Monthly Archives: June 2011

Blue Ball Safari

Driving through the township of Kurland, I noticed a number of signs: ‘Elephant Sanctuary’, ‘Snake Sanctuary’, ‘Wolf Sanctuary’, etc. I was a bit skeptical at first, because I wondered how feasible it was to have any sort of animal sanctuary within walking distance of a small village. There were no apparent wires or walls anywhere…perhaps the signs were all a hoax – or at best, pointed towards animal life further from town. Who lives right next to an elephant sanctuary? (And I do mean ‘next’ to.)

Taking a cue from White people, I chose to investigate.

“Hey Marshall,” I said on Saturday morning, “let’s go check out  that elephant sanctuary today.”

“Okay.”

I knew that there would be some sort of entry fee, but I expected it to be nominal. We might even get charged a foreigner rate, but it wouldn’t be anything more than 20 bucks, tops. I mean, this is Africa. It’s lush and picturesque everywhere you look. How much could it cost to see something that practically lives in someone’s back yard? We loaded the children in the car and set off for a mini safari.

The children sang songs of praise, thanking us in advance for taking them to see the elephants.

“Epetants! Epetants!” Stone screeched in joyous anticipations.

“Yes, baby. Elephants,” I said warmly. It was a dreary day, but I was willing to face the muck and drizzle in the hopes of seeing some large wildlife up and close and personal.

When we go to the lodge, it was rather impressive. There was elephant artwork all over the place, and overhead sat a massive sculpture of a bull elephant’s head watching you at the entrance of the door. A Black man in a skull cap sat at the reception and ignored us until we were right under his nose. Since he didn’t greet us, I opened the conversation.

“Good morning,” I said. “We’d like to see some elephants please.”

Duh.

“Okay,” said the man. “But first I’m gonna explain how ees gonna work,” he said in a mixed American/South African/Zimbabwe accent.

“First, you gonna take the elephant by the trunk and lead him to some water. Then, he will display some elephant behavior for you. After an hour, the keeper will return the elephant to him housing and you can return here for some more information on elephants.”

Not very exciting stuff, but whatever. That’s what you get for 20 bucks.

“All this will cost you R325 for each adult and R160 for children. Children under 3 are free,” the man said in conclusion.

Wait…R325? I did some quick math:

If the dollar is trading 1:7 then that’s ($50≤ per adult) + ($16≤ per child) = a month of groceries and a dude that’s out of his mind if he thinks I’m giving him a month’s worth of groceries to watch an elephant take a poo, possibly on one of my kids.

The man and I stared at each other for a moment. Marshall broke the silence.

“Yeah…that’s too much money.”

I called the kids over towards the door and told them we had to go.

“Go and see the elephants?” they asked expectantly.

“Nah…we’re gonna do something else.”

Stone was beside himself.

“Epetants! Ehhhpiiiitaaaants!!!” he howled.

We drove around for a few more minutes and saw a sign for Monkeyland.

“We could give that a try?” I suggested furtively. “Maybe it’s cheaper.”

  So off to Monkeyland we went. $60 got us all in.

Our guide was Mr. Hamidi, who also had a mixed up accent. His was more English with a hint of the Islands dashed in, and was more pleasant to the ear.  He took us into the entrance of the gated forest and introduced himself with authority. As soon as he began his speech about the history of the park, the phone rang. It was Douche Bag. Ugh.

“Hello?” I whispered harshly.

“Hey. Can I talk to Nadjah?”

I passed her the phone. I assume he asked her where she was because she said she was “in the forest – looking for monkeys.”

Great. Now Old Douche thinks I’m making the child hunt for food. He already thinks Africa is backwards. She hung up shortly after that. (Watch for the next court summons!)

The trek was pretty interesting. There are 9 species in the park that have been rescued after being abandoned or confiscated. They have to go through a process of ‘dehumanization’  and learn to be monkeys again. My two favorite species were the golden squirrel monkeys who have been described as the piranha of the forest. They’ll anything and fear nothing. The other was the vervet monkeys. We used to own one called Sheba when we were kids.

“The monkey with the bluest balls is the most dominant monkey,” said Mr. Hamidi. “Indeed, they sit around and display their balls to one another. That one with the bluest and biggest is the one who will lead the troop.”

I looked around at the other people in our group. Was I the only one getting a kick out of this?

The tour continued with an arduous trek through the forest, made only more difficult by the stroller that I was pushing over tree roots, rock and muck. Why hadn’t I paid more attention on how to tie a baby to ones back?? It came to a slightly terrifying end with our group crossing a very shaky 120 meter-long suspension bridge (the longest in southern Africa by the way) that hovered over a 20 meter drop below.

We’d had our encounter with the wild and were satisfied; although I still can’t understand how anyone can justify charging anyone $50 to watch an elephant eat some grass and take a dump. That’s just un-American.

