MY LIFE IN AFRICA: “It snowed before Christmas” – Summer of 1971 in Lesotho


It snowed just before Christmas in 1971.  This is not incredible if it happened in Canada, but it was in Lesotho in Southern Africa.

Christmas comes during the hottest time of the year, in the middle of summer.  So when it snowed in December, it was an extraordinary event.  Two students were selected to go to Malawi to attend the WSCF (World Student Christian Federation) Southern Africa Workshop from the Lesotho campus of the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland.  I was then the Regional Director of the University Christian Movement of South Africa (UCM) for Lesotho and the Orange Free State of South Africa.  I agreed to drive them in my car to Johannesburg.  Altogether, it was a four day overland journey to Malawi.  The chosen students to represent our university were Gloria Mamba, a Swazi, and Glory Makwati from Zimbabwe (then it was still called Rhodesia both leaders of the United Congregation – an Ecumenical campus ministry which I ministered to jointly with my Anglican colleague, Desmond Tutu.  Neither Gloria or Glory belonged to the UCM, but we had no choice.  All UCM members were in prison for being subversive, after the Prime Minister of Lesotho declared the state of emergency in order to stay in power in 1970, after he was defeated in an election.

Let me first describe briefly my position at the time.  I went to Lesotho at the end of 1968 as a Missionary from the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society (PEMS) – la Societe Missionaires Evangelique de Paris on secondment from the United Church of Canada.  My ex-wife and I had a child of four.  We spent three months in Paris for orientation at l’Ecole Missionaires on Boulevard Arago near Jardin Luxembourg.  The life in Paris was our first culture shock.  We come to realize that Europe was different from North America. We finally arrived in Lesotho just before Christmas.  The heat was quite a shock to our system flying directly from the cold damp winter of France.  We spent several months in different Mission stations lodging with French and Swiss missionaries on what the French Mission called a “stage” or being probationers learning the language, looking at different kinds of work being done by missionaries of PEMS.   My first assignment was supposed to be the minister of a parish in Morija.  In that village, there were the local headquarters of the PEMS, the Secretariat for PEMS schools, and two teacher’s training colleges – one for men and the other for women.  I only preached in Sesotho only a few times in Morija.  Then, the Protestant position at the university suddenly became vacant, due to a banning order by the South African government slapped on to my predecessor – Dr. Marie-Louise Martin.  It sounds strange now, but then it was considered to be impossible to live in the land-locked Lesotho without being able to go to South Africa for some basic services.  The church decided to appoint me to the university position, because of my ability in English and a graduate degree.  My ministry in Lesotho began officially in early 1970 at the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland as a Protestant Chaplain and a lecturer in Theology.
Now back to the trip to Malawi in the summer of 1971.


We first drove to Johannesburg to meet with 10 South African students – a day’s journey.   A Swiss missionary colleague, Robert Bezencon, who was living in Johannesburg serving the Basotho miners’ congregation, took us to Soweto to deliver Gloria and Glory to the house where they were expected to spend the night.  During those days of apartheid in South Africa, Blacks were not permitted to stay the night in the white part of the city.  So we left the students in Soweto and I stayed with Robert in his house in the white part of the city.  (Being a Japanese by race, I was legally a honorary “white” in South Africa at the time due to an important trade link with Japan.) Robert was visibly nervous driving through Soweto.  I assumed that it was because it was after sunset, but didn’t know exactly why.  He worked in Soweto everyday.  He should know.  Perhaps he knew crimes were rampant at night and whites were easy targets of criminals at night.  I never found out why.

At the head office of the UCM in Braamfontein near the University of Witwatersrand, I met up   with 10 South African students – nine Blacks and one White.  It was the time when multi-racial organizations were often declared illegal in South Africa.  Some years previously, the Student Christian Movement of South Africa (SCM) was ordered to split up into white and black organizations.  So Blacks inherited the name “SCM” and Whites created the “Student Christian Association” known as “SCA”.  But most of the “non-Evangelical” blacks and whites – in fact, the traditional mainstay of the SCM, didn’t join either of them and formed the University Christian Movement of South Africa (UCM).  All former SCM students in Lesotho in high schools and the University joined the UCM.  The government of South Africa took some time to process UCM’s application to register it as a non-profit organization.  So when I was active in the UCM, the organization did not have a legal status.  

