Monday, December 30, 2013

Pamoja tswasonga mbele

I have an acute obsession with museums so I decided to visit another museum today. 

The idea of museums is a strange one. This is a definition I found when I looked up the word museum: a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited. My acute obsession with museums began when I visited the East London museum while I was in prep school. We visited the museum regularly throughout primary school whenever our work related to an exhibition that was in the museum. I never questioned the concept nor the content of a museum. Who decides what is of interest and is worthy of being exhibited in a museum?

The Nairobi National Museum has a colonial character even though the work features the history of Kenya, the history of humankind, birds of East Africa and two exhibitions featuring the work of contemporary Kenyan artists. There's also a photo exhibition celebrating Kenya's 50 years of independence. While wandering around I wondered how often the museum is updated as some of the signs look as though they've been there since the birth of the museum.
Ahmed the elephant...The most famous elephant in Kenya who died at 55

Introducing Makhan Singh's story in Kenya's narrative

A random was in a random corner

Celebrating the use of gourds (calabashes) in ancient Kenya

Artwork at the entrance of the museum
 The rest of the day was spent in and about Nairobi. While driving to Parklands (an Indian area where black Kenyans come in and out for work because the area is exclusionary against them living in the area) I noticed the words Pamoja tswasonga mbele celebrating Kenya's 50 years of independence. My friend offered the translation "together moving forward" with a tinge of scepticism, "a nice sentiment" she said as though she doubts it has any bearing on the life experience of what it means being in Kenya. It seems ironic that the 50 year celebration would fall in the same year that "the son of the nation" is the president of Kenya as his father was 50 years ago. It's also the year that the cloud of the Hague hearings hanging above his head at  a time when Kenya is hoping to move on from the violent past that plagues the consciousness of the country. 

My day ended with a catch up dinner with a friend (at an Ethiopian restaurant where the lights went out twice while we were waiting for our meal) who is a journalist in Kenya after her studies in South Africa. She had many interesting stories to share about the anxieties of telling Africa's stories...a conversation for another day I think. The conversation began talking about her experience of being back in Kenya, my experience of Cape Town, our frustrations about the state of Africa with South Sudan, CAR, Egypt facing many conflicts. 

There are many stories that are yet to be told about Kenya and the continent as a whole. Stories that cannot be contained in a museum.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A country club, giraffes and a museum

Today was my first time visiting a country club. I’ve always heard about such spaces and they never really entered my imagination. Places where rich people hang out and play golf and network. My friend’s mom is a member of the Karen Country Club so we had lunch with her after her round of Sunday golf with her golf buddies. I’m sure many people have written about country clubs and the narrative is that of privilege, networking and middle-classness at its best.

I spent most of the time at lunch people-watching. Families and friends were gathered around tables waiting for lunch and drinks to be served. There was a mixture of black and white families being served by black waiters. I was told that the white community in Kenya is referred to as the KC, “Kenyan Cowboys”. There were a few tables of KC families and the rest were what one might call the African elite. My favourite table was a family that took up three tables. Each table represented the three generations that exist in the family: the grandparents, the parents and their children. There was a mixture of American and British accents amongst the children and inflections of an “African accent” amongst the parents (I decided to assume that the family was Kenyan). There was a flurry of hugs and introductions as each part of the clan arrived with their entourage of children (the young daughters in fabulous dresses and straight relaxed hair). The laughter from the parent’s table led me to assume that this might have been some kind of reunion. The children were paraded around as they greeted the elders. It was too tempting not to watch the flurry of excitement and awkward introductions and respectability that was expected from everyone in the clan.

After lunch we moved on to two touristy things to tick off our list: The giraffe centre and the Karen Blixen Museum. It was tourist rush hour at the Giraffe centre and we waited a while for the opportunity to feed a giraffe. While waiting, we chatted to a young man who worked at the centre. When I said I was from the South Africa he responded that he had aspirations of studying at the University of Cape Town. I mentioned that that I lived in Cape Town and he made a subtle hint that  I could be his contact in Cape Town. I thought he said this to make conversation but in retrospect I wonder if he was serious. I did not affirm his enthusiasm. Even when we left the centre with a hearty goodbye after I fed the giraffes, we didn’t exchange contact details.

Our last stop in the suburb of Karen was the Karen Blixen Museum. I knew nothing about Karen Blixen until I saw the link related to “Things to do when visiting Nairobi”. A movie was made about her, Out of Africa, that I haven’t watched. We arrived at the small museum which is where Karen Blixen lived while in Kenya. We were introduced to our guide who told us the story of a women who attempted to change the settler narrative in Kenya. Our guide spoke fluently but cautiously telling us the tale of a wealthy Dutch women who used the pseudonym Isak Dinesen for her writing who lived in 19th century Kenya. The guide's sentences sounded like sentences from a history textbook. She was careful in making sure that the story must unravel chronologically and make sure she didn’t leave anything out. She might have an interest in history, she might not but her knowledge of Kenyan history brings in an income. When we left the museum my friend commented on how the rote-learning that is emphasised in the Kenyan education system has allowed her to perform as a museum guide. Beyond that I wonder what other options she could pursue if she wanted to leave the museum and work elsewhere.
Karen Blixen's house

Tools used on the Blixen farm...we're told

One of the oldest tres in the garden...I'm gullible

No, it's not a pet elephant

The familiarity of being here still won’t go away and I’ve decided that it is a result of reading novels about African lives such as Nervous Condition, Zenzele, Half of a yellow son and Americanah (that I’m reading at the moment). Stories that capture the anxieties and complexities of what it means to live on the continent. These stories and my experience of Kenya so far have given me time to think about what it means being a modern African family in a developing country. Fifty years after independence and Kenya still bears the burden of a colonial legacy. And Kenya isn't the exception but the rule. The pervading narrative begs the question, how does one live in this place that is potentially familiar but also deeply stratified along class lines? Conversations with my friend have largely been about this issue as she moved back to Kenya recently after studying in South Africa and identifying with South Africa as home.

The tensions of being in privileged spaces while being aware of the other narrative of poverty in places like Kenya and South Africa and across Africa make living uneasy. When I landed at the airport on Friday I noticed a long queue of people waiting at a door. They looked as though they had been there for hours. Later I learned that South Sudanese citizens where being flown into Kenya after the turmoil erupted in South Sudan. Thoughs who were on my flight noticed this queue and became anxious that we would have to join that line to sort out our entry into the country. But as tourists who were in Kenya thanks to more fortuitous circumstances ended up in a different queue that allowed us to be deemed as respectable African citizens who were being received into Kenya not because of a war but because we were holiday makers, tourist who made the choice to be here.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Visiting Kenya

I’m visiting a friend in Nairobi and while I’m here I’m going to try and blog about the experience. I haven’t travelled much (that’s if I’m comparing myself with some of my friends). The first time I ventured into the continent was a trip to Mozambique last year with friends. This time I’m travelling alone visiting a friend who moved back to Kenya after studying in South Africa after many years.