Forgive My Attitude, Lord!

This Sunday we went back to the broke down Church spot for Sunday service. We didn’t go last week, and our absence was apparently felt. Several people had asked if we were coming this week, so we made every effort to comply. I had mixed feelings about going though.

How can I put this delicately? Oh, I know! :

I hate going to church in Qolweni.

I know, I know. I should be focusing on the fellowship that we’re sharing in the Spirit of the Lord, but it’s hard to focus on fellowship when you’re freezing and you can’t concentrate on what the pastor is saying.  Don’t get me wrong: There is definitely a sweet spirit in the church every time you go – however I wonder how much of that is imposed joy and how much of it is generated. I get the feeling that folks are just trying to make the best of what they’ve got. Perhaps that’s what ‘joy’ is after all. That, or utter nonsense.

The temperature in South Africa is frigid, and this Sunday happened to be the coldest, rainiest day that we’ve experienced to date. As I said previously, yours truly did not believe that it could actually get cold in Africa, so she didn’t bring a coat or a jacket. And so there I sat, in a 200 square foot church shivering in my knee length skirt sans stockings and jacket, my attention shifting between the rain pounding on the tin roof outside and the large white man at the pulpit imploring us to consider our sin and cast it unto Jesus.

You know what’s a sin? I wanted to scream. You having us sit in this leaky, cold room when you had the power to have it built properly in the first place!! This place is a lightning rod and we’re all going to die!

I managed to keep both my composure and my thoughts to myself, however, and remain expressionless. That is, until he said the following:

“You know, I’m so pleased to see you all here today. I thought because of the rain there would only be one or two people here. It’s just evidence that even though it is cold outside, it’s warm in our hearts for Jesus! Amen?”

Nonsense.

“Amen,” some folk muttered. There were some foreign visitors in the congregation as well. I wondered how they were taking the whole experience. I just smiled wryly. My heart was pumping extra hard to keep the rest of my extremities warm, so it was the only facial expression I could muster.

I later confessed my disgruntled feelings to one of the ladies at church.

“You know, I’m really angry with the pastor for building this shoddy building,” I said in measured tones. “I mean, he’s in construction! Does he feel no shame?”

“He doesn’t feel shame!” she shot back rather quickly. I think she’d been pondering the same question. “Even me, I was praying that the rain would come HARDER so that it would rain on the heads of those White visitors.”

“Oh!” I laughed.

“No, yes,” said another lady. “Do you know when it rains we ourselves have to wake up very early to come and sweep the floor to clear the water?”

She sucked her teeth despondently.

I felt better that everyone else was as annoyed as I was concerning the condition of their church. As I said before, it’s representative of the value that this man has placed on the lives of the people. I’m all for suffering for Jesus, but this is nonsense; and I’m not into suffering for nonsense!

I’m Sorry…You Want to Be WHAT?

Last night I was watching Malcolm X with Marshall, and there was a portion of the movie that I had never recalled seeing. Little Malcolm was sitting in the classroom of his foster home being admonished by one of his teachers.

“Now Malcolm, you’ve written that you want to be a lawyer when you grow up,” the teacher said in measured tones. “You have to come up with something else. You can never be a lawyer.”

“Why not?” moped Malcolm.

“Because you’re a nigger, Malcolm, and a lawyer is not a realistic profession for a nigger.”

“But why sir? I gets the best grades in class,” he said in objection.

“Now Malcolm,” the teacher said sternly. “A nigger just can’t be lawyer. Let’s think of something else. You’re good with your hands! And you’re very personable. People like you. How about a carpenter? A carpenter is a fine profession. Jesus was a carpenter.”

“Yes sir,” sulked Malcolm.

So Malcolm never became a lawyer. He became ‘Malcolm X’. ‘Nuff said.

This scene in the movie brought to mind an assignment that I had given the kids last week. I asked them to write an essay called “My future occupation.” Of course, the majority of them DID NOT, but many of them were happy to talk to me about their future aspirations all the same.

“I want to grow  up and be a maid and clean your house,” said 3 third graders in Xhosa. When this was translated to me I frowned most angrily.

“I can clean my own house!” I shot back. “You people are not going to school to become maids – unless you are opening a business and employing other maids. Now think!”

The alternate answers came slowly. Of course, all the boys wanted to be football players (but not rappers; shocking!), but the girls were a little more creative.

“An actress!”

“A singer!”

“A mistress!”

A mistress? What do you mean by mistress?

“Like you!” the little girl said emphatically.

Huh?

“Like to stand in front of the class and teach!”

Note to self: Remind self that in South Africa, ‘mistress’ is used as an alternative to ‘teacher’. As in headmistress.

“I want to be a model,” said one teenager confidently.

