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South African performance poet Diana Ferrus. Photo by Carolyn Pogue

Holidays, holy days

A late summer’s pilgrimage

By Carolyn Pogue

In New York and Massachusetts this year, holidays became holy days. First we visited Seneca Falls, N.Y., to honour men and women who worked for equal rights in the 1800s. Then we attended a wedding near Boston and met a South African poet who reminds me of what honour is about.

A few years ago, my husband, Bill, noticed the highway sign for the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. We had been driving to Cooperstown, N.Y., to see the Baseball Hall of Fame and also to visit the home of Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railway “conductor” who guided slaves to freedom in Canada. We detoured to the Women’s Rights park, which commemorates an 1848 convention credited with spurring the women’s movement in the United States. This year marks our third visit.

For us it’s like a pilgrimage to honour the women and men who risked so much to declare that black and white, women and men are equal. Interestingly, these early feminists gained courage and received an education from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) who lived in the area. They learned that women in that culture held equal status, respect and power, things colonial women and African Americans only dreamed of. It gives me courage just to stand where they stood.

Seneca Falls is beautiful. It is on the Erie Canal, which powered the mills that powered the economy in the 1800s. The last mill to close was originally owned by abolitionists who shunned cotton (picked by slaves) and produced only woollen items.

A stroll through town, following a purple ribbon painted on the sidewalk, leads from the reconstructed Wesleyan Chapel (site of the 1848 meeting), past Declaration Park, the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the visitor centre. At the end of the main street is the Center for the Voices of Humanity, part of an international network for human rights.

Two days later, we were at the wedding celebration of Art Weingartner and Diane D’Souza. It was a creative and beautiful three-day event, mostly taking place at a rustic camp south of Boston on Wampatuck Pond.

One of the guests, South African performance poet Diana Ferrus, blessed us with song, drumming, dance and poetry. She is best known for the title poem in her book I’ve Come to Take You Home. The poem was written as a tribute to Sarah Baartman.

By the campfire one night, Diana told us the story behind the poem. In 1810, Sarah, 20, was stolen from South Africa and taken to England. There, for four years, she was paraded as a sexual freak and dubbed the Hottentot Venus. She was then sold to an animal trainer in France, where she died at age 24. Her body was dissected, her genitalia and brain displayed in the Musée d l’Homme in Paris.

Petitions to have her body returned home were refused. In 1994, South African President Nelson Mandela petitioned the French government too. Finally, a French senator campaigned for Sarah’s repatriation. In building his case, he discovered Diana Ferrus’s poem and contacted her. The poem helped turn the tide, and in 2002, Diana recited it in Paris while Sarah’s remains were handed over to the South African delegation.

Under the full September moon, she recited her poem for us. Here is how it begins:

I’ve come to take you home, home!
Remember the veld
the lush green grass beneath the big oak trees?
The air is cool there and the sun does not burn.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill . . .

For us, these are days to honour women and men of strength, beauty and hope. Holy days.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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