Sunday, March 15, 2009

Local Woman Follows Heart to South Africa


In 2003 Janet Crosby retired after 17 years of teaching in California and returned to Kalamazoo, her hometown. She was only here a week when she suddenly had a heart attack.

“It was like a major bell ringing,” said Janet, who was 63 at the time, “and it made me think differently.”

As a result, she decided to adopt a French poodle (Jacquot), earn an English as a Second Language (ESL) certificate, spend time with her grandchildren, take up genealogy—and travel.

She visited England, Scotland and China, but her trip to South Africa fulfilled her long-awaited dream.

Actually, Janet had an interest in Africa long ago but it wasn’t until she read James Michener’s book, The Covenant, that she became passionate about South Africa. Then in the mid-1980s, she joined the worldwide movement against apartheid.

“I had wanted to go to South Africa,” she said, “but I didn’t want to travel there alone and there were no tours at that time.”

Last year she discovered Cross-Cultural Solutions (www.crossculturalsolutions.org), which recruits volunteers to assist with projects in different countries, South Africa among them. Janet would not only be able to visit the country she had advocated for, she could contribute to its rebuilding.

Last fall, Janet left for South Africa and after 24 hours, she landed in Cape Town. She was assigned to Fountain House, a rehabilitation facility where “members” recovering from mental illnesses live, work, and learn job and life skills. The facility is affiliated with Fountain House in New York.

Janet worked in the Thrift Shop selling clothes, candy, coffee, soda pop and cigarettes but quickly discovered that the shop’s items were not monitored and money was disappearing. So she worked with a few members to set up a system for inventory, ordering, and pricing.

“At first I was intimidated working with people with mental illness, but after I got to know them I was less fearful. In fact, they were helpful, funny, interesting and cooperative good folks, interested in getting the job done and willing to let me help.”

She lived in a house with 30 other volunteers during her stay and was particularly impressed with the “serious young people” who talked enthusiastically about the work they were doing there: teaching, taking care of AIDS babies, assisting with the nursery schools.

Cross Cultural Solutions sponsors excursions for its volunteers and Janet took advantage of them. She visited Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for many of his 27 years behind bars.

“I was infatuated with Nelson Mandela since I first heard of apartheid,” she said.

Being at the prison immediately touched her as she realized that Mandela and people like him were incarcerated for their anti-apartheid activism. Former prisoners now serve as guides and it was moving for Janet to hear their personal stories and imagine what it was like for them.

Janet had an opportunity to tour Johannesburg. One of its highlights was the Apartheid Museum, “the most incredible museum I’ve ever seen,” she said, “because it portrays apartheid’s complex, convoluted and cruel inhumanity in a comprehensive way without attempting to screen the horrific situation the country endured.”

She also went on a four-day safari near “Jo-town” in the “amazing and awe-inspiring” Kruger National Park (www.krugerpark.co.za) where big game animals roam freely in their natural habitat. The park is now a preserve where people can camp or stay in a nearby resort.

Janet visited Soweto where a 1976 uprising between blacks and whites left 500 children dead and 1,000 wounded. New housing projects are now replacing the old metal shacks, however, Soweto was disconcerting to Janet because the change was happening but very slowly and the people were still very poor.

“I was very curious about what Soweto was like and when I got there I had a mixture of feelings, including white guilt,” she said. “Soweto is huge with millions of people who mostly live in poverty or near-poverty. It is just one place but there are many more like it.”

Spending a month in South Africa helped Janet gain more insight into the nation’s struggle to overcome its past as a Dutch, then a British colony and nearly 50 years of apartheid.

Life in South Africa today has improved since apartheid ended in 1994, said Janet, but things are still difficult. Many of the whites with money and skills left when Mandela became president and the nation is really rundown.

“I felt both guilt and wonder at how people can survive the great sadness they must have living there,” she said. “I also felt a helplessness to know that there was nothing I could do about it—and I don’t like that feeling.”

South Africa was a long way from Janet’s early life growing up on a farm near Comstock. Except for a few brief trips to Chicago, she was 21 years old before she left the state with her professor-husband. While he was a graduate student at Ohio State University, Janet got a job as an administrative assistant for the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Institute. This work would take her on her first overseas journey to Paris for eight weeks in 1966 and again in 1967.

During summer 1986 she studied at the Sorbonne through WMU’s international studies program. In that same year she moved to Pacifica, California, (near San Francisco) to teach French and English to middle school students.

She even led 10 to 22-day student trips to France through EF Tours (www.eftours.com) for five summers and stayed on in Europe for a couple weeks afterward. As a result of her service with the company, she won an award to travel to Egypt and Israel.

Janet Crosby never imagined how far her curiosity in people and places would take her but she became a world traveler as a result.

This article appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette City Life Section on March 7, 2009

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