I looked her over. She was clad in all pink, but outside of the color of her clothing, there was nothing to even suggest she was female. She looked completely androgynous – which I suppose could serve her well in the modeling world.

“I guess you’ll have to learn how to walk the catwalk,” I said warmly. “But you’ll have to stand up straight.”

This particular girl has a bad habit of slouching. She looked at me blankly when I told her she’d have to stand up straight. Upon closer inspection, I realized she was not slouching at all. She had a hunchback.

Now, I didn’t come to South Africa to take a dump on anybody’s parade, but Harper’s Bazaar isn’t going to put androgynous hunchbacks on the cover of their June issue; however if there was ever an audition for Quasimodo – the Untold Story, I’m sure my girl would get a call.

One high school student who actually took the time to write an ‘essay’ (it was 2 paragraphs really), said that she wanted to finish her ‘shcool’ and go to ‘cholage’ to become a teacher. Clearly, we need to work on at least being able to spell where we want to go – that place being ‘college’ after we’ve finished ‘school’.

Of the 15 notebooks I handed out, I got 3 back; and of those 3, only one was deemed excellent. These are very poor numbers, but I wonder if they are reflective of the larger success rate in a township like Qolweni? Is only 1 out of 15 students going to make something of themselves and have a future they can take pride in? God I hope not.

When we were kids, GI Joe, our parents, Nickelodeon and whoever was selling dreams that week used to tell us that we could ‘be all that we could be’ and that we could ‘be anything we wanted’. It appears that someone has sold the same dream to this generation, but without tempering their expectations and providing them with the necessary tools to succeed. (Again: There are NO hunchback supermodels!)

It’s weird. It’s like a perverted version of apartheid all over again, with a sprinkling of narcissism and reverse psychology. And it’s just as tragic as little Malcolm, who had the skill and knowledge, but was denied the opportunity.

She Always ™ Misses Out on the Fun

Last week one of my girls walked up to me and told me that she was not coming to the SCAB program anymore. My heart dropped.

“Why not?” I asked furtively. “Did I do something?”

“Oh no, Ms. Malaka.”

“Then why?” I pressed.

“I’ll tell you afterwards,” she promised.

I was on edge for the rest of the afternoon. A flurry of thoughts shrouded my mind concerning my teenaged student.

Oh God, I thought. She’s pregnant and is going to have an abortion, isn’t she? What else could it be?

The afterschool program ended and she had not come to seek me out. I found her chatting with some of her friends, and I pulled her aside.

“Eh heh! Why aren’t you coming anymore?” I demanded.

“Oh…it’s not like I won’t come again forever – just for a few days.”

Note to self: Remind self that ‘anymore’ in Africa usually means an extended period of time, NOT an infinite period of time.

“Oh. Okay,” I breathed, looking at her abdomen warily. “What’s keeping you away? Is anybody…sick?”

“I will be getting my period this week, and I don’t have money for Always,” she whispered. “I have to stay in the house and use rags…I won’t feel comfortable to come outside in rags.”

Oh!! So THAT’s what “on the rag” means! Because you’re literally…Oh, eww.

I broke into a grin. No one was going to die, and this was a problem that was easily fixable. She said she was going to ask one of the other instructors that she’s known longer if she could buy her some pads, but she felt awkward asking.

“I’ll tell you what, if you don’t gather up the courage to do it, then I’ll go get them,” I offered. “But I hope you DO gather the courage.”

I didn’t see her for 3 consecutive days after that conversation, so I guess courage failed her.

The first time I heard about this issue about girls missing school and other activities was from the Fabulous Akuba Sheen(!) on her blog a few years ago. I believe Always ™ had a commercial campaign during that time as well. Like if you bought 80 packages of Always they would donate 1 to one child in a village in Mobutou (or something) so that they wouldn’t miss out on school. The commercial featured a little girl in a hut, so I honestly (and naively) thought the issue only affected girls in the most remote portions of the world…like Mobutou – or something. Here I was, facing a real live global campaign issue! I felt like I was on the solution end of a UN crisis.

So today I went out to purchase a package of Always for my teen student; although her cycle has probably ended already. Why did I buy Always and not some weird, unfamiliar (albeit cheaper) South African/China brand? Because the only thing worse than being stuck at home, stuffing an old t-shirt between your legs in an attempt to pause ‘Mother Nature’s Flow’, is putting your faith in said cheaper sanitary towel, only to have it drop lifelessly (and soggily) from under your skirt as you skip off for a Spring outing with your friends.

Stone, the Mutt Whisperer

Move over Cesar Millan! There’s a new canine charmer in town, and his name is Stone Grant.

 

There is only one thing my son loves more than the outdoors, and that’s putting the outdoors in his mouth. Previously I would merely grimace when he put bits of pinecone and rose petals in his mouth, but now that the ‘outdoors’ includes free range pig and cow feces and slimy muddy, rocks, I’m sent into a full blown panic daily.

