Saturday, June 11, 2016

Remembering the code of black life

“Sithi masizodibanisa amehlo. Akuhlanga lungehliyo. Kunje kuzo zonke izizwe. Tutwini.”

I’ve heard these words many times; as though they were a litany or a poem. These are the words I heard every time I went to umthandazo, a prayer meeting, held at a home when a family member has died. These meetings were largely organised through the church. We would go after church on a Sunday or iGuildas —ulutsha, the youth—would go during the week. Thursday was reserved for uManyano. If the person who passed away was a member of uManyano, Thursday also meant kuxhonywa ibhatyi: a ritual that involves taking the manyano uniform and hanging it up in the home until the funeral. This would be a symbol and reminder to anyone who visits the home that the mother of the home was umama webhatyi, a church mother.

Recently these memories have been creeping up on me slowly, reminding me of the patterns and rituals I’ve been involved with which gave me meaning as a child and teenager. More importantly, they’ve been occupying my mind as a reminder of tangible examples of black life. I’ve only ever witnessed imithandazo and ukuxhonywa kwebhatyi in black communities. These rituals as well as most coming-of-age rituals amongst all cultures and communities are rooted in a code. Some could call it a discourse, a way of being. This code encompasses the language that is used in certain spaces, the dress code, the behaviours and the practices involved in a ritual. These differ for every family and every community, every class and every race, but they exist.

A few months ago one of my colleague’s father-in-law passed away. This was not the first time a colleague had had a bereavement in the family. Usually an email was sent around asking that we “carry so-and-so in your prayers and thoughts as they grieve the loss of so-and-so in their family”. Perhaps colleagues who were better acquainted with the bereaved would send flowers and cards. However, when one of the seSotho teacher’s father-in-law passed away the perfunctory email was followed by an email from Ma'Dlamini* (the isiZulu teacher) suggesting that we visit sis’Vuyi’s* family on Thursday afternoon. The email was addressed to all the black teachers in the school. No-one asked why we were going. There was an understanding silence amongst us that we were going to umthandazo.

On the day of umthandazo I questioned my dress code more than usual: should I wear a skirt? Should I hear a doek? What would be expected of me at sis’Vuyi’s house? Upon arrival at sis’Vuyi’s house, my fears of being inappropriately dressed were allayed when sis'Vuyi appeared in a knee-length (meaning short) shweshwe dress; sans doek. As the makoti of the home this is a surprise given the rules that govern makotis and what they wear. We were ushered into the home and greeted by the family. Before long Ma’Dlamini belted out a familiar verse from a seSotho hymn. Everyone joined in. This was followed by a prayer and only after the prayer did we explain the obvious. The family nodded knowingly throughout the explanation which went something like: we are Vuyi’s colleagues and we felt it was important to visit the family and show that we are in solidarity with her as the family prepares for the funeral. Ma’Dlamini went on to introduce each of us and explain that even though we worked among white people in a white world “Ubuntu bethu” determined that we maintain the culture of ukukhunga: visit and pray with a family during their loss. We performed a ritual that was familiar and valued by everyone in the room.

Since the ritual in sis'Vuyi’s home I’ve been thinking about the rituals I participate in while living in Johannesburg. Visiting sis’Vuyi’s home was the first time since I left home in 2006 that I had been to umthandazo. I was reminded of the multiple codes I have access to, many of which have very little resemblance with the code I used growing up. It led me to consider: if my mother had passed away what code would my sister's and I use to make meaning of the rituals assumed to be part of a funeral? Would my colleagues hold umthandazo? Would we have a Thursday prayer meeting and display her manyano uniform as she has always insisted my sisters and I should do? Would we bury my mother here in Johannesburg or back in the Eastern Cape where she spent most of her life?


I find more and more I’ve been thinking about the shift in how I understand the world since I left home. This is probably just a case of nostalgia. There’s been an obvious change in how my shift into a more middle-class lifestyle has meant different ways of being. Even when I have been in black communities I’ve been excused from certain ways of being because people know I am educated, I live in Johannesburg which means I am exempt from certain expectations. The rules are more relaxed for me and those like me. Perhaps the relaxed rules also have something to do with being geographically removed from the community I was part of as a child. I watch with envy how some friends seem to have maintained the seamless relationship with where they grew up. But I also have a community of young, black professionals who deal with the schism in values when one goes home because they are the first graduate in the family or the one who had a better education than the poorer cousins who remain poor in the township.

