After a year-long, self-sponsored, essentially overland trip participating in amateur wrestling across several continents in 1969-70, I returned to southern Ontario with a head spinning with images of faraway lands, and of people with smiles that could melt the sun. It didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to travel again, only this time as a volunteer.
In what capacity I did not care, except I had been so struck by the poverty in New Delhi and Calcutta that I wanted to learn more about why so many people were so poor and living on the streets, visibly hungry and often sick or injured. A newspaper ad from CUSO, then known as the Canadian University Service Overseas, for an opening in Thailand as a teacher, led me to apply.
CUSO responded by indicating that the position had been filled, but would I consider a posting to Nigeria? It was 1971, and little did I know how much my life was going to change.
It was just a year after the end of the Biafran War, which had, once more, brought the horrid word “genocide” into our common vernacular in the Western world. The military government of Nigeria had implemented a food and supplies blockade on the oil-rich, breakaway state of Biafra in the southeastern part of the country, in an attempt to starve and subdue the people into submission. Images of famine and of people with devastating injuries had been everywhere.
I accepted a position as a teacher of biology at a school in the midwestern part of the country, just by the Kainji Dam and hydroelectric generation plant on the Niger River, in the ancient Emirate of Borgu. Alhaji Musa Muhammed Kigeria III was the emir of Borgu, the Islamic leader of a huge territory, a British trained veterinarian, and chairman of the board for the New Bussa Secondary School.
Over the two years that I lived there, in New Bussa along Lake Kainji, he sometimes came to visit the school of 178 live-in children dressed in the long flowing traditional robes of a Hausa horseman. On these occasions he would be surrounded by his entourage, all on horseback, of drummers and trumpet players who would announce his arrival. Another rider always trotted alongside him, whose sole job it was to hold a large umbrella over his head to shield him from the brightness of the sun.
On most occasions however, the emir came to the school in his chauffeur driven Mercedes. How romantic and attention-getting was the former entrance, and modern and demonstrative the latter. Dave winked at me as he ordered a third round of beer, and I was in awe of this reformed Presbyterian and his talent to so easily troubleshoot the situation. By giving me the books—props, really—he bestowed upon me a kind of authority I just had to embrace.
The emir had hired two Catholic priests to be principal of the school and head of the science department. The other staff consisted of a Hausa man who taught the Islamic faith to the children, two British VSOs teaching English and math, myself—the biology guy—and a team of five Nigerian women who did all the cooking for the students over an open fire three times each and every day. Everything seemed wonderful and bright on the first day of school, until Father Brennan, the principal, summoned me to his office.
The priest from Cork, Ireland, welcomed me warmly and began by telling me how happy he was that I was Canadian, all the while fumbling in his pocket for what he thought was evidence of our cultural hidden talent. Out of the pocket came a Canadian dollar bill (remember them?), and with that Father Brennan began to explain that because our money was printed in two languages, he understood all Canadians to be bilingual in English and French. “Whooh, Father,” I told him, not so at all, as I come from English-speaking southern Ontario, and was not competent in French. To my surprise this seemed to perturb him, so we agreed to get the CUSO coordinator to come up from Ibadan and explain the job description for which I had been hired.
Dave, who was the son of a Presbyterian minister, came to mediate the matter, now between the Islamic emir, the Irish Catholic headmaster and myself, a Canuck with cauliflower ears. Dave and Father Brennan spoke alone first, then Dave came out to tell me all was well and that he needed a beer to soothe his throat, which was very dry from the drive along the dusty, dirt road that led into New Bussa. We found beer, which was sold in one-litre bottles in those days, and when I persisted in asking about the details of their discussion, Dave suggested I go to his car to see what was in the back seat for me. So I did.
The seat was full of boxes of books. Textbooks, and tales of Kofi, a West African boy who spoke in French. And they were all in French! I returned to the table, and Dave—having found his eloquence in the libations—began to tell me how absolutely lucky I was in that with all of the textbooks I now had, it would appear to all that I was the French teacher. He went on to elaborate on the colonial history of the area, and told me how all the countries surrounding Nigeria were former French colonies, and so were using French in government, business and schools.
