Friday, November 28, 2008

Dispatch: Thanksgiving Eve

Why is it that sadness is what propels me to write? I have not dispatched since Obama’s win and today, on what is now a sad day, I decide to share. Perhaps it is because I have just finished writing an article and had to think so carefully as I wrote that, that now I can simply be guided by emotion.

Sipho’s father has died. Last week. I found out early today. I was with two of my old students, giving a tour of Nyanga to a couple people from the UK. As we walked around Oscar Mpetha HS, we ran into Anele’s homeroom teacher. She leaned out the door and said, “Mpaku, Anele, you know his father died.” Last week, she said. She apologized for sharing bad news, I ran to my car to call Anele, Siya, their cousin Sandiswa who had been my sole connection to the Mpaku family last May. I finally reached Anele a couple hours ago. He is stoic and I am often told that Xhosa men don’t cry. But his father died. One piece of a fragile support system that is taking care of these boys. He didn’t live with them, he didn’t bring them food consistently, but he was their father. I only saw him a few times in 2005 and we never formally met, but long conversations with Sipho and visits to an empty fridge at his brother’s house this year affirmed my feelings for the man who told Sipho’s cousin, “He wouldn’t have died if Molly had been here.” But he was, in the end, their father.

A few weeks ago Anele faced another difficulty. It turns out that the District department of education translated The Sunday Times article about Testing Hope into Xhosa and put it on the district wide grade 10 Xhosa exam as a comprehension exercise. When Anele sat down to take the exam, he was confronted with his brother’s story. What makes it worse was that 7 of the 10 questions were about Sipho. One asked about their parents’ divorce. Number 6 asked if Sipho was a role model or set a good example for Anele. Number 7 asked why you thought Anele failed grade 10 twice before. I can only imagine what it must have felt like for Anele sitting in that classroom, reading over this test. He went to the teacher and asked her, “What is this?” She had not reviewed the exam in advance and her only answer was, “I don’t know.” I heard from another teacher usually the school picks up the exams from the district and gets them to teachers a day in advance to look over, but for some reason the school didn’t pick up the exams early enough this time. I don’t know if that is necessarily true. Either way, if you give a class an exam, I would think a teacher would take 5 minutes to skim it over quickly. Or at least say to the boy, stop writing, I will figure this out. Something?

On one level, I am pleased that the district office is including stories about the township so that students can read of their own experiences in an exam. I just wish someone – a teacher, a district curriculum advisor, anyone, would have thought twice before sticking that paper in front of Anele. The week after, he told me people were still coming up to him. Classmates who said that they wrote that he was doing drugs. (And just to think of how many classmates, there are 11 grade 10 classes at the school this year.) Neighbors who heard from their children about Sipho and his family and were asking more questions.

I am lucky enough to know people who know people and my friend Dylan called the head of curriculum in the district office. The man felt terrible that Anele had to go through such a thing and mentioned that he wanted to at least call him and apologize. I want to make sure, also, that this doesn’t affect his grade. Nothing has happened yet on the department’s end. And for Anele, something worse has overwhelmed this incident all together.

The funeral will be in Transkei on Saturday, not Cape Town. Anele said I should come to visit them when they get back, so I’ll see them next week. When these things occur, they inevitably bring back memories of other people and today I miss Sipho more than I have in a long time. Sometimes I do wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had to leave in early 2006. I know he is not my responsibility, but I do wonder, especially now that I am back. Is it a small piece of guilt that I left or confusion that I am back, now for a year, possibly staying for another one, and yet I couldn’t stay when he needed me. We cannot use logic to explain these things, nor can we think that our single presence or power will determine whether one lives or dies, and yet I do know that my presence here does mean a lot for many – including myself. I now wonder who is going to pay for school clothes next year and groceries next week and whether their mother will move back into their house.

There is much more than sadness here lately though. New ideas, new opportunities, new change.

The summer after my first year of college, I interned at the White House. This summer, my students Amanda and Noluyanda both have internships. Amanda is working at Shikaya, a human rights and democracy education organization that works with teachers to develop young people who are responsible, critical thinking, and active democratic citizens. Noluyanda is working for the Western Cape Network on Violence Against Women. (A thank you to Bulelwa and Dylan for helping with internship opportunities.) Yesterday she went to a meeting with the MEC of Social Development for the province. Both girls are being paid through a generous donation from Eileen and Larry Kugler, who came to South Africa in July, and my friend Tom’s mother, who visited from the UK in October.

I have kept myself busy with continued Testing Hope outreach and some freelance writing. I had a great trip to Pretoria to do some work with the U.S. Embassy. We had workshops and screenings for 40 teachers in Pretoria and then went to Nelspruit, the capital of Mpumalanga province, and ended up with 95 teachers on a Saturday. 95 was a bit overwhelming, but it was really exciting to see that much energy and conversation and activity stimulated because of my work.

I will probably be in South Africa another year. I am letting this journey and this time abroad run its natural course and seeing where it will take me. Now I am fundraising and doing some pre-production for a new documentary and outreach program on students’ experiences in the xenophobia crisis in May. This time I am not going it alone, but partnering with Shikaya who will run an extensive outreach campaign. which will include a study guide and workshops for teachers on how to use the film in the classroom. As a filmmaker you are not always sure your work will be seen, much less have an impact and it is exciting to start a project knowing the potential for both.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dispatch: South Africa for Obama

Well it has been a while since my last dispatch and there is certainly much to write about -- apparently causing controversy in the district department of education, upsetting a few Afrikaans women in Pretoria who think SA needs to move past apartheid already, and having an article about the film turn up on a grade 10 isiXhosa exam -- something that was actually not to be celebrated, but caused Sipho's brother much pain. But those are for thinking about later in the week. Today is Obama day. I am wearing my pins -- it is as close as I can get to participating today and a moment here where I actually feel like announcing that I am American. I must say I am impressed with and jealous of so many of you who are so active this election season -- my dear cousin Rachel in Florida who hopped on a plane from San Francisco a month ago for an adventure she could not imagine; my lawyer friends Brooke and Alex who are spending a few days in St. Louis doing voter protection work, Thea who has spent plenty weekend hours in the NYC office, and too many more of you to count and that I don't know about. I must say it has been difficult to experience this moment from afar.