I never have high expectations when I’m travelling. This time around I travelled to see a good friend and to make sure I’m not at home come New Year’s Eve. When I booked the ticket to Kenya I knew it was time I travel alone and navigate an airport in another country all by myself (I hate airports. I always feel like I’m the only person who doesn’t know what’s happening and I’m paranoid until I sit in the aircraft).

Once I landed in Kenya I decided to follow the crowd that was in my flight. Passport control was mayhem and I eventually found a familiar face as I had made small talk with a woman while I was boarding the flight in Johannesburg. We selected a random queue with a sign that looked like it was applicable to us, only to find out there was a form to fill in and we had to change queues. Eventually we got to the front of the line with our blue forms and we were scanned into Kenya by very grumpy-looking KAA (Kenya Airways Authority) officials. We found our luggage still in tact, exchanged names so we could find each other on twitter and went our separate ways.

My friend and her brother were waiting for me patiently when I eventually stepped out into the Kenyan sun. I quickly glanced around looking for the section of the airport that had been burned down a few months ago. Scaffholding at the other end of the building confirmed that the fire was indeed a reality. Driving from the airport I was transformed into a pseudo-tourist and my attention was drawn to the National Park that’s very close to the airport. There are constructions along the highway and there seems to be a fair amount of development. It felt as though I was driving through somewhere in South Africa. Not as flashy as Joburg or Cape Town, maybe somewhere in the Eastern Cape, but I still haven’t been able to put my finger on the sense of familiarity with this place.

Fast forward to the evening...we had dinner at my friend’s aunt’s place. Driving through the city important landmarks were identified. The National Park where Wangari Maathai’s work blossomed, Westgate Mall that was attacked a few months ago, the UN Campus in Randu. While driving through suburbia, it’s easy to notice the lush plant life that envelopes most of the houses and buildings. Nairobi is a very green city. And of course, one cannot write about an African city without writing about the roads and the matatu’s, minibus taxis. The Matatus aren’t a novelty given that I’ve used taxis in South Africa all my life.

Day two in Nairobi was visiting the “shags” the rural areas (shags comes from the Kikuyu word gishagi). My friend’s family is also based in Machako County. Kenya recently did away with the provincial system and introduced a local government system in the form of counties (more than 40 counties). While driving through the lush hills past the Athi River towards Machako, I couldn’t help but notice the many signs for schools in the area. Many of the signs indicate primary or secondary schools. I’ve never seen this while driving through any rural area in South Africa. It was overwhelming seeing such a visual image of the extent of the importance of education in Kenya. My favourite sign read “St Catherine’s Girls School” in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere. Single-sex schools in South Africa are prestigious and only exist in wealthy areas in urban areas, definitely not in rural areas. As is the case in most developing countries, Kenya also has two economies, but the level of poverty in Nairobi makes the wealth in Nairobi difficult to distinguish. But the poverty in the rural areas is palatable.
A bench in Machakos
Kids fetching water in Kivimbu, "the shags"

We drove as far as Kivumbu and Masii in the Machako county and then drove back to Nairobi at the end of the day. The stark difference between Machako and Nairobi is not surprising. The word development begins to mean something and in Nairobi development means tall buildings made of glass, driving an SUV, housing developments and malls spring up everywhere. Development also looks like university institutions like Riara University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture; more examples of the important of education and studying further. The question of the quality of these universities is a conversation for another day.

Of course I'm leaving many stories out. The conversation in the car while travelling to Machako, eating a triangle-shaped vetkoek, the conversations in my head about what I was seeing and hearing.There's a proverb in isiXhosa, ukuhamba kukubona, to travel is to see/learn about new things. Apart from learning about the above observations, I'm learning about myself too. I think I'm a bad traveller. Perhaps I'm yet to master the art of travelling but I find it very stressful. I don't plan very well:I left my travel arrangements from Durban to Joburg to catch the flight until last minute, I didn't find out about changing currency so instead I have a bank card for a bank that isn't in Kenya, I don't even have a decent camera to take photos along the way.I like blending in when I travel, I'm not a tourist. But I hope the remaining 9 days won't be marred by my travelling anxiety.
Ikhombe: where maize is stored to let it dry
Neighbours working in the fields in the shags

Friday, December 13, 2013

A love-hate relationship: writing and teaching

I wish I could have written this reflection before the 5th of December. If I had, there would have been no pressure to meet the expectation that I must have a profound reflection that relates to tat’uMadiba. I shan’t be writing about uTata. But the fact that I can write, that I am educated, that I can claim a voice has a lot to do with the icon’s life. It’s no mistake that I write. It’s no mistake that I’m a teacher, either, but 2013 has taught me that I may have chosen two passions that often send me to a dark place, an existential crisis.

The year has been long and tiring. I wish I could have written more. This must be the lament of every young, aspiring writer: I wish I had more time. The irony is that the reason I have not been able to write as much as I would have liked to, is one of the things that also brings me great joy: being a teacher. The will to write has been affected by my will to stay afloat in the business of being a teacher.

Writing and teaching are second cousins: teaching requires that one who wants to teach well they must be prepared to be depleted of energy at the end of a good day of teaching, the same way a writer might feel after they have written the story or essay they have been aching to write. Both tasks require an inner energy that is illusive and always leaves me wondering “Where does it come from?”.

Teaching teenagers has taught me many lessons about myself, the same way writing has become a tool for helping me understand myself and the world around me. I don’t write because I am a brilliant writer nor am I a teacher because I am the best teacher in the world. Both writing and teaching happen with great difficulty in my life. I approach both tasks with great anxiety. I am still trying to remind myself to be kind to myself when I approach either of these two tasks. And this year I have not been very kind to myself. I have hated teaching because I am often tired to the point where I think I can’t breathe. I have hated writing whenever I have started writing something but have left it incomplete because I can’t find the right words to complete it.

This level of self-flagellation cannot be healthy for one individual. But here it is. The truth about the two things I love the most. There’s no guarantee that things will be different in the new year, but as I glance back at the past year, I’m making peace with responsibility of attempting to put my life back together through writing so I can be a better person in my classroom next year.

A reflection written for Bokamoso Leadership Forum

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Becoming a woman in my black skin

I’ve been reading a book by Paula Giddings, Where and When I enter: the impact of Blackwomen on race and sex in America. Reading a book about the history of African-American women led me to consider my own narrative of what it has meant becoming a woman at a time when people are rushing towards a post racist society as though history had no bearing on our present.

I first encountered the narrative of resistance amongst African-American women when I read Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a woman”. It’s a stirring piece from a speech she made in...It was the first evidence I saw that slaves in America didn’t accept their fate at the hands of slave owners. They resisted. Understanding the resistance of black women through a slave narrative has widened my perspective on the importance of being a woman and I how I make the rights I have a real life experience. Once upon a time women were at the bottom of the food chain where they were mere objects that could be bought and sold. The children they bore were not their own but they became part of a system where they were sold before they were even born. The assault on women’s bodies has a history beyond what we see in the form of rape and domestic violence today.