Like all boys, he’s a magnet for filth. He genuinely is not happy unless he’s so covered in grime that it virtually seeps from his pores. Can you think of another mammal that likes to roll around in dirt? Ten points if you said a dog!

I believe any given township has an abundance of one thing, and that’s stray dogs. Stone loves dogs, and they love him back; which is something he and Cesar have in common. However, unlike the very polished Mr. Melan, whose show showcases him solving the problems of pampered, well-groomed pooches, Stone gravitates towards street dogs – the mangier the better.

One day during dance time, a dog wondered up to the entrance. Stone was ecstatic.

“Ooooo! Doggie!!” he exclaimed while, to my horror, he began to stroke and pet the dog. There had to be an innumerable number of fleas and ticks in its matted pelt. Don’t ticks carry lime disease?

“Doggie, doggie, dooooggiiiie!” he continued to proclaim, joy and rapture infused in every syllable.

The dog took the incessant screaming surprisingly well. After all, it was probably the most positive human contact he’d had since birth. He cautiously relished in the attention.

Eventually, Stone quieted down as the two of them began to meld into a temporary single being – just a dusty boy and his dusty, mangy mutt sunning themselves and taking in a show. The primal need to forage for food finally separated them. A pack of stray dogs barked and ran by beckoning their comrade to flee with them; and Stone waddled over to me in search of cookies, his clothes and hands still bearing the evidence of his brief playtime with his beloved (filthy) canine friend.

Here it is folks! The classroom of the future.

Because it darn well ain’t the classroom of the present, that’s for sure.

See this shack? This is an appendage to the YMCA/Church/theater. This is where the kids are supposed to be having lessons, once it’s ‘cleaned up’. Nuh uh. This room doesn’t need cleaning up – it needs a torch set to it. There will be rainbows and ice-cream cones in Hell before I set foot in there with a book in my hand.

  Lemme tell you how bad it is. It’d dark and dingy in there, and the air has a quality that reminds me of something…something earthy. I believe it’s mushrooms – of the ‘icky fungus’ species to be exact. Mushrooms belong outside or in the grocery store, not on floors or walls. The roof leaks and there is no electricity. The first (and last) time I went in there to survey the space, my bulk cause the floor to buckle under me. If you put 10 kids in there, the whole thing would come crashing down. Oh, but it only gets better!

As Marshall was taking pictures of the interior (because I refuse to reenter the space until Satan and his minions are sucking down sarsaparillas), a rat ran by.

“What?!?”

“A rat,” he repeated. “Although I think it might have been a mouse…”

He was trying to make the presence of a rodent less ghastly by intimating that the existence of a mouse is better than that of a rat.

It’s not.

There is a hodgepodge of assorted toys, boxes and just crap over all stuffed in there. I think someone used to live there and abandoned it some time ago. Who knows for sure? There is a Quranic scripture hanging over the door. I could probably decipher it (I used to take Arabic), but again, I didn’t hang out long enough to get a feel for anything besides the immediate and obvious.

But as ‘wonderful’ as this space is, do you know what’s even better? The pastor, the guy who built the church and I assume owns the land, is in CONSTRUCTION…and he owns 3 houses and a B+B in the White side of town. I could scarcely believe it what the news bearer was telling me.  

“You mean to tell me that this dude builds buildings for a living and this is the best he could come up with?”

“Yup.”

“This is his church? The house he built to ‘honor the Lord’?” I emphasized incredulously.

“Uh huh.”

I felt the Too Known American rising up in me. The room made my skin crawl, but that tidbit of information made me SICK.

 It’s so true what Oprah said: ‘If you don’t have a vision for yourself, someone else will create a vision for you.’

Clearly, this was the best this (wealthy!) pastor thought this community was worth. But why should he care? Apparently he shows up when he’s ready, booms his sermons and leaves to his comfortable home in town. At least he fed the people spiritually right? Gimme a frikkin’ break!

So what do we do Readers? What say you? Burn it to the ground, of have a street fundraiser a la Breakin’ 2?

I’ve got the kerosene in my trunk just in case…

Pee-pee…The Plot Thickens!

Eii  A-Fri-Ca!

Just when I thought South Africa possessed more sophistication than the rest of the continent, The natives have gone and proved me wrong!

Now that I have earned the confidence of the women’s inner circle, they give me snippets of what’s really going down in the community. Sadly as fate would have it, I have to learn Xhosa quickly because the juiciest details are left out in English.

According to Thadiswa, the sotry of how Pee-pee lost his hearing is very different than what I was initially led to believe. If you recall, I said he was born deaf and late last year their pastor prayed for him and he regained part of his hearing.