When I was appointed to be the Protestant Chaplain and lecturer at the University in 1970, I automatically inherited the position of Regional Director of the UCM for Lesotho and the Orange Free State.   My first participation in the winter conference of the UCM in July in Johannesburg was a baptism by fire.  That was where I met Steve Biko.  The conference met in a retreat centre in the white part of the city, so Blacks were bussed in from where they slept in Soweto.  Anger was palpable, and particularly among blacks.   It was in such an atmosphere, the blacks staged a walk-out during the 1968 conference and began the Black Consciousness Movement.  The leader was a certain medical student Steve Biko.  But the blacks, while belonging to a black only student organization, never stopped attending the UCM gatherings.  So anger dominated the atmosphere.  Frustrations poisoned the working relationships, though their anger should have been directed to the system, not at each other.  Occasional discoveries of police informers – both black and white – among the delegates, and much too frequent police raids, ostensibly for checking papers, exacerbated the already difficult conference proceedings.  I later discovered that my room-mate at the conference centre turned out to be a police informer.  He claimed that he was a Rhodesian studying in South Africa at the University of Pietermaritzburg.  I should have know that only those white students, who didn’t want to study in the racially mixed Rhodesian University, came to South Africa where universities were segregated.  I felt cold all the time during the conference.  South African buildings and houses are not built for Canadians who are used to insulated buildings in winter.  But I don’t think it not only because of the cold temperature that I was cold all the time.  Winter that chilled humanity to the bones had lasted a long time in South Africa.  Now back to our trip.

We piled into a Toyota Hiace van, and drove to Salisbury (now called Harare) to join 23 more students from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) at the University of Salisbury.  We left Johennesburg at about 9 am.  The one and only white student and I took turns to do the 12 hour drive.  There were others who could have driven, but it made life a lot easier for a pale-faced driver to carry a whole bunch of blacks faces.    At The Beitbridge gate – the Rhodesian and South African border, the policeman gathered up all passports including mine and said, “I will give them back to your master.” – meaning the sole white student.  And he did.  If it happens today, I will say to him something like, “What is your name and serial number?  I will see you in court.”  But I didn’t, because by then I had been in South Africa for a few years and got used to hearing the same kind of insult from time to time.  


Night fell as we drove off the Beitbridge frontier post.  But the Rhodesian road north was dry, flat and straight.  It was a beautiful and easy drive even in the dark. We drove through a typical African savannah with endless stretch of acacia, baobab, mimosa and many many ant hills – some of them ten foot tall.  The highway was paved with black top but was only a lane wide in the centre.  When you ran into an oncoming car, you were supposed to slow down and get your left side wheels off the pavement and pass each other.  ( In South Africa and Rhodesia, they drive on the left side of the road.)  Overtaking a slow moving car ahead of you was more tricky.  The driver of the car ahead must agree to yield.  Otherwise, you have to follow it in a snail speed forever.  It was, also, during the height of the guerrilla war, so driving at night was more complicated.  There was hardly any civilian traffic. The vehicles we ran into were mostly military.  They were carrying black troopers led by white officers.  I never understood why blacks served in the Rhodesian Army.  South Africa never recruited black people into the army to fight other blacks.  In Rhodesia, there were much fewer white people.  Probably the blacks were forced into the Army.  Or for lack of alternative employment, they went into it for money.  Either way, they could not have made good fighting soldiers.  Luckily, we were not stopped by any of the military vehicles, so we managed to get to the Salisbury campus for a late supper.

Mr. A.P.Knottenbelt met us and directed us to the dining room and bedrooms.  He was Dean of Residence and a Lecturer in Mathematics.   He was called  “Knotty” by everybody and was loved by many African activists.   In fact, I never found what “A.P” stood for.  Knotty and I became good friends after I moved to Geneva, because he was administering the scholarships provided by the World University Service International Headquarters.  He was an Afrikaaner and a Methematics professor. He came to Rhodesia because the racial policy of the British colonial authority seemed to him to be tiny bit more acceptable then the South African one.   He became the principal of a prestigious Flecher Highschool.  But at the time of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) by the white Minority government led by Ian Smith, Knotty refused to fly the new Rhodesian flag, hence fired from the position, and came to the University.

