World Summit in South Africa

Story by Diane Gayer

Photographs by Diane Gayer and Jason Houston

August 10: The Ark of Hope arrives in Johannesburg, South Africa (SA), site of the upcoming United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). The Ark is first exhibited at Nedcor Bank, one of the venues for Summit meetings.

August 12: The Ark of Hope goes to Pretoria, SA to visit the Junior Mayor and Councilors.

People feel the Ark has a lot of South African symbols, including the baobob tree. There was a lovely piece on SABC-TV of the junior councilors (future leaders of their country, in their robes and with medals hanging around their necks), reading from the Temenos Books--a favorite page was ‘I wish they would not cut down trees to make toothpicks.’ Lea Terhune

August 16: The Ark travels to five schools where children work on Temenos Books.

August 19-23: The Ark is exhibited at Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) along with a very glitzy reception and an art exhibit of South African artists organized by Nina Venjakob.

August 22: Sally Linder, Barbara Waters, Andrea Morgante, Trees-ah Elder, Diane Gayer (artists and community leaders from Vermont) and Jason Houston (photographer from Massachusetts) arrive in Johannesburg. We join Lea Terhune (community leader also from Vermont) who arrived August 10th.

On our first night we sit around a campfire and drum under the African sky. Watching the moon rise connects us to place in a most immediate way. The politics of South Africa slowly emerge through the music--the recognition that whites are African too, that drumming is not necessarily restricted to blacks, and that expectation and reality are not the same thing.

August 23: We meet and talk with the 22 students who are to accompany us to the Summit. These intelligent, motivated, caring students from squatters’ camps are excited to be part of this world gathering. By the time we reach the WSSD Side Event each student has found his or her voice and become strong, and we have become facilitators for something even greater. The meaning of the Earth Charter unfolds as we work together. The students instinctively understand how and why their specific truths fit into the larger context of the guiding principles of the Earth Charter.

August 24: The Ark of Hope is taken to Diepsloot to be walked through the community where most of these students live. We hug and celebrate for a few minutes before we set off. The Ark is finally home on the red dusty primal African earth.

Diepsloot is a squatters’ camp of 250,000 people. Carrying the Ark we pass hand-made commercial stalls, homes made out of corrugated metal, people walking and talking in the dust, women doing laundry at an open spigot in courtyards, an elementary school surrounded by a razor-wire topped wall. After about two hours we arrive at the Wings of Life, a project run by a nonprofit trust. There is a metal trailer for the pre-school, two wood-frame cabins, a traditional thatched-roof hut (built just for the Ark,) and a drilled well for water. A twelve-classroom school is planned but not yet built due to lack of funding.

I felt rather at home here, several times stopping to talk with shopkeepers and people standing out in front of their homes. I had little Ark of Hope cards to give out, which gave me an excuse to approach people. The children liked the cards--it was fun to see their eyes light up. The Ark is beautiful, and it definitely made a golden oasis. Lea

We are learning about the role of beauty. On the walk from Vermont, through Massachusetts to Connecticut, the beauty of the Ark opened doors, opened people’s hearts—allowing them to believe in something greater again. In the aftermath of the Sept.11 attacks Americans struggling to trust their own instinct for peace and compassion, were drawn to the Ark and the Earth Charter. And now in South Africa—whether in Diepsloot or at the World Summit—the same thing is happening. The beauty of the Ark stops people and the poetry of the Earth Charter feeds their spirit.

August 25: A friend arrives with the bakki to take the Ark to Zandspruit, another squatters’ camp. It is hot but unlike Diepsloot, this place has a pattern of large trees forming a canopy over some of the metal shacks and informal gathering spaces.

Slowly children start to appear from various alleyways and courtyards to see the Ark and run their hands over the images. Soon they are sitting in the back of the truck drawing on squares of paper to put in their own Temenos Book for the Ark. As more children arrive and clamber into the truck there comes a point when it is so full of children no one can draw anymore. So I start lifting them out each time they turn in a drawing. As I put them on the ground they run around to the other side, climb in, make a drawing, just to get lifted out of the truck again. This becomes a great game—a sort-of variation on hide-and-seek.

Glenys Van Halter (director of a nonprofit safehouse for victims of rape and abuse, and programmes for AIDS orphans) explains that these kids want so much to be loved, and held, and touched—they are starved for attention. I find the warmth wonderful and cry that we can no longer cuddle and hug small children in our country, no longer socialize with students, no longer have a drink with a professor... I know the abuses, rapes, and lawsuits are serious, but look at what it has done to us— look at the fear that has replaced the love.

August 26: We workshop with the 22 students at the Wings of Life preschool trailer and listen to their stories.

Merryn starts: "It’s time for action;" Gugu (Yvonne) follows with "We need education;" Salamina talks of living conditions, trash, lack of water, and access to proper toilets; and Julia (Lebogang) worries about streetkids and access to work with pay.