The border with then Dahomey, now Benin, was only an hour’s drive to the west, and many traders from there, and also from Niger and the Sahara region to the north, spoke French as well as Hausa, the lingua franca of West Africa. He told me almost all of the students at the school, some of whom were from the border areas, were already speaking four or five languages, including French, and so would be teaching me and make learning it absolute fun, not at all serious. And, he added, wouldn’t it look great on my CV?
And so I learned, in the throes of my first assignment as a CUSO volunteer, that it was thought I spoke and would teach French, alongside biology. Dave winked at me as he ordered a third round of beer, and I was in awe of this reformed Presbyterian and his talent to so easily troubleshoot the situation. By giving me the books—props, really—he bestowed upon me a kind of authority I just had to embrace.
Over the next two years, I am happy to report, I graduated in confidence in French, to the point of applying to the Institute of International Cooperation at the University of Ottawa for the program in development studies, which was entirely in French. And that, alongside living with French-speaking students while there, made me bilingual. Voilà! C’est un grand épanouissement de l’esprit!
Let me continue my tale with an account of how a volunteer experience may take a turn in a direction that becomes life changing, even threatening, and most definitely unforgettable.
After my year in Ottawa, I developed a desire to again leave Canada to practice personal praxis in the field of international development. So, in the spring of 1974, I again applied to CUSO, this time for a posting to Jamaica, and again a reply came back that the position was taken, but would I consider the Field Staff Officer (FSO) position in Zambia? I responded that I would—then went directly to an atlas to determine just where in Africa Zambia was.
Within days I was at the CUSO headquarters in Ottawa, and two senior managers invited me to lunch. They took me to a street vendor and we had sausage dogs and pop and sat on the shady curb of a back street to eat. They welcomed me to the club, and asked me about my opinion on the liberation struggle then being waged in southern Africa.
I responded… Excuse me, what do you mean?
The most profound learning process in my life began right there—sitting on a curb on a street in downtown Ottawa, as my colleagues-to-be started to explain the reasons wars were being fought in Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South-West Africa (now Namibia) and South Africa itself, where the white government had created the system of apartheid.
For those not old enough to remember, apartheid was a policy of racial segregation created in 1948 by the white government of South Africa, which classified people according to colour: you were either white, black, Asian or coloured (someone of mixed race).
Though blacks far outnumbered whites in population, under apartheid they were unable to vote or hold public office, could only live in certain areas, with their movements severely restricted, could not attend schools with white pupils nor go to ‘white’ hospitals or even beaches, and were later stripped of their South African citizenship.
All of these countries, and more in Africa, had populations that were struggling to rise from the domination of colonial pasts or colonial masters, or from governments where white people ruled but were in the minority. For me, the seed had been planted. Working within the context of volunteer organizations is usually a profound learning experience, and may even become a place wherein one’s consciousness is elevated by the events and the people of this world who are living lives of struggle to make it a better place.”
CUSO had constructed a decentralized decision-making process at that time, whereby major programming decisions could be made in the various regions of the world felt by the staff living there to be of importance. So, during my first year as FSO and coordinator of the Zambian program, which had about 75 volunteers in all sectors of the Zambian economy, we collectively decided to create a program of support for the liberation process in southern Africa. The government of Zambia, under President Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, who had led his country to its own independence, had created a complex in Lusaka, the country’s capital, called The Liberation Center, which provided offices for all the major liberation movements of southern Africa.
In reality, important meetings rarely occurred in that complex, and after a series of attacks by the South African military and Rhodesian government agents, key leaders of the liberation movements tended to avoid it altogether—particularly after the assassination of Herbert Chitepo in 1975. Chitepo was a learned Zimbabwean who was killed by a car bomb in the vicinity of the centre.
He was one of the first black law graduates from a British university, and had served for many years in the government of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. He was living in Zambia and was in a leadership position within ZANU (the Zimbabwe African National Union), which along with ZAPU (the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union) was leading the charge for black liberation, in part through armed struggle, in British colonial Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia.
We had been having discussions with Zimbabwean activists with respect to developing proposals for the creation of an institute for Zimbabwean governance training in Lusaka; wherein young activists could learn how a democratic government would be run after liberation. Chitepo was to meet with our CUSO East and Central Africa regional director, who had travelled to Lusaka from Tanzania for the meeting.