But I want to tell you taht South Africa loves Obama. This morning on the radio, the DJ said, "Well today is Obama day." It is not just election day in the U.S., it is Obama day. The elections have been on the news, in political cartoons and mixed in conversations here for the past several weeks, this morning SABC did a show on how the new president, no matter who it is, will handle relations with Africa. But one of my favorite things about living here is that the newspapers post their headlines so as you drive down the street you can see what's in the news. Today, all the papers have one Obama headline -- and I must say, I am not too sure how my grad school professors would feel about this because these papers are not really maintaining objectivity as they go. "Yes Obama Can," is my favorite of the day. I have yet to see a posting about McCain, although he is featured in the articles. But it is pretty clear where this country stands -- well, most people.

I wanted to share a few of these with you, so attached are photos of my favorite headlines as well as a few political cartoons -- one from Friday of McCain and Palin and one from today which says in Afrikaans "Here comes Obama."

Think of me as you watch the returns, I'll be up tomorrow morning at 2 a.m. watching the returns on CNN thanks to my friends Louise and Simon who have a gorgeous 3 and a half week old daughter and cable.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dispatch: Man Down

Wow. I feel confused, a bit saddened and deeply questioning. I write all of that with a caveat. I am a foreigner in South Africa, I am active in so many ways, but in many others I can just be an observer. But having lived here for quite a while, being the talkative and questioning observer that I am, I have learned a great deal about politics. Several months ago I had a conversation with former Umkhonto we Sizwe members (armed wing of the ANC) who said they don’t like Jacob Zuma, the President of the ANC and now presumptive President of the country, and don’t want to vote for him, but then also say if they don’t vote, what did they spend years in the struggle fighting for? Last week I was in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of KwaZulu Natal where Zuma is from and has a huge following, where his trial at the Magistrate’s Court was held, where a judge threw out the corruption charges on procedural grounds. There, the man who took me out to a few high schools for screenings explained why he believes Zuma is a great man and will make a great President, why Zuma’s rape trial was a plot, and gave a cultural explanation as to why Zuma told a court that taking a shower after sex would prevent him from contracting HIV. I don’t judge, I listen. In that way, you get to hear everything.

But in the last 48 hours, things in South Africa have been turned upside down. The headlines today are dramatic: OUT! How Mbeki was toppled, Thabo Mbeki: Judgment Day, Mbeki: A Dream Destroyed, Thabo’s Shame, The Anatomy of a ‘Coup’ What follows is a mix of “It’s not a good day for the country,” “Opposition parties condemn ANC move,” “Wish come true for new ANC leadership,” You can guess from this that Thabo Mbeki has been forced to resign as President of South Africa. In a vote last week by the ANC National Executive Committee, they officially voted to ask him to step down. The ANC Secretary General is quoted saying that, “[Mbeki] did not display any shock or any depression, he welcomed the news and agreed that he is going to participate in the process and the formalities.” Who welcomes that kind of news? Perhaps he was stealing himself. Tension between Mbeki and Zuma has been building for years, got stronger when Zuma was elected President of the ANC in January and Mbeki may have known that this was inevitable once the court last week threw out corruption charges against Zuma on procedural grounds and then implied that Mbeki’s government was meddling in the case.

Is Mbeki really that bad a president that he should be kicked out like this? That the democratic process, which would have led to elections and a Zuma victory in March, had to be usurped? Well, as my friend Louise reminds me, many people don’t like Mbeki – he is aloof, an intellectual, not the “man of the people” that Zuma is. His positions on AIDS were egregious and devastating – rejecting the benefits of ARVs, implying that garlic and lemons were a cure, that it was a plot against Africa by the pharmaceutical industry. And his friendship with Mugabe, a friendship from struggle days, clouded his ability to act swiftly and condemn Mugabe, proclaim crisis in the country, after the elections in Zimbabwe earlier this year.

And yet I sigh. In fact, the line that made me the saddest was not hearing that he would not be President of the country, but was a line in the New York Times yesterday – that the ANC may ask Mbeki to leave the party – lose his membership to a party he has belonged to since he was 14, for 52 years. This to a man whose father Govan was tried and imprisoned on Robben Island for 23 years with Mandela, who himself went into exile when he was 20 and was groomed by the iconic Oliver Tambo for his leadership in the party. These are not Jacob Zuma’s struggle credentials – he was on Robben Island for 10 years himself – but they are deep ties to a party and a country I am sure he loves.

Most of my feelings towards Zuma stem from a simple statement he made after he was acquitted of rape, in a big trial a couple years ago. The woman was HIV positive and they did not use a condom. He said his reasons for taking a shower right after sex were to minimize his chances of contracting AIDS. That a man who was such a following could spread these untruths across a country that is plagued by AIDS is what I find most upsetting. If I were a South African, then there might be more.

