If you want to go far, go together

Acornhoek, South Africa (Unsplash / Benny Jackson)

If you want to learn about a culture, read its proverbs. You can understand a lot about a particular group of people by getting to know their sayings. One brief sentence can illustrate a certain mindset or approach to life.

In the U.S., we have proverbs collected in Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac. Many of them reflect our Puritan heritage praising personal industry, thrift and wealth: "A stitch in time saves nine."

Pithy sayings were a part of our family, too. My dad often quoted Ben Franklin to us as children: "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man [sic] healthy, wealthy and wise." Moreover, from Grandpa Evans we often heard, "No friend so true as a buck or two."

Proverbs or witty sayings, indicators of mindset, approach, values, were also very much a part of the South African cultures that I experienced.

I remember one in particular that shines a light on African culture: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." This proverb speaks to me, and contrasts with our American culture.

It's true. We Americans can often go very fast by ourselves, though at times we may end up going in the wrong direction without a little help from friends. Bred as intrepid individualists, we forge ahead in spite of many obstacles to win the race, to achieve the goal, to reach whatever seems to be our Everest.

However, in Africa, where community, not individual achievement, is a paramount value, this is not the case.

It may be difficult for us in the U.S. to appreciate this emphasis on group effort, but history shows that significant achievements are rarely the work of individuals.

New Zealander Edmund Hillary topped Mount Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. United States astronaut John Glenn stepped onto the moon's surface with the whole of NASA behind him, many of them African-Americans as we saw in "Hidden Figures." Yes. If you want to go far, go together.

In 1964, Nelson Mandela was put on trial for treason in the South African High Court. His crime: attempting to overthrow the South African government because of its unjust racist policy of apartheid, separate development.

Mandela recounts his trial and imprisonment in his book Long Walk to Freedom. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Mandela began serving his sentence on Robben Island, situated several miles off the coast of Cape Town — South Africa's version of Alcatraz.

During the "winter months" of June and July (Southern Hemisphere seasons are the reverse of mine in the U.S.) on the Cape of Storms, the weather on the island is inhospitably cold, windy and wet.

As a punishing indignity, authorities did not allow African prisoners to wear long trousers like their white counterparts did. It was only in 1974 that this practice was discontinued, when Helen Suzman, the only woman member in the South African Parliament, visited Robben Island and reported this inhumane treatment to the International Red Cross.

The prisoners spent their days performing mindless labor like breaking rocks in the lime quarry on the island, resulting in many eye problems due to the harsh glare of the sun, the sea and the limestone.

A portrait of Nelson Mandela is seen on a wall in Hermanus, South Africa. (Unsplash / John Paul Henry)

However, this did not stop Mandela and his co-accused from "going together." During their time on Robben Island, they began an informal and unsanctioned school where the more educated among the prisoners took turns teaching young freedom fighters with little or no education. Using hollowed-out alcoves, mere niches in the walls of the limestone quarries, prisoners avoided the guards' watchful eyes and shared their knowledge and skills with fellow inmates. Their motto was "Ngamnye ufundisa omnye," that is, "Each one teach one."

Ultimately, many young members of the African National Congress completed their high school educations. Some went on to graduate with baccalaureate and even law degrees by taking correspondence courses from the University of South Africa. "If you want to go far, go together."

Nelson Mandela served 27 years of his life sentence for treason, and when released from prison joined the country's political leaders in negotiating a settlement for a new non-racist government.

In 1994, Mandela was elected the first president of the new South Africa. His was a long walk, a slow walk, lonely at times to be sure, but not solitary. Despite many adversities, Mandela went on to lead South Africa into a new democratic dispensation, but he did not go alone. He went as a loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress.

He went with the support of anti-apartheid activists and churches throughout the world whose insistence on international sanctions on South Africa affected the economy so significantly that the apartheid government was forced to negotiate.

Though Mandela may have felt alone, the whole world was with him, supporting him and all South Africans in their struggle for liberation. "If you want to go far, go together."

Before I went to South Africa, I had an intuition that God was weeping over the suffering of Africans there. I asked my community if I could go volunteer for one or two years with the Sisters of Mercy in Johannesburg.

When I arrived in South Africa in 1984, I was not prepared for what I saw: structures and laws that made ordinary life for most people extremely burdensome and degrading.

Africans could not use the same entry into post offices or liquor stores as whites. They could not dine in restaurants or go to cinemas. Interracial marriage was illegal. Schools were strictly segregated according to race: white, "coloured" (mixed-race), Indian and Bantu (a derogatory term for Africans).

Black South Africans could not be treated in whites-only hospitals; they rode in separate public bus systems and went to work in segregated railcars. They could not live where they wished, nor could they own property until 1989. Their old-age pensions were only a percentage of what white South Africans received.

The policy of apartheid imposed untold suffering on the individuals, families and communities who made up 87 percent of South African's population.

A state of emergency was declared in the country from 1985 to 1994. There were many dark nights and days in Soweto, when army and police patrolled in militarized vehicles. Children came home from school and found one or both parents missing. It was a dangerous time for all.

During the school boycotts and unrest in the township, we ministered as best we could — offering retreats to the teachers, working in parish and catechetical ministry at Regina Mundi Parish, visiting the hospital and prison, doing outreach in outlying communities south of Soweto.

Despite the frustration and fear, it was our great privilege to be with the people in their struggle for full human dignity and freedom. Though it seemed we did not go very far, we never felt alone.

In a few years, at Mandela's election, we rejoiced with millions of South Africans in celebrating the rainbow nation coming together in its first democratic election. "If you want to go far, go together."

[Jean Evans is a Sister of Mercy from California who ministered for 28 years in South Africa, where she worked in Johannesburg with victims of the apartheid regime. Back in the U.S., she is currently doing vocation ministry, substitute teaching, spiritual direction and grant writing. ]