But instead, he was killed that day by mysterious forces that have never, to this day, clearly been identified. (Many believe ZANU infighting lead to his assassination, but it was claimed years later by a commanding officer in Rhodesia’s security force that it was orchestrated by the government.)
That was March 1975, and that event indeed marked in our minds the deadly seriousness of the struggle for democratic freedoms going on in the southern African countries at that critical time.
One of our main activities in Zambia was to offer support to the many people, mostly refugees fleeing conflict in surrounding countries, who were living in the camps that were allowed to exist in Zambia by the government. Our projects included support for vegetable gardens, transportation for refugees from the camps to other destinations, and a refugee youth-counselling project staffed by Zanele Mbeki (married to Thabo Mbeki, who would later become president in post-apartheid South Africa). That project provided support to young people who wanted to further their education in African, European or North American universities, and was in partnership with the International University Exchange Fund from Geneva.
Many in our camps were from South Africa, where life was hell for so many black people, where apartheid made it a crime to even peacefully protest (as the Sharpeville and Soweto massacres attest to), and where several people involved in the liberation struggle were killed by the government.
Eventually—ever so eventually!—the pressures were great enough by the early 1990s that Nelson Mandela, who had led the struggle from behind the walls of a South African prison for 27 years, and had become its most significant leader, was released. Apartheid was repealed, one person/one vote was brought in, and the first post-apartheid national election—South Africa’s first democratic one—ushered in Mandela himself.
So, though my experience may now appear extreme and likely wouldn’t happen today (certainly not with CUSO), working within the context of volunteer organizations is usually a profound learning experience, and may even become a place wherein one’s consciousness is elevated by the events and the people of this world who are living lives of struggle to make it a better place.
And there it is—life as struggle. In October 2000, I was asked to give a speech upon being inducted into the University of Western Ontario’s Athletic Hall of Fame—you see, in my youth I was an amateur wrestler: I competed in the World Championships in 1966 and the Pan Am Games in ’67, and was a two-time Canadian Open senior champion.
I began by saying that my personal experiences in life, since leaving Western, where I had earned an undergraduate degree, had taught me that the sport of wrestling may indeed be symbolic for another, more enduring style of life that encompasses struggle. Support for this analysis, I said, can be derived from the Latin-based languages of southern Europe, which use the same phrase to describe both wrestling and struggle: la lutte in French, la lucha in Spanish, la lotta in Italian, and la luta in Portugese. It is interesting how the phrase is of the feminine gender, perhaps to acknowledge the struggle for equality women have had in all societies since time’s beginning.
I told them how I was travelling across Asia in 1970 and saw the struggle for survival against famine, and the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in Calcutta. And how, while working in Nigeria, I witnessed the struggle for rehabilitation of amputees from war-torn Biafra, who were victims of land mines and other devices of war, and were, with help from a CUSO volunteer physiotherapist, building artificial limbs out of bicycle sprockets, cowhide-covered wood and old elastic waistbands. In these people, I said, I saw the struggle for regained mobility and dignity.
I told them, as I have you, how we worked in Zambia to support the liberation process in southern Africa, and how this became the most profound demonstration of struggle—la lutte—in my experience. And of how, while in Africa, I met four university activists struggling for change who changed my own life.
I told them of Chitepo, and of how he was killed on the very day we were to meet to discuss plans for the future.
And how I spent two days discussing black liberation with Richard Turner, a political science professor at the University of Natal who was under house arrest and forbidden to speak in public, just for writing a book calling for a South Africa where all citizens could vote. And of how in January of 1978 he was shot to death in his own home—the very place we had met and spoke.
I told them of my mentor, Ruth First, an avid and early anti-apartheid activist, who was the academic overseer for my master’s degree when I later pursued studies in Africa, and of how, involved in the struggle since the 1950s, she had written books and articles condemning the apartheid system. For those beliefs, I said, she was killed by a letter bomb in her office when working in exile as a professor at the university in Maputo, Mozambique.
And then I told them of how, in the summer of 1976, I had the opportunity to spend four days with Stephen Biko, who was a highly charismatic leader of the liberation movement in South Africa, and a pacifist committed to a peaceful process of change. For that, I said, he was brutally beaten by the police in 1977, and died because instead of being taken for timely treatment he was driven to a prison hospital half-a-country away, where he was almost dead upon arrival.