I wonder what kind of President Zuma will make, but I also worry about his supporters. Those like Julius Malema, head of the ANC Youth League who, proclaiming that Jacob Zuma will be President announced, “Any force in our way we will eliminate. We are on a mission here. We will crush you. It doesn’t matter who you are, even if you are in the ANC.” This was a few months after Malema said that he would “kill for Zuma.” He said that his comment was misunderstood. I’m not sure how. But now, it is this. I can’t be angry, just confused at the turn of events.

The actions of the last 48 hours makes me think that South Africa is fulfilling the worst stereotype the West has of African countries that gain democracy and then don’t know what to do with it and subsequently collapse within it – turn into dictatorships, eject leaders without following the democratic processes they have created. South Africa is not collapsing any time soon. But it does make me think twice about how we all perceive democracy, what it means to people here, and also what it means to us in the U.S. I think we reflect more, care more only as those essential pieces of democracy that we value are at risk of disappearing.

In the past couple weeks, I have continuously gone back to what a South African friend has said. He thinks that people here believe in democracy and proclaim proudly that they live in a democratic country. They know that means an independent judiciary, a free press, and free and fair elections. But they don’t necessarily know why these things, the free press, the independent judiciary, and democratic processes are central elements of what makes a democracy work, why they are important and must be maintained and valued. And that leads to questioning – of the loyalty and actions of judges, of the words and drawings of journalists and political cartoonists. We can make a comparison to home -- George W. Bush has an approval rating of around 25%. Millions want him out of office yesterday. Yet we wait. We know we have a 4-year election cycle, we are in the midst of a tough campaign, we know that no matter how we feel about Bush, we have to wait until November for elections and this President that most of us cannot bear will be our President until January. Could the Zuma camp not have waited too?

What was going to be the subject of this latest dispatch was also democracy – was about a free press and political cartoons. Two weeks ago Sunday brought the publication of a very controversial cartoon by the cartoonist Zapiro. Ever since Zuma’s rape trial, Zapiro has drawn him with a showerhead coming out of the top of his head. In this particular cartoon, he is unbuckling his pants, the top of his butt is showing, and his cronies – Malema from the Youth League, the ANC Secretary General, the head of the South African Communist Party and the head of COSATU, the trade union are holding down a woman. She is labeled Justice and Zuma is getting ready to rape her. The ANC Secretary General is pictured saying, “Go for it Boss.” There were outcries from the Zuma camp. Malema cried, “If he is so disrespectful now, what kinds of things will he do when Zuma is president?!” Zuma may sue Zapiro and has sued journalists before. Other people quoted in a newspaper hear wrote, its about time, this is exactly how I feel, who also say if this cartoon were written in words it would not be controversial. But Zuma and his camp are upset. Do they forget that with democracy comes freedom to criticize those in power? Are we simply supposed to criticize behind closed doors? A week later, the same cartoon appeared in the Mail & Guardian, but this time Zuma was talking, “Before we start, let me just say that we respect you.” Yes, these cartoons made a big statement, they were certainly controversial, but within the realm of democracy, they are should be drawn and discussed. Not silenced.

My roommate just said she thinks the best thing would be if this led to a split in the ANC. To a new party forming. New debate, more discussion, a new life for the party of the struggle perhaps. Tonight I will go and watch Mbeki’s State of the Nation. There will likely be an acting President appointed in the next few days, and elections moved up so that Zuma can take his place soon. I will continue to watch it all unfold. An interesting time, no doubt, to live here and have a front row seat to all of this.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Dispatch: Tired Hearts

I am coming home for 3 weeks next week. I am, of course, excited to see family and friends (and some of you) but I am also looking forward to a break. I am overwhelmed. If only deep breathing would help I’d be fine, but what causes this feeling will not quickly go away tomorrow, the root causes will probably not go away ever. Today on the radio, I heard an add for a children’s hospital and at the end a child says, “Have a heart, give to children in need.” I have a heart. It is a big one, a generous one, and a tired one.

Mongamo, Babalwa, Noluyanda, Amanda, Sandile, Mabhuti, Phila, Sithembele. Those are the eight former students, some from Nyanga some from my Creative Arts Workshop (CAW) in Khayelitsha, who are on my immediate radar. But I am having lunch with two more from the CAW tomorrow, two stunning boys who I feel guilty about because I have not spent any time with them since I arrived in January. There are two others who have appeared out of the woodwork in the last 3 days, punched me in the stomach with their news, and left me filled with questions and of course dreams of deep pockets. But while some people may think that money alone will help these kids, save these kids, ensure their bright future, it is so much more than that. There are many questions. How do you decide which person deserves an investment? And how do you ensure that they make the commitment? And sometimes, how did I become responsible for so much.

So what’s on my mind, what’s overwhelming me lately? Lest you think all is sad today, what is also making me smile? I’ll just tell you about these kids and you can decide. (I have put the names of the students in bold, but also the names of those who have supported them and me in this journey. There are certainly more and I thank you too.)

Mongamo recently got a spot in the residence at University of the Western Cape. He moves in today. (Smiling) Over the break, he worked for three weeks at Woolworth’s (for those of you in the U.S. it is not a five and dime store!) the company that gave him his bursary. This bursary was made possible through the efforts of my friend and sometimes work colleague, Dylan and his incredible fiancée Jennie who works at Woolworths and has given Mongamo incredible support. It was not a completely thrilling three weeks, but it was his first real work experience. With his bursary, his focus on his studies and his mentor at the company, I can check the big things off my list. I of course do not sit in his classes or take his exams and cannot ensure his passing in applied mathematics or stats or maths or anything else. But I can believe in him and he knows that.