We were surprised that we could eat together at the same dinning room and stay in the same residence.  I took us a little while to realize that Rhodesia, though ruled by a white minority government, was not a racially segregated society as strictly as South Africa was.  The University also was a racially mixed institution.  This took our South African friends by a bit of a surprise.  Some of them didn’t know what to do when they ran into white students in the washroom, for example.  But they didn’t make too much fuss about it and kept their cool.

We got up at dawn, had a quick breakfast and left for Mozambique when it was still dark.  We were joined by 23 Rhodesian students, all blacks except a white middle-aged woman, who was the National Secretary of the Rhodesian SCM.  Her name was Mary Austin. Apparently most of the white students left SCM after the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) by Ian Smith.  The Rhodesian SCM was oppose to the UDI.


We traveled by bus into Malawi via Mozambique.   It was the summer of 1971, 10 days before Christmas.  It was the time when South African government was gearing up to clamp down on the UCM for being anti-apartheid and subversive.  There was a guerrilla war going on in Rhodesia and Mozambique.  Snow in the middle of the summer was a fitting start for an eventful journey.  The plan was to reach Malawi, where the WSCF was holding the Workshop at the retreat centre run by the church on Mulanje mountains by Lake Chilwa.  The shortest way to reach Malawi from Rhodesia was through Tete Province of Mozambique, about a 500 kilo metre drive.  By the time we reached the Mozambique-Rhodesia border, it was closed for the night.  So we had to spend the night at the border town called Zinto.  We had no other place to sleep except in the bus.  Throughout the trip to Malawi, the sole white student, whose name I remember only as Haime, had been stuck with me.   In the beginning, I thought that he must have felt closer to me because we shared the driving from Johannesburg to Salisbury.  Or perhaps, I wondered, he felt uneasy being the only white male in the group.  He said he was a university student from Pietermaritzburg.  Though there was something odd about him, I never thought anything of it, least of all, I had no suspicion about him.  I was still naive, I guess.  Starting a friendship with suspicion is not my habit.  It was only after I went back home to Lesotho, I was told that he turned out to be an informer for the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) – a South African version of the Nazi Gestapo.

At Zinto, the bus was full of people sleeping everywhere including the floor.   Many people were taking two or three seats, in a pathetic attempt to try to stretch out.  Haime and I decided to walk around the town of Zinto.  A lovely small town with Portuguese flavors.  But it was full of drunken Portuguese soldiers.  They were a demoralized pathetic bunch of young men.  They didn’t know why they were risking their lives for a hopeless cause, just like black soldiers in the Rhodesian Army.  I don’t remember why we were able to roam around a Portugese Mozambican town without going through any frontier formalities.  It might have had something to do with the fact that both Haime and I were not dark skined.  We went into a bar, had some beer and broiled shrimp.  They welcomed South African money, and everything was so cheap.  Shrimps were delicious.  If you know Mozambican shrimps, you know they are the size of large prawns, seasoned with something green and red and very piquant.  It was fun.  But we were tired, having driven all day and not having enough sleep the night before.  So we went back to the bus, and decided to sleep on the roof of the bus.  We crawled under some canvas sheeting and slept soundly until sunrise.  Conditions were far from comfortable, but at least we could lie flat on our backs.   And it was a beautiful, dry, cool summer night.   Strangely there were no mosquitoes or maybe we were too tired to notice any.