When I read about the resistance of black women in Africa, especially South Africa I moved when I realised that once upon a time black women in South Africa had the status of minors. Their movements and inheritance were dependent upon the sons and male relatives they had in their lives. Prioritising the education of black women has a brief history in relation to how white women were protected and often benefitted from systems that oppressed black women.

Knowing what I know about black women who have challenged the limitations placed on them because of their class, gender and race I realise I am not a renegade, I just happen to have read and met other black women who are comfortable in their own skin and know that I can live my life as though I were dancing to the rhythm of my own music. Beyond my home of many mothers (my mother, my aunts and grandmother) who were working class women, loud, big, crass but economically oppressed in a system of apartheid, it wasn’t until high school that I began to realise that there’s another narrative for being black and female in the world. When I started high school I encountered a group of senior girls who set the standard for what it meant to be a “cool black girl”. They oozed confidence and set the standard for what it meant to be a black girl at a time where Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilera became popular or black women who resembled the petite femininity we saw on tv that did not reflect what we saw in the mirror.

The senior girls in my school were not the prototype. They were opinionated, smart (they cared about not only passing academically but forming an opinion about what mattered), they laughed out loud, very loud and didn’t listen when teachers told them they were being loud they didn’t toe the line. They were big girls, tall and they had presence when they walked around the school (I didn’t think of them as bullies, except for maybe Soso who had a stinging sense of humour). I moved aside for them in the passage not out of fear because they were seniors but mostly out of awe. And when they spoke to me as though I mattered I became a star-struck junior. They also had wonderful names that were distinct: Navabe (who was many years ahead of me but became infamous for starting a trend of wearing her socks differently and her girdle on her hips much to the teachers’ chagrin) Zoya, Vangile, Ghana (who had the most eccentric dress sense I’d ever seen), Duda (this was actually her surname), Thulani and many others who gave me a different representation of what it means to be black and female in the new South Africa. They were often in trouble for sneaking out of the hostel and drinking when they should have been. They dared to break the rules.

 Zoya had dreadlocks even though the school had colonial rules about how we were supposed to wear our hair. They became my example of what it means not to be the norm and to be comfortable in that category. They were nobody’s darlings. I think about them when I read about the resistance of black women in South Africa and African-American women in America and realise that a different resistance took place in my high school. The representation of black female bodies has always been under siege but I am lucky to live in a time where this is being challenged. It’s okay to be loud, opinionated or not. It’s okay to consider being a wife or not. It’s okay to be who I want to be on what I think of as my terms. And when I think about this reality I am drawn to Anne Julia Cooper's words: “Only a black woman can say ‘where and when I enter in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole...race enters with me”. She said these words in 1892 when black women in America for fighting for equal rights and ending slavery. These words remind me of the importance of what it means being a black women and the gains that have been made and are yet to be made. Liberating women, in this case black women who are still oppressed, is not about eliminating anyone else. It’s about liberating the human race from sexist, racist, classist ideas that are dangerous for now and future generations. When we consider the history of black women, it’s not enough to consider it through one lens but multiple eyes and consider the complexity of gender, race, sexual orientation and class and recognise the privileges I have: the privilege of being comfortable in my own skin.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Train stories:Part 2

As soon as I entered the carriage this morning I couldn't help but notice there was a conversation that was happening that I couldn't be a part of. So I decided to eavesdrop instead. It was a group of "mamas" (older black women who remind me of my mother and aunts) who decided their conversation was going to dominate the morning's train ride. I heard their voices but throughout the trip I never saw their faces. I couldn't tell what they were wearing, I couldn't tell if they were beautiful, plain or had troubled looks upon their faces.

They were talking about the murder in Khayelitsha. The story goes that a bar/tavern owner of a place called Emaplangeni (in Litha Park, Khayelitsha), opened fire after an altercation broke out amongst the customers. I haven't followed the story, but I glanced at it in yesterday's Cape Times. The mamas expressed their disbelief at the whole incident. One contributed an interesting piece of information: the fight isn't as bizarre as people think it is. She used the word esmokolweni (a tavern) and explained that when someone spills a beer esmokolweni it's some kind of code where they are challenging someone for a fight, a duel. The other mamas were aghast and protested that surely somone must have apologised in order to prevent the owner from opening fire on innocent people.

The conversation ended abruptly when the train reached Newlands station. All the mamas got off and took their interesting conversation with them. There was a sudden silence in the carriage. I ended up glancing at the young girl sitting next to me. She was knitting socks, using 4 knitting needles. It was equally fascinating but I'm sure she was wondering why I was staring at her. I decided against reading my book because I had two stations left and I could miss Harfield station if I became too absorbed in the book and find myself in Kenilworth instead.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Train stories: Part 1

My first trip to Cape Town was in 2009. A friend and I needed to get visas from the American Embassy. We made it to Westlake with the help of a friend and when we were granted permission to enter USA we decided to find our way around Cape Town by using public transport. We took a taxi from Westlake and got off in Retreat. From Retreat train station we headed for the southern suburbs where we would get off in Rondebosch to meet a friend at the University of Cape Town.

This was my first encounter with Cape Town’s public transport system. When we used the taxi in Retreat people weren’t shocked that a white person (the friend I was travelling with) used public transport. Neither of us knew where we were going but fortunately I speak isiXhosa and Afrikaans and we managed to get where we were going with ease. The train trip was the most interesting.

It was quiet. It was a mid-morning train after the hustle and bustle of rush hour with people getting to work. I was confused by the silence. My encounters with public transport had also been peppered with the mirth of taxi conversations where anyone could spark a conversation or all the passengers would gang up on “udriver oqhuba ikaka” (a taxi driver who was driving recklessly) with the women screaming “Asincancisi driver!” (there’s no rush, we haven’t got babies at home waiting to be breastfed, there’s no rush. Drive carefully!). It was strange that people could sit next to each other as they did on the train, but there could be no conversation.

While trying to make sense of the silence it was suddenly broken by what sounded like a funeral dirge. The voice emerged from one of the adjoining carriages. When I found the source of the voice, it was a blind woman singing “We bless your name, oh mighty God...”. She was being led by a younger woman, possibly her daughter, who wasn’t blind. She held a cup in her hands, asking for alms as she walked down the aisle of the train. I was dumbstruck. There was something very disturbing about the image of the helplessness and almost futile attempt at doing something about their desperate situation. The woman and the girl walked slowly, singing their song, a plea to God to respond to their pitiful state. When they walked passed me with their cup I tried not to make eye contact with the daughter. I had glanced at her when she walked in our carriage and noticed the dishevelled nature of her clothes and when she walked passed the waft of bodies who hadn’t washed in days couldn’t be ignored. The daughter’s face was blank. She was expressionless and didn’t make an effort at looking at any of the commuters in the face. She kept her eyes straight ahead, walking slowly, so she wouldn’t rush past the person kind enough to respond to their song. Theirs had to be a heartbreaking story. The song they sang and their faces were enough to infer this.