One day, she stopped cooking lunch for the children and looked me in the eye, preparing to tell me what really happened. Cue the drums and wooden flutes!

“Malaka, come I want to tell you something,” said Thandiswa one afternoon.

“What’s up?”

“You see Pee-pee neh? He was born like you and me.”

(‘Neh’ is used for emphasis or as a verbal filler, like ‘umm’.)

“Like how?” I asked.

“He was talking, hearing, he could do everything. But one day, when he was a teenager neh? He saw a witch and she was doing something.”

“A witch?” I interrupted. “You mean like a sangoma?”

“No!” hissed Thandiswa. “I mean a witch. A real witch!”

“Ahh…” Note to self. Find out the difference between a witch and a sangoma.

“When he saw the witch neh, she also saw him. She told him ‘If you repeat what you’ve seen here, you will never talk again!’ And he too, because he was a foolish boy, we went to talk the thing!”

“I see…so what happened?”

She looked very serious, as though she were recounting a tale that dare not be whispered.

“Ah. You see the way he is now neh. So after many years Pastor George was praying for him, so he is hearing small now neh.”

“I see. So where is the witch?”

“She dead!” she muttered, throwing her hand backwards to indicate that she died long ago.

“Oh! So she can’t break her spell,” I lamented.

Thandiswa held my gaze before grunting a loud cautionary ‘hmmm’ and returning to her lunch duties. I stood next to her, wondering what I was supposed to do or say next. I opted for nothing.

NB: So let this be a lesson to you children! If you see a witch doing ‘something’ and she tells you not to repeat what you’ve seen, don’t do it! That, and never let the high rises and tarred roads in more ‘developed’ African nations fool you. Underneath it all we are all THE SAME.

 

Oh.

Meet My ‘SCAB’ Kids!

It would be a stretch for me to say that I ‘love’ anyone of my South African kids, in the sense that we understand love in the West; but it would certainly be fair however to say that they have arrested my heart.

I’d heard the term “arrested heart” before, and never really understood what it meant. Televangelists are very fond of the term, and over time I took it as some faddish Christianese phrase and thus decided that it would never be a part of my lingo, nor would I seek out its meaning. And yet today I find myself with an arrested heart.

It simply means when someone or something grabs ahold of your heart and just won’t let go. I would go even further to say that it’s the ubuntu spirit that keeps me coming back to see the kids in the township every day.

  It’s not hard to have your heart under arrest when you meet a boy like Camagu (pronounced *ts*-amagu), who I am unashamed to call my pet. In these short 2 weeks, he’s impressed me to the point that I’m losing sleep, fretting over his future. He wants to be a doctor and a gospel singer, and if he gets the right training and education, he will be. He’s got such a sweet spirit and he wants to do well…you know what I mean? He’s that kid who stays behind in class asking the teacher why his answers were wrong and what he can do to improve overall.

  This is Lisakanya, my sassy 3rd degree burn victim. She’s one of the first kids to bound up to the car and grab ahold of one of the kids to run off and play. She’s also one of the girls who brokered a notebook deal with me. I had only planned to buy 6 hardcover notebooks for a small group of 5th graders and somehow found myself persuaded to buy 30 hard covers and 17 paperback exercise books. She’s the reason I’ll me sucking on ice chips instead of ice-cream this weekend. She has lawyer’s blood running through her veins.

  The girl hiding her face is Bianca, the 6th grade fast tail who needs to set her butt down somewhere. We roll our eyes at each other and argue about goals (or the lack thereof) at the end of the afternoon. I don’t even want to tell you what she’s been up to…little hot huzzie. Yes! Hide your face! Shaaame!!

Last week, the kids put on a ‘concert’ for a ragtag group of marine biologists. If you can ignore the crotch shot and focus on the kick, you can see the athleticism it takes to perform this cultural kick dance. I ought to learn the name of it since I like it so much, huh?

Don’t worry. She’s wearing shorts.

These are my kindergarteners/Grade R, who are of all levels of ability. It’s SO frustrating! Some of them can read, and some of them can’t even write their names, let alone spell them. Like all the other kids, some go to Afrikaner/Colored schools and some go to schools for Blacks…and NO ONE speaks English. Sweet as they are, this is the group that causes me the most stress. I usually just make them color until I can figure out how to better divide and serve them. (They’re good at numbers though.)

 Evavela, a pre-schooler who can’t speak English, can’t write his name, and who SWEARS he’s in 5th grade. I think he has an older sibling at home, clouding his judgement. It’s.Hil.A.Rious.

I don’t have a picture of him, but there is a little ‘shar-brain’ (smart person) called Bongi who just showed up one day. A lot of kids don’t get to come to after-school because they work in the house and/or are busy getting into trouble to get their street cred. While his age mates were struggling to add two digit numbers, he was flying through virtually every math problem I gave him, adding large sums in his head and quietly feeding me the answers. That’s the type of boy I would hate to see get lost in the shuffle, and the type who needs developement to become a leader.