Lucky challenges the Summit with implementation; Fanletti (Choizee) says nothing has improved since the last Summit, there must be hope for this one; Themba injects there should be no tolerance of the industrial practices that are destroying our world.

The stories continue. Jerita brings up the suffering of parents with no education who despite no money for school fees, uniforms, or food, still hope for their children’s education; Cynthia (Jabile) brings up the need for access to tertiary education; Josias talks of unemployment, no access to jobs, prostitution for food, and bad housing; Merryn ties lack of access to education to drugs and poverty; and Busi moves on to the hows and whys of living with HIV and AIDS.

Salamina talks of police corruption, and youth who must speak out against crime and rape; Gugu replies that youth need skills and connections to stand up; Moses changes the topic back to AIDS, adding that men are raping and abusing their children, this is killing the little girls.

There is more to say. Alec speaks to the needs for youth to change how things are, to have micro-enterprises, to raise their voices together and get focus; Josias adds that youth need support from their parents and leaders; Lucky has ideas about school programmes and community gardens; Josias pipes in that learning to grow tomatoes or vegetables is a lot more sustainable than being given a tomato; Lucky returns to Merryn’s earlier point about action, offering examples of youth programmes that exhibit other talents in a community.

Curiously, all-on-their-own, the stories change direction from suffering to hope. We close by defining the themes these stories fall under: Human Rights, Education, Poverty, Environment, Action, and Hope. We compare the list to the Earth Charter Principles.

August 27: We are joined by Nina Meyerhof to finalize the presentation. It becomes clear we have become one solid powerful family. Merryn has tie-dyed t-shirts for everyone to wear and Jerita has created a song for us to sing. Gwen Hallsmith connects with us the next day.

August 28: The United Nations WSSD Side Event is held in a huge ballroom with capacity for several thousand. The delegates arrive and the seats fill. We—the students and us—walk in carrying the Ark of Hope, keeping the beat of Earth's heart, step-step-pause, step-step-pause. We assemble in a semi-circle around the Ark, and as the students begin to tell their stories, the room hushes: "My mother was beaten. We call the police, file a complaint, but each time they lose the file…. I go to school and I study, but when I finish there will be no job.... My five year old sister was raped...There is no food in my house and we are hungry. My mother works a job but she does not get enough money." We hold up placards with the Earth Charter principles. Then paper dolls of the world’s people, animals, and trees are rolled open and words of hope are spoken: LOVE, RESPECT, OPPORTUNITY…. Jerita leads us in the final song: "SPIRIT help us to build a better world, SPIRIT help us to build the happy family..."

"I didn’t get a chance to speak to you after our joint event in Jo-burg, and I just wanted to tell you how moved I was by the power of what you and the children created there. It was a magnificent testament to the courage of children and a great start to the event as a whole—as one African government delegate said to me afterwards, "we know all these things happen, but when you hear them direct from the children themselves, it really goes to your heart." John Hillary (Save the Children)

After the presentation, Nitin Desai, Secretary-General of the Summit, and his wife, Adooti, invite the youth to meet with them in a private garden. She describes how villagers in India create a strong community through self-help. Adooti urges the youth not to wait for government to help them—but to go ahead and develop a plan of what they want and take the steps to get there.

August 29: The Ark of Hope is invited to the Soka Gakkai International tent at Ubunto Village. In the setting winter sun we have a quiet celebration at the Sacred Place.

September 6: Looking back as we prepare to leave South Africa I think of how we started our first night with drumming under the full moon, walked through the streets of Diepsloot accompanied by a troupe of streetkids with their drums, and now in closing we are singing and dancing—truly this place, this land, this people are full of spirit.

September 8: We finally read the papers and catch up on the news of the Summit. There is reason to be cynical. All the energy and water resources, the social capacity, and political will that are harnessed to pull together such a global event—go to waste when results are not achieved. That the USA can veto action or withhold support for sustainable development in the rest of the world denies the true generosity and understanding of its own citizens. Still grassroots efforts continue to move Earth Charter adoption forward at many levels.

September 21: The Ark returns to USA.

I want to thank Dr. Steven Rockefeller, member of the Earth Charter Commission, and the Earth Charter folks for their endless passion and dedication, and Sally Linder for her depth of vision and connection to the Source.

For more images of the Ark of Hope in South Africa visit

The Ark of Hope
The Ark of Hope arrives in Johannesburg, South Africa (SA).

Ark of HOpe
Diepsloot; Carrying the Ark we pass hand-made commercial stalls.

Ark of Hope
Stopping to talk with shopkeepers and people standing out in front of their homes.

Ark of Hope
Ark of Hope.

Ark of Hope
Ark of Hope.

Ark of Hope
The United Nations WSSD Event.

Ark of Hope
The Ark of Hope is invited to the Soka Gakkai International tent at Ubunto Village.

Published: Sunday, September 01, 2002.
Story By: Diane Gayer
copyright © 2001 - 2009 Ark of Hope