It took a lot of time for our bus to become a part of an armed convoy.  Until I saw the complicated organization to form an armed convoy, I didn’t realize that there was a serious war going on in Mozambique.  Of course, Portugal had to give up all African colonies in a few years later in 1974.  The press, not only the South African but also the Western press in general, reported very little about the war in Portugese Africa.  Portugal was a member of NATO, and was fighting wars on three fronts in Africa – in Angola, Guinea Bisau, and Mozambique.  A member of NATO using American weapons to protect their colonies:  I guess, this wasn’t a good public relation for the West.  So the press covered very little about the war in Portuguese Africa.  I found that the whole of Tete Province was the most fiercely contested region in Mozambique since it was the gateway to the celebrated Cabora Bassa Dam on the Limpopo River – one of the most strategic targets for the FRELIMO guerrillas (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique).  The roads did not seem to be maintained at all.  In fact, there was hardly any pavement left.  In truth, it was a dirt road with many pot holes, a poor excuse for a so-called highway.  It was like driving on a rutted country road.  We were told not to get off the vehicle for the risk of stepping onto a land-mine.  There were armored vehicles in front and back of the convoy of about ten or so buses, cars, and trucks; and soldiers in some of the vehicles.  It was hot and slow going.  We were now in a rain-forest country, with many giant trees including bananas, coconuts, mangoes, and palm trees.   It was so hot and humid, and beautiful and green.  So many colors all around.  I don’t remember feeling scared or tense.  The atmosphere in the bus was no different from any school outing.  A lot of fooling around and singing, and sleeping.  We didn’t stay long in Blantyre, the Capital, after reaching Malawi, and arrived a retreat centre at the foot of the Mulanje mountains very late at night.  We dropped into bed after a simple supper of soup and bread.

MALAWI – The WSCF Workshop for Southern Africa

Next morning, the regional leadership team met with Jose Chipenda to agree on the plan for the workshop.  We met on an outside porch overlooking a spectacular  view of the lake and mountains.  Colors were not only green, but red, yellow, purple – a typical birds-eye- view of African rain-forest and mountains.  It was not easy to work in such a beautiful setting.  Jose, at the time,  was the Regional Secretary of the WSCF for African, and was based in Nairobi.  It so turned out, Jose was well known person in United Church circle in Canada since he was a minister of the Congregational Church of Angola, a partner church.  I was told that by a South African colleague at the workshop that Jose’s brother – Daniel Chipenda was a famous guerrilla commander of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA and had been labeled as “Marxist” in the west.  Jose and I became good friends while we both worked in Geneva afterwards.  I was a bit surprised to find that the plan for the workshop had to be discussed on the day it began.  But in retrospect, it is understandable for Jose and local leadership not to have communicated the details by post and telephones.  The whole region was a war zone, and the black intellectuals were seen as enemies of the colonial and white minority regimes, and were closely watched.  

The only country in the region under independent African government was Malawi, hence the decision to hold the workshop there.  But oddly there was no participant from Malawi.  There was someone from the Youth Work Department of the Presbyterian Church in Malawi attending the opening worship, but no Malawian participants.  Hasting Banda was the President of Malawi, by then the self-appointed President-for-Life, He was a dictator and was running a very tight ship.  He didn’t create an army for fear of a coup d’etat.  Instead, he created the Youth Brigade which acted like a goon squad carrying six foot sticks to beat up any opposition to the regime.  I was told that the SCM program was considered to be too risky under such circumstances, and the Malawi SCM had voluntarily disbanded.  

We affirmed the original idea prepared by the UCM that the core program would be a three day simulation game of the South African situation, interspersed by Bible Study, reflections, and discussion on Christian responsibilities in given situations.  We had such a good time playing the game and shooting our mouths off saying whatever we had in mind, which we could not do in the home situations, even in Lesotho.  It rained a lot.  But when it was not raining the whole terrain lit up with fresh green dotted by flowers in primary colours.  It was absolutely gorgeous – dream like.  We jumped into a pond within the confines of the retreat centre for a swim during the breaks.  Rhodesians and South Africans were not used to such natural beauty.  Their countries were either dry savanna grass land or rocky mountains, if it was not desert.

There was a person by the name of Crosby (I forgot his first name) sent as overseas personnel by the Presbyterian Church in Canada.  He was working at the retreat centre as the temporary coordinator with a Malawian pastor as his partner.  One day, the Crosby family invited all of us to join them in the baptismal Service of their baby girl.  It was held outside by the pond.   It was so beautiful, a magical occasion.  Many guests attended from outside of the conference, but a well-dressed young white woman, whom I had thought to be one of the guests, stayed behind and sat in a discussion group after the baptism.   It looked innocent enough.  I didn’t think much about it.  I thought she was simply curious and decided to listen in for a while.  She was good-looking, blonde and stylishly dressed in a Southern Californian way.  But during the break, Colin Collins, the General Secretary of the UCM called an emergency steering group meeting.  He looked upset.