When I moved to Cape Town last year I was caught off guard when the mother and daughter I had encountered in 2009 walked into my carriage again. I had forgotten about the 2009 encounter and when I saw them again I was angry. My life had changed since the last time I saw them: I had recently graduated, I had found my dream job and I had moved to a new city. Their life obviously hadn’t changed. I later discovered that there is another father and son pair who sing on the trains begging for money. The father is blind and sings a duet with his son who leads him down the aisle hoping that someone will drop a coin in their cup. I don’t know these people’s story. I haven’t spoken to them and I wouldn’t dare to as I wouldn’t know what to say without giving them false hope. So I’ve made up a story in my mind that these are people who remind me about how complex and pitiful the world is. I don’t know how they ended up in Cape Town begging on the train. But I can’t help but notice that since I’ve moved to Cape Town they’ve become a part of my train rides between town, home, school and shopping.

I still haven’t dropped a coin into their cup and I always avert my eyes when they walk past. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Surviving term three and school camps

Third term is almost over. It’s been a crazy term with school camps, debating competitions, hosting the Open Book Festival at our school, disciplinary hearings (I wasn’t involved), interpersonal challenges with staff members, failed tests and assignments, performances of Macbeth with bursting flames in the school hall and endless shouting monologues addressed to teenagers (who don’t listen to crazy teachers anyway) and good doses of laughter some of the time.

Third term is a trying term. It’s the most exhausting for everyone, teachers and pupils alike. It’s my least favourite term. The kids struggle with understanding why they should care about learning when there are no exams. The momentum and interest in work lags and teaching is like sucking blood out of a stone. And not to mention all the marking that still needs to happen.

In the efforts of infusing some excitement in the kids, school camps have been the remedy. The Grade 10s had a leadership camp and the Grade 9 girls had a three day camp as well. Earlier in the year the Grade 9 boys were whisked away for a weekend of adventure to address some of the teenage strife amongst them. Fortunately I did not attend this camp and those who did wish they hadn’t been there. A story for another day.

When I realised that I had signed up for a three day camp with 60 girls I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to my school days and the school camps we had. In primary school we have “outdoor education” for each grade every single year. Trips to the beach, the forest and small historical towns were central to my primary school education. I didn’t know it then, but now I’ve come to realise that school camps are an essential part of middle class education (the financial expenses involved, the idea that “going away” could remedy conflict, the idea that a planned and structured programme of events will ensure different sets of behaviour and thus learning will take place). Camps also make me think of the American dream and the famous summer camp that teenagers attend every year. Camps become a symbol of coming of age ceremonies. Military boot camps about turning men into soldiers and of course, even in our own African setting when boys leave home to return as men after a few weeks out in the bush.

In spite of the good intentions, my adult self wonders who decided that the one way of getting kids to interact in high school is to take them out of their natural habitat (the school or away from home)and place them in dorm rooms, use sleeping bags and make them play games for most of the weekend? Don’t get me wrong, as a teacher, I have enjoyed each camp I’ve been to thus far (there was a Grade 8 camp earlier this year), but I’ve also been wondering if there aren’t other ways of extending children’s learning without the forced environment of a camp? What if we didn’t have the resources we have at my school? Would we simply accept the challenges we have and go without a camp or would we think of other forms of dialogue to get the kids to think about themselves and their friendships?

The Grade 9 camps had an overarching agenda which the kids referred to as “forced integration”. There’s been a great deal of conflict amongst the Grade 9s mostly related to race and class tensions. So in whisking them away to a secluded area where they have three days of sleeping in the same rooms with communal showers and a communal bathroom, we, their teachers, hoped that a camp would unite them. This has had different implications for the boys and girls. Some of the conflicts still remain after the camp, but some friendships have developed. At the girls camp, the girls had a motto that turned into a jingle which they sang in front of the whole school after reporting to the school about the great camp they had.

The gendered nature of the camp was also very interesting. The girls didn’t go on an arduous hike. The boys did. The girls left the camp venue clean at the end of the camp. The boys destroyed some of the tents they slept in and ended up sleeping outside (or getting no sleep at all). The girls were treated to hot chocolate and feel-good conversations from their teachers, a nurse and a life coach. Every morning we had a morning devotion where we spoke about beauty the one morning and the last morning of the camp the girls got involved in a letter writing activity: writing a letter to their future selves.

I’m still recovering from the camp that happened almost two weeks ago. I developed a flu which I’m still battling with. And I get to observe the Grade 9s I teach everyday wondering if the camp was worth it. There’s no doubt I had moments of fun laughing at some of the kids during their activities. There’s no doubt I learned some things about the kids I teach that my English lessons would never unravel (that shy girls are also the best dancers and forget that the teacher is watching when the jump on a table and dance like Beyonce). But something’s got to give. Perhaps I’m over-thinking a tradition that seems to be established in my three year old school. That camps bring people together whether I like it or not.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

“I hit her with my tie”

Recently I walked into my Grade 10 class and witnessed one of the girls viciously throw a pencil bag at one of the boys. Let’s call the girl Sarah and the boy Luxolo. Anger was written all over Sarah’s face and the humiliation from the rest of the class didn’t make matters any easier. As one of the cool boys in my class, Luxolo was innocent in the matter as Sarah looked like the hysterical girl that needs to be controlled. Or simply needs to calm down and sort out her mood swings.

I investigated the cause of the fight and I was told that Sarah and Luxolo had an altercation because Sarah was sitting in Luxolo’s chair. Luxolo bumped into Sarah to get her attention but Sarah was offended by this. According to Sarah, Luxolo slapped her, twice. So Luxolo was the woman-basher. According to Luxolo, he used his tie to hit her because he had been taught never to slap a girl with his bare hands. When pressed about hitting Sarah, Luxolo responded “I hit her with my tie because I’m not allowed to hit girls”. Luxolo was furious that Sarah was seemingly getting away with hitting him because she’s a girl while he was lambasted and scorned for using violence against a girl (by bumping into her and hitting her with his tie).

The entire incident was a spectacle with the rest of the learners in the class as bystanders in the commotion. This altercation made me furious and left me thinking about how my classroom really is a microcosm of society because when a gendered incident occurs, we always fall into the trap of reinforcing gender stereotypes—the hysterical damsel in distress and the violent black man—that exacerbate the problem rather than allow a different narrative. Even teenagers understand that women’s emotions can be discredited when you label them as hysterical. And black males are always in the wrong because they are violent. Luxolo’s words “because she’s a girl” suggested that he felt that girls can get away with certain actions because they pull the gender card.

 I tried to approach the situation where both pupils were in the wrong: two human beings who dealt with a situation badly. Is it too simplistic to do this? Is it too soon to want to look at the behavior at face value rather than the value judgments we make depending on who is embodying the behavior?

Beyond the gendered narrative of the incident, the reaction of the rest of the class was puzzling. There was little indignation from the learners. Any action that has nothing to do with school work is always welcomed in a room full of teenagers. The laughter in response to the incident made me think about what we do as people when we witness a gendered incident, whether violent or not. Do we step in before things get out of hand or do we simply shrug and accept it as the status quo?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Walking from the train station

A while ago I was having a conversation with one of my Grade 8 students. We were both walking from the train station heading for school at 7:30am, a dark morning in Cape Town. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and I asked her how's she's doing. I was expecting her to bemoan the early morning or tell me how tired she is or how much she hates school. But she didn't. Instead she responded "I'm inspired!".