 Seya is by far one of my favorites. She’s like a little sister (although if my numbers on teenaged pregnancy are accurate, I’m probably old enough to be her mother). She thinks I look like Queen Lathifah. I probed Seya to find out what she wants to be and where she would like to live. After some thought, she said:

“A lawyer…because I like to talk. And I want to live in Paris.”

“I see,” I replied. “Do you know what language they speak in Paris?”

She was silent. I was stunned. She must have seen Paris in a movie or something and thought she could show up speaking Xhosa.

“French!” I responded for her.

“Oh. I don’t think I can learn French. I think it would be very hard.”

“Trust me my dear…if you can speak Xhosa, you can speak French.”

There are approximately 74 kids who come to the program – each with their own story, each with something that makes them special and unique. Last week I asked the older ones to give me a one page essay, describing what makes them special. Many of them struggled with the assignment. Most ended up talking about their school, their family, their dog…virtually everything except themselves.

“I don’t have anything that makes me special,” I heard again and again.

That’s so untrue, and that’s a view I aim to change before I leave these four dusty walls!

Too-known American Savior Complex

American Reader: You know how it is, don’t you? Our country has this innate ‘can do’ spirit that is so formidable that it sometimes comes across as obnoxious. For whatever reason, we largely believe that we can solve the world’s problems…even though we’re hardly able to solve our own. Amazingly, there are just enough people in the world who believe Americans can wave their Yankee wands and make even the most miniscule problems disappear. Never mind that Americans largely do not possess any real working knowledge of anything outside of America: Hollywood has sold the ‘American solution’ to the nations, and we’ve bought it in droves, kit and caboodle. In the last act, we’ll all hold hands and walk off into the sunset.  

So here I am in South Africa, in all my Yankee-ness, working in a township that I know zip about, save the fact that the residents are poor and the children don’t have the best education. What makes me qualified to tutor these younglings? It’s not my degree in education – I don’t have one. It’s not my long history of working with little children – I’ve only had 6, and only with my own kids.  Nor is it the promise that I’ll be rewarded with any considerable remuneration for all my trouble – we’re paying our own way. Why am I in South Africa with these kids, trying to fix my mouth around every click and clack just to say ‘good morning’? Because I’m a too-known American with a savior complex. I can rig anything with some tape, string and spit. This has played out in a number of incidents.

Incident 1:

Lisakanya is an 11 year old girl who is in my reading and math group. Like many of the kids, she’s a slip of a thing with a bright smile. The second day we came to the after school program, one of the volunteers walked her over to me and asked me to help her with her leg.

“Her leg? What’s wrong with her leg?” I asked. I looked down and her left calf. Holy Mother of Jesus! What was that?!?

There, on her bony calf, was an open sore about the size of a small mango. Apparently, she had burnt it on a ‘stove’ almost 2 weeks before and it was festering. A ‘stove’ is a metal bucket filled with burning, molten firewood that many of the locals use to keep warm in the winter. She had sustained a third degree burn and no one had taken her to a doctor.

So what does the TKAWASC with a little bit of money do? She can’t afford to take the kid to the doctor, so indtead she goes to the pharmacist (the one who is incidentally impressed with my American-ness) and buys gauze, bandages and the best burn cream in Plett. As promised by the medics, her sore was healed a week later.

 

Incident 2

As fate would have it, many of the kids have grown up parentless and are being raised by older siblings or grandparents. One such little girl is some kid, whose name I of course can neither pronounce nor spell, who is turning 7 tomorrow. I discovered this when the information was thrust in front of me:

“Malaka,” said Charlotte, one of the local volunteers. “Please come.”

“Yah. What’s up?”

“I want to tell you something.”

“Okay…”

“There is a little girl, her name is Blahblahblah,” Charlotte begins.

“Uh huh.”
“She’ll be 7 on Friday. It’s her birthday”

“Okay…”

I still had no idea where this was going. She paused and looked at me. I looked back at her.

“So try and do something for her,” she concluded.

“Oh. Oh! Like a birthday party or something?”

She nodded. Well dag – now I’m an event planner?

“Okay. I’ll bring a big cake for everyone who is having a birthday in June. They can all celebrate at once.”

Fortunately, one of the life skills that my mother instilled in me was baking from scratch, and I’ll be rigging up a cake large enough for 80 kids next week. Why? Because I CAN.

 

Incident 3

This one was a doozie!

Thandiswa, a large church-going woman who has anointed herself as my new sister, pulled me aside earlier this week.

“I want to tell you something,” she said. “I am suspecting something.”

Uh oh. This could be anything.

She told me that she has 2 kids, which I knew, and that her husband wasn’t working, which I also knew.

