It was a normal chaotic early morning market day at the college. Students were picking fresh vegetables from nearby gardens. Crates loaded with live chickens were stacked beside the 4-ton Ford truck. Stephen the mechanic was fitting a new battery to the truck. This precious battery had arrived at the Farm College the previous evening after six long weeks waiting. No more jump-starting the truck each morning.
I was in the workshop measuring out engine oil when a loud explosion stopped everyone in their tracks. I looked around to see smoke coming from the side of the Ford truck, my friend Steven staggering backwards holding his face. Rushing to the truck, I found smoke coming from a hole in the top of the new battery. The battery had exploded. A mechanic grabbed a bucket of water and threw it over Stevens face. He was shaken but escaped serious injury.
I was beside myself! The battery was ruined! There would be no second battery for some time given the cost and difficulty in obtaining this battery. I had shown Steven several times how to jump-start a vehicle and remove and refit a battery safely. The crowd dispersed and Steven went off to the health clinic across the road from the workshop. Now I had to organise another battery for the truck and start it to enable the driver to collect the vegetables and crates of chickens.
About a week later. I was approached by the College Deputy Director, Mr Muwanga, a softly spoken man much respected by College staff. “Could I have a conversation with you in my office?” he asked. “Not a problem” I said and walked with him to his office in the administration building. We sat down and chatted for a while. There was a pause in our conversation. He leaned forward in his chair and asked, “Was there a problem with a truck at the workshop last week?” “No”, I replied “not that I was aware of”. “I understand a truck battery exploded on Steven” ventured Mr Muwanga. “Well yes there was” I said. “Steven was fitting a battery to the truck when it exploded”. I laughed, “It gave him a fright, but he was ok” I said.
Mr Muwanga said there had been a complaint from the workers at the college. They said I had been racist towards Steven. I was taken aback by his comment, unsure of what to say. I had thought my behaviour had been very measured considering the consequences. “Did you raise your voice”? he asked. “Well, may be a little. In Australia, a mechanic’s workshop can be much worse where cursing was normal behaviour”.
Not to be persuaded by my self-defence, Mr Muwanga continued our conversation, gently, and respectfully to point out to me “that in Zambia we call that behaviour racist. That behaviour is not acceptable at this college”. After more conversation, and Mr Muwanga’s guidance, we agreed that I was racist. I agreed to address the workers at the Farm College and publicly apologise for my racist actions.
This was organised for mid-morning the following day when I stood on a box and in front of some 30 workers and apologised to Steven and his co-workers for my racist behaviour.
This event took place in 1972 at Kalulushi Agriculture College. Zambia became an independent Nation on 24 October 1964, having been a British colony. Kalulushi Farm College was a project of the World Council of Churches.
Steven, the mechanic at the centre of this incident was a good friend and remained my good friend while in Zambia. One of our drivers, Rev Henry Alamasi, an ordained minister with the American Methodist African Church was minister to a village church close to the Farm College. One day I asked Henry “Can a Zambian be racist?” Henry was a good friend and a loyal employee. “No”, he said. “Why not”? I asked. There was a pause, he shuffled his feet, his head turned away. “Because we are not white”, was his response.
This experience continues to shape my life in unexpected ways. Six months ago, I shared some reflections around my African experience with a small congregation in Mernda. I had written out my reflection that morning prior to the service. Having shared my experience in Zambia all those years ago, I invited comments. I never did get back to my prepared reflections that day. People shared their experiences, their fears, their lack of understanding.
It was a quiet lady in her late 60’s who, in a pause in the conversation suggested “We don’t know what we don’t know, do we?” Perhaps this comment, this understanding is at the heart of racism. Could it be that simple? Or could we, as Anglo-English, assume we are racist until we prove otherwise through our actions? If we assume we are by nature racist, would that change our behaviour? Would we see others through different eyes?
Perhaps racism has at its centre, fear. Fear of an unknown. Be it a person, event, activity, a different way of living. If they look different, they must be different. To care about someone, to respect someone, to demonstrate we care for someone through our actions is very rewarding.
When I ponder on the question around racism, I am reminded of the image in John’s Gospel of a Samaritan woman drawing water from Jacob’s Well in the hottest part of the day. Jesus, tired from his journey sits by the well. A conversation begins, initiated by Jesus, much to the surprise of the woman.
It is this initial point of contact which has always interested me. It appeared informal, tentative, a bit one sided, risky, yet profoundly important. Present in the conversation were four invisible walls. They are not spoken of, or acknowledged, but present. There was a religious wall, the woman a Samaritan, Jesus a Jew. A gender wall, she was female and Jesus male. A racist wall, Jesus a Jew, and the woman from Samaria and a moral wall, she had 5 husbands.
As I ponder on the question of racism I wonder, as a society, are we any different today? My sense is perhaps not. Jesus took the time to sit with the Samaritan woman, to engage in conversation with her and to discover ‘what we don’t know’. This simple act of getting to know someone has been very important to me, a reforming racist.