Saturday, December 18, 2010

Education: a rock and a hard place

The question of development of poor countries is a complex one. Growing up in the Eastern Cape I have always felt that the province is a microcosm of what Africa is to the world. Our issues are similar to those of Africa (corrupt leaders, poor education and low literacy levels, high levels of unemployment and few opportunities for civic involvement, poor townships and rural areas). I recently drove through the Eastern Cape from Kwazulu Natal, another predominantly rural province and the schism between the rich and the poor is tangible.

I have always been able to traverse the different realities in SA, both the privileged and poor realities. My education has been what set me apart and allowed me better opportunities that are often inaccessible to girls from working class families (and many of the women in my own family). By highlighting education (amongst many experiences in my life) as being the catalyst to the opportunities I have suggests that I think that education is the panacea for the world’s problems. And given that I want to be a teacher, I am biased towards the importance of education.

But I can’t help but wonder the error of the idea that education is the be-all and end-all to the world’s problems. I won’t go into the complexities of what education really means and for the sake of making sense, by education I mean a formal education associated with institutions, teachers, books etc. Central to education is being literate and numerate and having skills necessary for employment etc. By emphasising that without education very little can change in the world especially developing countries, minimises the strides that uneducated people have made in changing their realities across the world. It’s almost as though people who are not educated are doomed and have nothing to add to the world. Reading the book Half the sky: How to change the world has left me with mixed emotions. I am inspired and enraged. The book looks into the experience of women empowerment in poor countries mostly in Asia and Africa. There are true life stories of uneducated women changing their lives from being sex slaves as young girls to being entrepreneurs in one lifetime. Many of them do this without a university degree.

I just can’t help but wonder that the value of education is given the poor literacy levels we already face in SA. Currently we reproduce an unhealthy society where children from working class homes receive a poor education will be relegated to opportunities that limit them or a lack of opportunities period! To be crude, we will always have a thriving working class in South Africa with smatterings of the exceptional children making it out shacks and almost invisible homesteads in rural areas being faced with the moral dilemma of climbing up the slopes of success or building the communities they come from.

Something’s got to give if education is really the answer to the change we wish to see in the world.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ubuhle bentombi zinwele zakhe...

Ubuhle bentombi zinwele zakhe…a girl’s beauty is her hair…beauty is pain…this the advice I endured throughout most of my teens while pursuing silky relaxed hair at a great financial cost and physical pain caused by relaxer cream overdue in my hair. This advice was also to keep me from cutting my hair lest I risk being the ugly duckling. The first time I had my hair short, mama cut it. My mother trimmed it so I could have an afro. I had wanted to cut everything off and start afresh, but this was not an option she gave me, I guess she feared I wouldn’t look like a girl anymore.

Second year varsity and I was away from home. On a cold day in May, ushering in the Grahamstown winter, I decided to cut my hair without permission from anyone…ichiskop(a bald head).It was cheap,R10 and the barber shaved it all off. The question of beauty didn’t cross my mind until I went home a few weeks later. My mother and sisters were crestfallen that my beautiful straightened hair was replaced by a bald head, “i can’t even look at you…you better start wearing make up and earrings all the time so people don’t think you’re a boy” were my sister’s words, a chronic beweaver and braider. As though my rounded frame and hips were not enough of a give away that I’m a woman. My mother was curt and to the point,”awusembi nje”(you look so ugly).

But I chose not to believe either of them. It was the first time I believed I was beautiful with or without my hair and I definitely didn’t need their approval on what it meant to be a woman. I cut my hair again this year, and I feel even more beautiful! I wear jewellery because I like it not because I’m hiding how plain I look and I wear red lipstick from time to time because I enjoy the colour not because I’m making up for the lack of my hair. I find it strange that many women can’t simply wear their hair without it being a statement: if you cut it all off you’re a lesbian or having an existential crises, if you weave it you’ve got too much money and time on your hands and risk being judged as being superficial and buying into the “West’s” conception of what beauty is, if you have an afro you’re a soul sister and carry the burden of being deep all the time. In cutting my hair people choose to see me as someone making a point and perhaps this has been the case in the past, but without that I would have never learned to appreciate that beauty is skin deep and not about the symbols we use and obsess about asserting who we are. India Arie puts it well “I am not my hair”!

http://1sttime2010.wordpress.com/2010/11/16/the-first-time-i-cut-my-hair/

Monday, October 25, 2010

The First Time I Wanted to Love Differently From My Mother-from the first time blog

I know a dangerous kind of love. A crazy kind of love that causes some people to empty out their own souls for those they love, a Jesus kind of love. Mama’s love.

Like all mother-daughter relationships, my mother and I have a tense relationship as though we are both walking on a tightrope. The tension is framed by my fear of becoming like my mother and her fear of me becoming myself and unrecognisable to her. In her eyes, it makes sense that I should be in her image because that’s safe and know-able for her. Somehow we are both aware of this tension even though we do not speak about it directly, it always emerges in the stories she tells me about her childhood.

Every time I came home from school with an award or an extra badge or scroll on my blazer she would reminisce about her school days and the awards she received. Once she came home from school with an award recognising her diligence at school and her sister responded with a jest that I battle translating into English “Le ithi uyazigqatsa” (This certificate means that you are forward). She still tells this story repeatedly—almost without fail whenever I come home with good news about my progress at university. The look in her eyes tells me that she internalised these words as a message that being her best self means trying too hard, being forward, being too much. However she always makes an effort to encourage me as that is what she never received in her younger life.

Another of her favourite stories that makes her eyes gleam with satisfaction recalls a selection to present flowers to Mrs Baden-Powell upon her visit in South Africa[1] in the 1960s. She always adds that she did not view herself as a remarkable child, but adults trusted her and enjoyed her presence even as a young child.

Her childhood stories reveal her own tensions with her own mother who had little time to show affection to her children. A single (never married) mother of six children, independently raising her children on a seamstresses salary during the height of apartheid in the 1960s. When we (I have two older sisters) sit at home with her and bake, sew, draw, dance or do anything a mother does with her daughters (sometimes she watches us while we read and asks us to tell her the stories afterwards), she recalls how her mother never made time to indulge her with time spent at home enjoying each other’s company.

When Mama was barely 10 she had the responsibility of looking after her siblings while her mother was at work. She was expected to do well at school and cook and clean and mind her younger siblings—she never had time to play outside with other children. Once my grandmother, Bhele[2], came home and her son who was a few months old was crying uncontrollably. Upon enquiry little Mama explained that she had tried her best in feeding him and trying to get him to sleep but to no avail. Bhele investigated every nook and cranny on her son and stripped him to his nappies. She discovered that his penis had been caught in the safety pin where the cotton nappy was pulled together. There was no sympathy for Mama; her carelessness was rewarded with a forceful slap that sent her flying across the room. At times she remembers how she endured a cut on her head because Bhele threw a saucer at her after she had not cooked “istif’papa” correctly. She discovered the wound days later when she fainted at school.

Bhele’s mother died when she was very young and her father, a Baptist minister, felt compelled to marry in order to have a helpmate raise his 6 children. Memory reveals two accounts of this woman, Ivy. Bhele interpreted her authoritarian discipline with colonial influence as cruelty; and her bouts in bed because of her sickness is interpreted as laziness. According to Mama, she was a frail woman who was constantly in bed with asthma or diabetes related sickness, but when she recovered she was a studious housekeeper who had strict rules about decorum in her house. Mama was raised by Ivy and my great-grandfather, uTata (father in isiXhosa)[3]. When she talks of Ivy, she uses the title mama (mother in isiXhosa) and calls Bhele, Bhele—Ivy is her mother even more than 40 years after her death.

Generations later and mother love in my family is fraught with tension. Mama showers us with the love she never received from Bhele. She believes that being raised by Ivy and uTata allowed her to know what love is. In her short life with them, she found a safe space and was allowed to be herself. They passed away within a month of each other and Mama’s safe space was buried when they were buried. Her grief is evident in her tears every time she tells the story about the experience of losing her Ivy and uTata. She never cried until they were at the cemetery and the service was over.

The tension is aggravated as my sisters and I grow older and we see the world through our own eyes. None of us want to be like Mama. Her love is dangerous to the point where her entire existence revolves around her three daughters (evidence of a good God because for once she got what she prayed for). She raised us “esibambe ngamazinyo” (holding us by her teeth)[4] which means that as much as her love was and still is translated through her sacrifices, it is still mediated by her precarious space in the world that was marred when Ivy and uTata passed away. She loves deeply from fear of losing us and her fear is translated into a view of the world no-one understands. Sometimes the tensions paralyse me because for most of my life my mother has been superhuman and all that I could never be (raising children without a salary; a divorce that left her wounded after she had lived her life for what she thought was a good marriage). But that doesn’t diminish the crazy love that allows us to live despite the imperfections and tensions passed down the generations.