Babalwa just completed two and a half years of a mechanical engineering degree and now needs to find a training position for a year of practical experience. She has been trying for a month, her school sent out CV’s on her behalf, but nothing yet. So yesterday, Dylan asked her to come to his office – where I also work. Dylan, in what will surely be helpful for him, but which is so generous and fills my heart, is hiring Babalwa to do admin work for him for the next few weeks, until she gets a position. Her first job. I think it is good that I will be away for three weeks, to let her try this and get her feet wet without me watching.

Noluyanda lives off campus in a house with 9 other girls, including Amanda from CAW. They have two classes together even though they are studying different things, study together some, cook together some. She is happy and almost sorted. Her scholarship (which she and Babalwa received because of my film and Dylan’s efforts) finally paid the university for tuition, but neglected to pay her for accommodation, food, books etc. Dylan lent her money for rent a couple months ago and I paid for this month. We are actively writing letters and making calls so she can get her funds and her independence. Amanda has a bursary for her education degree; she is committed to teaching for 4 years after she completes her diploma and just moved out of her house for the first time. She is getting used to being away from her family, cooking for herself, being on her own. Whether an hour by taxi and train or eight hours by car, leaving home is always a transition.

Sandile is Amanda’s older brother. He has big dreams and renewed confidence since I knew him a few years ago. He was always confident, but he truly sees his future. Sandile has developed a great concept for a magazine for high school students to inspire them to think about their futures. The magazine will include articles and interviews about higher education and career choices as well as offer resources and guidance to students as they select their subjects and look forward to their careers and the outside world. It will give them what he says he never had. Sandile wants to be a journalist and thanks to Vernon Rose, who I met because of his work with American university study abroad programs, Sandile got an interview at Bush Radio, which calls itself the Mother of Community Radio in Africa. They play great music, but also programs on health and education and arts and human rights and are an important voice in this community. Sandile got himself an internship which he starts September 1. Right now, we don’t know if they give him money for transport or any kind of stipend, but we have a month to sort that out. For now, after months of hanging out at home, Sandile will be paid eight rand an hour as a check out clerk at a grocery store. I am happy, he is happy because he will be busy and have something to do. That could be that if Sandile didn’t want more. And he should want more and I love that he wants more. He wants to go to university to be a journalist. Another generous friend and former co-teacher in the CAW, Kirsten, who lives in Scotland, has offered to help pay for his studies, but she, like me, isn’t rich, and he also has to get in first. So where and how? He can pay R30,000 for a year at a private college or get a very good three-year education at a local university, which we would all prefer. But will 4 months of an internship help him get in, or does he need a whole year and have to wait until 2010 to start. And does he have the patience to wait for his dreams?

Mabhuti shone in a group of upstart boys in class 12D in 2005 who were all smart and a bit brazen, but really enjoyable to teach. Mabhuti struggles at home, he lives with his grandmother and an assortment of other people, sometimes his mother too. In 2005, he told me, “For me, there is no space for me, everything is so tight together – sometimes I think I want to go away from home but I know I will lose things…I sit down and ask myself what can I do for myself so I am not suffocated.” About the education he was getting, he said, “I have never failed a grade. Sometimes I look at my reports and wonder why I passed.” He did pass Matric and started a course in accounting at Cape College, a sort of community college, but ran out of money after one semester. In the first two months of my return, Mabhuti tracked me down so he could ask if I could help him get back into school, sort out a future. There is a great school here called TSIBA, which offers a unique Foundation Year Certificate in Business Administration followed by an enriched Bachelor in Business Administration focused on Entrepreneurial Leadership – and it is free. I learned of TSIBA through Leigh Meinert who works there and now uses my film sometimes. Last week, Mabhuti and I met in the Oscar Mpetha HS parking lot where I gave him an application and information about the school. We went over it and when it is complete, I’ll go over it with him before he submits it. I gave him the application, I explained things and answered questions, but will he complete it? I remain optimistic for that and for him.

Phila was in my Creative Arts Workshop. She is my friend Max’s niece. His brother, her father, died several years ago. She struggled in school, failed Matric, but went to Cape College and receiver her equivalency. Just that will not get her much more than a job as a waitress or a shop clerk. She wants to complete a year and a half course in business management. Her sister, who dropped out of school at grade 11 and now has a child, told Phila she should just get a job, school isn’t important. What will more school get her? An opportunity for a better job or to apply to a university. South Africans have told me that this is a good next step for her. But what about money? When the last term ended in May, Phila about wanting to go back to school, but knew she couldn’t. She got a job passing out flyers about funeral insurance on Saturdays, she interviewed as a secretary. And kept thinking about school. But when she told me that school cost R1500 a term, I couldn’t believe that that was all that was keeping her from a better future. I told Dylan casually that I was thinking of paying and he said I should send him an email and we could raise that money from friends. I sent the same email to both Emily, who started the CAW with me, and Kirsten. When I spoke to the college, it turned out Phila had past due funds, and that a term is actually R3800. So I paid the past due funds so she could start and we have begun to raise funds. As I said before, money is not enough. On Saturday, Phila and I are going to Khayelitsha to meet her family on her father’s side – her aunt, her older cousin who is my friend, and her grandmother. We are writing up a contract so she will have accountability, know what is expected of her and know that she has support. Phila failed Matric. Am I 100 percent sure that she will succeed in this program? No, I can’t be. Does that make me hesitant in asking my friends to raise money for her? A bit. Do I believe in her and what she wants? Yes.

