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 Town.
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 Weather (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 Lama.
In his absence, the shipboard community celebrated this award, which we knew he truly deserved.
Mariechen Puchert is an Associate Editor with Youth Journalism International. The spring voyage concluded, Puchert is back in Cape Town, studying medicine at the University of Stellenbosch.