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[1] She recalls that Mrs Baden-Powell was one of the people who was involved in establishing the Girl Scouts in South Africa, a recreational tool used by missionaries to inculcate Christian and Western values to Africans who became Christians

[2] Bhele is my late grandmother’s clan name. However this form of the title is reserved for the male, the female version of the name is Bhelekazi, but we all call her Bhele to this day

[3] Because Bhele never married, her first child was raised by her parents, “umntwana wasekhaya” (a child belonging to the home). Traditionally, an unmarried woman is “intombi” (a girl) until she is married. Her parents will raise her children born out of wedlock in order to give the child a sense of identity by giving the child the maternal family name

[4] This proverb alludes to how feline animals carry their young using their teeth but do not hurt them. This symbolises how a mother raises children despite the difficult circumstances she endures

Friday, October 15, 2010

What literacy means in a multilingual SA

“IT ALL starts with literacy” was the theme of the conference that launched the Reading Association of South Africa in the Eastern Cape. This is an association, already based in other South African provinces, that seeks to be a voice to the challenges we face in literacy and the language question in schools and universities.
We often think of literacy as reading and writing, an activity in classrooms where teachers are the only people who can influence this, but conversations held at this conference opened up the idea that literacy is more than what happens at school, it is a daily activity that also occurs in homes and communities. Central to the question of literacy is language. Living in a multilingual society with a past that used language for control and discrimination, South Africans often think we have a language crisis. This does not need to be the case. We have 11 official languages although they are not all equal in status or value.

Many parents want their children to be taught in English because this is the language that is used in the working world, universities and some countries across the world.The complexity with the language question is that the dominance of English and the belief that an English education is the best education has left many pupils in South Africa at a disadvantage.

The Language in Education Policy in South Africa supports an additive approach to bilingualism which means that pupils’ home languages (commonly known as mother tongue) should not be removed but rather supported so that pupils are able to use and be literate in more than one language.This is not the case for all pupils, especially those who have an African language as their mother tongue (where Afrikaans is an exception).

Many parents opt for their children to be taught in English as soon as possible as they believe early exposure to the language will help them know the language better.
This, however, has its challenges as we see many pupils are not able to read and write in either English or Xhosa when they get to high school.The challenge is that while pupils might be able to speak a language this does not guarantee that they will read and write in the language as fluently, especially if their mother tongue is not fully developed and supported.

Bilingualism is something that hasn’t been fully considered in many schools (in spite of the history of bilingual and parallel medium schools where Afrikaans and English were used). Many pupils attend schools that have a subtractive approach to bilingualism which means the mother tongue is virtually removed because of the emphasis of English at the expense of the mother tongue.

I recognise that children learn languages all the time through television and other informal interactions but hearing and speaking a language is different to being educated and reading in it. It seems that parents are caught between a rock and a hard place as the belief in going straight for English has huge implications for children’s development as well as social interactions.
What does this mean for our everyday lives?

There are no easy answers. We need to start questioning why we believe an English-dominated education is the best in South Africa in spite of the results we see across the grades, especially in our disadvantaged schools.Why do we believe that our African languages do not have a place outside our homes? South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, which means all our languages can have value, but more work is needed to make this a reality.

We need more books in African languages for children to use from an early age. Appropriate support needs to be put in place in all schools where literacy in the mother tongue (both English and African languages) is supported.Parents need to be made aware of the educational value of their children’s mother tongues being supported for as long as possible while acquiring another language such as English.
Young black people need to consider teaching as an option if the reality of mother tongue education is to be achieved in South Africa, as without enough teachers who speak these languages, our children cannot be taught in their languages.

This is not without its challenges. The teaching profession in South Africa has become complex as many teachers across privileged and disadvantaged schools are questioning their role in a society that takes them for granted, hence young black people are reluctant to consider teaching as a career option. Many peers laugh at my confession of wanting to be a teacher as this is not a lucrative profession such as being an accountant.

More importantly, many people do not see the value of teaching African languages as careers do not require people to be multilingual.English is always the important language, but why?The only way African languages can be developed is through users of those languages demanding that their languages are used in all contexts of society: the more a language is used, the more opportunities there will be to develop it for more spheres in society. The responsibility is not with the education system alone, however, but with all South Africans: monolingualism should be abnormal in a country with 11 official languages.

First published in the Daily Dispatch: 2010/10/11

Friday, October 8, 2010

Whiteness in my world

Recently I was asked to speak at my former school’s prizegiving. This obviously led me to a reflection about my 12 year education and amongst many issues that came up race become central. I went to a former white model C school. The irony about this label is that when I was there between 1994 and 2005 it was still a predominantly white school demographically, especially the teacher profile. In grade 1 I was the only Black learner (though there was an Indian, Coloured and Taiwanese as well) in a class of 20-something. The defining factor was that I only discovered black women could teach when I was in primary school and she was the least respected teacher in the school. The rest of the teachers were white women.

The influence of my teachers in relation to the influence my mother had on me while growing up has been overwhelming. School obviously became more powerful than home seeing as my identity was hardly formed when I was thrust into a white school at the age of 6 and expected to swim (in more ways than one) like the other kids who had pools in their homes since they were born. I modelled my teachers and doubted my mother. Other black women in my life where those that worked in factories, overweight vendors of fruit and vegetables at the taxi rank; they did not have beautiful hair, make up, jewellery, perfume or anything framed in the world as beautiful. And my teachers knew everything about what it meant to be in the world. Albeit their world. I modelled them and soon learned to speak like the white kids in the school. When I was in public I heard people call me a coconut and someone had to explain this to me and something started to tick in my mind. I didn’t wake up in the morning thinking “today I’m a coconut”, rather I wanted to be human. And at some point I wanted to be white. The teachers never problematised the existence of the white girls in the class, they were normal. I had to explain my hair, why my skin was ashy after swimming, the food I ate at home if we ate umphokoqo, the beads on my wrist after we had a traditional healing ceremony at home. I was othered and I felt that the only way to escape this was becoming white. I stopped speaking isiXhosa until I went to my mother’s church when I was 11 (fortunately mama didn’t stop speaking to me in isiXhosa). This was also the year we were told not to speak isiXhosa at school.

Fast forward to high school and in matric I was the one of the 5 black learners in the class again (our classes were streamed according to language and Maths). At this point being a coconut made sense and it was bandied about even more. Comments such as “you speak so well...you’re not like other black people...you’re such a white girl” started to form a picture in my mind. Being white meant something...being an English speaking white meant your world was alright and you were envied. The first time Black people existed in the literature we read was in Shades, the heathens and the colonised, disempowered. I was scolded when I came to school with my afro twisted as it was untidy and I was chastised like a naughty child. We were not allowed to have dreadlocks at school, but white girls changed their hair colour regardless of the rules in place. Black women spent time in salons trying to get straight hair, buying skin lighteners etc. Being black started becoming more of a problem because we were also too loud.

Fast forward to university where I chose Rhodes. A former white liberal institution going through an identity crises. When I arrived in 2006 many of the people in my class were white (I chose English, Philosophy, Linguistics and Psychology-I was planning to be a teacher). I met more “coconuts” and somehow we gravitated towards each other in the effort of feeling normal. Many black people (especially from the Eastern Cape) thought I didn’t speak an African language or that I was Coloured and didn’t befriend me until third year when I took isiXhosa as a subject and things started shifting. Power, language, identity, agency and social capital started making sense and I realised that an acute identity crises was setting in. When I majored in English people were in awe of me, but I started doing isiXhosa and I had to justify why I was doing this. Recently I was told I should not speak isiXhosa because I sound weird. While greeting a friend someone else asked me “kutheni uzenza umlungu?” (Why are you mimicking a white person) and I thought I was simply greeting a friend. Even my own sister often comments “you’re such a white girl!” in spite of the fact that we went to the same school and raised in the same home.

The ironies and complexities of being part of white middle class educational institutions (if I’d start talking about religion I would need an entire book) has left me at odds with myself. I have been allowed to remake my identity and recognise that it is fluid given the context I find myself in. The ironies with my research is that I am propagating a mother tongue based education whereas I have never had a mother tongue education and that has been partly the reason for my success in university. I mastered the “code” and at times assimilated. More often than I would like, a conversation with a white person is not simply a conversation but a process of convincing that person “I can be like you and maybe even better”, it’s always a process of re-education and explaining as the custodian and spokesperson of the new hybrid generation that is straddling two worlds: one telling you who you ought to be and the other asking you to explain yourself all the time and somewhere in the middle there are questions. Often I am angry because in comparison to my white friends, I have to work twice as hard to claim my space in the world (though when I factor in gender and class I think I’m working double shifts). And it doesn’t help that I’m also a vegetarian because a friend pointed out that he doesn’t think my ancestors would be happy about that.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Love, marriage and suburban bliss

My first boyfriend approached me not because he liked me, but because it was a bet. He was dared by his mates to see if he could get the girl that played hard to get, and he won the bet. This was in primary school. The nature of boyfriends and girlfriends was different back then: a boyfriend meant that I would have someone to dance with at the disco we had once a term; if we interacted with our brother school, he would be the boy I would sit with most of the time. It was mickey mouse stuff, just to keep our curious minds thinking that boys were relevant in our world. Although this was a mickey mouse relationship, it somehow painted my experience with the opposite sex: a love-hate relationship. My interactions with boys in school was further complicated by what I saw in the Bold and the Beautiful, magazines, popular culture and more importantly my parent’s marriage.

The history of failed marriages and fatherless (or rather absent fathers) the women in my family have had to contend with has made me wonder about the question of love, marriage and suburban bliss. I don’t have a model of what a good marriage is and I certainly don’t have a good model of a stable home. Sadly men have often been central to conversations where the women in my life lament about their experiences. There are seldom good stories to tell. My grandmother had 6 children with 3 different men. She never married and there was little if any talk of a grandfather in her house. She didn’t raise many of her children, but gave them away to relatives to look after until they were mostly in their teens. My mother often reflects how difficult life was being married to my father who often lied about his employment, leaving her with the burden of being the bread winner from the money she made sewing people’s clothes. She confessed to not marrying for love; marriage was an escape route for her as it was the only option she felt she had if she was to grow apart from her family (independence and no marriage was not an option she considered). Aunt number one relates her story with her husband who was unfaithful and displayed his affair openly to the point of telling her face to face, “Andikufuni" (I don’t want you in my life), but now they are ageing and live happily together. Aunt number two has three children. By the time she was 22 she’d already had two children. She relates a story of how she was preganant at the same time as my other two aunts in their early twenties-complete scandal for 3 young unmarried women from an unmarried mother nogal and no promise of marriage in the horizen. Aunt number three is still married, she met her husband while he was in a relationship with someone else while they were singing in the local choir, “wangena nge-window emzini wakhe” (she was married clandestinely and accepted as a makoti without the paraphernalia that is often expected).And what of these women’s girl-children? Three are married, one was almost married but left the abusive relationship that she had been warned about, one is a lesbian, one is expecting a baby and we’re all assuming she’s in a committed relationship that should end in marriage and then there’s me, single for 7 years. We all have daddy-issues and overbearing mothers but I doubt we are unique.

People across the world have the cloud of their parents' relationship to contend with before taking the leap of faith into any kind of relationship. Those who choose to question the structures in society when it comes to love and marriage are left with no bearings. It’s either you are in a heterosexual relationship where you reproduce what society deems as normal, or you risk a homosexual relationship where society creates endless problems for you (wanting to kill you being one) or you remain single and risk being seen as a threat by those who are protecting the frontiers of their homes or seen as not fully woman if you choose not to have children in or outside of marriage. And then there’s celibacy where you are accused of being fearful and abnormal if you even think that being single forever and ever as a viable option (how do monks and nuns and some priests do it?).

Then the liability of being a single black, educated, modern woman! I have often been accused of wanting too much...a superman complex! I used to have a list with what I wanted in a man and have recently learned that doesn’t matter anymore. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a mental picture of what I’d like in a relationship, but apparently the man doesn’t exist: he has to be smart, somewhat attractive so I can point him out in a crowd, he can’t be a social dropout so a job or a sense of purpose in the world is important and spiritual (he doesn’t have to walk on water or turn water into wine, but living consciously is sufficient) and love would be a great ingredient to add to the perfect match. If he doesn’t exist then educated, opinionated, thinking women repel these kind of men. There seems to be a disjuncture where women are being encouraged to be independent(financially or otherwise) and seeing themselves as fully human as possible; where we own our choices and decisions instead of stepping into our mother’s roles of wife and mother; in relation to men who still pine for a replica of their mother with the figure of a magazine cover girl with perky B cup boobs and perfect make up. I’m no expert on men and I won’t attempt to speak for all women, but I’ve been told that highly successful black women are not at the top of the list when men are looking to settle. We’re all facing a nervous condition: we question the structures of marriage or even "shacking up" because we pine for the picture perfect idea of love and marriage where there are defined roles and responsibilities, but recognise that there has to be more. Some young educated professionals opt for a postmodern “neither here nor there” approach to relationships where even the titles girlfriend and boyfriend are too scary for people to consider: do you count the anniversary from the day you kissed or the one night stand that turned into regular dates (seeing as “asking someone out” or courting doesn’t really happen anymore)?

And where do I stand on all this? Part of me wants to ignore the questions my family poses about my lengthy single status while my cousins and sisters are either procreating or getting married or both in whatever order. I don’t have an answer to why I am still single, I can’t exactly date or marry myself. The best I can do is learn to get to know myself better and appreciate my own company with friends (who are mostly in the same boat because friends who are in relationships or married with children talk about their sweet boyfriends or the price of nappies respectively). Sadly I have been unable to ignore the fact that I am a woman who has emotions and feelings and I’m learning that my sabbatical from relationships has left me with no skills or a game plan. Do I act upon the feelings and tell a guy I have a “crush” on him (which I’ve done and have learnt that men don’t know what do with this piece of information as they are destabilised hunters)? The best advice I have received has been to let it be and go through the emotions...and then what? I hope and pray a guy will eventually notice I am a girl and act upon the instinct of pursuing me? Or do I throw in the towel and risk being told that my fear of heartbreak and disappointment got in the way of completing the picture of having it all—a thriving career, the perfect husband, healthy children and the suburban middle class lifestlye—with people feeling sorry for me because “she had so much going for her but simply couldn’t find a man”?!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Overhauling education in SA

AS A YOUNG South African I have recently been trying to grapple with the idea that my generation has not inherited a new South Africa but a country that is under reconstruction every day.
I do not take lightly the significance of the 1994 elections and the contested Truth and Reconciliation Commission which marked the importance of people telling their stories in order to make meaning of our collective and individual past, but something is amiss.
There is no common theme to agree upon when looking at South Africa’s narrative but mostly complex interpretations.
The complexities and interpretations of South Africa’s past have implications for my generation: ranging from those who were toddlers or just born in 1990 and those starting school in 1994.
We oscillate between the luckiest generation where there is a fluid movement between the races for some where experiences and ideas can be exchanged.
But for others who are still trying to overcome the barriers of social class and the rural/urban divide, the new South Africa has not yielded much hope.
Education has become the central focus in this transition.
This became clearer to me recently in a conversation with a young woman who is struggling to find a job.
She has the qualifications to be a security guard and she has a matric certificate. In order to get a job as a security guard she often has to pay money out before she is hired.She lost her previous job working in a restaurant because she did not have money to cover her transport to work every day.
While listening to her experience I reflected on how education had positioned us in two different worlds: my privileged education gave me the option of university and further studies and opportunities while she was not guaranteed this due to the intersectionality of class, race and gender which are compounded by one’s quality of education.
I fear that I potentially come across as someone rehashing the issues that have become the norm in South Africa, but the truth is, coming to grips with the new South Africa means unpacking the complexities.
I emerged from high school expecting neat answers and solutions as maths theorems had taught me to do, only to be ushered into a world where there are no neat lines and solutions.
Understanding a new order as many have to do when an entire government is overturned, as was the case in South Africa, means more than policy and legislation is needed to do the trick.
A new order meant an entire nation had to undo their psyches when South Africa became a democratic country, but little has changed.
Why is it that the same mistakes keep happening such as teacher strikes when Grade 12pupils are weeks away from exams?
If education is central to transforming society, when are we going to seriously realise that the system is failing dismally?
Through my interactions with young people still in high school I have noticed that there is a level of cynicism and anger festering over the disruptions around their education.
The strike might mean no school (which is usually a good thing when one is in school) for some, but it also means insecure futures for others.
Many people have rallied around schools, offering their services at teaching and tutoring to buffer the situation, but this seems to be like placing a plaster on a wound that ought to have stitches or reconstructive surgery.
A systemic overhaul is an option that needs to be taken seriously. It is not sufficient to keep patching up the issues at the response of a strike or major failures.
When district offices are clearly identified as corrupt and lacking in efficiency, why do they continue to operate as though everything were normal?
When schools have the capacity for 100 Grade 12 students, but fewer than 10 are enrolled, what does this say about the efficacy of the school management?
South Africa is not the first country to emerge from a complex past. Educational reform needs to be a priority in this transitional state.
We need to learn from other countries that made a serious commitment to education beyond the rhetoric we see from our leaders.
If mass education is to be beneficial then difficult decisions need to be taken before we reach a point of utter chaos with more pupils being disadvantaged.

This article was published in today's Daily Dispatch

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What's in a name...?

About a month ago I witnessed my sister's traditional wedding where she emerged not only as Mrs so-and-so but with a brand new name, Nokhwezi* as opposed to Zimasa* as she is commonly known. The practice of a new bride changing both name and surname is an age-old practice across many cultures to some extent or another. The new bride(makoti) is supposed to identify with her new family hence a whole new identity is created for her, including a new identity document. It is important to note that the groom's name and surname have remained intact. The wedding day also included a wardrobe change where umakoti had to wear new clothes that symbolize her status as the new bride. Again, the groom didn’t change anything. The day ended with my sister sitting on a grass mat(ikhukho) and her husband on a chair listening to older women telling them about the new adventure ahead.

Such practices surrounding women and their status in relationships in relation to men have been under much scrutiny over the years because of the question of equality. These practices are usually central to the coming of age rituals and the most obvious being marriage where the women "takes" her husband's surname and in my sister’s case and many Xhosa women a new name as well. I was shocked to find out that Home Affairs does the surname change automatically once the papers are signed without giving women the choice of keeping their own surnames (prior arrangements have to be done for this). Some women have challenged this practice by double-barreling their surname thus having two surnames and for the few who choose to keep their surnames, it’s an administrative nightmare in various contexts, especially when children are born. I have heard of few men who double barrel their surnames.

Many will argue that the naming practice is an indication of the married woman being accepted into her husband’s family, but if this is the case, why doesn’t the groom get a new name for being accepted into the bride’s family? If men and women are equal in South Africa, why do they not have equal status even at the Home Affairs office? Surely if the woman's surname changes, the husband’s surname should change as well? I understand there are complex issues in marriage, especially where people seem to be in limbo between traditional practices and recognising women as individuals who do not need to be owned or handed over from their fathers to their husbands. The structure of marriage runs deeper than the rituals as families and society get involved. The practice of lobola is central to the idea that marriage is about bringing two families together (and the negotiations are performed by the patriarchs in the respective families), but is this really the case; when the relationship is tough and ends in divorce, how many people consider that there was an exchange that was binding families and not just individuals? And lobola opens another can of worms as debates have been raging about why women do not pay lobola as men do seeing as we want equal status with men on all levels. Customary marriages are also another quandary. If a man can have more than one wife, can a wife have more than one husband?

It may seem that I’m being flippant about these issues but I recognise there’s a historical element to the question of these rituals and their meanings in society and people place value on the heritage, a particularly patriarchal heritage. I’m not anti-matrimony, but the inequalities in the name of culture and what is “normal” need to be looked at closely. Some may argue “what’s in a name”? The names and the labels we ascribe to ourselves as men and women are central to how we make meaning of ourselves and experiences in the world. I respect the decision for people who enter into marriage and the practices that abound, out of choice, not simply what is expected of them which is often the case with many rituals that are still practiced.

*Names have been changed

Saturday, August 21, 2010

finding the language

One of the challenges of doing postgraduate studies is understanding other people’s ideas and trying to generate personal ideas from those about how to approach one’s own research. Another fancy word for this is finding a theoretical underpinning for ones research or an approach to explain the phenomena or people one will be working with. I have been on the verge of tearing my hair out trying to find the relevant theory to explain the classrooms I hope to do my research in. My proposal writing got to a point where I could show that I understand the issues and complexities around teaching literacy in many South African classrooms. I exhausted relevant research explaining literacy as a social practice and my supervisor was satisfied with this but it was not sufficient to explain the research I am looking to do. I was left with the question “And then what?...So what if I understand the issues?”

The trick has been finding the language that speaks to what I see in the classrooms. How can I explain what I know? Why is it important to explain what I see in the classroom? The essence of my research is a response to the literacy results in SA that show that learners are performing below the international benchmarks when it comes to reading and writing. An extension of this has been trying to understand what is happening in South Africa’s foundation phase classrooms where learners are taught in their mother tongue (particularly African languages)> This has not been without the understanding of what is happening in SA’s education system as a whole as education is implicated in the social and political structures we have currently. My thinking has been that if we can understand the different facets of education we can begin putting the pieces together and making the right decisions whe it comes to education especially where mass education is involved as it is in SA. We boast high learner enrolment but poor results on all levels...something’s got to give. I chose the teacher as my focus because apart from the blame heaped on teachers, very little attention has gone into understanding how they make sense of their role as teachers especially in the foundation phase. This is also at a time where teacher numbers are dwindling and the teachers in the system at the moment are reaching retirement age or taking early retirement. So learner numbers are increasing but teacher numbers are dwindling. How does this affect the teacher who, despite OBE and a learner-centred approach, is still central to teaching and learning in the classroom in spite of the external factors that affect many of the learners in SA?

So I stumbled across a book that is beginning to unpack the issues for me. Understanding reflective teaching might be the approach that I am looking for. This is an entire field that has been used to help understand the teachers and how they understand their practice. This has also help give an understanding into teacher education, which should be the bigger picture for research where teachers are concerned. I am assuming that if we can understand how teachers make sense/meaning from their teaching, then we can make informed decisions about the reforms (pedagogic, policy or curriculum related) that we needed in SA to make sure that learners are reading and writing for meaning at the end of Grade 1.

So this is just the beginning. I’m seeing my supervisor next week, and she might have other ideas, but this is my story for now.I doubt this blog will be of interest to many people unless they are conducting research or have done so before. And if my supervisor reads this, I hope she will agree with what I have found so I can stop wishing this Masters research away!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Inheriting the new South Africa

In trying to transform South Africa, a new generation is emerging and we are at odds with what we have inherited. In pursuing a non-racial society (as well as many of the issues on South Africa’s wish list such as removing the class and gender inequalities) we are also confronted with ourselves. Some of my peers and I recognise that we still need to talk of race while trying to undo the damage of the past that named, shamed and discriminated on the basis of the colour of ones skin: being black. Emerging from this, I am one of the people who reject the label of being black and would rather embrace being human on the basis that I wasn’t born black, history decided this for me, I was born a human being. But because I am part of the new South Africa and part of the generation that has inherited the task of rebuilding South Africa, I have realised that there is a disconnection. In trying to rebuild South Africa, race is still important.



I was offended and infuriated by this realisation while at an internship with a company in Cape Town. While working with the company I realised that one of the their social responsibility initiatives involves the following, “financial scholarships to assist black students with special focus on black women, to access and finish their studies”. My immediate reaction was fury as this had never been communicated to me. I felt as though I was compromised as an individual who saw herself as simply a student coming into a company to experience the world of work. I felt compromised by the nature of the relationship as I was no longer a student but seen as one being granted a favour simply because my racial classification means that I have been disadvantaged. What I didn’t realise was that the “company” feels justified in this policy as this is what is expected of companies in South Africa to some extent.

The tensions in transforming South Africa is that in trying to undo the past some of my peers and I have decided to reject the labels of the past forgetting that it is still early days to do so especially when in the cross-fire of what this means on a practical level. Young, educated, black females are hot property in South Africa. Once upon a time we were at the bottom of the food chain and now the world is slowly beginning to recognise that society cannot change unless we are placed in decision making roles which were designated for everyone except black women. But as young, educated, black females we wish we could get the opportunities on the basis that we are human and our credentials speak for themselves. When these issues are raised the danger is that racism becomes the focal point and managers in companies (who are mostly White people) get defensive rather than encouraging honest dialogue about the real issues. How does South Africa transition into a non-racial society without forgetting that race still matters? Am I to accept that I am black and therefore need a “helping hand” (as affirmative action has been pejoratively referred to as) or should I reject this and any attempt that attempts to use this against me when opportunities abound?



I do not take South Africa’s history lightly, neither do I reject the attempts of making the necessary changes in order recognise that all men and women are equal in South Africa and that South Africa belongs to all of us as the Freedom Charter reminds us. But how do I do this when my individuality and the right to assert my identity in whatever fashion or form is in the danger of being compromised as I have tried to explain? Being a Mandela-Rhodes Scholar has implicated me as someone who has to recognise that my privilege due to the education I have received has to be extended beyond my personal comfort, but my public duty has to recognise that I am part of the transformation that calls on the recognition of race while trying to remove these labels.



I find that I am between a rock and a hard place. In order to remove the scourges in society that still disadvantage many women my age I have to recognise that my “blackness” is going to play a role in this. Because I have accepted the responsibility of being part of the transformation in South Africa I have to endure the good with the bad. The issue is not whether or not I accept being black, but, what to do with the implications of identifying with the social construction as well as what the label can often translate into (often negative given our past). This tension has also unfolded while reading Antjie Krog’s Country of my skull and it has unravelled the gravity of what reconciliation really means more than 10 years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What does reconciliation mean when the gaps between the rich and the poor are getting wider? Does reconciliation really mean a strong emerging black middle class as opposed to striving for the equality of the millions still living in rural areas and informal settlements? Am I reconciled with myself when I assert that being human takes precedence over the biological factor of pigment and my sex? I’ve been caught in the crossfire with no warning.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The adventures through Khayelitsha...and Equal Education

Today was my first time in Khayelitsha. The first time I encountered Khayelitsha was my first trip from Cape Town International Airport coming for the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship interviews. I was with my friends who had been to Cape Town before and had spoken so highly of it; the grand metropolis, the New York of South Africa or something to that effect. So I had this wonderful image of what it would be like driving through Cape Town for the first time...the land of milk and honey.

I was crestfallen.And today was a reminder I why was crestfallen.It's different seeing Khayelitsha and all the shacks and sand everywhere. It's different when you can actually see the people and hear their conversations, the bellowing gospel music from the shops screeching about a reality that is nothing like the one in this township. Today, I had to travel from N1 city to Khayelitsha. I took a taxi to Elsies River in order to find a taxi to Khayelitsha, when I got there a taxi driver told me I had to take a taxi to Belville. When I found this taxi,I was delayed in Parow.Eventually I arrived in Belville and found a taxi going to Site C in Khayelitsha. This took me and hour and a half and R40. I am amazed at the disconnections in South Africa. I don't blame people who live in the suburbs who have no idea of another reality apart from their own.The admin of getting out of ones comfort zone and seeing the reality in townships such as Khayelitsha is made impossible by simple structures such as public transport.

Eventually I arrived and was dumbstruck at the level of squalor that close to a million people have to call home. I haven't had a charmed childhood and I understand the struggles in South Africa first hand but I had the buffer of a good education that worked out the way it did by the grace of God (people never believe me when I tell them I went to Clarendon Girls High while both my parents were unemployed for most of my school going years). The real reason for this trip(I wasn't really site seeing) was to meet up with Equal Education. Meeting the Equal educators, the staff members and the learners at the youth group was worth the trouble. I met a group of people who reminded me that it's still a good idea to make time and conscientise learners about their rights and role in a democratic country. I was reminded that it's okay to hope that things will change in SA, but not without the work and the sacrifices. Everyone in that organisation sacrifices their time and energy for the learners that they work with. I caught a glimpse of why equality is an important ideal to keep pursuing and why it is important for me to keep hoping that things will change. At least I'm prepared to die trying, rather try than live comfortably knowing that other people don't have the basic necessities, not because they don't want to work for these, but that there are complexities in their lives that need a collective effort to overcome.

So I'm sold, I'm an equaliser, though I'll do what I have to do in a city that does not involve an hour and a half in the traffic to be part of the change. I'm happy with Grahamstown, where I can walk everywhere and take one taxi when necessary and I'm happy in the Eastern Cape...for now, we need more equalisers here too!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

My girlfriends

This past weekend was an unplanned girlfriend’s weekend. It started on Thursday with a cooking date for my Grahamstown duo. They helped me pack banging outfits for my internship in Cape Town, they helped me keep calm about not knowing what to expect with this experience and the usual, we ranted about our relations with the opposite sex. The evening was also very celebratory with sparkling wine, celebrating a successful week rubbing shoulders with Trevor Manuel, Dr Kenneth Kaunda and Joaquim Chissano! I arrived in Joburg with the hopes of meeting with my latest crush at some point during the weekend. Instead I spent the day with a friend who was in desperate need of retail therapy and someone to listen to. Her boyfriend has had to leave South Africa as a matter of life and death. After the retail therapy another friend met up with us and we reflected on the 10 year friendship, moving from girl into woman with each other. Over supper we reflected on the throes of love, loss, loneliness, longing and the caution against loosing all inhibitions with the opposite sex of course! Friday ended with a birthday countdown with the birthday girl fully embracing being a grown ass, badass woman, and trying to edit her boss’s reference list for an article he wrote; don’t ask why we weren’t out dancing or something more exciting! But we stayed up till 1am trying to keep each other awake to get most of the work done (she probably did more work keeping me awake so she could stay awake)!

Day two was spent with another girlfriend, shopping for an outfit for yet another wedding she had been invited to with her boyfriend. We went from crazy Joburg town to Rosebank the Zone, looking for something that would make her look gorgeous! In the midst of choosing dresses and deciding against wearing high heels (yay for sensibility) we spoke about I what I think is a wonderful job at the Constitutional court, trying to understand the complex issues in our country. We shared our tensions about wanting to take the road less travelled and dare the world by going out to meet it in whatever form because we fear mediocrity on all levels. We laughed about how she had bought 4 dresses and that amount did not equal how much I had spent on one pair of shoes (my justification for this is that I will not buy another pair of black pumps for the next 4 years!). We laughed about how far we had come from sleepless nights in university which have been substituted for 3 hour sleep trying to get through proposals or reports instead. This date ended in a rush, trying to pick the right earings and losing a wallet in the car and trying to make sure that my friend doesn’t keep her boyfriend waiting. Again!

After this date I headed back into Joburg town to find another long lost girlfriend whom I have managed to keep in touch with despite her jaunts in America and Europe, conquering the world like the early explorers. Amidst taxi drama and trying to find a good Indian restaurant to satisfy our famished bodies we tried to make up for what seems to have been a lifetime since we saw each other. The obvious topic with us is our crazy families with the head of the pack being the point of contention, our beloved mothers. Apparently few black women can call their mothers their best friends regardless of the fact that we are growing women as we would like to see it. Our mothers will never forgive us for being able to think for ourselves, for no longer being dependent on them to change our nappies or buy our underwear.

When it comes to relationship with men/boys (I tend to conflate the two actually: in my mind boys can be men and men can be boys, but this doesn’t apply to women, there’s a huge distinction between being girl and a women), we are all in differing phases. One has a solid long term relationship of three years going through a new phase, another is facing the looming marriage question, another is trying to find her feet after a disappointment with a university relationship that left some wounds, and the other is simply flowing with the ebbs and flows of a new tenuous romance. And then there’s me, single and content but begging God to explain why this is the case, despite my foolish declarations to my latest crush!

What are men supposed to do with such women? We are young, daring, beautiful, lacking nothing, intellectuals, we are learning not to be scared, we are grappling with our mother’s lessons and desperately hoping not to repeat their mistakes. We desire to be wonderful, loved, gorgeous and to live with no regrets. We want to live a life of love, owning each mistake and attempting every limit that the world has put before us, daring that we can have it all (but maybe not at the same time). But the dreaded question, do the men in our lives understand these desires?
Do the men in our lives (whether in intimate relations or not) understand that to some extent, whether we like it or not, are products of our education and societies. At some point we have had to deal with the question of what it means to be a feminist and whether we want this kind of identity for ourselves. Some of us have burned our bras but decided we won’t drive men into the sea. We want to be women, but we don’t want to be bound up by anything, we want to be free, in a chid-like way almost, pining for the childhoods some of us never really had. We understand that we are loved hence we know we are sufficient as we are and refuse to settle for nothing but love.

The kind of love that doesn’t take or exploit, but restores and builds the person to become their best. Love that is kind, patient, that does not envy, is not boastful, that does not keep record of wrongs, that overcomes fear, love that reminds us that we are sufficient as we are, that says to the world we are here and we are destined for greatness.

Friday, July 23, 2010

the world wide web in the palm of my hands

At the beginning of the year I finally bought a new phone. My previous gadget had finally ceased to be a phone worth having, it even became subject to any hot weather. As soon as the temperature was beyond 27 degrees it would suddenly switch off while I’m having a conversation and would do this until the weather became cooler. After a week of this I decided it was time to be a real modern kid and get a decent gadget one that would have the essentials of keeping up to date in an information obsessed era. I didn’t go the whole nine yards with a Blackberry so I decided on a pseudo-Blackberry, Nokia E63. It has all the basic essentials as well as operating like a laptop in the palm of my hand. At the same time I got a new laptop and I discovered that the cellphone and the laptop might as well be married. Anything I do on my phone I can simply send via Bluetooth to my laptop and vice versa. I also received emails as instantly as an sms but I eventually got rid of this option, being so easily available made me very uncomfortable. So I opted to downloading gmail onto my phone. And then there’s facebook! I haven’t embarked on tweeting yet but I can sense the urge is coming. One of my professors commented on this gadget when Letta Mbulu and Lira started singing from my bag as their songs are my ringtones. Walking in public has become uneventulful as I often spend time clicking away while on my way to campus, frantically trying to keep up with either facebook or demanding emails from the Mandela-Rhodes Scholars. I can catch up on other blogs I am following instantly and read up stories on the “My first time blog” about anything and everything many women have experienced (many of which are intimate), but I have never met them.

So with this kind of communication device I have been able to stay in touch with friends in Lithuania, Argentina, Mauritius and Australia. The world is in the palm of my hand. If I think of anything I can google it instantly and get an answer right there and then. Emails have replaced smses when I want to communicate with a large group of people. I am connected to people all the time often from the comfort of my bed. Strangely though, I am mostly alone despite being in touch with so many people in one day. I make new “friends” on facebook everyday often because they saw my profile picture in someone else’s list of friends or they read and article I wrote. I currently have over 150 but I don’t know that many people! Status updates allow me to read on what people are thinking about at any moment . And then there’s MXit! I can catch up with my sister and cousins all at once without sitting in my grandmother’s house like we did when were growing up. Everyday I get introduced to new abbreviations about how to ask someone how they are or what they are doing-hud=how are you doing, wud=what are you doing.

The paradoxes of this information age are crazy. How is it that I have access to this many people and can still feel so disconnected from people? I am far from home which means my primary community is far from me. Being at varsity, many of my friends have left but we still want to be in each other’s lives hence facebook. The prospect of falling in love has become complicated as I can easily swoon from an email the object of my affection has sent, but the reality is, I don’t know anything about him except what is in the email or the sms but I have to trust the honesty.

We (or maybe it’s just me) have become so desperate for friendships and authentic relations that we never question each other on the updates we have on our various profiles. We glibly accept that there’s a worldwide web etiquette or code of conduct that says be as honest and truthful as possible so we go along believing each other and we convince ourselves that we are making connections with people. Part of me buys into it because I have put myself out there in various platforms, even blogging. But part of me yearns for face to face chats, holding hands, cuddling on the couch, playing outside in the sun or wind or rain, sand between my feet at the beach, which is how I connected with people before technology took over. But who says I can’t do all that? Why not swap the E 63 for something less invasive and live the life I want to live? Because I want it all, modernity is part of who I am and I’m tired of running away from it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t envy hippies from time to time.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Living a fraction of my dream

I’m a chronic planner. Throughout school I bought into the habit of setting goals at the beginning of every year. I think I took it to the extreme though when I thought I could anticipate my life when I left school with 5 year plans of what I wanted to do. Nobody warned me about the danger of removing the exciting part in living when we believe that life is all mapped out. I thought that if I had a plan I would have structure and stability and growing up wouldn’t be such a scary prospect. It was only after my first 5 year plan started falling apart that I realised that it’s true when people say life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. My obsession with stability is a result of my strange childhood and wicked youth that had both the joys and woes of growing up but little structure. I’ve realised that my obsession with control has been about pining for my childhood and youth that was devoid of stability since I was 6 years old and I came back from school being told we had been evicted from our mansion.