Sithembele was Sipho’s best friend. He has beautiful handwriting and while teachers say they don’t have favorites, he was always one of mine. He also was a production assistant, sometimes translator, and very good soundman on the film. He passed Matric and is now a griller at Spur, a Denny’s type meat restaurant chain. Last year, he spent six months working as a trainer with youth for the Amy Biehl Foundation but the job ended. He would be happy to do another job like that for the time being. When I talked to him last week he said, “I’m frustrated Molly. I can’t be a griller for the rest of my life. I want to go to school. There are people with lower Matric scores than me at university.” And when we hung out on Saturday, we talked about how he isn’t sure what he wants to major in; he wants to go to a career fair to learn about the possibilities. As far as I am concerned, Sithembele MUST go back to school. Sithembele has promise, Sithembele wants more. So for now, I am looking for a career fair. Deciding what is next is first, getting in is second, for now, the money doesn’t have to overwhelm, just the question of whether he will get there.

I had that conversation with Sithembele on Saturday when I hung out with him and Mongamo and Sandile. We ate meat, had a couple beers, talked for a few hours and watched Manchester United play Kaiser Chiefs. It was a great afternoon, I was able to breathe and feel a bit less overwhelmed. The next day I hopped a plane to Port Elizabeth for two days of screenings and then I got a call from a former student. She lost her job that she has had for almost two years. She said she knew they wanted her out and were just trying to find a way. I don’t know. She is four months pregnant and her boyfriend wants none of it. She is happy about the baby. Happy about “having someone to love me unconditionally. When I am down, he will look at me and say, it’s all right mommy.” She said she is opening a hair salon in Delft, I have no idea how that venture will go but her confidence is contagious. She, like everyone else, also wants to go back to school, just a business management program. Can I print out information about the program, she asked. I told her I would bring it by. “And one more thing.” she said. “Molly, can you bring me a book?” A book?! Not money, nothing more than a book. I got off the phone and cried. Today I’ll drop off two books at her house when I go to Nyanga for my weekly visit with Sipho’s brothers.

Monday, when I turned on my phone after a screening, there was another text. This one from Rose who was in my CAW for a month, left and then rejoined several months later. She had a child in the interim, not that we asked her to leave, she just disappeared. Her text:

Hi molly its Rose. Since my mom passed last year no one is interested in my studies and now I owe the college where I study a maximum fee of R2000 which they wont allow me to write my final examination you are my only hope out of this. Since you know I have represented Western Province Netball this year the same thing happened this and also I have financial problem please molly I really need you now. See you soon.

So what do I do? I haven’t seen Rose in a year, and then it was only for an hour, after not seeing her for another year and a half. I do not know how she is doing in school, I didn’t know she was playing netball for the province, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. It is painful to hear all of this, painful to have to prioritize, to acknowledge one’s limits and also be able to say, look, I have no idea what’s going on in your life so I can’t just give you money. And from my position of privilege, some understand better than others that the fact that I have more money than them doesn’t mean that I have tons of money. In fact most of these kids never ask for any.

Yesterday I didn’t know what to do. Today I am a bit more settled. I know that I cannot help everyone, I cannot save everyone. I can be an advocate but not a bank. I can find out what Sandile’s options are for school and take Sithembele to a career fair and counsel him on what seems best. I can edit Mabhuti’s application essay, call the bank for Noluyanda, and see if Mongamo needs blankets for his new room. I can bring Amanda a pizza for dinner and a picture to make her feel more at ease.

But I am just me. And today when Patrick, a refugee from the DRC who washes cars in the parking lot at my gym and helps me with my French sometimes, who lost his shack home in the xenophobic violence in May and just needs to find some food and a shelter for the night for himself and his one and a half year old son and 3 month old baby, asked if I could help him out, approached me because he said he knew the kind of person I was, I said no and that was easy– because I just had no cash in my pocket. So tomorrow I’ll bring him money – but how much? R20 is just $2.60 and R50 is $6.60. Then again, I don’t want to set a precedent.

So today, that’s what is on my mind and my heart.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Dispatch: The Murder Capital

Yesterday I went to the murder capital of South Africa. I find myself there often, at least once a week, took my parents there a few weeks ago and several of you have been and didn’t even know it. If a personal murder capital is the place where more people you know have been killed than any where else, then it is my murder capital. Between the time that I left Cape Town in January 2006 and when I returned for a short visit in July 2007, three of my former students, one of them a close friend, have been murdered – first Luvuyo, then Sipho, then just a week later Sivuyile. When I left there were 48 students in class 12A. Today there are 45. People would say they were gangsters, I would say they were my students, I would say they tried, while I only talked to Sipho extensively about the future, I would say they all wanted more from life. Is it too much to say they were victims of circumstance? I don’t think so, but I’ll let you decide.

As you may have already guessed, it is Nyanga that is, for the second year in a row, the murder capital of South Africa. The latest crime statistics were on the front page of Tuesday’s paper. South Africa is the fourth most violent country in the world. And then on page 7 in big bold letters – NYANGA MURDER CAPITAL. 303 murders reported in the past 11 months. So what does it mean to live in the murder capital? I would think it must affect your psyche to be labeled such. To have the place you live, where you grew up, your home, splashed across newspapers as the most violent place in the land.

When I asked Anele, Sipho’s brother, if he had heard the news, he had and it didn’t seem to surprise him one bit. “I think murder is the welcome note to Nyanga,” he said. The welcome note. Gangs and drugs are rampant. The police have a lot of work to do here and are quickly defending themselves, saying they could solve the problem with 85 more cops on the force. But it seems the citizens of Nyanga are not surprised. Just like I know that the neighborhood I grew up in is safe, they know that there’s is not. So maybe I am making too much of this, over thinking the label’s impact on the community. It certainly makes other people want to avoid Nyanga. But I also believe that these labels diminish the community.

As I write this I am wondering how my mother will respond, knowing that I regularly travel in and out of this space. I hope that since she has been there, knows and loves people who live there, that she will read this and remember what is good about Nyanga rather than begin to worry. I have never experienced violence in Nyanga, never felt unsafe, rather I, in my whiteness and Americanness and even with my camera, have been embraced.

