It was an awesome pleasure to touch base with Karen Baldwin, American Ambassador to the Rural Women's Movement of South Africa and find out more about her life, experiences and her fascinating memoir "Ruby’s World." I have to admit from the very outset that this interview opened my eyes and taught me so much, not only about this great woman but also about life outside the westernized comfort zone. My second admission was how long it took me to cut eight questions down to four, I couldn’t tell you how close I was to breaking my own rule of four for this author interview.
Before I kick off this special Q&A I would like to spare some space to introduce you to Karen Baldwin; so if you are on your lunch break with sandwich in hand take five along with a seat, you’ll be glad you did.
Author Interview Questions, 1: Can you tell the reader how you felt being the first white teacher in a rural Zulu elementary school and what made you want to take up that role?
K.B: I was uncomfortable being on the Zulu pedestal of “first white teacher.” My intention for going to KwaZulu-Natal was to work with orphaned children, it really had nothing to do with race. I was relieved when the anomaly of being white started to fade.
Or at least I thought it was fading. Eventually, I began to realize the extreme social pressure on Ruby to be true to her culture by rejecting me.
When I met the two white camera men from Durban at the coffin party, I was angry with them,
believing that their apparent prejudice was completely unwarranted. But the truth of the men’s words “they’d rather kill you as look at you” stung after Ruby threatened my life. My journey into South Africa was born from a series of dreams I had while recovering from my breast cancer surgeries. After surviving a heart attack and breast cancer, I was compelled to live my life “on purpose.” Working for the benefit of children has always tugged on my heart. Unlocking the Dream, my second book, reveals the dreams that birthed this adventure and answers the ever popular Ruby’s World fan question: “What were you thinking?” A free copy of Unlocking the Dream can be downloaded by Clicking Here.
Author Interview Questions, 2: Can you explain what was it like to come face-to-face with atrocities such as infant scarification, female genital mutilation, and witch doctor dominance and did you feel you had the strength in character to stand up and try to make a difference?
K.B: The atrocities you mentioned – plus the 8 year old girl who was being raped every day on the way home from school – twisted my guts. It took a long time for my anger to subside enough to be able to search for positive ways to make a difference.
If you had asked me this question before I went to Africa, I would have told you that I wasn’t strong enough to stand up to those experiences. My answer today is that the human spirit is resilient. I got through every day – all the death, humiliation, and abuse of power – by putting one foot in front of the other. It helped that I have a lifetime practice of keeping a journal, a place to process my feelings. And writing Ruby’s World was carthetic.
During my time on the ground in KwaZulu-Natal I was keenly aware of my status as an outsider; that it wasn’t my place to tell them how to live their lives. Even though I had committed to not intentionally interfering, my mere presence disrupted the balance of power in ways I never would have imagined. In hindsight, I believe I made a bigger difference by being an observer than I would have by attempting to force change.
Today, as the American Ambassador for the Rural Women’s Movement of South Africa, I’m pleased to bring awareness of the Zulu women’s struggles to the American media. Last month I attended the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and later this year I hope to return to South Africa with a film crew to interview rural Zulu women for an anthology about the ways they are gaining ground in their culture.
Author Interview Questions, 3: Why did you feel you had to tell this story and what has been your stand out memory from writing this memoir?
never planned to write a book, but my experience wouldn’t leave me alone. It haunted me to the point of believing that
maybe the story is bigger than me and needed to be shared. Then I had another dream in which I was told
to, “Stop talking about Africa write the damn
book.” So I did.
I’ve been amazed by the response from readers. I receive emails from people all over the world telling me how Ruby’s World has touched their lives in very deep ways.
What surprised me most in writing the book was how I penetrated Ruby’s world far beyond what I experienced while was there. Ruby, Mhambi, Thulani, Missy, Granny, and Nomusa lived in my heart and mind 24/7 while I wrote. I feel like I understand them so much better now and would welcome the opportunity to see each of them one more time.
Author Interview Questions, 4: Is there a point when personal beliefs encroach on traditions and should we as Westerners force our culture on others?
K.B: My most enlightening take away from Ruby’s world is understanding the complicated and far-reaching implications of change. For example, my personal values vehemently oppose mutilating women’s genitalia – an opinion I expressed freely with Ruby’s peers. They didn’t disagree with me, but instead made it painfully clear how eliminating that practice would create other forms of devastation in these women’s lives.
Nothing is as simple as it appears to the eye of an outsider. I believe forcing western ideals on other cultures is wrong. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t offer support to those who are working to create change within their own culture. And if our offers of assistance are willingly received, we must accept the complications without judgment and be prepared to help address them for the long term.
My experience of the Zulu is that we are not that different. At first glance, that may be hard to swallow. But Ruby’s World has the tendency to make readers examine their own lives in a new way. It seems necessary that we Westerners quit thinking of ourselves as having all the answers, start asking more questions, and approach other cultures with vulnerability and the perspective of being equal.
Karen, I'm so thankful to you for taking the time out to answer my interview questions, it was most defiantly worth the wait. Keep up the hard work, people like you make a great difference to this world.
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