Developing hope in S. Africa

Baltimorean: Lane Berk, 71, works as a Peace Corps volunteer on development projects for an impoverished village.

July 30, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOTANTANYANE, South Africa -- Lane K. Berk, 71, is a long way from her harbor-view Baltimore home these days as she tries to brighten the future of people in this remote and depressed African community.

She is a Peace Corps volunteer. For the next two years, she will work to improve the lives of families barely surviving in an impoverished corner of the poorest of South Africa's nine provinces.

"I have not seen anything quite like this," says the spritely Africa veteran, as she moves around the village, with its red clay streets lined with shacks and a single, small store.

"There is nothing here," says Berk. "The shop doesn't even sell local products."

She works alone, without transportation or communication.

The Peace Corps issued her a bicycle, but the dirt roads are too rutted for her to ride. The village has only one telephone and it's a private line.

The home of the Nkuma family with whom she stays has no running water. But the family, aware of her age and the challenge of midnight trips to the outside pit latrine, installed a ceramic toilet for her. Her bedroom in the brick, three-bedroom house -- the best in the village -- is the only room with electricity.

Berk arrived in Motantanyane in May after three months of Peace Corps training. Her task: to encourage local development projects to inject life into a moribund local economy. She quickly became depressed.

"It seemed to be impossible to do anything," she says, adding she was initially placed in a house where she did not feel welcome. "I was so depressed, I decided to get out of here."

She defied the Peace Corps' rule that volunteers cannot take leave for the first three months. She toured the major cities and visited the country's premier arts festival at Grahamstown, where she tried to interest groups of performers to visit Motantanyane.

"I came back rejuvenated," she says.

But she encountered problems. Previous Peace Corps volunteers in the village had been education specialists. The locals expected her to concentrate on improving the schools, too. They did not understand the concept of development she was intent on introducing. She found them subdued, rather than energetic.

"They never considered development of any sort," she says. "The importance of their village is that they are black Africans, and now powerful. They are able to do anything they wish to transform their country into a truly African country.

"They call themselves lazy. They are not lazy, but they were hopeless. I want to give them hope, to give them a sense of power so they can transform this community. What they needed to do was recognize themselves."

In recognition of her new surroundings, Berk adopted the African name given to her by her language teacher. She is known in the village as Masetshaba -- "Mother of the Community."

In Baltimore, her birthplace, she made her name in other ways, particularly as an activist in social and cultural affairs, ranging from the state's Human Relations Commission to the Baltimore Ballet.

This landed her in two major controversies. In 1976, she led a campaign to oppose the subdivision of a neighbor's land for housing development next to the Berk family farm, Berlane, in Green Spring Valley.

In 1992, she won a battle against the City Council and her neighbors over a decorative pylon -- modeled after the "Baltimore" pylon on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway -- on the roof of her East Montgomery Street home. The zoning board ruled 4-0 in her favor, and the work of art, as she describes it, remains there.

Berk, a 1948 art and philosophy graduate of Bryn Mawr College, is the widow of Bernard R. Berk, a facial reconstruction surgeon and orthodontologist. They shared a passion for Africa, dating to their first visit with their three young children in 1958.

"Together we fell irretrievably in love with the place," she says. They made three more trips to the continent.

When her husband died in 1982, they were studying Spanish in preparation for being Peace Corps volunteers in South America.

"When my husband died, my life turned upside down," she says. Her attention turned to paying debts, selling most of the Baltimore County farm and rehabbing her Federal Hill house.

More than a decade later she decided to join the Peace Corps. She was assigned to South Africa, a country the Peace Corps had boycotted during apartheid.

`Happy she is here'

As she walks through Motantanyane, men, women and children warmly greet her.

"I am so happy she is here," says Mary Nkuma, whose home she shares. Nkuma has two daughters working in schools -- one an administrator, the other a teacher -- and, with their help, maintains a comfortable home.

According to the local pastor, Maphori Mabushe, most families here are lucky to have a single wage-earner, or to be able to put a piece of chicken or other meat on the table more than once a week to supplement the daily diet of corn porridge.

"Unemployment is a horrible thing," he says. "There are so many needs, so many needs."

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