This is nothing new: it sounds like another case of double consciousness where identity is contested because that's the nature of growing black in a white supremacist world. But is this the way it ought to be? If I were in another country I would expect all these emotions. But I am in Africa but I question my identity as though I were in another country that makes my difference obvious. Perhaps my nostalgia is irrelevant because identity is supposed to be complex and questioned.

*Not their real names

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Social hierarchy in the school playground

There are times when I'm teaching and I will deliberately go off the script of marking boring work and delve into a conversation under the pretence of getting the girls to engage with a text. Today was such a day. I could sense my grade 9s weren't really riveted by the work we were doing; in spite of the value of the work. We were marking a past paper which is great preparation for exams but not so great when it's just another Wednesday morning at school.

The comprehension in the past paper wasn't particularly exciting nor particularly dull. It was Daniel Browde's reflection of attending his 20 year reunion. One of the questions that became a talking point for almost half the lesson was the issue of the social hierarchy he describes as a labyrinth: "The labyrinth was not the place, although it was apt that the reunion was held there. The labyrinth was the group: the 250 human beings herded together every weekday for 5 years. And not just any 5 years: those godforsaken, tender, teenage years". Browde refers to the old order of his high school years establishing itself 20 years later at the reunion. The old order refers to the social hierarchy we've all found ourselves to be a part of at some point during our school lives and possibly even in our adult lives.

I couldn't help but use this text to find out what the girls' experience is at the moment: "Is this the case at St Mary's?" There was an awkward silence and eye contact. Eventually one of the girls responded bravely after a coaxing smile from me: "Well, it's difficult to talk about the issue without mentioning names, but there's definitely a hierarchy in our grade". This response opened the flood gates to a confession session about the dynamics among the girls in their social circles.

While listening to them regale me with their experiences and the rules of the game I couldn't help but share what I'd seen during high school. I told them about the "Snob Squad" and the "Homies" the two popular groups when my sister was in Grade 7 in 1998. The "Snob Squad" was the white girls corollary of the "Homies"; the cool black girls. They set the standard of cool in their grade 7 year which extended itself into their high school experience. It seemed this was still happening in 2016.

Some of the girls shared their experience as outsiders as some of them had been to co-ed, public primary schools which did not prepare them for the cliquey, private school, girl experience. One of the new girls initially felt that "But all the girls in our grade are friends" only to contradict herself by making a perceptive remark "I think the problem is that girls are competitive" which meant that even friendships were about competition. The same girl also made a comment about the grooming process happening in high schools: the cool girls in Matric will befriend the cool girls in grade 11 who will do the same to the grade 10s and so the cycle goes until everyone in the school knows who the cool stream consists of in the school. This initiation process made the girls believe that there's no point in even trying to break the trend of cliquishness  that is an established culture in the school.

One of the girls likened the social hierarchy to a ladder and one  way of climbing up the rungs and becoming an A-lister (yes, they actually used this word) is the proximity to boys: the more boys one had in their circle the more popular they became in school. This was nothing new to me but it saddened me that in a time where these girls have been bombarded with images of Beyonce and girls running the world, boys still determined the value they placed on themselves and each other. This is one of the greatest criticisms against single-sex schools (especially for girls): girls become obsessed with boys because they are not part of their every day experience. And the obsession can manifest itself in the strange value boys have-- even in their absence-- among teenage girls.

I was disheartened by most of what the girls shared but I also couldn't help but share in the hilarity of the situation. One of the girls pointed out how ludicrous the cliques are when she made an example of two groups sitting back to back in their same area: instead of forming one big, inclusive circle perhaps. The girls felt that this is a clear example of how entrenched the groups are among the girls. I then became interested in how the groups formed. There wasn't a simple answer to this: some came from the same primary schools, others it was sport but for others it was just a force of nature. You saw a group of people who had the same mannerisms as you and you decided to be friends. Or for those who are more confident, like attracts like and before you know it, all the pretty and confident girls are sitting together and firmly establishing their position as the A-listers.

Instead of marking a past paper we had managed to do an analysis of the social hierarchy in the school for 40 minutes. I'm sure the girls walked out feeling victorious because they managed to to shirk away some work; but the discussion was a different kind of work I like having in my classroom. Analysis doesn't only need to happen through an assessment. Analysis can happen through a conversation looking deeper into the social interactions we take for granted.