It was my birthday.  It wasn’t a spectacular affair.  It was a weekday.  I was teaching at a public primary school in San Francisco.  Several of my colleagues had wished me well.  One gave me a card.  My roommates were planning a special dinner.  My mother had called early in the morning.  My sister called shortly after I got home in the late afternoon.  Pretty run-of-the-mill day.  When the phone rang after our celebratory meal, I was left to answer, because we all assumed it was another birthday greeting.

The call was for me, but it had nothing to do with the anniversary of my birth.  A very good friend from high school, who now lived on the East Coast, was calling to ask a favour.

“Do you remember that guy I met when I went to South Africa as an exchange student?”  she began after the precursory greetings.

“Oh, my goodness,” I replied.  “How on earth could I ever forget!”


During our first year at university, every time I visited her she would read sections of his letters aloud to me.  Sometimes I would sit through long passages of cassette-taped monologues.  He did have a beautiful voice.  And, oh, that accent! 

Later, on my way home, I’d smile and shake my head.  She had it bad!  Her dream:  she’d qualify as a medical doctor and go work with him in rural South Africa, serving the poorer communities.  They were basically on the same career path, however it took fewer years to qualify as a doctor in South Africa, so he would have to wait for her.

“South Africa,” I thought.  “Who would want to live in South Africa?”  Apartheid was still the order of the day.  I couldn’t imagine living under that government.  Not if all the things we were hearing at university about South Africa were true.  

One of my English professors had introduced us to a poem by South African Christopher van Wyk entitled In Detention.  Over seventy people died in prison while being detained.  Official reasons for these deaths ranged from “He slipped on a piece of soap.” to “He fell from a tenth floor window.”  Chris wrote a poem using the official reasons given, but, just as some tongue twisters leave us babbling incoherently, In Detention* morphs into nonsensical reports, revealing the insanity of the South African government.  I remember discussing the atrocities in class while fellow students protested on campus.

“Nope.  I’m happy right here in good ol’ San Francisco, thank you very much.”


“Anyway,” she continued, “he’s coming to the States.  He plans on stopping here for a few days and then traveling across the country. He asked me if I had any friends left in the Bay Area, and I thought of you.  Would you be able to put him up for a few days?  Maybe show him around San Francisco and Berkeley?”

“Sure.  It’ll be interesting to meet him.  I’d love for him to speak at church.  He can tell us what is really going on in South Africa.”  The U.S. government had imposed sanctions against South Africa and in response PW Botha, the then state president, declared a nation-wide state of emergency.  Foreign reporters were kicked out of the country and the news we were receiving made the government out to be the most brutal in the modern world.  Thousands were reportedly detained and tortured for nothing more than protesting the violation of their human rights.  Seemed to me that little had changed in South Africa since my university days.

“Great.  I’ll tell him and send him your address.  He’s coming in October.  I am not sure of the exact dates, but he’ll contact you.”

As I hung up the phone I thought about how differently my friend’s life had turned out.  Freshman year she was planning on becoming a doctor so that she could work in rural South Africa with the man of her dreams.  But her life took a 90-degree turn when she met another young man and married him.  Now she was a qualified medical doctor, but living in New York and specialising while she cared for her husband and young son.

“Life is funny,”  I thought.  “It sometimes turns out so differently to what we plan.”



*  Here is a copy of Chris van Wyk’s poem.  He was a brilliant poet, amazing wielder of words and an outstanding human being.  He tragically died in October of last year at the age of 57 after a battle with cancer.  He had an amazing sense of humour and is deeply missed in South Africa.  If you ever have a chance to read Shirley, Goodness & Mercyhis story about growing up in Johannesburg, grab the opportunity.  You won’t regret it.

In Detention

He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing.