Nelson Mandela’s Home And The Apartheid Museum

DSC_1309Yesterday, I gasped when I heard Nelson Mandela died.  Although he’d been ill, I remained hopeful that he might make a recovery.  When we travelled to South Africa, I tried to learn about South Africa’s history and apartheid.  While I held Nelson Mandela in high esteem before, I came away from South Africa in awe of him.  While the country still faces significant challenges from its past discrimination, violence, historical and economic divisions, South Africa would not be where it is today without his leadership. I find his acknowledged fallibility makes him even more relatable as an ethical model.  According to Richard Stengel, “he is a hero precisely because he always admitted his errors and then tried to rise above them. And he has never stopped learning.”

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I was lucky enough to tour Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto.  It was a great opportunity to learn more about Madiba.  He lived there from 1946-1961, when he was forced to go into hiding.  It is on the famous Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world where once two Nobel Peace Prize laureates lived (Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who lives there).

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Winnie Mandela lived here with their children while he was imprisoned.  Upon his release from Robben Island, he spent 11 days here.  There was a constant stream of visitors, so he didn’t remain longer.

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Many of the furnishings are original, but the most interesting parts were learning the role this building played in their lives.  In the pictures below (and above), you can see the scorched bricks from firebombs.

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You can still see the bullet holes from government drive-bys.  The family had to stop sleeping in the front bedrooms because they were so frequent.  Below, you can see where they erected a brick wall to hide behind to avoid being hit by a bullet.

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Only one person is allowed to sit in this chair.  It was Nelson Mandela’s.  Now it will remain empty forever.

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The brick line in the floor below reads: “[a] partition was built here to divide the kitchen from the living room.  This was later replaced with a brick wall which served as a shield against police attack.”  Seeing this helped me to understand the type of danger Mandela and his family faced and the courage he showed.

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I saw a letter from the State of Michigan (our home state) asking President Bush to formally apologize for the CIA’s role in Nelson Mandela’s arrest.  My guide was eager for information about Michigan.  I noticed that Carolyn Cheeks KilpatrickKwame Kilpatrick‘s mom, is one of the signatories.  Needless to say, I was a little embarrassed trying to explain the background, the text messaging scandal and his subsequent actions.  During my visit, I was disheartened to learn about America’s involvement with and support for the Apartheid government and proud of the change in our collective mindset.

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I also visited the Apartheid Museum, while pictures are not allowed inside, no visit to Johannesburg would be complete without it.  It is incredibly informative and moving. There is a large exhibit on Nelson Mandela detailing his amazing life.  May it continue to inspire others.

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Reims Cathedral, It’s History Has More Drama Than A Telenovela

When I visited Champagne, I had to stop by and see the cathedral in Reims.  I’d heard so much about it and had to see it in person.  Yeah, from a distance, it might look a lot like many other French cathedrals, but this one is different.  It’s beautiful, light and airy, but that’s only scratching the surface.  It’s fascinating because of its dramatic history.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims is considered by many to be the world’s most perfect Gothic church.   Located in eastern France (an hour or so away from the WWI battlefield of Verdun),  it was almost completely destroyed during the First World War.    On September 19-20, 1914, 25 German shells struck the cathedral which then caught on fire, causing massive damage.  It became known as  the “Martyred Cathedral” a symbol of destruction during the Great War and brought out strong emotions in the French.  Strong emotions are an understatement.  Several injured German prisoners found refuge in the cathedral but were killed outraged French.

In 1924, billionaire American John D. Rockefeller, gave money to restore the cathedral.  Fabulously wealthy Andrew Carnegie kicked in some money too.    Today, it’s mostly restored, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely worth the few million they poured into it.

Reims has been a town since Roman times. In 498, Clovis was baptized as the first Catholic French king at the church.  This was a big deal.  If you don’t believe me, Pope John Paul II visited for the 1500th anniversary of the event.  I can pretty much guarantee that no world leader will mark the 1500th anniversary of anything I have done or anywhere I have been.  Monkey see, monkey do.  All the cool kings wanted to do it like Clovis did and it became the site for coronations of French kings (until the revolution).   Joan of Arc famously knelt in front of Charles VII when he was crowned King of France there.  Today, they have a Gallery of Kings, statues of the famous kings who were crowned there.

Here Saint Remy Baptized Clovis King of France

In 1211, when the existing church burned down, the built a bigger better one on the site of an earlier church (just like Geneva’s Cathedral St. Pierre).  Part of what makes Reims Cathedral such an amazing building is the amount of light inside (particularly in comparison with others constructed around the same time).  The architects designed the windows so that they would let in as much light as possible.

Notre-Dame de Reims did not escape the French Revolution unscathed. Fleur-de-lys and clovers were removed because they had been symbols of the monarchy.   They were replaced during the restoration.  Thanks Mr. Rockefeller.

Large circular windows at the ends of the cathedrals are known as the “Rose Window.”  It took me a few cathedrals to figure that one out.  Luckily, we’ve seen a few this year (Toledo, Milan). The church is known throughout France for its impressive stained glass windows.  During the restoration, some more contemporary have been used.  I like the one depicting Champagne making from the 1950’s.  Who would have thought church windows would depict hooch? The windows designed by Marc Chagall from the 1970’s (above) were my favorites because they were ethereal and dreamy.  You wouldn’t expect something so massive to look so light.   They plan on continuing with the different windows, making it interesting to for visitors compare and contrast the different styles.

By the way, if you go there, hunt out the “Smiling Angel” (also known as  “Smile of Reims”  and “L’Ange au Sourire”).  Decapitated by a burning beam in 1914,, during the fire of September 19, 1914 it the destruction and then with the restoration of the city. 

 

No World Wars In Western European Since 1945 = Nobel Peace Prize

Yesterday, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In 1993, I was living in Belgium and the Maastricht Treaty  (aka the Treaty on European Union) was taking effect.  It was all over the news…and I didn’t understand any of it.  I asked and a lovely Belgian friend explained it to me.   Before I tell you when they told me, lets detour to quick history lesson.   This is a list of just some of the battles that have the battles that have taken place on Belgian soil:

 

  • World War I The Battles of Flandres – There were five, yes five.  The First Battle of Ypres, the Second Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele, the  Battle of the Lys,  and the creatively named Fifth Battle of Ypres.  Germany and the Western Allies faced off once again in Belgium.  Industrialization increased the scale of wars and they took on a far more devastating nature.  Battles with over 50,000 fatalities became common.  Mustard gas doesn’t seem like a particularly good way to go either.  Belgian farmers still turn up canisters of gas when they plow their fields in the spring!
  • When the Germans wanted to invade France’s Mangiot Line fortifications built after WWI, they just went to Paris via Belgium.  Like many of the occupied countries during WWII, most of them weren’t too happy about their visitors.
  • Battle of the Ardennes (also known as the Battle of the Bulge and the Siege of Bastogne) – After the Allies landed in Normandy, they made their way to Germany.  If you’ve read the last few bullets, you know the easiest way from France to Germany (and vice versa).  Southern Belgium has the Ardennes mountains, which happen to be a good place to entrench (and freezing in the winter).  The Germans mounted an offensive and surrounded almost 20,000 American troops.  It’s famous for General Anthony McAuliffe‘s line, ‘Nuts,’ in response to the German’s request to surrender.  Although I have heard that  ‘Nuts’ was the only printable equivalent of the word that was actually used, it goes without saying that a battle ensued.

You get the idea.  If you got tired reading that list, you can imagine how tired the Belgians were of the wars themselves.

My Belgian friend explained to be that linking their economies and cultures so thoroughly that untangling them was more difficult and costly than waging war was the only way to prevent it from happening again.  At that time, many people were alive who’d lived through the occupation and the war.  I met people whose family members were shot dead in front of their house by the Nazis.  When you think about it, Belgium is a country that only experienced intermittent periods of peace before foreign powers again waged war on their soil.  As a citizen of the tiny country that was continually caught in the cross-fire, they were hopeful that the European Union would help put an end to the seemingly never-ending series of wars waged by European powers like England, Spain, France, and Germany on their soil.

You can’t read the news today without reading about the European Union’s problems.  Some countries, like Switzerland, have good reasons for not joining (which they haven’t in order retain their neutrality and independence).  Nevertheless, as someone who likes a lot of Europeans and likes to travel, there hasn’t been a war on Belgian soil since WWII and I will happily celebrate that.

Why The Swiss Love The Red Cross

The Red Cross is one of many international organizations founded and/or headquartered in Geneva.  About 250 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have their seat in Geneva.  They include: the United NationsWorld Health OrganizationWorld Trade OrganizationWorld Economic Forum, and Doctors Without Borders.  Switzerland’s international nature and history of neutrality are two reasons for this.

Henri Dunant and a group of Geneva in Geneva founded the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863 (near the spot where this photo was taken).  Switzerland’s lack of land and natural resources forced its young men to go abroad as mercenaries to fight Europe’s wars.  Those that returned home were inevitably affected by what they had seen and experienced.    In 1859, Henri Dunant, moved by the human suffering he saw at the Battle of Solferino (in the Second Italian War of Independence) while on a business trip, wrote a book about what he had seen and began advocating for a neutral organization to care for wounded soldiers on the battlefield.  His work led to the First Geneva Convention and the establishment of what became the Red Cross.

Henri Dunant won the first ever Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. This bust of Henri Dunant stands at the edge of Geneva’s old town, near Parc des Bastions.  Ironically, and perhaps fittingly, it sits on the spot where Geneva’s guillotine once stood!    Apparently when Geneva was part of France (annexed as département du Léman), all French cities required to have one (Geneva joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815).

Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross/the ICRC is located in Geneva. Although you can see the outside of the building, the museum is closed for repairs until sometime in 2012. Nevertheless, you don’t have to look far to see signs of the Red Cross in Geneva.

By the way, there is a reason the Swiss flag below looks like the Red Cross flag.  It is an inversion of the Swiss flag, which is a square with a white cross on a red background.   The First Geneva Convention in 1864, decided that to protect medical staff and facilities,  they needed a clear neutral sign on the battlefield. They chose the exact reverse of the flag of neutral Switzerland.  It was both easily produced and recognizable at a distance because of its contrasting colors.  A Swiss lady living in the US told me that she often tears with pride when she sees the Red Cross flag.  Being Swiss, she is very conscious and proud of what her countrymen started, its Swiss connections and the good that it has done.  Plus, it makes her think of home.