Friday, June 1, 2001
The Hex River Valley

The Hex River Valley

How would you respond to your daughter's murder? Peter and Linda Biehl have found new meaning in life by helping to heal the wounds of the community where she was killed. They talk to Helena Kingwill.

Nothing could have prepared Peter and Linda Biehl for what they were about to hear when the telephone rang in their home in California in August 1993. It was every parent's nightmare news: their daughter Amy had been beaten and stabbed to death in South Africa.

Amy Biehl was a Fullbright Scholar, based at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town and specializing in the empowerment of women in underprivileged communities. She was involved with the Womens' National Coalition, gathering visions of what a new South Africa should offer to women. One evening as she drove some of her colleagues home to Guguletu township, she fell prey to an angry group of black youths.

The tragedy might have devastated Amy's parents if they had allowed depression and anger to overcome them. Instead, they used their energy creatively to continue their daughter's work. As a result, Amy Biehl's legacy lives on and her spirit is strong, especially in the minds of the people of Guguletu, where she was killed.

'When I got the official word that Amy had been killed, I instinctively knew that I would eventually be acting out her activism,' Linda Biehl tells me. The couple form a close team, with Linda's enthusiasm and motherly networking skills complementing Peter's steady, practical and creative business sense and big-heartedness.

I meet them at 9 am in their office at the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town. This is not the first appointment of their day. They work on a tight, non-stop schedule coordinating and raising funds for a wide range of projects, whilst travelling regularly between the US and South Africa.

Peter and Linda Biehl with Nwabisa Bonxo, manager of the Youth Reading Role-Models project

Peter and Linda Biehl with Nwabisa Bonxo, manager of the Youth Reading Role-Models project

The Foundation's motto is 'weaving a barrier against violence'; its method: educating, imparting skills and creating recreational, social and physical outlets for youth. This is a mammoth task which many weary South Africans would rather not face, yet the Biehls' commitment has seen their project grow beyond their wildest dreams.

In July 1997, Peter Biehl addressed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission amnesty hearings for Amy's killers. 'The most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue,' he said. 'We are here to reconcile a human life which was taken without an opportunity for dialogue. When we are finished with this process we must move forward with linked arms.' The killers, who had been sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment, were granted amnesty and walked free. The Biehls not only shook hands with them but visited their homes and embraced their mothers who were suffering too.

Instead of angrily avoiding their daughter's murderers, the Biehls took them on unconditionally, entering their lives in an effort to understand, yet respecting their space. Peter explains, 'We want to see them succeed and we know that Amy would want to see them succeed.' As a result, two of them have started a youth group, on their own suggestion, in conjunction with the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust and are helping to 'weave a barrier against violence'.

Reaching out to their daughter's killers, and becoming involved in South Africa, was a 'risk', says Linda Biehl. 'When you act out publicly what you think, you are vulnerable and people take potshots at you.' But, she told the US television programme, Seeds of peace, 'If you believe, you act accordingly.'

Peter clarifies: 'For most people to act what they think requires that first they have to un-bundle themselves from all sorts of encumbrances, most of which are self-imposed, others of which are not. The longer you spend in life the more encumbered you get. What Linda and I have discovered is that when somebody who is important to you is suddenly stripped away from you, then the conventional encumbrances tend not to matter. The moment that we accepted the reality of Amy's death, and reflected on the reason for it and why she was here, it really stripped away everything that could possibly have encumbered us.'

Amy Biehl (Centre)

Amy Biehl (Centre)

Their involvement in South Africa started after Amy's death, when people sent money as well as flowers. The Biehls searched for non-profit organizations who could take the money, and, after sending some to the group for whom Amy had worked, decided to start a foundation in her name.

In September 1997, they met the Minister of Health of the day, Dr Nkosazana Zuma, who was crusading against AIDS. She nudged them into action by commanding them, 'Educate my youth in Guguletu about HIV/AIDS!' This helped them to settle on Guguletu as a starting point, and although weaving a barrier against violence is their main focus, HIV/AIDS is one of the related issues they address.

