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Agnes Hofmeyr

Worker for reconciliation in Africa

Agnes Leakey, worker for reconciliation: born Limuru, Kenya 8 May 1917; married 1946 Bremer Hofmeyr (died 1993; one son, and one son deceased); died Johannesburg 1 December 2006.

Twenty years after her father was buried alive during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, Agnes Hofmeyr and her husband were having dinner with a Kenyan colleague, Stanley Kinga. He told them that he had been part of the Mau Mau committee that had selected her father as a human sacrifice. Staggered, she asked him to repeat what he had said. "Thank God we have both learned the secret of forgiveness," she said finally.

Agnes Leakey was born in Limuru, Kenya, in 1917, the youngest child of Gray Leakey, cousin of the anthropologist Louis Leakey, and his first wife, Elizabeth. Her early childhood was spent on a succession of farms: stalking lion barefoot with her brothers; moving home in two wagons, each drawn by 16 oxen; wearing clothes made from a bolt of cloth Elizabeth had brought out to Kenya on her marriage, together with a trunk of toys for children of different ages.

This idyll was shattered in 1926, when Elizabeth died of a perforated appendix, and Agnes was sent to boarding school in England. It was there that she encountered the Oxford Group (later MRA) and became involved in its work of reconciliation. She married a South African colleague, Bremer Hofmeyr, in 1946.

The Hofmeyrs were in the United States in October 1954 when they heard that 60 Mau Mau fighters had attacked her father's farm, killed her stepmother and abducted her father. Later the news reached her that he had been buried alive, in a shallow grave on Mount Kenya. He had been chosen to propitiate the gods because he was known to be a good man. His Kikuyu name was "Morungaru": "tall and straight".

In a memoir, Beyond Violence (1990), Hofmeyr describes the grief and rage that overwhelmed her, and her journey towards forgiving. A committed Christian, she turned, with a struggle, to her regular practice of silent listening prayer. The result was an "impossible" thought: to reject hatred and bitterness and "fight harder than ever to bring a change of heart to black and white alike".

Some months before, the Hofmeyrs had visited her father in Kenya in an attempt to persuade him to move to safety in South Africa. They had also visited the Athi River detention camp, where some of the prisoners told them about the injustices and discrimination that had drawn them into Mau Mau. "I was very shaken by all I heard," wrote Agnes,

but inwardly I walled myself off from any personal sense of guilt, saying to myself that it was other whites, not I, who had done these things. We were not all bad, and look at the many good things we had brought to Africa.

Now, she found herself rethinking.

The next year, the Hofmeyrs were back in Kenya, with a large international group from MRA. In spite of a ban on meetings in Kikuyu country, the authorities sanctioned a mass gathering at Kiambu, north of Nairobi. Crowds poured in, some climbing trees to get a better view.

When the chair announced that the next speaker would be the daughter of Morungaru, there was a gasp. "I apologised for the arrogance and selfishness of so many of us whites that had helped to create the bitterness and hatred in their hearts," she wrote. When she spoke of her determination to work for change, there was a ripple of understanding. Many came up to her afterwards to express their sorrow and support. "All traces of bitterness that lingered in my heart were washed away."

The Hofmeyrs settled in Johannesburg, where, to the disgust of Hendrik Verwoerd and the Broederbond, their home became a meeting place for all races long before the first cracks in the walls of apartheid appeared.

Hofmeyr experienced great sorrow in her life. In addition to the early death of her mother and her father's killing, she lost her eldest brother, Nigel Leakey, in 1941 at Colito, where he won the Victoria Cross. Three years after Bremer's death, in 1993, their elder son, Murray, was killed in a car accident in Johannesburg.

A message she wrote to her grandchildren was typical: "Don't ever give up hope, you have fighting genes."

Mary Lean