I was taken aback by this response. What business did she have being inspired at 7:30 in the morning? I asked her what the source of her inspiration was and she responded with enthusiasm that she'd been reading poetry. As we closer to school we had a conversation about the form of poetry, sonnets, limericks and which would be easier to write. She promised me she would write a sonnet and show me.

Not all my students are as enthusiastic and curious as the student I mention above but it is a comfort to know that as a teacher I can be inspired while walking from the train station with a 14 year-old girl telling me poetry inspires her.

Monday, July 15, 2013

What if marriage wasn't anti-feminism?

I’ve been contemplating marriage. Not as an abstract idea but as someone who has come face to face with the prospect of marriage. My partner and I have always spoken openly about marriage and after running away from the relationship for five years I’ve decided to consider marriage. While trying to make sense of the women who has taken over my body and having conversations about marriage on my behalf, I’ve been reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex: one of the most groundbreaking texts about the position of women. De Beauvoir articulates the plight of women by looking closely at the historical context making a case for feminism in the 1940s, when the book was first published. Central to de Beauvoir’s treatise is an exploration of marriage and the role it has played as a social practice that is an example of patriarchy.
It’s impossible to write a book about the liberation of women without talking about marriage. And it’s impossible to identify as a feminist and not wonder about the institution of marriage. I realise that there are many feminists who have overcome this angst and decided on marriage in spite of the naysayers who simply denounce marriage as an example of why patriarchy still exists. It’s too easy to say that marriage is inherently bad for women. When women are no longer property, moving from their fathers to their husbands, the terms and conditions of marriage must change because a woman is choosing to be with someone in spite of the social expectations.
Is marriage fundamentally anti-feminism? My partner and I haven’t answered this question. We think of ourselves as feminists. We are also products of our cultural backgrounds: I’m Xhosa and he is Zulu. In talking about marriage we have come to the following conclusions: I will not change my surname, there will be no lobola, I have decided against having children and we will not have an elaborate wedding (I will not wear a white dress, we will not profess any fancy vows about me submitting to him as his wife). Ours will hopefully be a marriage of two minds who are seeking companionship rather than a slave for a wife and a hunter-gatherer for a husband. And yes, ours will be a monogamous marriage.
My parents got divorced when I was young. As a result of this I was not keen on marriage until recently. My partner and I are constantly contemplating what it means putting our lives together. He doesn’t want a traditional wife and I have no desires of being a traditional wife (whatever that might mean). We’ve spoken openly about our fears given the broken marriages we’ve seen and lived through. There are few examples of marriages or partnerships where two people do not compromise too much of who they are, but can exist in a relationship that is meaningful. Friends have asked me, “Why marry at all? Why not simply live together?”. My sister is surprised that I am seriously contemplating marriage at all given that I’m a feminist. I still can’t fully grasp why I would consider marriage (the legal and the social contract) except that I’m a romantic: I ran out of reasons not to be with him and I want to grow old with him. I’ve had to deal with the voices in my head that have told me I have no place in marriage. Black women who are educated are often seen as a threat to the institution of marriage because we’ve been accused of bringing our politics into the bedroom.
But is it that simple? Is it enough to jettison the performances of marriage but still enter into a marriage with an awareness of the complexities of a marriage? Marriage is both a private and social agreement. For Xhosa and Zulu people it is also a contract between two families. The real questions about equality, fidelity and sharing the responsibilities of housekeeping (cooking, cleaning, paying the bills) are not cast in stone. There are some non-negotiables: fidelity. But it seems everything else in a marriage is about negotiating and learning what it means to love another person without losing yourself in the process. I’ve been surprised at the level of communication my partner and I have had (coupled with a long distance courtship) and thus far we’ve been able to put everything on the table. And perhaps de Beauvoir would be disappointed to know that many decades later feminists such as my boyfriend and I are still contemplating marriage.
We’ll probably go through with it: move in together, get married and hopefully live happily ever after. Choosing to give into a social and legal contract like marriage has heightened my awareness of choice. For centuries, marriage was never about choice but for me it is. I’m choosing monogamy. And the fact that I am choosing monogamy as opposed to having my parents make the choice for  me has to count for something rather than make me appear as a bad feminist.
First appeared on FeministsSA blog

Friday, June 21, 2013

Comedy of errors: xenophobia and public safety in Cape Town

What began as a quiet morning on the public holiday Monday unfolded into a day that involved a police station, an insolent police woman and a crazy cab driver. My day began at lunchtime where I visited the Long Street baths for a quiet swim.

Instead of rushing home with the 14:45 train, I decided to stay in town and meet up with friends. We met in Roeland Street proceeded to a corner shop in Harrington Street to purchase some drinks so that the rest of the day would be spent pontificating the joys of our youth over a glass of wine.
While waiting outside the liquor store in Harrington Street, we witnessed a street brawl. It didn’t look too serious and the trusted “Public Safety” Officers who roam about Cape Town’s CBD wearing neon coloured vests were present giving the impression that everything was under control. But what began as three men jostling each other and using a beer bottle as a weapon, spiralled out of control. We were innocent bystanders but ended up witnessing a violent and bizarre crime of attempted murder or maybe intention to do harm by a crazy driver.

The fight amongst the three men was surreal as we watched one of the men jump into his car (belonging to a cab service) and attempt to drive into the men who were beating him up. While zooting about the street with mad Schumacher-like skills we sat in my friend’s car spellbound and hoping that the fight was over. Our car was parked not very far from the fight so in his attempt at driving into his attackers, the cab came towards our stationary car. My friend, sitting in the driver’s seat couldn’t move. Our car was sandwiched between another parked car and the bend of the road. At this point, the “Public Safety” Officers were useless. They didn’t seem to have any gadgets calling for back up and they were trying to calm down the temper of two men who appeared drunk and a crazy cab driver seeking vengeance. It didn’t occur to them that they should run to the Police Station which was less than a hundred meters away from the action.

While zooting about trying to run people over, the cab driver reversed towards our car and ended up scratching the bonnet. At this point we were jolted into action. Eventually, we managed to drive away and parked further down the road, but the fight was not over. We called 10111 but there was no answer. While the cab driver was reversing one of the men who had attacked him smashed the windscreen of his car with a beer bottle. This meant the scratch on our car became insignificant in the bigger scheme of things.
By now the “Public Safety” officers had given up trying to salvage any order as they had failed to get rid of the bottle that had turned into a weapon. The cab driver eventually rushed to the police station and we followed so we could get his contact details in order to follow up on the damage to the friend’s car. The cab driver disappeared into the police station and we made enquiries with the police woman sitting at the front counter. We greeted her and tried to explain our garbled story explaining that we were looking for the man who had just walked in to report the crime. She was not impressed, told us she was busy (she was filling in a form)and that we should have a seat and wait for another officer to attend to our story. She dismissed us easily and when we persisted that ours as a matter of urgency she retorted in a tone that put us in our place as we simply had to wait for someone else to turn up and help us. Luckily, a policeman emerged and we accosted him with our story and he helped us find the cab driver we were looking for.