So tomorrow I will go and pick up Anele and Siya for a movie and next Saturday, I will bring some visitors from the U.S. to meet people, visit Nyanga and eat meat. (If you are reading this and coming to visit South Africa soon, I hope I have not made you afraid.) Then I will go back to Rondebosch, I will return to the suburbs. And they will stay in the murder capital. What does that mean?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

POSTSCRIPT - Dispatch: Few Words and Testing Hope Press

I wanted to write a quick postscript for those of you who were wondering about Brian, my friend from Zimbabwe. I saw him yesterday and it turns out he does live in Du Noon, an informal settlement where two Somalians were killed on Thursday and where the violence started in Cape Town. On most weekdays anjd Saturdays, Brian can be found selling his wares in front of a set of shops near my flat and is well known by people who frequent the shops. When I saw him yesterday, he told me that a family who lives in Rondebosch has taken him in -- the husband is a British Airways pilot who has always been friendly with Brian. As we stood there and talked for 20 minutes, several older women came by to ask how he was, say they were worried about him. Brian is not the only one experiencing this generosity -- my friend Louise said that her partner's friends have taken in a young Zimbabwean who lives in the township of Philippi. I hear these stories and see the huge relief effort and try to feel a bit optimistic ... I saw several kids this weekend, all of whom met me in my side of town instead of being picked up as I usually do. It was Mongamo who initially said, let's meet somewhere safe. He looked terribly tired when we hung out and I asked what was wrong and he said he is just so sad... Nyanga was chaos on Friday and bullets on Friday night, and he is simply so sad that this is happening in his country.

In more positive news, Testing Hope has been getting a lot of great press in papers here and I want to share a couple of the articles.

One was in the Sunday Times today -- a nice profile of the students:

Another is from Friday's Star newspaper (also national) about the film's implications for education in SA --

Sending out love and hopes for calm.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Dispatch: Few Words

It seems I would be remiss in not addressing what is happening in South Africa right now, and probably making headlines in your local paper. I’m not an expert, but everyone and anyone who is living here feels palpably the impact and devastation of the xenophobic violence. If you look up Xenophobia on you get a standard definition, but before the definition comes two Sponsored Links – advertisements to lure us to another website. The Xenophobia page on offers us two:

Xenophobia Photos
Watch the Flames of Hate photos with commentary at The Times

Rules Losing Belly Fat
Lose 9 lbs every 11 Days By Following these 10 Idiot Rules.

I don’t know what is more troubling and strange – that someone perceives a connection between xenophobia and belly fat or that The Times is actively promoting their devastating photos of the latest terror here. I am not stupid, I know the Times is a business, I know they need to promote, but I was not expecting to find them with my definition – then again, these raw pictures do define xenophobia.

If you choose to move forward in your exploration of xenophobia and you click on The Times link, you may see something that you have already seen. A man seated on the ground, on fire, burning to death and two policemen trying to figure out what to do. As a student of South Africa I remember reading about the necklace killings in the early nineties, one piece of the black on black violence that raged in some townships, where people would fill a tire with gasoline, throw it around someone, light it on fire, and burn the person to death. This, I had thought, was this country’s past.

To me, this seems to have escalated so quickly – the majority of the violence has taken place in the Gauteng province, but has moved on to four other provinces, including here in Cape Town. Since the attacks began on May 11, 42 foreigners have been killed in Gauteng, 27,000 have been displaced and 400 people have been arrested. Mozambiqan miners have worked here for years. I read yesterday that the governement of Mozambique is organizing to accommodate a mass influx of people, packing busses and fleeing home. Thousands are awaiting busses to go back to Zimbabwe. I just read of one man who moved here 13 years ago from Zimbabwe, just got his South African citizenship last year, but his neighbors said, he must go, because he is of a different tribe. Here in Cape Town, two Somalis were killed last weekend and another was killed last night, in the first major riots that flared up in Du Noon, an informal settlement here.

So how does frustration turn to anger and then violence so quickly? How do community meetings and discussions turn to mobs? How does confusion build?
I have seen too many pictures of the bleeding, the injured, the looting, the burning, mobs carrying sticks and machetes and knives, the dying. So why? Resentment against migrants who come to Gauteng to work has been brewing for years. “They are taking our jobs,” one hears over and over again. Is that rational for this brutality? In higher spheres, some people say that Mbeki should have spoken out about Mugabe and the elections in Zimbabwe sooner and that is a factor.

These foreigners are from all over – not just Zimbabwe and Mozambique, but Zambia, Malawi, and others. As they plead with people to stop the violence, politicians and others often say, these people come from countries that opened their arms to us during the struggle. When our people needed to escape the apartheid regime, to go into exile, our neighboring countries embraced us, often at their own risk. We must remember that, embrace them. I do not argue with that but I do think that it must be hard to remember history when food prices are rising, when you are hungry, jobless, struggling to make ends meet, maybe living in an informal settlement, maybe didn’t get the education you deserve. That is not an excuse or a rationalization. I do not excuse this ugliness, this brutal behavior and it makes no sense to me, but one can think that those factors might have been a seed.

Know as I paint this bleak picture that people are upset, angry, confused about how this could be happening in their country, how blacks could be killing other blacks because of tribalism, how humans could be treating other humans with such disregard – there was a vigil tonight in front of Parliament, people gathering to mourn, to reflect, to turn to their leaders seeking quick action to bring a stop to this. Sunday is Africa Day, it celebrates the unity of the continent, the founding of what is now the African Union. How will South Africa celebrate this year?