Since the first 5 year plan fell apart I have been living with a strange excitement in my life. I can’t remember when it all started happening but I blame it on my honours year: I went to New York and Berlin in one year, I started writing for the public and people who read my words told me I made them think about things, I “met” Nontsizi Mgqwetho who taught me “asinakuthula umhlaba ubolile’ (we cannot keep quiet when the world is in shambles), I had people trust me with the well being of their children, I was awarded the Mandela-Rhodes Scholarship that led to me meeting Madiba in person, I had lunch with Prof Gerwel-the man who looks permanently bored at our graduation ceremonies and discovered that he’s nothing like the portrait outside the council chambers here at Rhodes, I presented a lecture at the National Schools festival that caused the learners in attendance to get talking and the same thing happened this year at the Eastern Cape Schools Festival, I have been nominated to sit on Councils with people double my age, I have been selected for the 200 Young People...Mail and Guardian list, I was involved in initiating training for young leaders in Grahamstown and was grateful to see the pitfalls that ensued-seeing what it’s really like working with teachers from low performing schools. Recently I helped my sister get married (one down two to go) which is quite a monumental task in our family for many reasons I will explore in another conversation. I was also asked to lecture this year so I had people trust me with ideas and students’ minds. I recently told an elderly woman that I was doing my Masters in Education and she asked me how old I was. When I told her I’m 23 she laughed and asked me “iMasters yinto yokudlalela kuyo na mnta,am?” (is a Masters degree a toy that you can play with?).

In short I’m living a life I never anticipated when I wrote my 5 year plan down and could never have anticipated when it started falling apart. But there’s something so ordinary in this spectacular life I’m living, I still have the same challenges of juggling my priorities and keeping out the background noise, I still worry too much and have heart palpitations whenever I think about my work. I still think I don’t have what it takes to do what lies ahead of me. Lately I’ve been actively searching for some sort of comfort, something to keep my heart still and my hands steady to do the things I know I can do but too fearful to begin at times. I’ve realised that prayer is not enough sometimes, that simply asking and expecting things to fall into place or the anxiety to drift away is not the ideal situation. I have to make conscious choices about my reality and my capabilities and be determined not to give way to fear of any kind-of myself, what people will say, of failure and above all to keep my heart open to the spectacular. The truth is I want to die empty. Whether I die young or at 100 I want to die knowing that I have done all that I could do with all that I have been given. I want to die knowing that I have failed and picked up the pieces thereafter, I have been part of people’s lives in a meaningful way hence I thrive on the relationships that I have.
One other thing that has been spectacular these past 2 years has been the ability to look in the mirror from time to time, learning to love the person that I see. I’m learning to understand my flaws and make peace with the fact that I will never be perfect but trying to be good and simply just being me is sometimes enough. I don’t have to strive for accolades and recognition to believe that I’m worthy, I simply am worthy just the way I am, “I am sufficient as I am”. Maybe this could be my mantra to keep my feet on the ground.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The luckiest girl in the world

Recently I was selected as one of the young people in Mail and Guardian’s “200 Young People in South Africa to take to lunch” list(http://www.mg.co.za/article/2010-06-11-200-young-south-africans-science-education). This was a selection due to my involvement around Grahamstown schools as well as my research into mother tongue education. In essence they’ve recognised me as one of the “movers and shakers” in my field. After the disbelief and uncertainty of this means for me I recognised this as an honour for me to be recognised in the same publication with people I’m in awe of and whom I think are far “cooler” than I could be.

Apart from the honour I realised that the list that could never be publicised as widely as the Mail and Guardian’s list comprises of my 200 people that have been part and parcel of the person that Mail and Guardian recognised. I’ve been blessed with loving family members, past and present, who have contributed to both the woes and joys of my upbringing. My family as well as izihlobo zezinyo (friends of the tooth=friends who have become as close and even closer than family members) have believed in me and my potential when I have often been in denial of what I can and do offer the world.

These people have put up with my strange questions and schizophrenic moments I have been experiencing ever since the dreaded adolescent stage took place. They have helped me find my feet and make a stand in the world and proudly and fearlessly voice, I AM HERE! They have given me opportunities that have unearthed my talents. They have opened doors for me where I have learned to trust myself. Many gave the most prized possession in this era, their time. The numerous tea dates and prayer sessions and walks along the beach, drives to nowhere and ice cream dates have all been mine. They have given their time coupled with their experiences, opening themselves and sharing about their fears and joys and yearnings that often lie dormant. They have laughed and cried with me and given more than a shoulder to cry on, they gave their hearts. Often they gave even the little they have, shared their homes and meals, breaking bread and communing with me. All this happened amidst the throes of growing up in a fractured family, poverty, divorce, neglect, rejection, instability and having nothing-going three days with no food, walking to school in the rain and arriving soaked to the skin, sleeping outside because of homelessness, coming back from school with Tata gone, lacking toiletries despite being a girl with a monthly period, verbal and physical abuse, the list is endless.

By being poor, I learned to appreciate the richness of relationship with people who forced me to believe and hope that we are all created in the image of a loving God. Many people on my list of 200 have never known what is going in my home or family, and without knowing it became my safe space without even noticing it. I have felt love from them and I am eternally grateful.
I am the luckiest girl in the world because of my list of 200 people.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My schizophrenia as a South African youth

I’ve been having a schizophrenic year. This is the best description I have to explain the divided life I live: a life of privilege and wealth as well as sheer poverty and disadvantage. Most of my experiences have been framed within the life of privilege and suburbia through my middle class education at a former model c school in a conservative racialised town, East London. On the other hand when I went home I would go home to a block of flats in a neighbourhood where prostitutes and drugs were the norm; later I called Duncan Village home, an informal settlement on the cusp of East London’s CBD. In between these movements between home and school I have been in the centre of the multicultural world that South Africa is. I’ve been exposed to all kinds of people from various backgrounds, language groups, classes, different countries, all shapes and sizes. Even though this is the case, my world has still been mostly black and white, race has been central to most of my interactions. Because of my urban experience and education I’ve never been black enough to be in the township, but when I’m with my white friends (or English speaking friends as not all have been European descent) I’m aware of my blackness because I have often found that I have to explain myself all the time: my hair, spiritual rituals, beliefs, even my dress code at times.

Being at Rhodes hasn’t made this any better. For all of my undergrad I was ostracised by Xhosa people to be specific because many thought I was not Xhosa at all. Those who did know I was Xhosa soon realised that I was majoring in English and ruled me out as a black person and became the dreaded thing, a coconut. This didn’t really affect me until people would be shocked that I speak isiXhosa. I then became aware that I had to prove my blackness by the amount of isiXhosa I knew which was minimal. My racial identity became inextricably linked with my place and value in the world. The truth is I’m an English-speaking Xhosa person: English is my primary language and isiXhosa is my second language. This is largely due to my education and level of exposure to both languages which has differed throughout my life. The cultural codes that both these languages have has also played out in a strange way in my life: isiXhosa/African rituals have largely been narrated to me, whereas white culture was what I lived everyday (I won’t go into this debate for today as many may argue that no such thing as whiteness exists but for someone who has been in black communities, there are differences I have seen-a conversation for another day). Beneath all these tensions of being black or not is the sense that I am part of the lost generation. We are lost because we do not know our history, we don’t know our languages, we don’t know iziduko zethu, our clan names, we don’t know our place in the world as isiXhosa men and women in a changing world (by “our” I’m referring to isiXhosa/African). My mother mourns and laments at the loss of “culture” in children like me and blames it on my education. Mama often says she sent me to school to be educated and not made into a white child. There seems to be no value in being a bicultural child who has been exposed to more than one way of living and constantly having to traverse two or more worlds. Many people don’t see that people in my position are the people who can be in two worlds at once and understand the value of the tensions in otherwise superficial communities such as black communities and white communities. Many people are quick to be critical of people in my position instead of realising that many of us bring different understandings of what it is that is important about ones identity.

I realise that I am in a fortunate position where I can move easily between communities and groups of people, but for people in isolated communities where all the people in the community are black or white and speak one language (though monolinguals should be an anomaly in South Africa), race is a prominent feature of how they make meaning of their lives. Prof Gerwel (Chancellor of Rhodes University and Director of the Mandela Foundation) once asked a group of friends and I how it was that people in my generation are still so engrossed and obsessed by race. He phrased this question in a way that really made me think, “When I think of myself in the morning, what do I think of?”. Do I immediately think “I/m black/a writer/a woman/my mother’s daughter?” At which point does being black matter so much in my life?