It seems the fight was a case of a xenophobic attack. When we found the cab drive we informed him of the damage on the friend’s car (a tiny matter in relation to a smashed windscreen and the possibility of losing his job) we discovered that his name is Ernest and his accent immediately gave him away as a foreign national. In my anger I decided to undertake an interrogation of my own asking Ernest what the fight was about. He told us the two men had called him for a cab service. While picking them up they addressed him in isiXhosa and he responded that he couldn’t understand them. And that’s when the fight began. Ernest couldn’t speak isiXhosa and he was punched for it. In his defence, he got into his car and tried to get revenge.

I’m telling this story not because I think people should know about how I spent my public holiday but rather to illustrate the chaos that can unfold in a simple incident: according to Ernest, he was just picking up customers but instead he was attacked. If Ernest is telling the truth then we witnessed the dangers of xenophobia and the incompetency of “Public Safety” Officers as well as the lack of basic service at the Police Station, even when you try call 10111, they can hang up on you or refuse to take the call.

Monday, June 17, 2013

12 lessons I learned in school

The school badge: Fac et Spera (Work and Hope)
Recently I've been cerebrating my own school days. While contemplating the woes of exams I began to contemplate some of the lessons that couldn’t be examined in a two hour exam. While there is much criticism about the relevance of school in a fast changing world (thanks Sir Ken Robinson) we forget that there are schools where there is more good than harm and I can think of a lesson I learned between Grade 1 and Grade 12 that have been relevant for the “real world” in spite of going to a school that was an English enclave with colonial traditions.

Grade 1: I discovered I was a writer. My first story was published. It wasn’t published because I was a child prodigy but because the school magazine was an anthology of all the learners’ creative work. In the form of a black and white paperback, my story (about Carly and her kitten) appeared amongst other pieces of writing riddled with all the writing errors Foundation Phase teachers have to make sense of in the process of teaching children to become writers.

Grade2: I learned not to make fun of people’s accents. My Grade 2 teacher was from Ireland and she had an heavy Irish accent. When I first met her I couldn’t understand her but I grew to love the way she pronounced “R”. As a class we tried to convince her she was incorrect but she persisted until we accepted that hers was a different “R”.

Grade 3: I learned to live without my mother. In order to be closer to school my mother asked a family friend to look after my sister and I as she wasn’t able to support us financially (my father had taken a leave of absence from family life and had disappeared leaving us with a tale of his return). My sister and I were taken in by a family friend who lived close to the school so we could walk to school. My teacher was appalled when she found out and gave me her phone number in case of an emergency. I don’t remember using it because I was happy being away from home meant being closer to school.

Grade 4: I learned to do the “7 times table” backwards. I remember the simple thrill and the laughs of being able to count backwards. This skill only made sense when I was doing higher grade Maths in high school, but nothing for my daily life I must say.

Grade 5: I was bullied. She spat in my face. She laughed at my strange hairstyles and she laughed when I couldn’t play ugqaphs and uduva. At the time I couldn’t understand why she was such a horrible person, I still don’t. I wish I could say I spat in her face and fought back, but I didn’t. I couldn’t because I didn’t have a reason to do so. And when something similar inexplicable happens in my adult life I simply shrug it off and move on without getting too much spit on my face.

Grade 6: I convinced myself my class teacher hated me. In retrospect I realise she didn’t. Amongst many important lessons in her classroom I learned the importance of “taking the initiative”. There were posters in the classroom related to group work and one particular poster had the words “initiator”. Mrs F explained the concepts and I liked the idea of being someone who takes the initiative and gets things done. I still try to take the initiative, what my friends used to call ukuzigqatsa!

Grade 7: During an unprepared oral in an English lesson I discovered I enjoyed speaking in front of people. I also found out that my English teacher at the time had completed a Masters degree. It was announced in assembly and I remember thinking “Hmmm, if Mrs N can do it, it must be something important”. People always ask me why I would be a teacher considering I have a Masters degree. I wish I could tell them that my Grade 7 English teacher had one and my high school Biology teacher had one and they were great teachers so it makes sense that I should have one too.

Grade 8: In Grade 8 I met Ms. S. She became a real-life example of a feminist. Our first English lesson she taught us about the difference between Ms. and Miss. She explained why she wanted to be called Ms. and not Miss (Ms. pronounced with the –s sounding like –z). This made sense to me when I discovered that my mother hadn’t changed her surname when she got married and was technically Ms. Mashologu but was referred to as Mrs Masola for the sake of social conventions. And I also learned never to be late for Ms. S’s English lessons.
Grade 9:I was part of the unfortunate group of students who were guinea pigs of Outcomes-based Education. This meant compiling portfolios for each subject. I learned to keep immaculate portfolios which teachers used as an example of a good filing system. This skill has been indispensable now that I’m a teacher.

Grade 10: I dropped Science and chose History instead. I was told that if I dropped Science I was limiting the opportunities I could choose from when I matriculated. I was okay with the perceived limitation because I learned that there are certain choices that can be undone. And I’ve never felt limited by the decision I made because a liberal arts degree is where its at!

Grade 11: I decided to submit my cv and apply for being a prefect. I was putting myself out there and choosing to become a firm part of the school’s system. I think there were about 50 people and 21 of us were chosen. In spite of the criticism towards the prefect system, I enjoyed the opportunity and have no regrets about that year. As prefects we hosted an event “Party in the park” which made me realise the importance of being a do-er(taking the initiative), rather than waiting for others to make things happen!

Grade 12: I learned to question authority. There was a dispute in hostel and a group of us informed our principal about this and asking him to punish the trouble-makers. We gave him a list of names and informed the trouble-makers (a few learners in Grade 11-or were they in Grade 10 at the time?)that we had reported them (another lesson on being a whistle blower perhaps). Instead of punishing the people on the list, the principal punished their entire group. We didn’t understand this and we went back to him demanding that he explain his decision. He said that the real culprits didn’t own up so the whole group was punished for being complicit in the lie. We debated this decision for what seemed to be a long while but the principal dd not change his mind. I remember using the words “But we don’t agree with you Mr N” and he simply nodded and allowed us to vent. We didn’t challenge him because we thought we would win, rather we challenged him because we knew we could. And that was sufficient enough for me to know the importance of telling those in authority that they are mistaken

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The thinker

I started writing this poem while pretending to invigilate an exam. After three weeks of invigilating exams, I'm learning the art of observation.

