Literature, Nadine Gordiner is a concise description of this remarkable individual, when she says of her, “Ellen Kuzwayo is history in the person of one woman, a life lived as a black woman in South Africa, with all this implies, but it is also life of that generation of women anywhere – in different epochs in different countries – who have moved from the traditional place to an industrialised world in which they had to fight to make a place for themselves.”
I can vouch that these words are most appropriate and true of Ellen Kuzwayo. She was imprisoned in 1977 for five months and released without any charges brought against her and in 1979 was chosen as “The Woman of the Year” by one of Johannesburg’s daily papers.
Through her humble personality she filled her notable life with goodness. Ellen was a gifted leader, especially of women groups, giving them encouragement and hope in such desperate and despondent situations – a most positive virtue in such volatile circumstances as she and all black inhabitants of South Africa encountered daily.
I’ve only mentioned a few of the many outstanding personalities I met during my visit to South Africa, but hopefully these short pen-pictures of a few of the many personalities who impressed me during my stay will convey the dedication of certain individuals among the thousands who stood against and suffered at the hands of or such a long period.
During my visit to Sierra Leone in 1987 I also had opportunities to meet several notable people, of which one person, Sally Formeh Karma stands out. The day I met her she had returned to the remote rural village of her childhood.
Most of her adult life was spent in the city of Freetown, running a millinery business whilst her husband was an M.P. Sally had been successful in her business and she could have enjoyed the remainder of her life as a wealthy business woman, but she decided, because of her Christian commitment, to financially support the living conditions of the people who lived in the community where she was brought up.
My colleague and I had arranged to meet Sally to discuss her intentions for development as she required a grant from Christian Aid towards her proposed development programme. The small village had no clean water and sanitation facilities, no adequate roads for motor vehicles and the housing conditions were very poor. That same afternoon, she was meeting a group of women in the area to be trained in dressmaking. Following her meeting with the women we discussed ways of improving certain facilities in the community and how she intended to spend the grant she hoped to receive from Christian Aid.
As a grant would only be a small percentage of the amount required to finance the development programme, Sally had decided to spend much of the profit she had earned through her business in helping the villagers, enabling them eventually to market the produce from the land they would cultivate. In order to achieve this, further sums would be required to invest in their endeavours and to meet the needs of the inhabitants for development purposes. Her goal was that the village of her childhood to be a self-sufficient community enabling the people to live their lives with pride and dignity.
In conversation I suggested to her that she a very special person, through her generosity and deserved much praise for her foresight and practical support, as she was prepared to sacrifice time, knowledge and money in support of the villagers. She rebuffed my comments and said quite humbly, “I’m not practising my Christianity more than others…I’m only spending my business money to improve the quality of life in appreciation of my upbringing and as a token of gratitude to our forefathers…And furthermore,” she said, “That’s what my parents taught me as a child.”
To me, Sally Former Karma was the salt of the earth as she practised her Christian faith. Her attitude and her unassuming way has left a lasting impression on me since I met her that afternoon in Sierra Leone.
Lastly, I wish to mention a staff colleague who has left a lasting impression on me. Kenith David was brought up in South Africa, but became a member of Christian Aid staff in 1973 as a Theological Secretary. One of his many responsibilities was to visit colleges and universities throughout Britain and Ireland.
I enjoyed spending time with Kenith David at staff conferences, and having fellowship with him on such occasions was a pleasure I shall always remember. Kenith a gifted story-teller, would often talk about life in his homeland and the situation in South Africa.
I well recall him telling me of his visit to address a students’s meeting in one of the English Universities. Before the meeting he spent some time chatting to a group of students. During the conversation, he asked them what they were studying, “Oh,” he was told, “We’re reading theology.” Kennith quickly replied, “Reading it? In my country we’re doing it.”
Having visited South Africa I could confirm through experience that his words were true in that thousands of black people were every day practising their faith,“Doing theology”. To me that epitomises the true and full message of Christianity, as it is required for us who call ourselves Christians, to practise our beliefs, so that others will benefit, broadening their horizons with a quality of life that will be enhanced.
Wynn is a Welsh speaking ”Pembrokeshire boy” but adopted by Carmarthenshire having lived most of his working life in different parts of the county as a Baptist minister, apart from an eighteen year period in Cardiff when he was Christian Aid’s National Secretary for Wales. Sadly, his wife, Nia, passed away in 2008, but he is fortunate in having a daughter and a son and their families, and a variety of projects to keep him occupied.
“Ehangu Gorwelion” (original Welsh publications available)
Price: £11.50 (inc.postage) from UK – cheques payable to ‘Christian Aid’
For overseas delivery please add £2.50 (total £14)
Swyddfa Cymorth Cristnogol/ Christian Aid Office
75 Heol Dŵr
Rhif ffon/telephone no: 01267 237257