I’m slowly learning that race does not matter though. I’m learning to agree with those who say that South Africa’s challenge is class, but then again, class issues in our country are still racialised (how many times have we seen white people at service delivery protests? Except the reporters maybe). I’m realising more and more that the privilege of having money in my bank account daily as well as the hope of a month end and a 32 day account I save money for holiday spending or luxuary items, is being foregrounded in my identity. I realise more and more that not many people have the option of booking flight tickets and planning their holiday in the big cities in South Africa or even the option of buying a ticket for a trip overseas once a year. Through my finances I am able to shift between worlds and interact with people who see life otherwise. This past week I have been in Joburg. Apart from my excursions in Bree Street and downtown Joburg, I have been in settings with people who are not affected by the racialised world I am mostly exposed to when I am home in the Eastern Cape. People are more concerned about financial security and safety and being in fulfilling relationships and simply having a good time, the good life. This is not to say that this is not central to all people’s existence. The complexities around this question differ for all people, but regardless of race we agree on these fundamentals. But I can’t seem to answer why we argue about race so much when it’s not the real issue: what we look like is not important but somehow it’s always the first stone we throw when tensions arise in South Africa, evidence of a schizophrenia?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

ukufunda...to learn...to read

I was raised in a home where reading is as important as brushing my teeth, a daily ritual. I always lived in areas where the library was in walking distance. Even if I was punished and not allowed to go play outside, I was allowed to visit the library. Newspapers were also accessible and my father would give me “The Chiel” column from the Daily Dispatch to read where there were jokes, quotes and language anecdotes to begin with, thereafter I graduated to reading real articles and we would share the paper. We also didn’t have a tv for many years so that meant radio and books became a huge part of my life. I was also lucky enough to go to a school with a flourishing library where going to the library and getting out 3 books every week was as important as play during breaktime. The librarians at the public libraries began to notice if I didn’t pay a visit on a particular weekend. I had my first library card when I was 6 years old. When my sister and I were in primary school we thought we were so cool because we used my eldest sister’s card from the adult section of the library to allow us to take out more books during the holidays and we compared who could choose the best books. I think my sister was better as she discovered Judy Blume’s Superfudge, Fudgamania and all the books related to Fudge and Peter’s altercations! Obviously she was Peter and I was Fudge. My favourite books were the ones with pop up images where doors would open on the page and everything came alive every time I would turn the page. These books were more exciting especially when I read about Alice in Wonderland. Another favourite of mine was a book that profiled children’s lives all over the world, their school and family life. They were about my age at the time and I was convinced they were my friends, I felt I knew them intimately because the book allowed me into their world and into an understanding that there was more going on in the world with people living in Russia and China.

My family would laugh about my obsessive nature with books: why was a I engrossed in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree? What could I possibly learn from a tree and a moon that talks? I wasn’t sure what I was learning either because many of the books from my childhood didn’t even consider the reality that African children lived with but this did not stop me from devouring anything that could spark my imagination. By the time we were in high school, my sister and I would exchange books, if she read an interesting book she would recommend it to me and vice versa. However I used to judge her, she really enjoyed Mills and Boon at some stage. Between the two of us Mama was convinced we had read the entire library!
In high school we were upgraded from the children’s public library to the adult library. A whole new world of political writing emerged where Athi and I learned about the Mau Mau revolutions, female genital mutilation, slavery, emotional intelligence, menopause and apartheid from other people’s eyes. Novels became tedious at some stage and we explorde poetry and African writers, many of which were never spoken about in our classrooms.
Coming to university meant more books and reading. I couldn’t believe my luck when all the courses I chose required me to read and write. My friends in commerce, science and engineering would complain about practicals and tests and I would boast about how all I have to do is read and write, something that had become like breathing for me at this stage. Even though the reading and writing was of a different standard I was confident that I wasn’t starting on a clean slate, I had 12 years experience so when English 2 became a chore, I was able to persevere and get better and when I discovered books in isiXhosa I was able to decode and make meaning of the language I had hardly seen in print in my childhood.
Looking back at this short history with my life and books while being immersed in schools where a classroom library is not in use makes me realise how rich I am. The knowledge and the language I have with me has allowed me into new ways of thinking and seeing the world and I wonder about the many children who do not have the opportunity to experience literacy for pleasure; where it is purely functional and failure to master it will result in a beating in front of the whole classroom. I wonder about children in rural areas who do not have mobile libraries and not even a textbook to take home from school. I wonder about their inner world and whether they have enough words to express themselves and explore themselves. I guess they can express themselves and do grow into themselves but there’s something about reading Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a woman? that makes me wonder if it would have been easy for me to see myself the way I see myself in the world.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Classrooms in SA

Recently I have been observing Grade 1 classes in Grahamstown schools in preparation for my Masters thesis. This has helped me get a feel for the reality in many classrooms and the thoughts of teachers in the impoverished schools in Grahamstown. The surrounding context of these schools is not the lush green lawn and playground safely bound in a security tight fencing. Some of the schools I have been to do not even have sporting facilities, no jungle gym or swings for the younger children. The view from the classrooms are the mudhouses and shacks some of these children walk from everyday, derelict “homes” that are at the mercy of any whim of the Grahamstown weather. I have made various observations from visiting these classrooms and interacting with teachers who are doing the most important job in South Africa with the least recognition.

Today I was with a teacher who has been in the profession for 41 years! And this is her final year in the classroom, she's retiring with another colleague of hers who has also been teaching for a similar period. Another teacher I spoke to earlier this year has been a teacher for over 30 years...both in Grade 1 classrooms consistently. What I'm beginning to realise is that most of the teachers in Foundation Phase are much older and starting to retire. What does this mean for the classrooms in South African schools? This is even more frightening as few young black people are not interested in becoming teachers to educate the masses of African language-speaking children in in their mother tongues. I wonder why we bother advocating a mother tongue education in the formative years if the numbers we have in people who are trained and qualified to do the job do not meet the demands.

Apart from talking to the teachers about their experiences I’m also learning about their practice and what it takes to teach children how to read and write-often many walk into these classrooms with little or no knowledge of these skills. Being able to read and write is something I think many of us take for granted. Something as simple as reading an sms needs the skills we learned way back in Grade one. I still remember feeling like a writer in Grade one when the entire school magazine was made up of our stories. Apart from the fact that I was not educated in my mother tongue (this only happened in my third year at varsity), I was still able to express my creativity and put a few sentences together to form a coherent story. I had the privilege of a school library that was made accessible to all learners everyday and a community library in walking distance that supplied me with the kind of books I need to get as much exposure to reading as possible. This is not the case for many of the learners I saw in these classrooms. School libraries and even a classroom library is non-existent, where there is a library in the community, the librarians face the problem of encouraging learners to read books purely for enjoyment and not just the functional purpose of school projects. Observing in classrooms I realise that this was not possible for all children. The classes are as big as 40, the teacher uses creative means of monitoring each child in the classroom regardless of the fact that legislation proposes a ratio less than this. Having 40 children in a class means that the teacher is not able to know if all the children in the class are able to read. In another classroom I observed how language becomes a barrier to learning in a classroom where English is used for teaching and learning especially if the teacher does not have any knowledge of the learner’s mother tongue. It’s a pity some parents cannot make the time to visit their children’s classes the way I have been able to as I think they would feel differently about having their children taught in almost a foreign language to their children, albeit it is the supposed global language (and this is very debatable), English.

It’s frustrating reading about the dismal failure rates in South African schools in mostly rural and township schools when the matric results are released. It’s even more frightening seeing how the calamity begins at a Grade 1 level as I’ve been witnessing this past week. The purpose of this insight is not to berate the teachers but share my experience of the conditions in South Africa’s classrooms. It is not a surprise that the results from an international reading study, PIRLS, in 2006 showed that South Africa was the worst performing country when our Grade 4 and 5 learners where included in the study. The test was administered in the languages that the children where exposed to in their classrooms and learners who were being taught in Afrikaans were the better performers, followed by those learning in English and learners taught in African languages were at the bottom. Not only were South African learners reaching below the mean set out in this study, we were worse off than countries who weren’t spending as much as we are in education.

I’m making many claims in this article: we need more teachers for education in the formative years, we need more teachers who can teach in the African languages in South Africa, we need smaller classrooms, we to make literacy an important part of our education by having communities that support literacy through mobile or community libraries, we need civic involvement in education where the results become everybody’s problems and not just the teachers. And I’m sure we all agree on these imperatives, but underlying them all is the need to address the inequalities we see in our communities because until this is done, our classrooms will be a reminder of how we are failing masses of the children in South Africa.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Beyond the mountain-more mountain*

I know the residues of apartheid in my own life: my father’s limited opportunities because of a lack of quality education, my mother’s precarious psyche that was affected by the traumas of living through apartheid and the lack of dignity that poverty can cause in ones life. Somehow because of my education (formal, informal and spiritual guidance) I find that I am a unique position where I have not been limited by my past, South Africa’s past. It wasn’t until I came to Grahamstown to study at Rhodes that the reality of what still needs to be done to address the inequalities in our society became clearer. The question of redress in South Africa is still a sensitive one.
The beauty of a small town like Grahamstown is that everything is in walking distance. Traversing from the lush suburb area in town into Joza and Tantyi is a simple 15 minute walk but the inequalities one sees are enormous and need an entire change of a system to address. 16 years later little has changed: some of the roads are tarred, there are new houses in Joza, new street lamps and pavements as well as new robots at a busy intersecction but one cannot ignore the derelict houses made of wattle and daub that can capsize at any moment.