He assumes the position: slouching over the wooden desk, sinking into the black plastic chair.
I place the question paper in front of him.
His eyes blink countless times.
He bites his short, dirty nails
Chews what he can
Before he reads the questions
Searching for the answer
Change the following words into antonyms by using a prefix.
Wrinkles and creases form on his forehead.
His eyes gaze at the blank wall.
His hand rests on his cheek as if to support the heaviness weighing on his heart and mind.
He scratches his head furiously as though he were getting rid of lice
Scratching in the vain hope that the answer will be released from his head and present itself on the answer sheet.
Quick glances at the clock which ticks slowly, reminding him of life, real life, passing by.
The rain outside is constant and creates the background melody to the scribbling pen on paper
Incessant dripping from the drain pipes create the possibility of movement beyond the classroom.
An hour of his life passes by as I watch closely, assuming my position of the diligent gaze.
He stares outside the window searching for more answers.
He purses his lips forming a pink prune where his lips should be.
He flicks his pen impatiently.
He sighs deeply when the question begins with a word he doesn’t understand: Define...
A deep sigh as though exhaling will release the anxiety of not knowing the answer.
Finally, a wry smile of confidence  when he reads an easy question
And he scribbles the answer before it runs away from him.
He squints his eyes, they become smaller with concentration
But then he soon resigns to his ignorance and shrugs his shoulders.
The exam is over.
He rests his head on the table forming a pillow with his arms.
His head is down but the search for more answers continue because the exam isn’t over until time is up or all the questions are answered.
He doodles and I sense he’s thinking about nothing in particular because the hour has been dedicated to thinking about an exam is almost over.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Beautiful surprise

There are certain moments that I think many teachers live for. The moment when we witness the light bulb moment in our students and all of a sudden what we've been teaching makes sense. It's always a bonus when this moment finally happens because this can keep a teacher's energy from lagging. I was lucky to witness this recently when some students and I attended the Franschhoek Literary Festival. I watched my studenst blossom outside the confines of a classroom. In the midst of the exam period, a moment of enlightenment is always appreciated (I don't think of exams as a moment of enlightenment, least of all for the teacher who has to mark all the scripts).

Last week Friday was the Franschhoek Literary Festival and I was invited as one of the speakers. I was part of a panel "Rising Eighteen" alongside Sam Page, Nik Rabinowitz, Fiona Snyckers and Osiame Molefe. I travelled to Franschoek with 11 Grade 10s who were handpicked by default because they weren't writing an exam on the day (we recently started the exam period which is always the worst time of the year for me).

I didn't have any expectations for the day except for the session that I was asked to be part of. Our school was given free tickets for three of the sessions on Friday. The first session was "Science is Cool" where a science journalist, Sarah Wild, and two scientists Ethel Phiri and Jeff Mururgan spoke about the work they do in the effort of making science appear "cool". I listened intently and made sure my kids had front row seats because after all  my school is a Dinaledi, Maths and Science focused school. The talk was interspersed with questions from the audience and I was suprised when my kids' hands were shooting up to answer and ask questions of highly esteemed panelists who were talking about "String Theory" the Higgs Boson and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

It wasn't so much that the kids were putting their hands up but that they were willing to engage with issues they may have heard of and that they had an interest in. When the audience was asked about SKA I was also surprised that my students were part of the few people who knew about the project (thanks to Laura Richter who is a physicist and works for the SKA project). Rumour has it my kids went up to the panelists at the end of the session and asked one of the speakers to come and speak at our school.

The second session was "Rising Eighteen". Our panel was given the brief about talking to the audience about surviving high school. The session began when we each spoke about where our journey with writing began. I recounted the story about my Grade 1 school magazine which was a publication featuring the writing of all the students in the school. In Grade 1 I believed that I was a published writer because I saw my story in print for the first time.

And to my surprise  one of the quiet students in my group asked a question that I could sense came from a place of anxiety. She asked a question related to the issue of Plan B: when people want to become writers/musicians or sports stars, they are always told to have a Plan B. Her question was addressed to Fiona and Osiame. I didn't answer Sarah* because I know she simply wants to be a girl-cricketer in spite of all the nay-sayers telling her to have a plan b, a degree and a proper job to fall back on.

The final session was "Technology Wizards" which was my favourite session of the day. Perhaps it's the easiness and bravado of an all-male panel that made the difference, but the discussion was invigorating. The focus of the session was about technology, innovation and technology. Once again my students surprised me to the point where their questions directed the conversation for most of the hour. One of the students stole a question just as  I was about to ask it. It seems we were thinking about the same issues and as Mama would say, undibethe emlonyeni, she stole the words from my lips. Near the end of the session one of the panelists made a mention about coding (computer programming): that instead of wasting time, teenagers should equip themselves and get started on coding their own programs and contribute to the changes in technology rather than become consumers of it. As he made a mention of this, one of my students turned to me and smiled because we had spoken about coding in the context of a video that was looking at what schools don't teach their students. I was beaming with pride because for the first time, one of the discussions we had previously had in class was confirmed by a speaker my kids had never met but were convinced he was cool enough because he was on a panel rather than being a teacher in their classroom.

As the day in Franschhoek came to an end I asked each of my student to share their highlights from the day. Each had something thought-provoking to share about how something in a session had changed their mind. This was learning that took place outside the classroom where I didn't have to be a part of it directly but was lucky enough to witness some of my kids blossom in the world beyond the classroom.

These are the moments I live for that remind me that in spite of the challenges, my world is alright. Being a teacher is about beautiful surprises where my children are riveted and thoughtful human beings who are curious and wonder about the world around them.

*Not her real name

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Whose language is it anyway?

The language question has reared its ugly head again. Recently Rebecca Davies wrote an article about research that confirms “English is leading the way as the most preferred teaching language”.  As an English teacher this ought to make me happy however, I am not convinced that the findings from this research account for the complexity of language use. In other words: umnqwazi wam awuqini. Statistics about who speaks what language don’t take into serious account the context, the so-called “new” South Africa.

I am a language teacher who is able to negotiate three South African languages to accommodate the language diversity that my learners bring into the classroom. I am also an avid reader of isiXhosa literature and my favourite poet is Nontsizi Mgqwetho. My double consciousness allows me great fun in my classroom. Anyone eavesdropping into my lessons might say I am a bad English teacher because at any given time learners know they can pipe up in isiXhosa (and Afrikaans, though this is often slang) and the lesson will continue to  unfold.

The language in education debate only confirms the many problems in the education system: there are two systems of education in this country. One for the working class, mostly black and coloured children who end up functionally illiterate and the other is for a middle class minority across the race groups who spew forth the queen’s English and send their children to extra classes to speak isiZulu or seSotho as a token of how sorry they are about their linguistic limitations. Until this parallel system of education offends us, we are yet to solve the language problem in the education system. Parents who think that their children should be taught in English instead of their mother tongue will continue to make ill-informed decisions about their children’s education and what language they ought to be taught in because they lack the social capital to make lasting and meaningful decisions for their children’s education.

What we really need to consider when we talk about the obsession with English is that English (and thanks to Apartheid, Afrikaans as well) have social capital. Those who are making money and producing knowledge are doing so in contexts where they are not required to come face to face with their monolingualism. They do not have to navigate in spaces that demand that they speak another language because they have the social capital which gives them power to control the use of language in any space. The Afrikaans question is still an interesting one that hasn’t been seriously considered but similar conclusions can be made that it is also a language of power. The problem with English is that it renders others powerless when it comes to communicating, and this depends on context. When people visit banks, the train station, shops, the use of English all around them is a reminder of who is in charge, rather than an open invitation for people to embrace English.