At my gym parking lot, I often talk to Patrick, who is from the DRC and works there washing cars. Yesterday I asked if he and his friends are afraid. “No,” he nonchalantly replied. “We cannot live in fear.” But, he also said, that this violence doesn’t make sense. Some of you have met my friend Brian, a law student from Zimbabwe who has lived here for several years making beaded crafts. He stays in an informal settlement about 20 minutes away. I didn’t see him today. I am sure that he is fine, but I will look for him tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dispatch: Moments From A Visit

It has been over six weeks since my last dispatch. I can’t honestly say it was to give you a break from reading and must admit it feels strange not to have been writing, although there has certainly been writing, just not of this kind. I recently submitted my first piece for, a website and magazine for teachers in the U.S., continue teaching my university course, have moved and moved again and will hopefully be settled in a new flat by the end of the month, but for the last few weeks, life has been wonderfully about visitors.

Thea, one of my oldest friends from high school who many of you know, and her friend John arrived in Cape Town a few weeks ago. We had a stunning trip through the Karoo and the Eastern Cape – we drove through stunning mountain passes, were chased by baboons (safely ensconced in the car, but if you haven’t seen them run, baboons are scary), slept on the edge of the ocean, saw two elephants become friends at a watering hole, and rode horses (after some hesitation on my part!) 5 days of stunning driving, lots of ostriches, good food, then back to Cape Town. We celebrated Thea’s birthday at my favorite restaurant in Kalk Bay by the water where the staff sang to her in English and Xhosa. A bit sick and plied with celebratory wine, I found it one of the most fantastic moments of our journey.

What was incredibly special for me was introducing Thea and John to my old students. A few days after their arrival, we walked around Nyanga with Babalwa, Noluyanda and Mongamo and then had lunch, joined by Sipho’s brother Anele. John brought lots of clothes for Noluyanda’s boyfriend, who recently lost everything when his shack burned down, and Babalwa was thrilled to have some new blazers and dresses from Thea. The next day, Sunday, we all went to Mzoli’s Place with Sandile, Mongamo and his friends who are also my old students, as well as my friends Tim and Jeff. Mzoli’s Place is hard to describe -- a combination butchery, braai place (bbq), people gather to eat, to hang out, to drink, to dance – Thea says it reminds her of a huge block party and there are thousands of people who go every weekend. Tables are crowded outside under a big awning, people are everywhere, you can barely find a table and tons more are hanging out on the street and outside the overhang. You go pick out your meat from a counter, bring it to the braai where they grill it and then call your number. I like to buy a loaf of bread too – and of course most people walk over to a local liquor store and bring in some beer. The music plays loudly – mostly Kwaito –- which is essentially South African hip hop, some American rap and hip hop, and everyone is dancing. Sometimes it even involves proposals -- I met a man named Sibongile who wants to marry me. It is here where the Western norms of the perfect body are upended and this man likes my “African body.” Thea was like a sister apparently, he said, but I was wife material. No date set for the nuptials, but this did get us a table and some chairs after an hour of waiting. He wanted to know how my parents would feel about me marrying a Xhosa man and I explained that he wouldn’t have to pay lobola or bride price because I am Jewish. He said he would still marry me even though the Jews colonized some of South Africa – I corrected him there and moved over to talk to a friend. I took his number because what else can you do, and he said that if I didn’t call him, he would know that fate had it that we are not meant to be. (In case you are still wondering, there was no phone call!)

Thea, for those of you who don’t know, is also a graphic designer and did all the designing for my film – website, invitations, flyers, DVD case, study guide, and continues to do more than a friend should in this capacity. (Shameless plug, if you are looking to hire one.) Like many of you, she has been with me on this journey intimately and through her work and the many times she has watched the film feels some connection to my students. These efforts many of my friends and family have made to truly connect and relate to these people on video, in my far away life, have been extraordinarily meaningful. People who have come into this space, either through the film and stories or directly by taking the N2 highway, getting off at Borcherd’s Quarry Road exit and heading into Nyanga, mean so much to me. To that end, I tell you this story –

For the past few months, a great University of Connecticut student named Tim has been coming to Nyanga with me once a week to tutor Anele in math. I usually talk to Siya or sit in a corner and read while they work. Tim has been really generous with himself and his time and I know that the relationship with Anele has been meaningful for both of them. Unfortunately, Tim left SA at the end of April, so last week was my first tutoring session without him – luckily I had Thea (John left a few days earlier). I immediately missed Tim when Anele showed me fraction equations that required cross multiplication, but it is amazing how some of that high school math sticks in your brain.

Before we dove in, Thea and I went outside to see Anele’s new room. For the past year, his cousin-sister (an expression used here for a cousin who is like a sister, also cousin-brother) has been living in the shack in back, and in the last few weeks, Anele and Sandiswa switched. She now sleeps in Sipho’s old room and Anele now has the shack in back as a bedroom. Siya who is 13 is back in their old room and no longer occasionally sleeps with his older brother, which I know has given him comfort. I had never been in back – Anele has a big bed, an old TV with no sound, a bucket on a table to catch the rain that drips in, a side table with a notebook and a framed picture of me and Sipho that I gave Sipho when I left. We talked about him briefly, and then as we were walking out, Thea, ever so gently, said to Anele, “I really wish I could have met your brother. I have heard so many great things about him.” It seems to me that when your brother was involved with drugs, with crime, was murdered by gangsters in a neighborhood filled with crime, people don’t often come to you and say, I wish I could have known him, I hear he was special. But those words are so important to hear, always, and what I know for sure is that a person cannot simply ever be defined as good or bad. While I spent the rest of the afternoon doing math on one couch, Thea sat across from us talking with Siya, looking through a photo album of his and Sipho’s pictures, listening and learning about his life. Now that she and John are gone, I go over our trip in my mind, and lots of our adventures make me smile, but this one always makes me pause.

