Saturday, October 29, 2011

hewers of wood, drawers of water

"We shall reject the whole system of Bantu Education whose aim is to reduce us, mentally and physically, into 'hewers of wood and drawers of water'."
Soweto Sudents Representative Council, 1976.

I moved into my current flat almost a year ago. Since I've moved in there's been a construction of yet another block of flats in Grahamstown-Rhini. It's been the constant background noise with trucks humming and bricks being laid forming the latest addition to the property boom in the small town.

Part of the construction site has been the builders, black and coloured men of various ages. I walk by them every single day. I walk by them when I go swimming in the morning and when I’m on my way back, when I go to campus and when I walk back and any other time I leave my flat during the day, they are there. As the building gets taller and forms shape they are now the first people I see when I open my curtains.

I don't know the names nor the faces of these men. If they greet me, I might nod or smile back depending on whether they say “sexy…baby or sisi”. But like most men who are construction workers they always stare when I walk by and every now and then there'll be a whistle or a comment about “ndifun'uhamba nawe baby” (take me with you baby) or something about my thighs. I never respond because at this point in my life, what's the use, seeing as men have been oogling me since I was 12.

When I do catch a glance at some of these men standing along the wall waiting for their day to begin, I can't help but wonder "who are these people?" Fathers, brothers, sons, boyfriends, lovers, friends...they are people. And then I wonder what their stories might be, especially the ones with scrawny arms throwing and catching bricks with bravado and ease, but look like they ought to be in school

As I watch the building form a frame and soon to be finished, I wonder where their next job will come from. I also wonder what it's like to build an apartment block with rent the builder could never afford nor even enjoy the comfort of a freshly built sturdy building. More importantly I wonder what it's like to build something you know can never be yours.

These men are the working class men in this country who disappear once the job is done. Perhaps they didn't want to be hewers of bricks and drawers of water, but that's what they've become...

They've built the apartments with such precision and care, but have they been able to construct their own lives with that much precision and care? Have they ever had the opportunity to consider being the builders of their own lives or are these just my middle class concerns as a student at the cusp of the adult world? Because the truth is, the new South Africa needs the working class to assist the project of creating spaces for the burgeoning middle class. Is there enough room in this country for all our dreams to flourish the same way new constructions flourish everywhere around us?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The great divide: policy and practice in our classrooms

Between 1994 and 2007, 160 policy texts were written related to changes in the Department of Education (now known as Basic Education). This has been dubbed as “policy-mania” and one of the symptoms of the “education crises” in this country. This “policy-mania” is ironic given that many of these policies have proven to be ineffective and resulted in a mismatch between practice and policy. This chasm further exacerbates the inequalities we see in our education system where there are flourishing schools for people who can pay fees and poor performing schools for working class parents.

An example of a policy text is the Foundations for Learning , a clear response to the low literacy levels amongst learners in the Foundation Phase (FP). In spite of this policy (released in 2008), further assessments have shown that learners are still failing dismally and the results can be mapped out along socio-economic lines where provinces such as Gauteng and the Western Cape perform better than Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. The Foundations for Learning Campaign was an attempt to support teachers with lesson plans and clear standards and expectations that could be used to pace their teaching in order to ensure that learners reach the necessary literacy levels at the end of the year.

As part of my masters research I interviewed teachers about their experiences of teaching reading in the FP and how policy has affected their practice. The teachers (from Quintile 3 schools teaching Grade 1) shared the challenges they have faced especially in applying this policy. They shared how the haphazard implementation of the policy has been and ineffective in changing their practices thus they remain using their own methods of teaching(which often conflict with curriculum standards).

One of the major challenges is the fraught relationship between district officials and teachers, where monitoring only happens for moderation once or twice a year without consistent support in light of new policies that teachers are expected to make sense of. I site this example as it has been revealing of how a policy that is meant to empower teachers and change practice has widened the gap between performance in schools for the rich and schools for the poor.

The challenge with any policy document is making it meaningful for the context that it should be applied within. Part of this challenge is that policy is written by people who sit in offices with little or no understanding of the complexities in classrooms and schools. International standards from countries such as the United States of America or the United Kingdom are used to set expectations for schools in South Africa. This assumes that practices in more affluent countries will be relevant for the majority of the schools in South Africa that serve the poor. These international standards are assumed to be universal and transferrable from one country to another, but this is not the case. It is crucial to learn from other countries but not at the cost of being context-blind at the reality in many of South Africa’s schools.

