News

Biehl Foundation visits Boise

Seeing through another’s eyes

by

On August 25, 1993, Linda Biehl’s 26-year old daughter Amy was murdered by a mob of black South Africans near Cape Town, where Amy was a Fulbright Scholar and an anti-apartheid activist. Four men were convicted and spent several years in prison.

When the South African truth and reconciliation process began in 1997, the men applied for amnesty. Biehl and her husband Peter, who are white, made international news when they came to South Africa to support that request. The men were pardoned and eventually two of them, Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, approached the Biehls to see if they could work together on projects to help disadvantaged youth.

That was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted more than 10 years, with Easy and Ntobeko now employed at the Amy Biehl Foundation in South Africa, set up by the Biehls to carry out the goals their daughter embraced. The foundation administers several after-school programs aimed at preventing youth violence and drug use.

“We have been able to get kids exposed to things that they never knew were available to them,” said Biehl.

Easy and Ntobeko now call Linda “makulu,” which means grandmother. And through their eyes, she understood why they were driven to commit the acts they did.

“When you feel there is no hope in your life, that you are a totally oppressed person and you have tried to do things peacefully, and all you get is AK47s shooting at you—you’re prepared to suffer for your cause and you’re prepared to sacrifice your life for your cause. And then eventually you can kill someone. You become a freedom fighter,” said Biehl. “What was it we were told? They hated white people. But they didn’t. It wasn’t really hating white people. It was hating being oppressed.”

More than 15 years after her daughter’s death, Biehl’s story of forgiveness is still very much in demand. She was in Boise recently to talk to supporters of the Small Village Foundation, which organizes trips for high school students in Africa, and also spoke to students at Bishop Kelly High School and Anser Charter School.

“I hope they use the story to not to judge people immediately,” said Biehl.

Biehl, 65, is still on the road so much that she lives with her son and his wife in California. When not traveling, she’s focused on making sure the foundation is on solid financial ground. That challenge was made more difficult when her husband died of cancer in 2002. At the same time, a USAID grant that had supported the foundation was due to expire.

“For about three years after Peter died, I really would be awake at night just trying to figure all this out-- just how was I going to do this?” she remembers.

Ultimately, it was the comments from her male Xhosa-speaking staff, who thought she wouldn’t be able to make it without her husband, that woke her up.

“They’d sit around and look at me like, “OK, well this is all over now,” Biehl says.

“It was the challenge of “I’m not going to let this fail,” and “Yes, women can do things. I’m not property,” said Biehl. “The guys did not think I would make it. But they’ve actually thrived under me!”

Biehl was able to extend the grant for a few more years, and then find a former South African banker to run the foundation. The nonprofit, which was going broke in 2006, now has more than 1.5 million Rand (about $150,000) in the bank, with a goal of bringing in four million Rand a year.

Its work exists alongside an increasingly tense atmosphere in South Africa, which is going through a controversial land redistribution program and will hold its fourth general election since the end of apartheid on April 22.

“The truly great leaders are going,” says Biehl. “And who are those that are taking their place? It is a precarious time for South Africa. And yet on the other hand, there has been an amazing amount of work put in by people to keep going forward. They are a nation of negotiators.”

Amy Biehl would have turned 42 just a few days after the South African elections. While her mother experiences twinges of sadness as she watches her daughter’s friends grow older, she embraces her life.

“I often say Amy gave me a gift, and 15 years of my life have been so amazing. The learning, the relationships. She was always kind of pushing me to do something. Well, she pushed me a little more and a little different direction than what I had intended, but I do feel that my life has been enhanced. As much as there was a loss, there was a great enhancement.”

Biehl knows that not everyone faced with a tragedy like hers could forgive, as she has. But for her, it was the only path.

“I cannot tell you that this is the way to react,” she says. “I just think the possibilities are amazing, and if you can always somehow keep that in mind, I do think things work out in mysterious ways.”