I told the people convened there that day that what is most worthwhile in life does not come easily. And I encouraged them to view all their efforts in the context of struggle—la lutte—and to work to participate in the struggle for a better world: to find cures for debilitating diseases and terminal illness, to achieve greater social justice and equality, to build societies where people can feed themselves. Life as a process, I said, may be seen as one big prolonged struggle—one big wrestling match—for a better global society.
And what of my four days with Steve Biko, you ask? It was the hot summer of 1976, just about three weeks after the Soweto massacre in June, when hundreds of unarmed secondary school students were shot and killed by the police for demonstrating against the forced use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in black schools.
CUSO had told us not to go to South Africa—but my contract had expired that July and I was a free agent, eager to witness the apartheid system firsthand and for myself. I had only been in South Africa for about two weeks and had met with Winnie Mandela, Indris Naidoo, and several other anti-apartheid activists. I had hitchhiked across the Transkei—a so-called “Bantustan” or homeland, where blacks were segregated and forced to live by law—and arrived in East London, a city on the southeastern coast, at one of the offices of the Black Peoples Convention, which Biko had established in 1972.
The BPC was an activist organization founded on the principle of “black consciousness,” a concept and even movement that Biko brought to the anti-apartheid struggle, which entailed the idea of building self-knowledge among black people that, despite years of being segregated, beaten down and denied basic rights and opportunities, they were equal in every way to whites. Biko profoundly believed that the black population must be at the forefront of the struggle for their liberation and cultural survival, and had cultivated the consciousness philosophy years earlier through the establishment of the South African Student’s Organization. SASO, which Biko had launched in 1969 while a medical student at the University of Natal, would go on to become a key player in the anti-apartheid struggle.
“I never forgot that life-altering lesson from my time in Africa—that a spirit of power may reside in all of us, at certain times in our lives, at any given moment.”
Messages had been sent in advance that I was coming to meet Biko, and it was not long after greetings had been exchanged with staff at the BPC that the security police arrived. I was told to go into a back room and hide under a desk, which I did. (I am white, and this kind of “fraternization” with blacks was strictly forbidden.) The white, plain-clothed police acted like thugs as they shouted abuse at the staff and walked through the various offices before leaving.
I was told I would be able to meet Biko at another location, and that I would have to hide under a tarpaulin in the open box of a pickup truck to get to the meeting place. This I did, and we drove for at least a half hour over a bumpy and hilly gravelled road to the Zanempilo Community Health Center, which was located on a Bantustan and run by a black woman doctor, Mamphela Ramphele. Ramphele was a close friend of Biko’s, had been at medical school with him, and had helped found what became known as the Black Consciousness Movement.
That evening, Biko and other men arrived and our discussions began. First, they wanted to know about my background and why I was in South Africa. I explained about having taught French and biology in Nigeria, and that I had worked with exiled members of the liberation movements, as well as with the South African Congress of Trade Unions, from the CUSO base in Lusaka. And I described how our CUSO project was supporting the refugees in various ways in the camps in Zambia.
We discussed the struggle for freedom of black people in South Africa, and it became evident to me that Biko, who had been expelled from university for his activities, had a profound awareness of the multifaceted process of the liberation struggle then unfolding. His comments were frequently accented by humorous accounts of the absurd contradictions of the apartheid laws. The Suppression of Communism Act, the Anti-Terrorism Act, the Anti-Mixed Racial Marriages Act—all of which allowed police to arrest any person without laying charges, hold them for up to three months, then re-arrest them indefinitely.
Biko showed great empathy with the plight of the thousands of political refugees in Zambia, living in the camps that were far from any town, with only small amounts of food and potable water, and often no medical support. Yet despite the heavy topic, the conversation that first evening with him was interspersed with much laughter, and while they used English when speaking with me they often spoke Xhosa among themselves. (No doubt to discuss if my reasons for being there seemed plausible.) We drank South African brandy, which my hosts supplied, and they kept my cup full more than theirs.
