‘It is my life,’ says Tutu of human rights’ activism

Naomi Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spoke at the 150th anniversary celebration of the diocese of Ontario in Kingston, Ont. on Saturday June 3. Photo: Francie Healy
Naomi Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spoke at the 150th anniversary celebration of the diocese of Ontario in Kingston, Ont. on Saturday June 3. Photo: Francie Healy
Published June 5, 2012

The man is standing at the arrivals section at Pearson International Airport. He’s holding a camera and appears ready to take a photo of someone coming through customs.

I’m doing the same thing, so we start chatting. He tells me he was born a Muslim, married a Jewish woman, and raised his two sons in the Jewish faith. Now his sons are rabbis. He’s proud of them; he’s proud of their combined histories.

He asks who I’m waiting for. I tell him Naomi Tutu.

“Any relation to that Anglican fellow?” he asks. His eyes are hopeful. “Archbishop Desmond Tutu?”

“His daughter,” I say.

Just then our discussion is interrupted.

“She’s here!”

Paul Clur, with whom I have travelled to meet Tutu, has spotted her. Clur is a development officer with Resources for Mission at the Anglican Church of Canada. He runs to greet Tutu, and I turn to follow. The Muslim man beats me to her, his camera at the ready. He asks her, before she’s had a chance to catch her breath, if he can take a photo of her. She stops, looks at the camera, smiles.

And that’s how we first meet Naomi Tutu. We are bringing her to Kingston, Ont. to be the guest speaker at the 150th anniversary celebration of the diocese of Ontario.

We anticipate a giant of a woman, a person who will start talking about her work, her accomplishments, dreams and passions. This is, after all, a woman who was raised by famous parents, who was born into apartheid, learned first-hand the terrible pain and struggles of her people, who watched the end of Apartheid but not the end of racism, and who has spent her life speaking out against it. I wonder if I’ll even be able to keep up my end of the conversation during the three-hour drive.

But Tutu is down-to-earth, quiet, reserved. I sense she is a deeply private person, a proud mother. But for now, she is just plain tired, having travelled from her home in Nashville, Tenn. with only a few hours’ sleep the night before. Tomorrow she will return home for her son’s 15th birthday.

She asks to sit in the back of Clur’s van so she can rest and we don’t hear a word from her until we arrive in Kingston.

When we arrive at her hotel, she has about 45 minutes to get changed before she appears at a small dinner with the 150th anniversary planning team. At dinner, she’s refreshed, radiant. She greets everyone with gentle ease and grace.

It isn’t until the next day, at Kingston’s K-Rock Centre, that we see and hear her great strength as a speaker.

The K-Rock Centre, home of the Kingston Frontenacs, doesn’t look much like a hockey arena thanks to all the flower and banners. It’s jam packed with 1,800 people who have come from parishes across the diocese to celebrate the eucharist and to hear Naomi speak.

All of a sudden we hear the sound of drums. They’re loud and getting louder. And then, as if by magic, here in our midst are the Remeshi Burundi drummers. Dressed in bright orange and making a glorious noise, they enter the arena carrying huge drums on their heads. They twirl their drum sticks, jump high into the air and beat those drums so fast you can’t see their hands moving. It is a profound and wonderful moment.

When the drumming stops, the eucharist begins with almost as much energy. It’s a powerful background for Naomi, who takes her place on the stage to speak.

She talks about the importance of being truly, fully human.

She says worship−such as the event that is happening in the arena right now-is essential as a means of bringing people together in a shared and caring community.

But it’s not enough, she adds.

Worship “must not end today with passing the peace,” she says. “It has to move to passing the peace to those who are sleeping on the streets.”

After the service, people who have bought tickets line up to have brunch and meet Naomi. She talks about issues of gender and racism, calling them “topics of concern in all our nations.

“When we talk about race and division… the continuing anger, guilt, and oppression…it’s a huge part of what people experience all over the world.”

Educated in Swaziland, the U.S. and England, Tutu has devoted her career to teaching and advocating for race and gender justice. She travels extensively to promote human rights.

She says much of the work she does is for her children.

“I want my daughters to one day be able to walk anywhere anytime and be safe,” she says. “And I want my son, who is an amazing human being, to be seen as the person he is and not have people judge him because he is a black man.”

She adds her passion is personal.

“This is what gives me my energy,” she says. “It is my life.”



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