Writing about  the “obsession with English” confirms rather than questions the hegemony of English and that is nothing to be proud of in a country with 11 official  languages. I judge monolinguals. People should be embarrassed that they can only communicate with every person they meet on their personal terms. This is an example of language prejudice which is second cousins with white supremacy. When English/Afrikaans monolinguals refuse to get out of their comfort zone, often  smiling sheepishly everytime they fumble through greetings in isiZulu or isiXhosa, they  ought to deal with their own limitations, but thanks to the history of white supremacy, the person who speaks English with a “black or coloured” accent is likely to be apologetic when they make the language shift to speak to a monolingual English/Afrikaans speaker.

We marvel and clap for white people who can speak another African language as though they are doing something extraordinary forgetting that, that is the way it should be. If people consider themselves South Africans, Africans and citizens of the world, the practice of immersing yourself in someone else’s language should be an imperative. Monoligualism must become a myth.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The scourge of the single-mother

As a teacher I have come to appreciate some of the challenges that teenagers have to face: teenage pregnancy, drug-use, sex education in relation to the myths they hear from friends! All these ills are often clumped under  the portmanteau word: peer-pressure. Beyond these challenges, access to quality education and opportunities that will ward off poverty also form part of the teenage-question. In truth, the list is endless.

What is also often included in the list of the many social ills that plague young people is the question of family structures. For many working class teens the prospect of being in a child-headed home is a real possibility or a home where the mother is the primary care-giver, raising a child (or children) alone. As someone who was raised by a mother who opted for divorce and a grandmother who raised six children alone, I am often uncomfortable when single-mothers are lumped into the list of social ills that I’ve listed above.

My purpose is not to glorify the experience of single mothers as I have no doubt that it is often (not always) circumstances beyond many women’s control that leads them to a place where they are left with the responsibility of raising children without the assumed extra help of the father or a father-figure. I have also been surprised by friends (who happen to be white) who have spoken about being single-mothers. The one shared how she opted to be a single-mother because she was financially independent enough to do so and another said she would opt to be a single-mother if she felt ready to have a child whether or not she’s in a relationship.

I’d like to question how it is that we continue to add single-mothers to the list of social ills. The truth is, the reality of being a single-mother and the extent of the hardships one faces are closely related to a woman’s social class. The reality of raising a child or children alone without the expected help of a father, is different for a middle class woman than for a working class woman. The middle-class woman has resources the poorer woman does not have and the poorer woman is often called in to be the child-minder for the wealthier woman who can afford to pay someone to help look after her child.

My other concern is that the focus on the poor, single-mother should rather shift to the harsh reality that renders the lives of poor women an eternal hardship. Poverty. Together with poverty, the obsession with the idea of the nuclear family means that women are a problem unless they conform to the social structure of family where there ought to be a father figure in the home. Where a man or father figure is absent in a home, we refer to this as a broken home (but if a man is in a position where he raises children alone, he is the hero).

If we consider the reality of many working class black families, the family unit has never been prioritised. Many working class women have never been “kept” women who stay at home and look after the children. They have mostly been working mothers who have been in exploitative working environments without the benefits to support child care (When my aunt had her first child in the 1970s she was working in a factory. She did not have maternity leave and she was back at work the day after she gave birth to my cousin). Fathers, brothers and uncles were migrant labourers who could not be in the home to help raise the children. 

And this form of family life in the black community still exists where work opportunities do not allow working class men and women to fully support their families either financially or with their physical presence.
The single-mother question often brings into light the question of what kind of children does a single-mother raise? The perception is often that single-mothers cannot raise boys who will become “real” men and their daughters will become women who are too independent with “daddy issues” and will therefore seek attention from men because they have never received attention from their fathers. These are negative perceptions about what it means to raise children as a single-mother.

We need to recognise that whether a woman chooses to be a single mother or not, she has the right to be given the space and the rights to raise her children in a society that does not damn her for not conforming to the heteronormative idea of what is means to be a mother. We all have taken-for-granted ideas about what it means to be a mother and a father without thinking about the role of the extended family as well as the role of more supportive networks that woman may have when they are single-mothers. These networks may be informal or formal but they must allow us to recognise that single-mothering is a legitimate form of parenting.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

R50 000 and homelessness

Last week Sunday I visited SA National Gallery in town. The current exhibition, Umhlaba commemorates the Land Act of 1913. I find it a strange thing to refer to the process of remembering the Land Act as a commemoration. I have always thought that commemorations are meant to celebrate rather than draw memories back into a dark past that still lives with us today.

A week before visiting this exhibition Mama had called me telling me about the new tv she had acquired. My mother is unemployed (and has been since I was 7 years old and thus depends on my sisters and I for support).I asked her where she got the money from and she told me my Grandmother's claim from the land commission had finally come and the money was divided amongst her and her sisters. I was seething with anger. Initially I thought I was angry because she had bought a tv and some clothes for her granddaughter, my niece, and had decided to save very little of the money she had received. But this is not the reason for my anger.

After seeing the exhibition I realised that I wasn't angry about my mother's foolish extravagance with the lump sum of money they had received, but rather I was enraged at the futility of this idea of land restoration. I calculated that my mother and her sisters received about R50 000. The R50 000 my mother and her sisters received is now a distant memory for each of them as they spent it on household appliances and buying something for their children and grandchildren. What the R50 000 will never do is restore the dignity my grandmother lost during apartheid simply because she was a black women, a single black mother with too many children. A problem for apartheid South Africa.

Two weeks before my gran passed away we had the longest chat I would ever have with her. It was our last conversation and I clung onto each word because I secretly knew the opportunity would never be afforded to me again. We spoke about many things. She also gave me a copy of her reference book, her dompas. We spoke about her experience of moving to Mdanstane in the winter of the 1960s and arriving to a small house that was not conducive to inhabit given the winter chill. She had been removed from an area close to town to Mdanstane, where she would have to commute many miles in order to get to work. When she told me the story I realised how she was still wounded by the experience. My gran had a macabre sense of humour and she often laughed things off easily, but there was no mirth in her voice when she told me about being forcibly removed from her home.

And all she was given posthumously was R50 000. It isn't about the money and it will never be about the money. People might be given financial compensation for the land they lost during apartheid or if they are lucky enough they might get some land back, but they will never be given back the dignity they lost when they became homeless in a country they knew as home. How do you compensate a nation of people whose families will always carry the burden of homelessness because that is the legacy apartheid laws left for them: pass books and homelessness?

My father is still in the midst of his land claim case for his family. Both my parents have been embroiled in land claims and one would think that that would make me happy. It doesn't. It is a cruel reminder of my own homelessness. If my parents have no sense of ownership (in the form of land or a homestead) in this country then I too am homeless and R50 000 will not give me a home. It has give my niece new shoes and my mother, hours of entertainment from her new tv connected to DSTV.