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( 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 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.