Return to South Africa

By Laurie Kahn
September, 1999

In February I returned to South Africa as part of a delegation studying post traumatic stress, and as a speaker at the First African Congress on Traumatic Stress. It was our charge to ponder the nature of trauma in a country undergoing dramatic social change. On a similar delegation three years ago we visited trauma clinics in Johannesburg and Capetown, and I had the privilege of seeing this captivating and beautiful country. The coastline of Capetown had remained a picture postcard that seemed imprinted in my mind: a beach surrounded by cliffs, white sand, and waters the richest colors of blue. When I first saw the coastline I noticed a figure emerging on the horizon. As it came into focus I could see a person riding a horse. The magical moment stayed with me. More than once I had dreamt of the abandonment and ecstasy of riding a horse on the beach.

So there I was in Capetown, staying in a hotel with serious and well-informed therapists in the field of trauma, and all I could think about was riding a horse on the beach. Two members of the delegation, Joyce and Sharon, agreed to accompany me as my personal “”dream team”. We arrived at the horse farm, my body filled with excitement and anticipation. We selected and mounted horses. Inside I was like a little kid jumping up and down with excitement. Externally my joy could only be recognized by the silly grin on my face. The beach opened up ahead of us; it was beautiful as I had anticipated. I began riding, galloping; I love the energy of a horse beneath me…The horse’s gait intensified – he began racing down the beach indifferent to my presence. My excitement gave way to fear.

The next moment I remember I was lying on the beach. Joyce was leaning over me telling me not to move. Blood was on my face, arms, and ear, and I was covered in seaweed. I lifted back onto a horse and we slowly walked back to the barn, and from there driven to the emergency room in a small hospital on the outskirts of Capetown.

My friends and colleagues remarked “Laurie, you went to South Africa to study trauma, not to experience trauma.” I was puzzled by their reaction. Yes, my body was shaken. I had broken my hand in three places, yet the moment of fear and helplessness when I was thrown off the horse was not what I most remembered. My colleagues Joyce and Sharon had transformed into loving companions. They stayed by my side, advocated for me in the hospital, and provided constant care and warmth. As I returned to the delegation I was greeted with hugs and smiling faces. My bruises were evident, yet the world had remained a kind place. Twenty-four hours after surgery I spoke on a panel with women from South Africa and Israel. Words were spoken, experiences shared and boundaries melted as we shared our wisdom and our vulnerabilities working with trauma. I returned home triumphant, proud of my resiliency, feeling well held by the kindness of strangers and friends.

In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had come to a close. A major task of the commission was to bear witnessto the victims of human atrocities. The survivors of torture and the witnesses of the murders of their sons told their stories. The voices that had been silenced during apartheid spoke and a nation listened; the victims surrounded by compassionate faces. My hand would heal in a few short months. Healing in South Africa is daunting, the wounds less visible and more penetrating. My core beliefs about self, the kindness of others and safety in the world were intact, theirs shattered.

Many in South Africa dream of and work toward national healing. Their example and my experience in South Africa continue to deepen my belief in the power of community to buffer wounds to the body, soul, and psyche.