Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Africans, My Summer 1965 Vacation

A young man came rushing into the auditorium and onto the podium. He wasn’t expected. Prior to his arrival, the audience was busy chatting and there was a happy buzz in the room. The man stood tall and dignified and interrupted our chatter, saying loudly in a heavily accented voice, I am Enzokee Naidoo and I am here to talk to you about my homeland, the apartheid country of South Africa.” He stopped to make sure he had our attention. He had it. We were spellbound by the authority this man conveyed. We knew that what he was about to say was something we had to hear.

It was summer 1965 and I was at a conference in Vapnagaard, a small town not far from Copenhagen, Denmark. I was 20 years old and had recently received a small inheritance of $2500. At the same time, I found a brochure about a conference in Scandinavia, with the purpose of fostering international understanding by bringing together people from many countries. My $2500 would cover the cost of airfare plus conference tuition. I decided to go, but this was my first trip out of the U.S. and it took a lot of courage make this decision. My hopes were modest: to make some friends and to have some adventures.

We were 35 men and women of all ages, from the U.S., Norway, Denmark and Sweden, Pakistan, and England, and there was one young man from Nigeria who was my same age. His name was Jim and like me, he was shy and a bit star-struck by the others who seemed to be worldly-wise and socially adept. We both hung back and observed more than we participated.
Some conference participants posing for pictures
In the center: Jim from Nigeria and Mr. Meinke, the Conference Leader

This evening like all others at the conference, the group had gathered at 7 p.m. sharp. Previous evenings we had listened to lectures on a variety of subjects by course participants and a few evenings we heard talks by our conference leader Mr. Meinke about his special interests: Soren Kierkegaard, Nordic folk-schools, Danish farm cooperatives, and international understanding. Other evenings we had recitals by local Danish musicians. Nothing terribly captivating and we always hoped the lectures or musical entertainment would end quickly so we could go out into the warm summer evenings and sing songs and do folkdances from our various countries.  Even Jim and I got into it as we all messed up the words to the songs in the different languages and clumsily tried to learn the dance steps. It was very funny and evoked lots of laughter from everyone. 

This evening, we never got out into the summer night. After Enzokee Naidoo got our full attention, his words spilled out in a rush. “Dr. Meinke asked that I talk to you. And I agreed though I don’t have much time. I must talk to you who come from all over the world about the situation of the Blacks in South Africa.”

We were hypnotized, almost holding our breath listening to this man, to his words. He continued, “The situation is horrible and one of these days it will explode into violence.  We Black South Africans are getting better housing and education and rising materially, but we are strictly limited as to the height to which we can rise. And this combination of improvements with limitations is too much for us to endure.” He told us of the measures taken by the Whites to ensure that the Blacks would stay in their place. Sadly, with anger in his voice he said, “I cannot return to my homeland of South Africa. If I return, I will be taken prisoner for my stand against apartheid.”

Enzokee was slowing down and Mr. Smith, a school teacher from the U.S, took the opportunity to ask, “Why can’t the Blacks in South Africa attempt non-violence in their struggle against oppression?” 
Enzokee was in a hurry to leave but he gave Mr. Smith a pitying look and replied, “How can you know what the situation is like?  How can you know all the attempts we made that failed?  How can you judge when you sit here nice and secure?”

After our speaker left, it was as if an electrical charge had run through his audience. Many got out of their seats, talking all at once, talking over each other, some suggesting solutions to the problems of the Blacks in South Africa. Some crying, some making angry accusations at others whom they didn’t agree with. Jim and I sat quietly, observing. This was all new information to me; I was na├»ve and uninformed. Shockingly I was only vaguely aware of racial problems and the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and knew nothing of apartheid in South Africa.

Thinking back, I’m sure that Jim must have had thoughts, opinions, and reactions to Enzokee’s talk and how it related to life and politics in the newly independent country of Nigeria. However, no one took any notice of Jim or asked him to speak. Today I wonder: Was this our version of White privilege? Did we even know of the concept of White privilege in 1965?

The flurry of conversations continued around Jim and me, and got louder more out of control until finally Mrs. Johanson, a Dane of about forty, climbed on a chair and said authoritatively in clear English with her lilting Danish accent, “Sit down and be quiet. One person talk at a time.”

Mr. Keystone from England took the floor and talked for close to an hour, telling us about the year he spent in South Africa as a reporter for a London newspaper. We were quiet. We were listening and we took in, as best we could, the last sentence of his talk, “The solutions you’re proposing for a peaceful settlement, or for slow progress, they won’t work. The White apartheid government is entrenched. It is as Enzokee said, ‘There will be a battle to bring down apartheid, we just don’t know when’.”

Mr. Keystone had succeeded in calming the group down slightly. At some point Jim left to go to bed but some of us – me included – stayed together past midnight. The others were talking, trying to adjust their thinking. I remained quiet, trying to take it all in. In truth I had no idea what to do with all the information and opinions and strong emotions swirling around me.

There was no laughing or dancing or singing outside that night.

In the days that followed, our normal life at the course continued, touring during the day, lectures or music at night. My expectations of having an adventure at the conference were met. As far returning home changed by Enzokee Naidoo or any of the others I met, sadly or perhaps to be expected, it didn’t happen. Before my summer adventure in Scandinavia, I was apolitical and back in the U.S. I returned to my normal way of being: head in the sand, still apolitical. But I was primed for my next adventure, which happened in 1966 after college graduation when I moved to San Francisco. That is another story for another time.

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The First Republic of Nigeria was formed in October 1963, barely two years before the conference. In January1966 a military coup deposed the government of the Nigerian First Republic. In July 1966 there was a counter-military coup followed by years of unrest and inter-religious wars.


On April 27, 1994 apartheid ended in South Africa after several years of negotiations between the governing National Party and the African National Congress.