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.
The boys went to bed, and Rampuru tried to wait up for John, but she was exhausted; she worked ten hours a day, seven days on, two off, for the same low salary her husband earned. When she awoke at dawn and John still wasn't back, Rampuru feared that he and his boss had been in a car accident. Not wanting to wake her brother and his wife, she walked a few yards to a nearby shop with a public telephone and dialed her husband's cell phone. A stranger answered. He said he was a detective. Rampuru's heart contracted. She asked where her husband was. The detective said he wanted to tell her in person. "When the policemen came, they were crying," she says. "The detective hugged me and said, 'Accept. He's gone.'" A week later, when Odendaal was released on only $1,000 bail, an angry crowd of 500 protesters briefly stormed through central Sasolburg. Fearing more disturbances, authorities moved the trial to a town a three-hour drive away. Rampuru worried about how she would get there. She was concerned about the boys, especially Isaac, who was growing angry and withdrawn, and fretted over how she would support them. Friends and relatives had their own financial struggles; they could offer a loving presence but little material help. Most of all, she missed John and was tortured by thoughts of his last moments. "Sometimes," she says, "I wondered if maybe when they were having the drink, John said, 'I'm not going to work for you anymore' and Odendaal got mad." She sighs deeply. "But nobody in this world will know what happened. I will know when I meet my husband in heaven someday." Her deep faith and natural optimism were shaken. "I asked God to keep me alive until my boys were finished with school," Rampuru says, "but I felt that my life was over." And then, a letter arrived from overseas. It had taken more than a month to reach her.
I pray you receive this letter. My name is Beverly Powell, and I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. I'm writing to you because I have read a newspaper article regarding your husband's murder. It broke my heart when this happened, and I cried. ... I pray [Odendaal] is served justice in South Africa. God shall surely serve justice to him when he is dead. Here in the United States recently, a black man named James Byrd was also dragged behind a truck to his death. ... I cried my heart out over that death, too. I'm so sorry about your husband. I read in the newspaper that you said you would hate every white person you see. I am a white person. ...I have cried over these crimes, and my prayers are for an end to all racism. I can't even imagine how much pain your family must be going through. I ask you please to know that there are many white people who are not racists and are devastated by these crimes, and all racial hatred. So please can you find it in your heart not to hate us all? I'm sending also this gift of money, which is not much but is from my heart. I am a housecleaner (servant). ... I hope that it is helpful to you and your sons. God be with you.
She sent this reply on October 27, 2000. It read, in part:
The Beloved Beverly:
It is in great grace of God that I received your letter and gift that meant so much to me. ... Your condolences made me feel that I'm not alone. My sons were so happy to receive a letter from the States. It meant so much to them that even though their dad is no longer with them, they are not forgotten. ... Thanks once again. Maybe we will meet sometime, only heaven knows. I will always remember you. May God bless you. If possible may you please send me your picture and your family's. Note: ... I did not say I hated white people, I said I am scared of them. I love you despite the fact that you are white as long as you are human and not racist. Thanks once again. I hope justice shall prevail.
"I felt lifted up when I read this," Rampuru says, carefully refolding the letter. She was touched by Powell's generosity, and astonished that a white woman in America would care so much about a stranger in Africa. "She wrote from deep in her heart, and I felt better. And I felt I owed her an apology," Rampuru says. "When that journalist talked to me, I had just heard that a white man had killed my husband and I was so scared and shocked and hurt. I was sorry right away about what I said."
When Beverly Powell opened her mailbox and saw an envelope with foreign stamps, she says, she started jumping up and down and crying. Reading the letter brought her great joy, and she answered it immediately. The friendship deepened with every exchange. "We've never met, but she's my sister," Rampuru says. Powell relies on thoughts of Adelina and the boys to keep her going. "I feel so loved," she says. "Now I know what all the hard times have been for—so I could make a difference in someone's life."
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, March 10, 2014
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