At one point, as I began to feel more relaxed, I removed my Canadian-made cowboy boots and pulled my legs up to sit Buddha-style on the couch. At that Biko, Ramphele and the others laughed with great vigour and spoke loudly to each other in Xhosa. When I asked why the laughter, they replied there was no way a white Boer police agent would ever be so relaxed when surrounded by “kaffirs”—a derogatory and offensive term for black people used in South Africa at the time—and that a Boer would never wear boots with such pointed toes.
I explained that I wore them for the high leather uppers that provided protection against snakebite, and while we laughed again at that, they added that in South Africa the dreaded Special Branch police thugs were much more dangerous than snakes.
Biko’s charisma electrified the room that night, and he explained to me why it had been necessary to split away from NUSAS, the National Union of South African Students, which by the 1960s was embracing the anti-apartheid cause. Though black students belonged to NUSAS, only whites were in positions of leadership due to their numerical majority. The creation of SASO by Biko and others, and the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement, were the results of the split.
Biko explained to me his passion for the concept of black consciousness, and how generating psychological power and self-confidence could be manifested through such simple strategies as creating self-help projects. As examples, he told me about the leather products plant where 20 people were self-employed tanning cattle hide and manufacturing shoulder bags, wallets, belts, sandals and other goods that could be sold to the local black population. And he told me about the six-bed Zanempilo Health Center, that served the medical and maternity needs of the local black population, and which had a large garden to feed the patients and others in the community. These were but two of many such projects created by the BPC under the banner of black consciousness.
Suddenly, at about 11 p.m., an alarm buzzer began sounding. The local people had such an intimate knowledge of all of the vehicles used by the security police—an elite and brutal unit that was targeting anti-apartheid activists—that as they kept watch on the road, they were able to send a warning when the police were on their way. Biko and his friends left quickly, and Ramphele instructed me to get under the bed in the spare room. It was against the law in South Africa at the time for a white, non-police person (me) to be in the home of a black person living in a Bantustan, which is where we were.
As I lay under the bed, with its cover hanging to the floor to conceal me, I heard Ramphele come into the room and say, “Here, take these too,” as she threw my boots under the bed. When the security brutes finally arrived they pounded loudly on the front door and shouted abuse. I heard them call Ramphele a lazy kaffir and a “pretend doctor,” and they demanded to know where Biko was. She shouted back at them, “He is in the minds and hearts of the people!” They slapped her, and she shouted at them to get out of her house and told them they were white trash. She threatened to sound an alarm that would bring the local population out and they finally left. My heart was pounding under that bed.
The next day, I was given a tour of the health centre where Ramphele worked (and had established), the leather goods plant, and various vegetable gardens in the Bantustan. That evening, Biko returned for more discussions about how we “willing” Canadians could generate funds through unions and the various anti-apartheid movement groups in Canada to support the projects of the BPC. It was understood we would have no input to any decision-making process regarding the nature or placement of the projects, but rather would raise funds in a principled show of solidarity with their approach to the struggle for liberation.
In our discussions, Biko acknowledged that the African National Congress (ANC)—the most powerful black political force in South Africa, which at the time was banned and operating outside of the country (but had observer status at the UN)—would most likely form the next government once majority rule was established. Yet he also felt the struggle would not succeed if anyone thought it could be led by armed freedom fighters based outside of the country. He told me that freedom could only be won when the millions of black people believed themselves to be completely equal to whites, capable of making their own decisions about the constitution, economy, social services, politics and human rights within an integrated population.
At the time of our meetings, Biko was, by court decree, “banned” in South Africa, meaning he could not speak or write about his beliefs or activities, could not speak to groups or even be in the presence of more than one person at any given time, and was greatly restricted in his ability to move outside of his home in King William’s Town. Everything he had previously written and published had to be destroyed.
But Biko did not accept that a judge had the moral authority to restrict his intellectual ability or his choice to communicate with the black people of South Africa. He believed a power greater than that resided within him, and allowed him to encourage people to build their consciousness and resist their continued oppression. The police were afraid of his personal power. His energy, conviction, passion and empathy with those being beaten and killed by the police, were unsurpassed by any of the leaders of the liberation movements I had met in Lusaka.
On our third night together, the security buzzer began sounding earlier than the previous night. This time, quick discussions took place in Xhosa, interspersed with much laughter. Then Biko turned to me and told me they would allow me to witness the cat and mouse game he often played with the security police. He then went outside and got into a waiting car. I was told to go out to the back of Ramphele’s house, where we had been meeting every night, walk to the back of the darkened vegetable garden, and wait until someone contacted me with further instructions.