“I am suspecting that I am pregnant,” she said. She was smiling wryly.

I don’t know the culture in South Africa, but in America when a Black woman says she’s pregnant it’s generally not cause for celebration…sadly. Should I congratulate her? Mourn for her?

“Oh,” I said. “I see.”

“If it comes that I’m pregnant, I’m going to take it out.”

“Take it out?” I asked. “What does that mean?”

“Like abortion.” 

She looked at me like I was a dumbass.

“You know, it’s very hard to have kids,” she continued, justifying her decision. “When I told my husband what I was suspecting, he was very quiet and then after a few minutes he said ‘Yes. Take it out, because you know I’m also not working’.” She looked at me expectantly.

Now, keep in mind that at this point, I’d only known Thandiswa for one full week. How far could I go with expressing my opinion? Why did my opinion even frikkin’ matter? We have some basic things in common: We’re the same age, and our eldest kids are the same age as well. We’re both fighting the battle of the bulge. I looked around me and saw poverty all around me. I wouldn’t want to raise my children here either, but I still believe life is precious, regardless of geography and economy.

I asked her if she’s prayed, and she replied that she’s always praying.

“Well, I guess you need to talk to God,” I replied frankly. “If God says ‘Yeah Thandiswa, if you are pregnant, I want you to kill your baby because your husband isn’t working’, then go for it. But if God can bless one woman and give her the ability to take care of her children, why can’t he do the same for you?”

She was quiet.

“Your husband has had work before. He’ll get work again.”

The TKAWASC wouldn’t let it go there, however. Now my nights are spent trying to figure out how I’m going to save an unborn baby and economically empower my new sister.

Jeez. This one might be beyond me. I might need my friend Mom Five Times for this one. She can take $1.00 and plan a 6 course banquet.  

Incident 4

All IB students have to complete a certain number of CAS hours before they can receive their degree. CAS stands for Creativity Action Service. CAS has only served to aggravate my too-known American syndrome, because it gave me the tools to facilitate problem solving creatively. When we came to the after school program in Qulwayne, there were many basic things that were lacking…like an actual program. The kids would all loosely arrive between 2:30 and 3:30 pm, run around the grounds footloose and fancy free until 4:45 pm, eat and then leave. The too-known American in me could not let this continue. So I decided to institute CAS, with some Bible knowledge thrown in.

Sadly, the only acronym I could formulate with these terms was SCAB – which is ironically very fitting. My kids have a lot of scabs.

So now to the pleasure of the few parents I’ve encountered, and to the dismay of the children, we have structured half hour sessions until dismissal in the evening.  

To facilitate my SCAB program, we need notebooks, pencils, a white board, arts and crafts materials, on and on and on. This of course costs money, and money to provide for 80 kids. It’s only been a week, but I’ve been rigging and borrowing all over the place. Some of these prices are ridiculous. One store wants 479R ($70!) for a white board! So, I use my child support money to buy stationery; I go to a local office and shamelessly rape their photocopy machine to duplicate my lessons; I do what I can to get by.

Why? Because I’m a Too Known American with A Savior Complex. And to all my friends with the same complex American and otherwise, thank you for your support!

I saw the face of apartheid today

I would never insult your intelligence, Reader, by assuming that you are unfamiliar with South Africa’s apartheid past, so suffice it to say that it was brutal to say the least. Apartheid was a wicked, insidious regime that made portions of America’s civil rights struggle look like a scene from an animated Disney movie. Fortunately, that regime ended, culminating in Mandela’s release from prison and ushered in a new era for the ‘Rainbow Nation.’

Before we got here, I did a brief study on what exactly that term meant: Rainbow Nation. South Africa was and is a country rich is natural resources. In the late 18th century, these resources drew people from all over the world – some voluntarily and some a little less so. Indians and Chinese were brought in from Asia to work as laborers and as infantry in the Colonial army. The Dutch Boers (Afrikaner) came to take advantage of the fertile soil and temperate climate and created farm settlements. The English had their stakes in the ground (as they did all over Africa), and finally there were the natives – Bantus, Zulus, Koi/Saans, Xhosas, etc. who were all lumped in as “Black”. With all these different ethnic groups sharing land space, there was sure to be some mixing, which in turn created a new race referred to as ‘Colored’. Their descendants make up the Rainbow Nation as we know it today.