This is not a sight unique to Grahamstown but across South Africa’s towns and cities. Apartheid is still evident and what is even more evident is the failure of municipalities since 1994 in addressing service delivery. Refuse and waste is not removed from many townships adding to the squalor in communities. The complexities in institutions that have been mandated to address the standard of living in South Africa have failed on so many levels. Beyond the mountain of apartheid that was overcome more than 15 years ago there is another mountain of transforming society and changing an entire culture of people’s thinking towards civic involvement and accountability from government.

But how does this really happen? How are cultures that were deeply entrenched by centuries of oppression and discrimination change into a culture where all people are treated with dignity and it is not simply lip service? How are minds changed from a place of apathy into action? How do we climb the mountains ahead when it seems that the first mountain is still blocking the vision of where we want to go as a nation?
*Haitian proverb, the last line quoted in O R Tambo’s biography by Luli Callinicos

My First Time Confronting Sexism Head On

Growing up in an urban setting (mostly in flats in the CBD of East London) I learned very early in my teens that I didn’t own my space when I walked out in public. Like many women who are dependent on public transport and public areas waiting for taxis, the mail gaze has always been part of my daily bread.

When I asked my mother and older sisters about a strategy in dealing with men’s comments in public I was often told, “su’bahoya wethu, a’khonto babhetere ngayo” (Don’t worry yourself about [men], they’re not worth your attention”). This didn’t allay my frustrations because it seemed that the less vocal women were in these public spaces, the louder men became. The attack on the woman at the Noord taxi rank was a prime example of what happens to many women across South Africa. I have been fully dressed but some men have had the audacity of slapping me on the bum simply because he can, or caressing my face as though he owned it.

Apart from the physical harassment, men have the annoying habit of whistling at women to get their attention the same people do to get the attention of dogs. I noticed early in life that women didn’t do this to each other and least of all to get the attention of a man. And my highlight experience of walking in public are the obscenities men shout when I don’t respond to their “ek se baby, ngas’ske undifake kuloo mathnga akho” (hey baby, I wish you could let me in between your thighs). When I have ignored these comments, the man has proceed with “hayi suka,suziphakamisa” (Whatever! You think you’re better!). I guess he’s hoping that will offend me more than the fact that he has made a sex object of me not realising that I could be his daughter, sister etc.

the rest can be found on:
http://1sttime2010.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/my-first-time-confronting-sexism-head-on/

Friday, May 14, 2010

Teaching and learning!

Today is the last day of a term where I was immersed as a teacher/lecturer.I have no formal education as a teacher but this is what I have been in educational settings since I was 18years old. First as a sunday school teacher to primary school children, then an on and off teacher where I stayed with about 50 children between 6 and 13 years for 3 years while I was an undergrad student.

When the thought of teaching first came to mind it was about how I would be the person who would influence the learners and draw them out and be part of their journey of making sense of who they are. Instead little of this has happened. I have been the student learning about life from people as young as 6 years old. The greatest lesson I learned from "the Dinkies"(Grade1-3 learners who were living at the hostel with me) that the most important thing in life is to play and be listened to; the best form of violence is to kill people with kindness and hugs have the ability of communicating everything without saying a word.

But being a teaching assistant in higher education has been a different lesson, I have questions? Why do students bother with higher education if they don't want to do the work? What happens between Grade1 where school is an adventure to first year varsity where varsity becomes a party? A student in the isiXhosa 1 mother tongue asked me a question today "wena wenzani ngokubhalwa kwesiXhosa nokuphuhliswa kwaso?...what am I doing about isiXhosa literature and the development of this. I gave him an answer, but the question that underlies this, why is it so important to me that people (especially children) read in a language that is not internationally recognised? Why is it important to make people aware of difference and accept and embrace that difference?

I don't have answers for these questions, but hopefully lessons along the way will show me why higher education is so complex and requires not only mind but heart as well.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why I have fallen in love with Ruth First

Today Rhodes University hosted Judge Albie Sachs to launch the Ruth First Scholarship.Apart from the launch, Justcie Sachs spoke about "Ruth".Simply put,he told a story about a woman we've only read about in books and articles.He finally did her remarkable character justice.I was inspired by her rigour in scholarship as well as the daring nature the Justice described.She was simply human,and not afraid of asking difficult questions.

This made me think about my role as a scholar and what I will do about my education and insight.This is not to suggest that knowledge is only found in the walls of universities but somehow there's a different elememt here that shouldn't be taken for granted nor viewed with derision.Ruth First saw scholarship as a platform to engage with people and not empty discussions that have no effect on the real world.

I was inspired on many levels by this speech(warm and fuzzy feelings),but also afraid as this kind of relationship with the academy suggests being bold and asking the right questions. Furthermore,it suggests that the people researchers engage with can no longer be seen as subjects or objects of reserach where the reseracher simply arrives in their lives and gets the information needed to get ahead, but I have to see the teachers I work with as they are,human beings with voices that deserve to be heard and understood.This may add to the complexities of a discipline where one is advised to be objective,but I can only hope the experience will be richer.

I was also inspired to learn that Ruth First was also stylish and stood out in the crowd because of her dresscode.Yay for that!

And sadly technology betrayed me!I recorded the beautiful words of Judge Albie Sachs but I can't seem to attach a link to them on this blog.

A rock and a hard place

Today I started my day thinking that I was going to "Rhini"Primary School(this is not the actual name of the school) simply to observe teacher practices in order to help me frame my research for the Masters in Education I am reading for. Much to my suprise I realised that the teacher I was allocated to for today was not coming to school.

There are 4 grade1 teachers in the school with classes over 30,a third or more of the children in each class have learning disabilities or behavioural problems. 3 of the teachers have been have teaching longer than I have been alive and they are all older than me. None of us are entirely sure why I keep going to their school, but they are all welcoming and indiluge my curiosity and patience in their class.

So today I entered the school as a psuedo-researcher from THE university and I left as a teacher. I was handed over into a class of Grade 1s with no preparation, no knowledge of the children's name and abilities, no knowledge of the classroom code on how to indicate that learning is going to begin.

Thankfully I am Xhosa so language wasn't a problem.My main problem was what to do from 9am until 1 pm-the longest morning of my life!My practice mirrored the teachers I had seen, asking the children to count, writing number patterns on the board, writing sentences on the board, pretending I knew what I was doing. The whole days was bizarre but the best moment was when one of the learners, a 6year old girl, realised I wasn't swimming like most teachers,I was drowning. She kindly approached me when I realised that a third of the learners couldn't write their names and the date from the board and the rest of the class was making a noise. She kindly informed me that there was a pipe on the teacher's desk that I could use to make sure that everyone keeps quiet while I gather my thoughts.At first I didn't understand her, but when she repeated herself, I realised that she was giving me a strategy for keeping peace in the classroom.I thanked her for input but realised I didn't have the courage to give them a hiding.I spent the entire day devising activities and stories to reach their levels.Our work can be measured on two pieces of paper from each kid, one with patterns and one with words and random sentences.

I realised leaving the school that I still have alot to learn about what it means to be a researcher in a context where the people I work with see me as an eager young girl trying to make sense of the big world, the school's classrooms. I don't know what to anticipate tomorrow, but I've learned that walking in with a willing heart and mind,I will be able to understand the school and the teachers better than I think. Conversations during tea time range from failed marriages, irresponsible boyfriends to laments about what it takes to raise a black child in a poor community.There's more to being a researcher tha simply being objective,it's often very difficult not to get involved.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Meeting the Old Man,Madiba

When I told my mother that I had seen Madiba, she laughed as I am one of those star-struck kids who have always wanted to meet the person I had proudly told anyone who would listen that he was my grandfather!There wasn't much time for conversation when I met him but he did ask where I am from and he guessed by lineage,"oh!ebaThenjini?" when I simply said "eKomani ta'mkhulu!".It was difficult not noticing his smiling eyes and his desparation of making conversation with all 28 of the scholars!

I study isiXhosa because I can

When people hear me speak English they often ask me where I am from and I tell them I from the Eastern Cape. I have realised over the years that this is a polite way of saying to me, "you're a coconut". I'm in two minds about this identity as it has been thrust upon me by people who are trying to understand me and figure me out.I have never once woken up in the morning and thought "Hmmmm,Thank you God for making me a coconut".But somehow this identity follows me.

Part of what entrenches this identity is the education I have received.Informally, my mother was the first teacher educating me about colonialism, the prophet Nxele, the story of Nongqawuse and underlying many of these stories is the reminder that "abelungu bane-date yokufika apaha eMzantsi,ungayilibali lo nto Baba"(White people have a date of arrival in South Africa and don't ever forget that my baby).I can't judge her for her views as she felt apartheid first hand and knows the limitations that it rendered her which have an effect on her psyche to this day.

My formal education taught me that white people are the custodians of knowledge and all forms of progress, sine qua non!This began to change however when I took isiXhosa Mother Tongue in my 3rd. I thought I was going back to my roots and didn't think I had to justify my choice of subject, but much to my amazement I had a lot of explaining to do hence the next article(which was my first article in the Daily Dispatch!)....http://www.gate5.co.za/Temp/4925806fe5rx245gw5w3q21vqqwzu55.jpg