They started out by finding a community liaison in each of Guguletu's four sectors who then picked out 15 children between the ages of eight and 15 to take part in workshops on violence. The facilitator was a young Xhosa woman who had grown up in Guguletu and then studied psychology in the States focussing on the dynamics of violence. She counselled the children for a couple of months. 'She was able to assess what their needs were,' Linda says. 'It was kind of simple. They wanted more recreation, places to go after school, music programmes, a chance to learn to read better. If they had stuff to do, and if they had skills development, then they could dare to dream their dreams.'

Within three years the Biehls, with the help of American student interns and the people of the communities, had set up a network of programmes and businesses which are partially funded at present but are designed to become self-sustaining. A bakery producing 'Amy's Bread', a construction business which offers job opportunities and training, and a golf driving range, all based in the townships, help fund after-school skills programmes. These include the Youth Reading Role-Models project, which recruits teenagers to read aloud to pre-primary children; first aid training; a modelling school; and youth groups, some of which facilitate AIDS education and train youth as peer counsellors. Youth group activities also include mountain climbing expeditions and picnics.

The project has branched out as far as George in the Western Cape, where a flourishing bakery funds book-reading and youth groups in the local township schools. All the programmes, both in George and in Cape Town, were created at the suggestion of local people.

The foundation is an 'almost zero budget operation', says Peter. Its American office is in their home and the Biehls pay the phone bills. The whole family is involved in the project to some extent. Molly and Kim, Amy's older sisters, work part-time to raise funds, and her younger brother, who keeps a lower profile, assists his parents where he can. As Peter and Linda tour the US, giving talks in churches, schools and institutes, they see themselves as 'contributing to America's understanding of South Africa'.

When the Biehls attended the White House dinner for South Africa's President, Thabo Mbeki, they were surprised to be approached by US Members of Congress who asked them to explain the idiosyncrasies of South African politics. They have also been asked to address the World Bank in Washington about what is and isn't working in Africa. Both seem astonished at where their path has led them, and believe the respect comes from the fact that they work at the grassroots.

So who were Linda and Peter Biehl before that August day when their lives changed? Peter describes himself laughingly as 'first and foremost an actor and a musician', but he worked as an international business consultant.

From 1979 to 1985, the family lived in an artists' colony in Sante Fe, New Mexico, where they ran a small art gallery, working with Native American artists. 'Sante Fe was a tri-cultural area, with the Native Americans, the Hispanics and the Anglo culture,' says Linda. 'At school Amy had the opportunity to interact with a lot of cultures.'

She sees similarities between indigenous art in New Mexico and South Africa--beadwork, pottery and clay. 'I don't think the arts here in South Africa have been developed to the extent that they could be. The education system is so structured. The teachers march round with their sticks to keep control. Township kids are taught to draw on small scraps of paper. They don't have a chance to paint on a broad canvas.'

One of their early projects involved teenagers in painting murals to brighten oppressive township walls. 'Murals are big,' says Linda. 'Kids like those! It's good to get them thinking big.' In a new project, children are painting on long strips of paper, which will be rolled up and taken to New York for exhibition.

Thinking big is the Biehls' style and their next project is along those lines: an art and culture centre in Phillipi, a sprawling industrial and agricultural area on the outskirts of Cape Town. When we meet, Linda is paging through the building plans: she envisages the Buthisizwe community centre as a cultural bee-hive, meeting place and market place.

What advice would Linda give to other parents who have suffered the loss of a child? 'I don't like giving advice,' she replies. 'Each has their own way of dealing with the pain.'

For Peter and her, she says, the work has filled a void. 'If I could have stopped what happened to Amy, I would have fought with the devil himself. Sometimes, doing this work, we feel Amy is proud and is here with us. Sometimes we feel she would criticize our decisions, and at others she would have done the same thing. You have to assimilate the reality and find constructive things to do.'

'Our work is a celebration of our daughter's life,' adds Peter. 'Molly says she lived fast. She died at 26. I am really excited that she accomplished so much in her life. She has inspired people to do something for a cause bigger than themselves.'

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Helena Kingwill