The top-down approach to policy making in many of the documents related to education widens the gap between officials on all levels (national, provincial and district levels), which has implications for the relationship between teachers and officials, teachers and parents and learners. Where policy has been ineffective, more policy documents have been written to solve the problem. The complexities of understanding who communicates policy to teachers and how teachers interpret policies for themselves could be where the problem lies. It is assumed that a good policy will be well-received because it is pedagogically and politically sound, but if the reader of the document cannot relate or understand it, then the policy remains ineffective. So if the problem in many of our schools is not the lack of policy (as the numbers above show), what is the real problem?

My experience of working in schools through research and volunteering has shown me that the complex relationship between school cultures and policy-making has been taken for granted. Given the nature of education in a country like South Africa, schools are complex spaces with values and practices that are governed by written and unwritten rules. Practices and expectations are reproduced by teachers and learners and are taken for granted to the point where changing them is unthinkable. Teachers and learners embody some practices that they become unconscious habits. Policies may condemn a practice but if it is a core part of the school’s culture there is often little change.Change is a complex process as it relies on the opportunity for change to take place, often beyond a policy imperative, but a change in mindset where the culture of thinking is challenged.

The unwritten rule that seems to be more pervasive in schools and communities is that it is acceptable to offer working class children an inferior quality of education because of the overwhelming effects of poverty on a child’s education. This is further complicated by the fact that many teachers send their own children to better performing schools (predominantly former Model C schools) where they have different expectations of these schools than the schools they teach in. The focus on political banter and power struggles in the Eastern Cape alone is another example of the complexities of what it means to solve the crises in education. The debacle between the National and Provincial government not only takes away attention from solving the real problems in the education system in this province, but it highlights that the culture of chaos exists not only at provincial level but at district and school level.

The education system is an example of the complexities of social practices that have been entrenched and reproduced over the years. To what extent can policy change the way people think and wish to live in this country? Transformation in education was supposed to ensure transformation in society as the values that underpinned the discourse in the 1990s was one of equality, human rights and social justice, but our education system has become an example of how these values are not being achieved.

The kind of citizenship envisaged based on democratic principles where people can be involved in creating better opportunities for themselves is being compromised if the majority of the young people are poor and unemployable and often marginalised.
Thus, the question still begs, what are the solutions? What will it take for education to be a transformative force in South Africa?

Underpinning the challenges in education are the social inequalities where poverty is a marker for how a learner’s educational experience can be hampered. Without eliminating the gap between the rich and the poor, we will continue having two school systems working independently of each other and reproducing the gap between the rich and the poor. Education should be everyone’s problem because the implications of the current failures in the system will affect all South Africans. Without accountability in government and civic involvement in education we are all complicit in the reproduction of practices that undermine the transformation in South Africa.

Friday, October 14, 2011

body politics: my m-cup and my vagina

I first heard about the m-cup (menstrual/moon cups) last year over dinner conversation. I was enthralled by the idea of environmentally friendly and safer methods of menstrual health and I seriously started wondering about all the waste products such as tampons and pads...where do they all go? It also made me wonder about women’s menstrual health and how warped it is considering the adverts on tv (especially for women who cannot afford the expense of tampons and pads).

So I went and bought a moon cup soon after the conversation. I googled more information and read anything and everything. Like most women growing up in conservative families with a mother who taught me “cleanliness is next to Godliness” and all things about sexuality were makings of the devil, my vagina was mostly invisible. The biology lessons at school (with male teachers) showed me cross-sections of tubes and balls that made little sense to me except when I had to label the image during a test. Apart from the monthly bleed and gevoevelling with curious boys in my teens, I knew little about my vagina. And I decided to abstain from sex when I was 15 which meant the vagina was officially silenced.

Watching the Vagina Monologues is where it all began. I hate to be so typical but until that point, I couldn’t really say the word vagina aloud. And to say it in isiXhosa was close to blasphemy. Friends and I tried to find Xhosa words for vagina: usisi, igusha, isinene/inenene, ikuku (sister, sheep, no translation, cookie respectively). But I still couldn’t say much about the vagina. Watching the monologues I realised I related with “My vagina is angry...pissed off!” and much to my dismay, I also related with the old woman who spoke about “down there”.

So when I finally heard about the moon cup and decided to buy it, my mind and heart had to make peace with the fact that my vagina is a real part of my body. When talking about menstrual health and vaginas the conversation mostly becomes about sexuality. I have no regrets about abstaining from sex, but this has meant that I have experienced my vagina as purely a biological process and a no go zone at any other time thus far in my life (and this experience may need a blog post of its own). And yes, conversations with girlfriends who are comfortable with their sex lives are becoming a tad awkward because as a growing woman of 24 I’m an anomaly.

