Her husband's murder left a devastated young widow struggling to support her children. Half a world away, a determined housecleaner learned of their troubles. Who could imagine that an unspeakable crime would lead to an amazing friendship?
Beverly Powell read the newspaper account after a long day of cleaning houses in Santa Fe. A white construction boss in South Africa had been arrested for killing a black employee. Just before midnight on August 25, 2000, John Mosoko Rampuru was dragged three miles behind a pickup truck and dumped in a field in Sasolburg, an industrial town 50 miles south of Johannesburg. A trail of spattered blood and torn flesh led from the mutilated body to a truck parked in front of contractor Piet Odendaal's office. The police found Odendaal inside sitting at his desk. He'd been downing brandy and tranquilizers, he told them. When he woke up in jail the next day, he had no memory of the crime. Rampuru was 37, a hardworking man, gentle and well-liked, who left a wife and two young sons.
Powell wept over the story. She was sickened by the murder and saddened by a quote attributed to Rampuru's 33-year-old widow, Adelina: "I hate every white I see. I think my kids are going to hate whites for their whole lives." Powell felt deeply connected to the sorrowing woman, whose photograph accompanied the article. "I don't know why, but it was like it had happened to me," Powell recalls, sipping tea in the kitchen of her adobe cottage. She's 45, a lean woman whose beauty is equal parts sinew and sweetness. "I felt as if her spirit was calling out for support, and it came to me to write to her." Powell, who is white, sent the woman a letter and enclosed $50, though she didn't have much money to spare. She'd never done anything like that before. She knew only the widow's name and the name of her town. She also knew what it was like to feel hopeless, frightened and alone.
Half a world away, Adelina Rampuru was comforting her boys after their father's funeral, attended by more than a thousand people. Rampuru kept catching herself looking for John in the crowd. On the day he died, she'd worked late at her job as a car-wash cashier, and she expected to find John waiting for her at home. Her sons, Isaac, then 13, and Success, then 9, were excited; their dad had promised to take them to the public swimming pool the next afternoon. "It was payday, so he said we could afford the tickets," Rampuru remembers.
Two years after her husband's murder, Rampuru, a small, vibrant woman, speaks of him with composure, but grief and outrage are never far below the surface. She smiles at a framed photograph of John, one of several in the living room of the pleasant brick house he'd nearly finished building when he was killed. The Rampurus live on a dirt road in the black township of Zamdela, a patchwork of tin shacks and small brick houses set between a coal mine and an oil refinery on the outskirts of Sasolburg. It's winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and a chilly wind spiked with chemical fumes finds the cracks where the walls don't quite meet the tin roof. That night, Rampuru says, she was relieved when her sister-in-law, who lives next door, came over at 8:30 to report that John had called. The Rampurus had no telephone, but John carried a cell phone on the job. "He said to tell me he'd worked late, and the boss had just invited him for a drink and would drive him home," says Rampuru. At home, she speaks Sotho, a major language in southern Africa, but she's as comfortable in English. "That was amazing. Odendaal doesn't like blacks. He called his workers kaffirs [the equivalent of "niggers"]. It was quite a surprise for me to hear that they were drinking together." Her husband, a forbearing man, never tangled with Odendaal. John was, however, planning to look for another job. He could take the bad attitude, he'd told his wife, but not the low pay, just over $100 a month.
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