The Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa, once home to the beautiful and graceful little San people (aka Bushmen), can be a place of miracles. Springtime, for example, brings an explosion of beauty and color as far as the eye can see, in the form of a multi-colored blanket of cosmos flowers. It is breathtaking. All too soon, though, the landscape returns to the scrub and sand vista that appears hostile to life itself.
Twenty-five years ago, in the first months of my dissertation research, I was privileged to witness another Kalahari event. That is, it did take place in the Kalahari, and the desert contributed its own flavor to the experience. But it was actually more of a cosmic phenomenon with a profound impact that resounded within my personal universe–whih still resonates with the memory.
It occurred when I was driving south along a straight highway through the desert one late afternoon, still far from my destination and already hours on the road for the day. The landscape, flat to the horizon in every direction, was monotonous to the point of being mesmerizing. At first it was like being in an infinity pool, where one goes through the effort of forward motion but nothing changes. Then it started to feel like a still life painting, with car and driver captured in place at a moment in time.
As I drove, I was completely absorbed by radio reports of one of the most violent days in the country since my arrival. In future months I would never be able to reach the point of sublimating my response to the violence –“violence” being euphemistically referred to by South African press as “unrest”—and this early in my visit each occurrence was a fresh wound to my soul. My arrival in the country had almost coincided with P.W. Botha’s stroke, which would ultimately allow his cabinet to oust him from power. Long-term leadership of the nation was as yet unresolved; the population seemed to alternate between holding its breath in fear of–or in anticipation of–the future, and ever-worsening violent responses to the present.
The juxtaposition of areas of abject poverty literally in the shadow of diamond and gold mine infrastructures mirrored evidence of immense wealth, surrounded by acres and acres of homelands and townships where children were often malnourished and undereducated (if educated at all) and water supplies insufficient and far between. Yet within these extremes, and despite the rising violence, life went on. The sun set, the moon rose, and another cycle of life would begin. Children laughed and played when they could. In the cities, people shopped, went to the theatre, danced, and met in each other’s homes for meals. Except when it got too risky for a time, then they could not.
This photo, taken not long after my desert experience, recalls a day of escape into a kind of normality. I refer to my “Margaret Mead mode” when showing it. We were near a village in the mountains on the Swaziland border where the World Vision team had taken me to view one of their projects.
There was much laughter, exchange of ideas, and purpose to that day, unlike the day that I drove all alone through the desert and violence erupted in a world I could not at that point see. Now, even in writing, I feel the jarring effect of pulling out of my thoughts about the seemingly insurmountable troubles of South Africa, to look outward at the bleak, unchanging, flat and seemingly unending desert before me, where I was racing down the road on autopilot.
I was forced out of my thoughts when out of nowhere a huge 18-wheeler blared past me, going much faster than the 120kph speed limit I was observing. At first, the tractor trailer’s speed and noise seemed to emphasize my sense of immobility; of standing still in an unchanging environment. Then the car rocked in the afterwash of air from the truck, and I snapped out of my fugue state to look around me. What I saw was exquisite, awe-inspiring and unforgettable.
Out of my right window I saw a huge ball of sun just beginning to reach for the horizon. The colors of sunset were still to come, but the sky had darkened just enough to make the sight memorably impressive by itself.
Then I looked to the left, where a huge, bright “super moon” had just cleared the eastern horizon at virtually the same height as the opposite sun.
I stopped the car and got out with my camera, which to my eternal frustration would remain useless. This was one photo that would not come together; I could not capture in one frame the inexplicable coincidence of sun and moon, seemingly of equal size and brightness, facing one another across a flat, featureless desert.
I stretched out each arm in the direction of a heavenly body. I looked first east, then west, and back again. I slowly turned all the way around, absorbing the sight with eyes and heart; then I did it again. I actually pinched myself, to make sure I had not fallen asleep, or worse, had some psychotic break. I am rarely rendered speechless, but I still simply do not have words to describe this surreal experience, and its effect on me. I was alone beside the highway in the middle of a desert in a strange land, and I was embraced by both sun and moon, awash in natural brightness and awed by the vastness of a reality I could not begin to take in and could not even record.
Eventually, of course, the sun met the horizon and the splendid hues of sunset began to stain the western sky, while the moon, becoming smaller with passing time, rose higher in the eastern sky. I returned to the car and headed on toward my destination, humbled yet comforted by the reminder of my minuscule presence in the universe. Later, others would affirm the reality of this rare phenomenon but I met no one else who had actually experienced it.
Over the past quarter of a century and several spiritual desert experiences later, there have been times when I was reminded of that event. Sometimes the memory returns on its own at appropriate moments, to revitalize my energies when I am both immobilized by failure to make forward progress in a bleak environment and spiritually wounded by events of the day. Other times I have needed the equivalent of a speeding 18-wheeler blasting by to snap me out of my preoccupation with the woes of the present, and restore my equilibrium. In either case, while regaining my perspective I have had to absorb the experience, learn from it, and begin to move forward. But I have treasured those occasions when I have revisited that Kalahari experience, when awe of the beauty and vastness of the universe restored calm and peace to my soul.