I did as told, and soon a young boy approached me, took my hand, and led me to where some men were waiting with a second car. There was a semi-circular driveway at the front of Ramphele’s house, and as the security police car drove in and skidded to a stop, the car in which Biko was in spun its tires, throwing stones backwards, and took off from the other side of the driveway. The house was in total darkness as the police banged on the door. With no answer, they decided to chase after Biko’s car, which had just left. After about a minute, the men in the second car indicated to me to get in, and off we went, following the police car.
What transpired then was incredible to experience. As we drove over the hilly road we would see Biko’s car in the distance going over the top of the next hill, followed by the police car in the slight valley, then by ourselves in the now third car. Sometimes our driver got very close to the police car, as if to try to scare them. When we finally got to King William’s Town, where Biko lived and was always supposed to be, what blew my mind was how the car he was in drove right to the front of the police station, and that he got out and walked right in.
I was allowed to see all of this. Then I was taken to the home of a black woman reporter and political activist, Thenjiwe Mtintso, who was a friend of Biko’s and would later be beaten and exiled herself, only to become a minister in a post-apartheid government. She gave me a place to sleep and in the morning interviewed me, while we sat parked on a street in her Volkswagen, asking questions about Canadian organizations that were part of the anti-apartheid struggle. As we sat talking, a car pulled up behind us and she told me it was the security police. They came up, questioned me and requested my passport. After noting details in it of interest, they returned it to me and said they would probably see me later.
Mtintso then drove me to Biko’s home, where it was explained to me why he went directly to the police station the night before—just to see the reaction of the police when he informed them he had broken his mobility restrictions. Biko knew he baffled their thug mentality because they were not used to dealing with a black person who treated them as equals, or even as less intelligent bureaucrats constrained by unjust laws that made them treat people as objects.
It was decided then that I must, for my own safety, leave the area. They phoned Ramphele to meet us at the train station, and later, as we sat having a beer waiting for the train back to Johannesburg, my newfound friends, while speaking in Xhosa, suddenly began laughing. Why? Because we were at a train station designated for blacks and I wouldn’t be allowed on by the conductor. They contacted another station but found there were no seats left on the single car for whites. So, without any hesitation, Biko and his friends decided to drive me themselves to the airport in Port Elizabeth, where they purchased my ticket back to Johannesburg. They also called ahead to an order of Benedictine monks, with whom they had confidence, and arranged for one of the monks to meet me at the airport to ensure my safe arrival.
It was 13 months later, while sitting beside my bicycle at the GO train station in Oakville, Ontario, that I read in the newspaper of Biko’s death—allegedly from a hunger strike. At that moment, right there at that station, I cried for his memory. I knew, like so many others, that he would never, ever, have gone on a hunger strike.
Subsequent truth revealed that the police had beaten him in detention, then driven him, totally nude, almost 1,200 kilometres to a prison hospital in Pretoria, where he died. It would take more than two decades and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the thugs who did it to fess up.
He became an instant martyr upon his death, which had not just national but international ramifications—not only for his personal sacrifice, but because of his revolutionary idea that social change must first be achieved in the minds of the oppressed people, and not through the barrel of a gun.
What Have I Learned?
In having the fortune to have met such powerful people as Steve Biko, I came to believe that determination to affect positive change in this world was possible for anyone, including me. I decided then that I needed more understanding of the mechanisms of underdevelopment, and so completed a master’s degree in land use and development in Namibia, which took me back to Africa, where I met and studied under Ruth First.
Back home in Canada, I went on to work with trade unions and housing cooperatives with low income families, then as an occupational health and safety inspector. Through it all, I never forgot that life-altering lesson from my time in Africa—that a spirit of power may reside in all of us, at certain times in our lives, at any given moment. I opened my heart in Africa, and have tried, through all these years, to keep it that way. That, for me, has made all the difference.
- Charlie Nixon was a longtime occupational health and safety inspector in Ontario, but is also a lifelong activist who advocates for a range of social justice issues, from human rights to food security to improved labour standards. He has a post-graduate diploma in international development and a master’s degree from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.