Boston's loss of innocence
By Charlene Smith
“Tonight I write the saddest lines,” begins a poem by Pablo Neruda writing of a love lost, but I mourn the lost innocence of the city I love.
Boston gave me back my life. I arrived here in late 2010 after a friend had been murdered six months before in South Africa, another friend and I investigated and when it became clear that the police were nervous of the killers - Nigerian mafia - and would do nothing, we stopped.
I could no longer cope with the violence of South Africa.
Bostonians aren't friendly, but I was content, I had no burglar bars, no alarms, no armed response just a panic button away.
I was fascinated that parcels were left next to front doors by UPS and FedEx and no one stole them. I made friends with the school guard and storekeepers. I cried when illegal Brazilian migrants told of how they'd swum the Rio Grande and four children drowned in their quest to come to a country where they could have enough money to send to the families they could never return to.
The Algerian pizza makers took me as one of their own and gave me Algerian music cds. My colleagues warmed to me. Brightly colored birds returned, brave little plants put their heads above the snow, and spring arrived in my heart.
On April 15, a friend in Back Bay, called & said, "did you feel those two big bangs?" I said no. But the air filled with sirens. My nephew was at the Marathon. My body went cold and I started phoning. His phone was dead. I left a message. I phoned his brother who asked, "have you heard from Luke?"
I tried Luke's phone again and an uncertain voice answered. He was close to the first bomb and ran toward where a second bomb detonated. "Get out," I said, "if it's bombs, there might be more."
When reporting on violence I always became hungry, now I ate chocolate, and drove to Boston.
Traffic was backed up, many were walking because some subways had been closed, blue lights were flashing, coast guard ships were anchored across the Charles River where that morning canoeists paddled. Yellow tape sealed roads and I began weeping. I couldn't understand it; I've covered so much conflict, I’m always calm, why was I so upset now?
This is why,
Boston has given me my life back. Here I am the person I always wanted to be.
I walk or cycle on streets late at night with no fear.
I chat to the postmen, and UPS deliverymen, my neighbors come for tea, I photograph the wild turkeys that think they own the neighborhood, and rejoice in the yellow forsythia in spring, the majesty of the maples, and the beauty of the dogwood. I love the patience of New Englanders. and the incredible beauty of America. I love its people even though I often want to bang the heads of politicians.
My heart has grown bigger than the borders of the United States, greater than the 310 million people that live in it. I am passionate about this country, I will defend it and honor it.
I am distressed about the Boston bombings because in other places I’ve reported there has been an expectation of harm. Violence has been part of life. But in Boston safety is what people are accustomed to and so this is the most terrible of violations. Their innocence has been taken.
Now they will look at everyone anew. The kind, laidback police officers will see us all as potential foes. The South Africans who live here mourn because these people are now in a world we know, a place where fear lives and none of us want anyone in that place. It deforms.
Sadness is ahead. We will learn more about those who died and those who had amputatatons.
I’ve been thinking of a bomb blast in Germiston the day before democratic elections in South Africa in April 1994. I arrived soon after it happened. I walked on roads where flesh stuck to my shoes. There was an arm jutting from a wall, a head on a second floor ledge, and men with black plastic bags picking up bits of flesh. Nineteen people died.
I can't fathom what enters the heads of those who do this.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
* Charlene Smith is an award-winning journalist and authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela.
Robben Island is the prison island Nelson Mandela spent almost three decades in jail upon. Political prisoners used to refer to it as a university, and certainly for South Africa's present president, Jacob Zuma, who went to it with only four years schooling that was true.
The Island, as South Africans refer to it, has a rich history, the seas abound with marine life and perfectly intact shipwrecks - diving is difficult because of the icy cold. Charlene Smith's book looks at the environmental impact of the island, a history of ancient mariners and the mythology they brought with them, the cruelty of early settlers, its history as a home for lepers and the insane and those chiefs that tried to defy colonial expansion.
Robben Island also carries one of the most beautiful of all South African love stories, and this book is the only one to record it. Extensive archival research and with experts also gives detailed information about shipwrecks and World War Two history, including the times U-Boats entered Table Bay and skirted Robben Island. It tells the story of the Cape Corps and Women's Auxiliary Forces.
And of course, Charlene Smith interviewed many former political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, about their experiences on the Island, some recollections are disturbing and recount torture, whereas others are uplifting and heartfelt. Some of the photographs in this book are from the personal collections of former political prisoners. This engaging book was recently rewritten and contains loads of the most up-to-date information for the scholar, the tourist, and the person who wants a great fireside or beach read.
Robben Island is published by Random House Struik and will be available on bookshelves, websites, or for your e-reader in June 2013.
Charlene Smith at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. November 26, 2012 with fans of Nelson Mandela
On November 26, Charlene Smith was invited to speak on the Life and Legacy of Nelson Mandela, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Some 350 guests arrived, and a book-signing took place afterward.
Interviewing Nelson Mandela on the third day of his release, and first day back in Soweto
A referee once wrote, “Charlene Smith is a powerful, highly skilled and experienced journalist, author and communications professional. She is adept at finding the right channels for messages. She has immense patience and love for people – no-one is unimportant or undeserving of her time or mentoring.”
As a journalist, an authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela, as well as a speech writer and ghostwriter, I have been privileged to witness the best in the great and had the time to ponder their flaws. I believe that it is in addressing failure, that the exceptional emerges.
Writing is a privileged profession: people allow us into their lives, they reveal their hearts bit-by-bit, they let us scratch through their records, go where they fear, and in the process, they too, rediscover themselves.
Current affairs writers are witnesses to history and so our responsibility to truth-telling and fairness is eternal.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, I covered anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa as a journalist before resigning to become an activist against apartheid. I also worked in Japan and Argentina. Publications I have worked for include the Los Angeles Times
, Guardian, Washington Post, Le Monde, and others. As a television documentary maker I worked with Tony Burman at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Ted Koppel at ABC Nightline, and Ed Bradley at CBS 60 Minutes, and others. That work taught me the importance of visual cues.
Cover of my book: Mandela: In Celebration of a Great Life
Learning from Nelson Mandela
Hope is the parent of change, and greatness can only occur when that which we believe to be impossible is challenged. Nelson Mandela and those who fought injustice in South Africa lived Abraham Lincoln’s words: “The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be great.”
Sentenced to life in prison for daring to challenge racism, Nelson Mandela spent almost three decades in jail and emerged still preaching non-racism and non-sexism.
Mandela was not a great orator; he, like Mohandas Gandhi, led by practice. They understood that fine words mean nothing if the person who speaks them does not live them. It’s a truth that evades today’s sound-bite politicians. Mandela showed that tolerance and respect to all, especially your enemies, is imperative.
As the 21st century faces a crisis in leadership, one where politicians are concerned more with pleasing financial backers than the citizenry they are meant to serve, re-examining the life of Nelson Mandela, his successes and shortfalls, becomes important. He was a rare politician who was prepared to sacrifice comfort, status and even life in pursuit of a cause he believed to be great. His sacrifices changed the lives of millions, he showed the way, today’s failures are ours.
(excerpt from Mandela: In Celebration of a Great Life by Charlene Smith, Random House Struik, June 2012)