EP 006: IT TAKES TUTU – Historycal: Words that Shaped the World
Speaking to Delegates at the One Young World opening ceremony in 2010, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu – affectionately called ‘the Arch’ in his home country – tells a story. A school had recently been named after him in the Netherlands (which, he hastens to add, is not the important part of the story). The school was celebrating its 400th anniversary and the Arch and his wife were invited to the festivities. During the course of these, as the Arch tells it, a little girl came up to him and asked “were you here when the school started?”
He follows this story up with his classic, delighted giggle – if you’ve never heard it, please follow the links in the show descriptions. The story is meant to poke fun at his own age – and it does – but there’s a nugget of truth in there. Desmond Tutu is certainly nowhere near 400, but over the course of his 90 years, he has become such a pillar of the country that many of us just assume that he’s always been around, and always will. Even since his retirement from public life, whenever something outrageous happens in a government at home or beyond, one thinks “just wait until the Arch hears about this!” and the thought of him waggling his finger at badly behaved politicians is its own kind of comfort. It’s like being a country of teenagers squabbling in front of our grandpa – he might be pretending to sleep, but once someone really crosses the line, he’s going to be out of his armchair and knocking us apart with his stick.
Desmond Tutu’s global renown stems from his decades of work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, after having been nominated for three preceding years, and after the 1994 election which officially marked the end of racial segregation in South Africa, he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His long resume as an activist is formidable, and we’ll be returning to that in another episode. But one of the things that made him such a beloved figure in South African history, and such a popular leader today, is his disarming sense of humour and absolutely infectious laugh. If nothing else, he makes you want to follow his lead on the off chance that he might tell you the secrets to eternal youth and self-sustaining joy – and in a way, he has. The Arch is good buddies – I might even say great buddies – with the Dalai Lama, and the two of them have written a book called the Book of Joy. (We’ll dive into the details when we open up our literary season, but spoiler alert – the secret is not being too stuck on the person who sleeps on your pillow).
In an interview for their upcoming film, ‘Mission: Joy – Finding Happiness in Troubled Times,’ the Arch and His Holiness the Dalai Lama sit down to talk about the film, their book, and their friendship. But, like schoolboys, they don’t make things easy for the poor chap tasked with the interview. He leans in and refers to the Dalai Lama as His Holiness – all proper and quite correct. At which point, before he can even get the question out, Desmond Tutu interrupts.
“Listen!” he says, and everyone goes quiet, their fingers hovering over their Twitter icons, probably hoping to be the first person to gather up whatever perfectly formed pearls the Arch is about the drop.
“Listen!” he says, and he fixes his old friend with a look that resembles a twelve year old boy luring his friend out of Maths for a cigarette behind the bicycle shed. “Act like a Holy man,” he stage-whispers, and he waggles an admonitory finger at His Holiness, who looks delighted by his friend’s naughtiness. He rather proves Tutu’s point by doing basically the only thing that would have made sense at that point: grabbing the Arch’s pointing finger and sticking into his own ear. The two dissolve into peals of merry laughter, which travel, by the sounds of it, to every other person working in the building. Although it’s hard to tell, over the sounds of your own giggles on the other end of YouTube. The interviewer tries to get things back on track by asking the two how they think about their own deaths, which apparently is also incredibly funny. Once they manage to stop giggling, the Arch points back to his buddy and says “Well, he doesn’t mind so much because there’s the reincarnation.”
But after the laughter, His Holiness gets serious. He looks straight at the Arch and says “you see this picture, this special picture?” (And he’s gesturing towards Desmond Tutu’s face now). “I think at time of my death, I will remember you.”
It’s a profoundly touching moment, not just because the Dalai Lama talking about his own death is always momentous, but because there aren’t enough moments of sincerity in our lives, so we don’t know where to look when they happen. And this has always been the Arch’s message – that friends can be made in unlikely places, that laughter is a great healer, and that wonderful things can be accomplished without you taking yourself too seriously.
In another short film, made by the ‘21 Icons’ project, Desmond Tutu kicks off by saying, “I must have been maybe 5 or 6. The thing I really wanted to be was an adult.” He laughs at his own joke – a habit, he has joked in the part, that he thinks makes people believe he might be funnier than he actually is. He goes on,
“When they had the world cup for the homeless, somebody took a picture of me kicking a ball. Nelson Mandela said they must tell me, I must act my age.”
The short film, which documents the capture of an incredible portrait of Desmond Tutu alongside a Tutu, captures this side of the man so beautifully. All people, as he himself would have us remember, are complex and 3 dimensional. Archbishops can be freedom fighters, freedom fighters can be silly, and Nobel peace prize winners can eat marshmallows and Yogi Sip at every possible opportunity. (On this note: the Arch’s wife of 16 years, when asked about his culinary preferences by various hosts, responded by telling them to ‘think of a five year old’.)
Back at the portrait shoot, the Arch is dancing around a tutu suspended from the ceiling. The photographer calls out “can you do exactly what you’re doing now, but look at me?” The Arch pauses, shoots him a cheeky look out of the corner of his eye, and then says “why?”
The humour is not just the spoonful of sugar designed to force medicine down the throats of a recalcitrant population though. And its not a front which detracts from the real, serious business of trying to course-correct a world that, as Tutu once said about South Africa, has “a few local problems.” The Arch has a theory about forgiveness – that it’s not act of forgetting, but one of remembering. His laughter is similar; it doesn’t ask us to forget what is wrong in the world, but to remember what could be found if we look in the right places.
As he puts it himself:
They speak about the Tutu legacy which is, I suppose, about standing up for justice, Saying it is possible for enemies to become friends, reconciliation and peace. Standing up for those who are downtrodden, those who are marginalized.
I try to remind people of the fairly straightforward things that we easily forget. Yes, there is a lot of evil in the world, but there is also a lot of good. In fact, we are made for goodness. Which is fantastic!