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”?!