Sometimes it’s really disheartening and hard to understand how in the 21st century, under the weight of thick layers of ancient traditions and wrong beliefs, several cultures around the world fear social reforms and stubbornly resist change. But having faith that some day these cultures will embrace the change and keep working toward that goal is more than ever necessary: the defense of women’s and children’s human rights everywhere in the world is the cornerstone of an healthy and thriving society. In the African continent, so often considered the “womb” of the human race, cultural prejudices and gender discrimination have set insurmountable barriers on the way to freedom and social justice, for far too long. Knowing that people like Rev. Karen Baldwin are relentlessly advocating and working to raise awareness for this cause is for me a very heartwarming thought. Earlier this year I had the great pleasure to review her memoires Ruby’s World: My Journey With Zulu, and today she is here on Miss A to share the incredible journey of her life.
Q. Welcome to Miss A, Karen. Such a pleasure to have you here. From civil engineer, to interfaith minister, writer, and ultimately human rights advocate and inspirational speaker…quite a transformation. What inspired you to turn your life around in such a radical way?
I knew from a very young age that my life belonged to God. I planned to be a nun when I grew up!
But life happened: I fell in love, married, developed a successful career in engineering, had a beautiful son, and became a single mom. I was happy with my secular life for a long time. Then, shortly after my son left home for college, I had a heart attack. During my ambulance ride (the opening chapter of Ruby’s World) I realized that avoiding my passion for ministry was literally breaking my heart. I could either pursue the life I was meant for – or die.
Three years later, a few months into my seminary training, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was terrified, angry that I had begun the transformation and still might die without fulfilling my purpose. Thankfully, my treatment was successful … but cancer had upped the ante. I had cheated death twice (heart attack and breast cancer are the two biggest killers of women) and felt compelled to make my life count.
While I was recovering from my final surgery, I had a series of dreams that sealed my destiny. My second book, Unlocking the Dream, tells the story of the mysterious dreams that changed my life forever by sending me alone to Africa.
The transformation continues to surprise and thrill me. I wouldn’t give back even one minute of the adventure!
Q. After your amazing experience as the first white western teacher among the rural Zulus, you have collected your
memoires in a though-provoking and pulse-pounding autobiography. What prompted you to record those events in a book?
Honestly, I never intended to write a book. But again, I had a dream in which I was told to “stop talking about Africa and write the damn book!” It seemed ludicrous since I’d never written anything longer than a term paper or sermon. But it wouldn’t leave me alone. So I put on my big girl panties and wrote the book. And I’m glad I did. The story of Ruby and the Zulus turned out to be much bigger than me. Ruby’s World has touched people in ways I never imagined.
Q. One of my favorite quotes from Ruby’s World is, “My hope of making a big difference may have been naive. Not trying would have been worse.” But was there ever a moment during your permanence in Zinti when you thought that dangers and resistance to social reforms were just too overwhelming for you?
There were plenty of times I was overwhelmed by circumstances I couldn’t understand: the witch doctors control over the AIDS epidemic, the school computers that stayed locked in the closet, Mhambi treating me so differently than he treated Ruby, the radio talk-show host who openly encouraged the caller to beat his wife, Ruby’s struggle over whether or not to seek medical care for her niece who was bleeding to death. The list goes on and on.
But I didn’t recognize the danger that surrounded me until the incident at the coffin party. Being treated as Mr. Bekwa’s property – having no control over my own movement – terrified me. That, combined with the cameramen’s statement that if I made them mad they’d just as soon “kill me as look at me” stripped away every last shred of my naïveté.
Q. As a guest in the South African village, you committed to being an observer, not a critic of their culture and traditions. How difficult was it to remain silent in front of abominable social practices – infant scarification, use of black magic to cure serious illnesses, gender discrimination, just to mention a few?
Holding my tongue was a huge challenge. There were times I wanted to rally the women into a “Norma Rae” revolt. But I did a pretty good job of maintaining observer status … until Ruby and the school principal began starving the children. It broke my heart and my self-control crumbled. I couldn’t just stand by and watch. It was the only time I intentionally interfered in their culture, and I’m pretty sure giving the apple to the little girl contributed to Ruby turning on me.