Colin said that she was an uninvited observer and claimed herself to be from the SCA, a white Christian Students’ Association of South Africa.  She flew in from Johannesburg.  She asked Colin to be allowed to sit as an observer from a sister organization.  He didn’t believe her story.  He was convinced that she was sent to spy on South African participants.  What could we do?  We believed in democracy as an important Christian principle.  We believed in operating in an open and free environment.  Kicking out someone who flew all the way from Johannesburg without any proof of a malicious intention sounded like a draconian action, out of character for a democratic Christian organization.  But South Africans were set on kicking her out.  In the end, Jose was delegated to ask her to leave on a technicality: all the students were carefully selected by each University SCM or UCM, and observers also were nominated by the churches.  All this was true.  Since She was no chosen in this way, she was asked to leave. So, she left.  I still don’t know if she was a government spy for sure.  But it is highly unlikely that she was what she claimed to be.

As I said earlier, to start a friendship with a suspicion didn’t agree with my disposition.  Nor did it agree with the gospel values I held dear.  But as it turned out, my South African colleagues were right.  There were not only Haime and the “woman from the SCA”, but also a few other black students planted by the Apartheid authorities.  Some of them exposed their true identities at the frontier police station into South Africa on the return trip.   For example, suddenly some of them were seen standing on the other side of the counter!  Colin Collins and Basil Moore told me all this later.  Apparently, these spies didn’t know who their other colleagues were.  So they were often spying on each other.  One of them I remember was Timothy Moloto, a cousin of the traveling Secretary of the UCM.  We had trusted him because he was a cousin of Justice Moloto..

I had to realize the limitation of pacifism, non-violent resistance, and liberal Christian ethics in a violent and extremely oppressive situation.  It was a Dietrich-Bonhoefferesque conversion for me.  It was difficult for me to accept a need for some violence in an extremely repressive situation.  I grew up respecting my pacifist father, who paid heavily for his beliefs during the WW II.    He died very young as a consequence of the physical and psychological abuse he received at the hands of the Japanese military.  In the simulation game at the workshop, it became clear that liberal values can be detrimental for a radical transformation of a society under the rule of a diabolical power like Naziism or Apartheid.  In the game, people who played the role of the members of Black Consciousness Movement ended up assassinating liberal white friends of black people.  Some time later, Justice Moloto who was Traveling Secretary of the UCM told me to get out of South Africa, if I wanted to stay friends with him.  I don’t think he was speaking rhetorically.

The WSCF Workshop for Eastern Africa

Towards the end of the workshop, we had to deal with a difficult technical problem.  Jose Chipenda wanted two representatives from Southern Africa to attend the Eastern Africa WSCF Workshop in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.  But neither Rhodesians or South Africans would be permitted to enter Tanzania.  All African countries boycotted those two Southern African nationals in order to isolate the white minority regimes.  So Jose’s question was if Southern African students would allow Mary Austin and me to represent them in Dar es Salaam as observers.  Mary had refused to hold a Rhodesian passport and held a British Passport.  I had a Canadian passport.  We were the only ones who could enter Tanzania.  It was a very awkward question.  I was very embarrassed.  There we were, two pale faced foreigners asked to go to a meeting of African students representing Africans who were discriminated against and oppressed by non-Africans.  I don’t think there was anyone who liked the idea.  I still think that it was a bad idea.  Anyhow, we felt we had to honor the group decision, and we flew to Tanzania with Jose Chipenda.

