S. African tragedy helps woman find her calling

Marylander funnels U.S. aid to projects in black township

November 08, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GUGULETU, South Africa -- Maggie Barker of Maryland is here in this impoverished black township near Cape Town to help spend millions of Uncle Sam's tax dollars.

Barker, 23, a graduate of Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, is drawing up a list of development programs in communities like this around the Cape of Good Hope. The programs will be funded through an $8.6 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

She is a coordinator with the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, named after the Fulbright scholar from California who was beaten and stoned to death in 1993 by four politically active students in Guguletu, the depressed side of Cape Town that visitors rarely see. Biehl, 26, was in South Africa to help with voter registration for the nation's first all-race election, which ended apartheid in 1994.

Biehl's killers were sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment, but were released after being granted amnesty in August 1998 for making a full disclosure of their crime before the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Her parents, Peter and Linda Biehl of Newport Beach, Calif., established the foundation in her memory to "weave a barrier against violence." The foundation seeks to promote South Africa's transition from white-minority rule with programs that focus on young adults through schools, community centers, churches, youth groups and street committees.

Barker, like Amy Biehl, first came to Africa as a student. With 11 other undergraduates from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Barker studied for six months in 1997 at the University of Cape Town.

When she returned for her senior year at Princeton, she decided to focus her thesis on education reform in South Africa. Her elder sister, Kate, sent her tapes of Biehl's parents speaking publicly on their daughter's death and the foundation.

"My thesis was due, and I needed some inspiration," said Barker. "I listened to the tapes. I realized that the kind of work they were doing in South Africa was what I wanted to do.

After completing her thesis, Barker wrote to the Biehls, telling them about her experience in South Africa. In April 1998, they met in Washington. Another letter and more than a year later, they offered her a job in Cape Town.

After arriving in August, her first challenge was to set up a primary-school reading program in this sprawling township. She recruited volunteer readers, mainly unemployed teachers, to introduce first-graders to books and literacy, promoting comprehension and imagination.

Barker now coordinates the foundation's expansion team, which is charged with channeling the USAID grant beyond the townships immediately surrounding Cape Town -- the foundation's previous focus -- into impoverished communities farther afield.

She travels the countryside with her car doors locked, a cell phone and a clear idea of where she is going.

"We go into the black townships, and we are finding very high levels of crime, unemployment, boredom for young kids with nothing to do after school," she said. "At the same time, we are finding people with a lot of ideas, a lot of energy and real commitment to improving their surroundings, but with very few resources to make change happen."

She said she is "learning a hell of a lot."

"When I was here before as a student, I wasn't as aware as I am now of the realities of the apartheid legacy," Barker said. "There are some painful moments -- just seeing communities that are so deprived.

"You know there are such good people who live there. It's unfair a lot of times. At the same time, work has got to get done, and you can't be overwhelmed by it.

"It's the contrast. It's overwhelming," Barker said. "You have this beautiful mountain, beautiful physical environment, and then you have this poverty. The two don't seem to belong."

When she visits a community, she finds out what programs are in place, what help residents need, and on what its leaders would spend a new injection of money.

"We don't go there with our own agenda and our own recipe of how to improve education and school programs," said Barker. "We go there to find out what they want."

One successful project supported by the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, which will be a key element in the expansion program, is the creation of community bakeries, which will generate revenue for reinvestment in the community.

Other areas of emphasis are development of recreation facilities, music and art tuition, modeling courses to improve self-esteem, and after-school care and classes for primary school students.

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