Q. What started as a humanitarian dream ended up in a nightmare, abruptly and at the hands of the very people who warmly welcomed you and hosted you. Was Ruby’s betrayal the most heart-wrenching aspect of your ordeal? Or leaving behind that unforgettable group of kids without having the chance to explain the reason for your sudden departure?
Without a doubt, Ruby’s betrayal stung – I didn’t see it coming. But through the process of being on tour with Ruby’s World, I’ve spoken with many South Africans and have a better understanding now of Ruby’s behavior. It was awful in the moment, but doesn’t haunt me any more.
Leaving the kids without saying good-bye was by far the most painful aspect of being run out. It still hurts. I hate that they might think I abandoned them. Even worse, I suspect that Ruby and the principal may have told the kids that it was their fault that I left. I’d give anything to see these kids again and reassure them of my love and concern for them.
Mhambi’s treatment of me the morning I left also feels unresolved in my heart. I’d like to have a chance to talk with him and hear his side of the story. I always felt like he respected me and I believe if we could talk, he’d tell me the truth.
Q. Karen, your dream of improving the life condition of a group of kids from a rural village remained unfulfilled. But your experience, although brief, proved to be a life changing one for you. Can you tell us how your journey in the heart of traditional Africa put your life, your beliefs, your values in perspective? How did you steer your life on a new and more meaningful course?
I certainly didn’t make a difference in these kids’ lives the way I expected. But the South Africans I’ve met on tour are quick to assure me that my presence made an impact. Every one of them tells me the same two things: I am lucky to be alive, and I single-handedly upset the status quo between the races. Not the difference I envisioned, but powerful nonetheless.
My forty-five days on the ground in Africa changed my life forever. My story came full circle last year when the Rural Women’s Movement of South Africa appointed me as their American Ambassador. I now have the opportunity to work for the betterment of the very women I lived with – a stunning turn of events.
My commitment to living life on purpose is stronger than ever. And I’m convinced that improving the lot of women and children is the key to healing the world. I recently became affiliated with the UN Women and look forward to collaborating with my new colleagues.
I love my ministry as an advocate for women and children!
Q. As the American Ambassador for the Rural Women’s Movement of South Africa you have been invited to share your concerns in matter of violation of human rights at the 57th Annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Can you tell us how the organization you represent operates and which particular issues you will bring to the attention of the UN Commission?
I’m very excited about representing rural Zulu women at the UN CSW. The Rural Women’s Movement of South Africa was founded by Sizani Ngubane in 2000. They are a grassroots organization that strives to empower women through economic development and advocating for their legal rights. You can learn more about them on their website.
This year’s agenda for the UN CSW is the elimination of violence against women. You can watch the program unfold on the UN Commission webpage
I’ll be addressing several key issues that the rural women face: being sold into brutal “marriages,” AIDS, starvation, and the effort to bring the rural women out of harsh tribal law and into the justice system created by the post-Apartheid constitution.
These are exciting times of opportunity and change … I hope your readers will share my journey by following the news on my website
Q. One last question, Karen. Social reform and justice for women in South Africa: utopia or achievable goal?
Achievable! Definitely! But at their pace, not mine.
That’s one of the biggest lessons I learned: as an outsider, it’s impossible to drive social reform and justice. There are plenty of rural women in South Africa who want the same progress that I want for them. My job is not to lead their movement, but to offer the help that they request.
It’s easy to become frustrated by their setbacks and inconsistencies. It’s important to remember though that women in our country were also slow to achieve equality. The Zulu women are less than 20 years into their freedom from Apartheid … patience and persistence are key!
Karen, thank you so much for answering our questions. Your testimony is so invigorating and inspiring. Ruby’s World: My Journey With The Zulu is available on Amazon. Reverend Baldwin would also love to hear from Miss A’s readers and share your thoughts about gender equality and social justice for women. Please visit her website, Facebook and Twitter pages.