Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Of Collapsible Coffins and Ways of Dying: The Search for Catholic Contextuality in African Perspective

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Of Collapsible Coffins and Ways of Dying: The Search for Catholic Contextuality in African Perspective

Article excerpt

The secret of his success lay in the Nefolovhodwe Collapsible Coffin which he invented soon after his arrival in the city. The coffin could be carried by one person, like a suitcase, and it could be put together in easy steps even by a child. It was cheap enough, yet durable. The instructions that accompanied it were simple to follow, and were written in all the languages that were spoken in the city. Although it was lightweight when assembled, it could carry the heaviest imaginable corpse. People came from all over--by train, by bus, by private car, and on foot--to buy the Nefolovhodwe Collapsible Coffin. There was also the Nefholovhodwe De Luxe Special, which was a much more expensive type. Only the wealthiest people could afford it. (1)

The globalization of misery

My journey from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Atlanta, USA, brought me deeper into the world-wide-web of desolation that was unleashed when 19 young men converted four passenger planes into sleek, flying collapsible coffins and deadly missiles. Being on a plane within days of September 11th 2001--on 21 September 2001 to be precise--made it apparent to me that I could indeed be sitting in a giant coffin, a kind of upper-class mass grave. Suddenly, what was meant to be just another trip to yet another country became a journey of faith, and a matter of life and death. The trip became not mere travel, but both a foolish risk and a pilgrimage of faith. As I walked into the aeroplane, I saw in my mind's eye flashes of what we had seen on TV for a whole week; first the one smouldering skyscraper in New York and then the image of the second aircraft slamming into the second building as a large swirling mountain of thick smoke issued out.

The first time we saw those images--on the evening of September 11th--it was as if our own living-room in Pretoria literally filled with the smoke of death and destruction relayed from a far-away land. Even at that moment though, that land was not that far away. We watched not merely as spectators but as participants in this drama of human tragedy. Ironically, the last occasions that TV in our living room had managed to affect us emotionally in such a powerful manner were the live broadcasts of the epoch-making release of Nelson Mandela, and the "beautiful" funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. The former instantly transmitted waves of joy and hope into millions of hearts all over the world, while the latter inspired an inexplicably real and profound sense of loss and reverence worldwide. But the ghastly and evil events of September 11th tore millions of hearts into emotional rubble even as the twin towers at the World Trade Center were reduced to ash and grime mixed with human blood. How can the same global, instantaneous network of communication and air travel deliver such contrasting end-products--such beauty and such ugliness? How can such misery and joy issue from the same source? Is this what Ben Okri (2)--a Nigerian writer and poet--was talking about when he wrote the following words?

 
   ... no, neither the good in us 
   Nor our capacity for evil are exhausted 
   And time will show just how young 
   We are in our abilities 
   Our genius for good and evil 

What is puzzling about modernity and globalization is that they work both good and bad with both apparent ease and bewildering complexity. We cannot simply select the good from the bad, because the bad is often mediated by, or mixed with, the good. The seeds of death and destruction are built into the very values, systems, processes, signs and symbols of our age. Globalization creates and inspires hope even as it dashes a million hopes of millions of people; uniting even as it tears asunder, comforting without ever ceasing to kill. Never before have travel and communication been so swift and efficient--and yet our sense of community is not much enhanced.

Armed as we are with our fax machines, mobile phones, fast mail and email, it is debatable whether we communicate or know one another better than did our predecessors. …

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