Fix Reporter's Notebook

Spending Precious Time With A National Hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Mariechen Puchert on the MV Explorer
By Mariechen Puchert
Associate Editor
CAPE TOWN, South Africa –
The MV Explorer, home to more than 600 students on the Spring 2013 voyage of
Semester at Sea, suddenly got quiet. Too quiet.
It could have been that
finals were around the corner, inducing a silent panic of late-night studying.
It could be that the ship’s recent visits to South Africa and Ghana have
thoroughly exhausted these students. Or, it could be that a characteristic
laugh was absent from those halls.
For two and a half
months, the students of the MV Explorer had the unprecedented experience of
sailing with a Nobel Laureate in our midst. The Most Reverend Archbishop
Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, is known and loved
around the world. He sailed with us from the start of the voyage in San Diego
at the beginning of January, and disembarked in April, when we arrived in Cape
A fellow South African,
Archbishop Tutu, or “Arch,” as the shipboard community affectionately called
him, is well-known for his ethos of peace and acceptance.
He has been vocal about
human rights violations in Zimbabwe, Tibet, Gaza and the gay community.
As a South African, I
consider his most valuable contribution to be his involvement in the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission, which may be one of the single greatest reasons
South Africa did not turn into a bloodbath after the end of apartheid.
How does one begin to
describe the experience of having such a great mind in our midst? He ate
breakfast with us, surprising us with his jovial laugh. He is certainly a
better morning person than I am!
When I finally gathered
the courage to introduce myself to this role model, we spoke at length about
the many challenges faced by South Africa. He took to talking to me in my home
language, and so alleviated some of my homesickness.
At the age of 81,
Archbishop Tutu was an active
member of the shipboard community, and I witnessed his selflessness on more
than one occasion.
He was happy to talk at
many events. Once, he addressed the Black Students’ Association, and shared
with us what had inspired him as a young child. He talked about how Jackie
Robinson becoming the first black professional baseball player showed the then-16-year-old
Tutu that black people could achieve anything white people could do.
He told us of the
all-black cast of Stormy
(1943), and how they,
too, inspired him. His point was this: everybody has a role to play in
inspiring the change-makers. Americans, too, contributed to the eventual
victory over the apartheid regime.
He did not shy away from
sharing less-glamorous experiences. He shared the humiliation of needing a pass
to enter the city of Johannesburg, despite the fact that he was, at the time,
Bishop of Johannesburg. He shared the horror of seeing his children’s faces
when they received telephonic threats.
Archbishop Tutu made regular appearances in our
classes – sharing his experiences in, among others, an International Law class
and a Public Health class.
In the Public Health
class, he expertly explained the intricacies of South African healthcare,
illustrating how some of the problems originated during the apartheid years,
while also explaining how the current government of South Africa contributes to
the problem.
Archbishop Tutu’s
humility struck me. Once, we saw a student kissing his hands, expressing how
honored he was by the Archbishop’s presence. The Archbishop kissed his hands
right back. Several times before ceremonies or shipwide meetings, students
would dance to upbeat music, and several times, the Archbishop joined in with a
slow shuffle-and-sway.
He stole the hearts of
the little children – or perhaps they stole his? – and it was not uncommon to
see him sharing a high-five with a toddler onboard.
When asked what his
favorite part about Semester at Sea was, Archbishop Tutu’s  response was always the same, “You. The
students.” He said that seeing young minds, ready to change the world, inspired
him. His message to us was always to remain inspired and hopeful, and not to
become disillusioned.
It was wonderful to learn
from an individual with so many accolades to his name, and who has seen so many
tragedies unfold, and has not become disillusioned himself. Shortly after
disembarking South Africa, we heard that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had become the latest recipient of the
Templeton Prize, which has previously been received by the Mother Theresa and
His Holiness the 14th Dalai
In his absence, the
shipboard community celebrated this award, which we knew he truly deserved.
The spring
voyage concluded, Puchert is back in Cape Town, studying medicine at the University
of Stellenbosch.