The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Book about Stephen Biko changes woman's life

 

August 3, 2017

Diana Zimmerman

After reading Cry Freedom, Naselle resident Laura Ray felt a call to Africa that remains with her, even to this day. After two trips to the continent, she wrote her own book, Because of Biko.

Laura Ray's life was completely altered by a book about a man who lived and died half a world away from her own in the Pacific Northwest.

The book put her on a journey that some might dream of, but never fulfill. Her fascination became a kind of obsession that drove her to Africa to visit the man's grave, not once but twice, and deposited her, unknowing, straight into the last day of a young child's life.

The book, Cry Freedom, was about a black man in South Africa during Apartheid. The man was Stephen Biko, and he was murdered in 1977, at the age of 31, for his political views.

"Steve Biko told everybody that they needed to go to school," Ray began. "He told them that they needed to be educated if they wanted to win. He was so smart, the police were afraid of him. He was studying to be a doctor, but he quit to lead the fight against Apartheid. He knew he was going to end up losing his life, but he did it anyway."

"In my opinion," she finished, "he would have been bigger than Nelson Mandela if they wouldn't have killed him."

She read the book when her children were five and three. When her youngest turned 18, she started making plans to travel to South Africa.

"I didn't know if I would make it back," Ray said. "South Africa has an extremely high crime rate. At the time, it was the most dangerous country in the world, except for Colombia."

She wrote her will. She contacted her insurance agency to find out if she could get care if she got hurt on her trip, or even worse, would they bring her body back if she died. She wrote letters to her kids.

And then she flew to Africa by herself.

She began her trip in Zimbabwe and did a walking tour of Victoria Falls, and an elephant-back safari.

"The people there were so gracious," Ray said. "Robert Mugabe is the dictator there. The people have nothing and they were so kind and gracious, they were really amazing to me."

Then she flew to Johannesburg to visit an AIDS hospice and orphanage, Sparrow Rainbow Village.

"Once I met the kids there, I didn't want to leave," she said.

So she stayed. A CNA, she was given leave to do what she wanted.

"I went into the hospice section and there was a little girl there named Jerry Ann," Ray said. "She was so sick. She was 10, and when children are born with AIDs their life expectancy is 10 years. It was like she was in a coma when I saw her. You can't touch them because they hurt so bad. I sat on the edge of her bed and kissed her forehead and told her she was loved. After a while, she opened her eyes a little bit and started watching me. An aide told me that Jerry Ann liked a couple books, so I began reading to her. I don't know how she did it, but she crawled up in my lap. I tried not squeeze her, but I held her and read to her and kissed her."

"They can die there or go to the hospital," Ray said, "and Jerry Ann told me she wanted to go to the hospital that night."

Ray choked up a little.

"We took her to the hospital that night, and she vomited when she got out of the car. It looked like coffee grounds. It was a 10 year old child. It didn't register. I guess I didn't want it to. I was a CNA, I knew that meant a person was dying. But it didn't dawn on me. She died right after we left."

Ray never forgot that little girl. Jerry Ann is the reason Ray decided to write her own book.

"It was so tragic to me that a 10 year old died without her family, so I decided to write the book in memory of Jerry Ann," Ray said. "I wanted people to know what Apartheid was like and how it had changed. I wanted them to know the affect that AIDS has had on the families. And I wanted them to know about Jerry Ann and Steve Biko. I never started out to be a writer. I just wanted to share what I learned in Africa."

She spent a week there before flying to East London, South Africa. She rented a car and a phone and announced that she was headed to the place where Steve Biko was buried, King William's Town.

"You can't go there," someone told her. "It's too dangerous!"

"I just have to," Ray replied.

People heard and started crying. So off she went, in a car, all alone.

When she reached King William's Town, she stopped at a gas station for directions. The employees there worked behind a bullet proof window.

"I walked in," Ray said, "and they were all black people. All conversation just stopped and they just stared at me."

She asked for directions to the Garden of Remembrance, where Steve Biko was buried.

"What did you say?" they asked her.

"I'm going to his grave," she told them. "I came from halfway around the world."

A man, another customer, told her to follow him. Setting aside any fear she might have felt, she did.

"I was driven to do it," Ray said. "No matter the cost. I waited 15 years to get there. I worked three jobs the last year with only a couple days off. I got to that wall and started crying. And that man put his arms around me, and we had tears for the same person."

"Here was this black man who was murdered by white people," Ray said of Biko. "And they had such hatred for white people because of it. So this black South African man and this white woman from the U.S. stood there and had tears for the same person. It was the biggest thing in my life. I will never forget that man who took me there."

After her trip ended, all she could think about was how to return to Africa.

Three years later she went back, and this time she brought her fiancé.

"I told him I wanted to get married in Zimbabwe," Ray laughed. "He asked me if I was crazy."

"My heart is in Africa," she said. "It's all I think about."

She didn't tell her fiancé, Glenn, who is her husband now, that there were several travel advisories at the time to stay out of Zimbabwe.

"It was really bad," Ray said. "The inflation at the time was 800,000 percent. There was no food in the country at all. Robert Mugabe is a monster and those people suffer so much at his hands. I didn't tell Glenn quite a lot of things, really. I felt like I had somebody watching over me and I just knew it would be fine."

There were some setbacks in the form of a constantly shifting red tape, but the couple was finally married on a sunset dinner cruise on the Zambezi River.

Ray showed her new husband where she had gone, minus the AIDS hospice and a trip to Robben Island, where political prisoners had been kept. They returned to King William's Town, and they visited Biko's grave.

"If I had the opportunity, I would be on a plane today," Ray said. "It's all I think about. It's a hard place, because there is death all around. You see a lot of sadness."

"People here in the U.S. want everything for free," Ray said. "It's not free. They think because they are Americans they deserve to have this stuff. In Africa, they have nothing, and they are so grateful for every little thing."

Ray resides in Naselle with her husband, Glenn. She owns a coffee stand, Mochas & More, and has written a book about her adventures in Africa called Because of Biko. It can be purchased at her stand or at Okies, both located in Naselle.

 

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