The Eastern Africa WSCF Workshop was held at the University of Dar es Salaam campus.  It was a hot and sticky time of the year.  There were Kenyans, Tanzanians, Ugandans, and Zambians: mostly from English speaking countries.  Ethiopians and Sudanese delegates added a different cultural flavor, in that one came from an Orthodox Church tradition and an indigenous African Christian culture, and the other from a very Evangelical piety with Arab cultural roots.  It soon became apparent that this group was a gathering of people who were mouth-pieces for their governments.  Tanzanians spoke about Julius Nyere’s Self-Reliance, Kenyans about Jomo Kenyatta’s Uhuru (freedom in Swahili Zambians about Kenneth Kaunda’s African Socialism, etc.  Having just left a gathering of Africans students who were basically against everything that had to do with their governments, it was a paradigm shift.  I soon became very tired of hearing students towing their party lines without listening to each other.  I was skeptical.  Governments couldn’t possibly be so good and always right.   I began to question the intellectual integrity of those university students, especially of the Christians among them who were supposed to be beyond the atraction of the worldly powers.  But I kept my mouth shut.

What bothered me most was the uncritical expression of support by their nationals of well-known repressive regimes such as Ethiopia under Haile Selasie and Uganda under Idi Amin – two of the Africa’s infamous  most brutal dictators.   An exception was, however, one silent and thoughtful Ugandan theology student, who stood out among others due to his pregnant silence, which he maintained throughout the conference.  He later turned up in Geneva, in an Anglican priest’s outfit, as the administrator of the World University Service (WUS) Scholarship Program for Rwandan exile students in Uganda.  He was above the world of opportunism, superficial patriotism, and hypocrisy.  

It can easily be explained, of course.  By the early 1960”s, most of the European powers had given up the idea of maintaining colonialism, and were ready to give independence to most of the African countries.  With a few exceptions like Kenya’s Mau Mau guerrilas, most of the African elites were given power without a fight and any popular preparation for democracy.  Ordinary Africans had not realized that their leadership could be as bad and unaccountable, if not worse, as European colonialists.  African tyranny by African elites was in its early stages, and people were still in denial by refusing to identify their leaders as corrupt dictators.  They were going through a difficult process of realizing the universality of power and greed, even among their own people.  It was only Southern Africans who knew the truth about power, and a need for checks and balance.   But most of the university students in other African countries were in denial, especially because they knew that they could be next in line to the seat of power.

Then, an expected thing happened.  Suddenly, a group of Ethiopian students remembered one uniting slogan of the Organization of African Unity (OAU)- “Struggle against Apartheid and racism.”   The OAU had its headquarters in Ethiopian capital, Adiss Abbaba.  No matter how much difference there was among African states, they always agreed that abolishing Apartheid in South Africa was their priority.  And there were two pale faces from Southern Africa sitting among them.  The Ethiopian students decided to turned on Mary Austin and me.  They asked where the oppressed brothers and sisters from South Africa were, and what two oppressors were doing there.  They demanded that Mary and I be expelled from the conference.  Nothing unifies better than a common enemy, real or imagined.  I was expecting something like this.  Most of the students looked embarrassed but didn’t say anything.  How can you speak against motherhood?  The most hypocritical ones, like Ethiopians, were the spearheads of the attack.  Since I had expected something like this to happen, I was not embarrassed nor did I feel threatened.  Mary and I volunteered to vacate the premise.  Jose Chipenda and Bethul Kiplagaat – a Kenyan SCM leader told us not to, and tried to explain the conference the reasons why we had to be the ones who had come to represent the Southern Africans.  The Ethiopians were not happy to accept their explanation, but since the others were ready to accept the reason for our presence, they did not pursued the issue.  But there was no denying that I was uncomfortable staying on in the conference.  I felt restrained to speak or to socialize.  So I often skipped the sessions and walked around the campus and the city of Dar es Salaam.  Probably I should not have behaved as I did.  But I can not deny that I was a reluctant participant of the conference.  In retrospect, the WSCF East Africa Workshop gave me a seed of a belief that once a free South Africa was achieved, it would offer a strong leadership to the rest of Africa in democracy.

The University of Dar es Salaam was newly built outside of the city among the gentle green hills overlooking the Indian Ocean.  There were many tropical plants.  I often spent time looking at the blue sea, watch fishing boat with a typical Arab style square sails coming and going. It was lovely.  But I was alone and terribly missing Christmas and New Year with my family and friends in Lesotho.  This must have increased the negative feeling about the whole conference.  <

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