And so the day of reckoning arrived when I was going to trial the m-cup. My body balked. Nothing seemed to work and I didn’t seem to know what I was trying to do. Instead I ended up in pain and exasperated. The websites I read seemed to assume that every woman wanting to use the cup has a sense of what the vagina was REALLY like. And I realised I didn’t and I wasn’t keen to have a conversation with my vagina at the time. So I put the cup away and much to my chagrin, returned to the hard, bleached cotton wool:tampons.

Fast foward: a year later and I decided to revisit the idea of using my m-cup. Part of the motivation has been watching the price of tampons and pads escalate every time I buy them. Not only has this been denting my budget, but again, the thought about the environment surfaced (I have similar questions about disposable nappies, where do they go?). Conversations with more friends who have been evangelising the gospel of the m-cup also helped so the process didn’t seem so daunting anymore. And this time I had a conversation with my vagina every time I had a bath before my cycle began.

It wasn’t dirty or disgusting, but a simple feeling for what it really means to have a vagina. I’m not surprised people who KNOW vaginas love them. They’re soft, warm, welcoming and great muscles. So when I used the cup a few days ago, it was a simple process and my instant reaction was “WOW!”. When I told a friend, her response included the word “intense”. It doesn’t have to be. Vaginas and women’s sexuality are a beautiful thing and I wish we allowed ourselves more time to appreciate our bodies for what they are not purely as a means to an end for sex, but for the pleasure of what they are...beautiful and blossoming.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

body politics: my (african) tongue

“Speak if you can...what are you?” (Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 3)
These are Macbeth’s words when he first encounters the witches. These words have always interested me because Macbeth asks the witches to speak in order to know who they are. Macbeth assumes that they have the ability to speak and that they will speak a language he will understand and thus the mystery of who they are will unfold. Throughout the play, Macbeth’s interaction with the witches is through a meaning making process where he is desperate to understand their mysterious proclamations about his destiny. It is through speaking, language, communication, that Macbeth and the witches come to understand each other or not...hence the tragedy that befalls Macbeth?

When we speak, we inevitably convey meaning about who we are and what we believe, hence language and who we are—our identity (a portmanteau word)—cannot be separated. What is even more fascinating is that people will use the discourse we use, the jokes we make, whether we use slang or expletives or not, as clues for understanding who we are.

I have always been fascinated by the word “mother-tongue” (see blog post April 20 2011). My mother-tongue is isiXhosa and English is my primary language. The interplay of these languages in my life and how they have formed my reality adds to the value of being bilingual. Language has always been a tool for expressing myself and thoughts within contexts with people who attempt to understand who I am based on the language I speak or the words I use. A pertinent example are the comments people make when I speak isiXhosa. My own mother often comments that ndikhumsha isiXhosa, I speak isiXhosa with an English accent and this often leaves people wondering about whether or not I am Xhosa (culturally). When I speak English, many people also feel compelled to tell me “You speak English so beautifully...where did you learn to speak such beautiful English?”(I often never know what to make of this hence I haven’t even blogged about it yet.)

Something as small as the tongue allows the opportunity for communication to be more than functional but can also lend itself to existential questioning about who we are in the world and how we experience the world through language. The complexity of the physical body, how we learn to speak and use language, is both a biological and cultural process we possibly take for granted. Learning language also means learning the social rules about the language and the people who speak it. My tongue means language and language means perceptions and communicating what I know about the world and who I am; a risky process of exposing myself and my thoughts.

I recently attended a language practioner’s conference in East London. People were sharing views about the work they do encouraging literacy and language policy for the development of African languages. This was an opportunity for people who are also working with projects related to mother-tongue-based-bilingual education to share their research. I presented research on my Masters research looking at the teaching of reading in classes where children are learning in their mother-tongue, isiXhosa. The two days ended in reflections about what the future of African languages is in educational institutions and how this frames the multicultural and multilingual project in South Africa. What will it take to shift the dominance of English in the education system? And what will it take for the use of African languages in the education system to be seen as something beneficial for all people who consider themselves South Africans? Surely the development of African languages through the education system, should be everybody’s concern, not only speakers of the African languages?

The irony of this blog post is that I am writing about the use and marginalisation of African languages, in English and not isiXhosa...a further complexity of choice and language use. It’s a complexity I am making peace with because the people who have access to this blog probably read English and not isiXhosa.