Let’s just cut to the chase: When it comes to race, South Africa has some serious issues. I thought we had it bad in the States… but whew! Oh everyone is polite enough in public, co-existing by basically ignoring the race of their neighbor instead of embracing it, but when you pull back the veneer the cracks in this rainbow colored castle become very apparent. The Whites who were brought up English think that they are better (i.e. more sophisticated) than anyone else, including the Afrikaners (who are pretty much Dutch rednecks). The Afrikaners in turn believe that they are just as superior, if not more so than the English and proved it by winning the English-Boer war. (Hey, whaddya know? The South actually won this round.) Next is the Chino-Indo group, who mingle almost exclusively with one another…because NO ONE elese is even fit the carry their plate of dhosa; unless you’re Colored. But only the right type of Colored, mind you! The lighter, the better. Ahh, and then there’s the Colored – Black dynamic, which is by far my favorite fragment. The Coloreds, who often live in townships as well, are of the firm opinion that they are superior to Blacks, even though they are only a modicum less poor. The difference is they’re Colored, and that’s just better than being Black. I dunno. I think it’s a ‘good hair’ thing.

So with that in mind, I am always mindful of who I’m talking to and how I talk to them…and by that, I mean I try to be as AMERICAN as possible. When I talk to Coloreds and Blacks, I speak with my whitest accent possible; and when I speak to white South Africans, I’m damn near incomprehensible. And they LOVE it.

“Where are you from?” a red haired pharmacist asked me when we first got here. “Atlanta,” I replied.

“A real American accent!” she gushed. “It’s so good to hear a real American accent.”

I smiled. As usual, Nadjah found a way to subvert my smuggery.

“I thought you were from Ghana,” she asked, feigning confusion.

“Yes…well, I’m both.” I let my voice trail off, failing to conjure up any sort of recovery.

Fortunately, the pharmacist seemed oblivious.

So, secure in my American-ness, I’ve pretty much cajoled myself into a world where I believe that everyone loves me and that in some way, I too am superior because I’m not just Black – I’m Black American. This security was shattered this afternoon when I encountered a blatant racist.

Marshall and I were driving through downtown Plett, on our way home to get some lunch. A white pick-up truck (and why are they ALWAYS in a pick-up??) suddenly stopped 2 car lengths in front of us and began to back up with no warning. Keep in mind downtown Plett is no bigger than the parking lot of a Super Target. Marshall failed to notice this man’s sudden reversal until I yelled “Hey!”

So Marshall honked his horn.

The dude keeps reversing!

Marshall honks again until the man is literally inches from our bumper. A city bus stops behind us. Annoyed, the man signals for us to move backwards.

“Where do you want me to go?!” Marshall yells into the windshield. (Our windows were up.) I happened to look behind and saw that we had about 10 feet between us and the bus. I told Marshall he could go back a bit. Y’all, do you know this fool hopped out of his car, puffing on a cigarette like he was Al-frikkin’-Pacino. Like he was about to DO something. Seeing that we backed up, he got back into his car and KEPT ON COMING.

That’s when he started yelling – in that Afrikaner accent that makes my skin crawl. He had made his way to Marshall’s driver side door, his wrinkled face browning in fury.

“Move your car back!” he screeched. “There is a car coming out and I want his space!”

Really dude? He was scowling and huffing on a dingy looking cigarette. I felt my jaw tighten. This nigga was about to be called all kinds of motha f-*clickers*, b-*clicks* and c-*click*rackers. I looked at Marshall, waiting for him to uncage me. He was busy looking at the windshield, ignoring the wrinkly old idiot barking at our door…and honking his horn at the now driverless vehicle in front of us.

You’re holding up traffic!” he howled in that hateful accent, pointing to the line of cars forming behind us.

Heh! Didn’t he know we were Black Americans? How dare he?!? A pair of Black women crossing the street spoke for us.

“Where do you want him to move to? Heh?” they said in English and Xhosa.

That’s when the cops rolled by, in that stealthy, shark-like cruise they do when they smell ticket money. Seeing a small crowd amass, the Afrikaner got into his pick-up and sped off like he was auditioning for a Vin Diesel movie. He lost his parking space, and I lost an opportunity to lose my temper. (I’m actually grateful for that; I don’t believe God would have been pleased and it would have only served to ruin an otherwise good day.)

“I would have backed up more if he had just asked me nicely,” Marshall later said nonchalantly. “But he was being a jerk!” “I know, right?”

Then we drove home and had a fabulous lunch.

*******

Today’s incident made me think about how differently that whole scene would have played out just 30 years ago. Marshall and I would have been arrested, and that dude would have been within his rights to administer a beat down, for which we would not be permitted to retaliate. First of all, our passbooks would have not allowed us to come to that part of town. We’d be trespassers. That’d a fine and an additional police beat down…just to drive the point home.

This Thursday is a holiday in South Africa to commemorate the school massacre in Soweto in 1976 where 500 elementary school children were gunned down during a protest against Afrikaans education – the language of the ‘oppressor’. In those days, the end result of racism often meant the real threat of death and/or captivity, whereas today racism is merely an inconvenient irritation: such as facing down a washed up old douche sack who clearly can’t drive. The experience is clearly different, but the roots of the emotion are still the same.