With friends gone, now I am back to work, working on film outreach and planning my last class at the university for Saturday. I graded my students’ first assignments and was very pleased with most of their work. (I was also reminded of how cumbersome grading can be!) They wrote lesson plans in groups and then had to teach them, and write a paper about the process. Several people did really extraordinary work – high school teachers who showed Freedom Writers and asked students to write articles to local police chiefs about gangs and drugs in their communities, primary school teachers who showed a movie about a dog at a fire station and brought in a fire man, and science teachers who showed Flushed Away and did lessons on sewage and water. Of course there are those students who turned in one or two page papers, who didn’t completely get the elements of the lesson plan I was hoping for, but they will have another chance in their final project.

And that brings me to the end of this dispatch. With class Saturday and my visit next week to Joburg for a screening at the Development Bank of South Africa and a visit to the… Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls … there will no doubt be a new dispatch soon.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Dispatch: Welcome to Fort Hare

Well it’s the end of Easter Monday – at least on this side of the world. My Easter yesterday was sunny and quiet. I bought a card from a man on the street in front of my video store. When I asked where he was from he said, “Rhodesia.” “Not Zimbabwe?” I replied. Most of the men who sell crafts in the intersection near my flat and this row of stores are all from Zimbabwe, but this was the first one who said Rhodesia – and he couldn’t have been any older than me, so clearly grew up in Zimbabwe. His answer to my question, No, Rhodesia. He continued, explaining that this Zimbabwe has too many elections and too many disappointments.

For those of you who don’t have a 12-page insert in your newspaper about the upcoming elections, March 29 is election day in Zimbabwe, and a question looms, will this be a referendum on Robert Mugabe, will one of his opponents be able to win, or will things continue to be the same. To be, according to this man, a disappointment.

This is not the real moment that I wanted to share with you in this dispatch, just one of many small moments that seem to continuously define my time here.

Rather, it is a visit to the University of Fort Hare that I made two weeks ago that had quite an impact on me. Fort Hare is historic – it is the oldest historically Black university in Southern Africa. It has produced such leaders as Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, and even Robert Mugabe.

I was invited by Scott Chiverton, a fellow American who is here on a State Department fellowship working in the education faculty at the university, to screen the film. The first screening was at the East London campus. This campus actually used to belong to Rhodes University, based in Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape, and is therefore more diverse than its counterpart, the original campus two hours away in Alice.

The audience was third and fourth year students and several faculty members – Black, Colored, White. I have learned that no screening is the same. Whatever questions I anticipate, there are always unexpected moments – moments of surprise, moments of anger, moments when I realize how wonderful it is to create something and have people respond. The racial dynamics when we walked in to set up were stark – a reminder of my Afro American Studies class in high school – White students on one side, Black on the other. We moved seats around, into the middle of the room like a theatre, but still most Black students remained at tables around the periphery. During the film, there was laughter, there was visible discomfort, there were audible sighs, there was, at times, complete silence from the audience, and when the title card came up that Noluyanda had had a baby, there was a loud, “WHAT?”

In this first of three screenings, it was a brave White student named Kim who lingers in my mind as well as the silence of many others. I saw Kim’s hand up before her tears began and she explained how privileged her childhood and life has been, how she couldn’t believe that people lived and learned this way and couldn’t believe how much she didn’t know, doesn’t know, and how much she took for granted in her own life. Surrounded by fellow White students as well Xhosa students, most of whom grew up in rural areas or townships and probably attended similarly struggling schools as Oscar Mpetha, she bravely acknowledged her advantages, her opportunities, as well as her ignorance of the lives of so many others. I would be remiss not to explain that the Xhosa students in the room didn’t say anything. Not one of them spoke –- to comment, to question, to argue. Later, a few told Scott they felt self-conscious of their English so they didn’t talk. He was not surprised at the dynamic.

The next morning we took the two-hour drive to Alice. To get to Alice, you drive through the rolling former homeland of the Ciskei – long stretches of grasses, mountains in the distance, the occasional animal, everyone from young men to older mama’s hitchhiking to work, school and town. It is beautiful. About half way between East London and Alice is King William’s Town, the home of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko and where he is buried. I was last here when I took Sipho to see Biko’s grave on our way back from filming in Noluyanda’s home village in December 2005.

The University of Fort Hare is beautiful—many old buildings, trees, a much older campus than UWC where I teach. I got a tour from an enthusiastic man who heads the international office. He told me the stories of Freedom Square, pointed out the former dormitories of Mandela and Sobukwe and spoke of the division between the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress. The University holds all of the ANC archives as well as the archives of several important people including Mandela and Govan Mbeki. There on a shelf were Mandela’s photo albums (not that I opened them!) and in front of me on a table was Mbeki’s guitar case, collaged with pieces from magazines, along with a few songs, written on napkins from his time on Robben Island. The amount of history in those rooms is profound and only emphasizes to me the power of the history of that university and this country.

We had a good crowd at the screening. There was more laughter and more engagement, more talking during the movie, than I have ever heard, but in a new and different way. Many see their lives and the lives of those they will teach on the screen. Some come from very rural Eastern Cape, they may know Ngcobo where we filmed and they may not have ever seen a city like Cape Town. As they learned of Sipho’s death there was an audible, “Jesus Christ,” from a girl who’s eyes looked like they were popping out of her head.

There were several questions about my comfort level in Nyanga – about race, language, privilege, and, of course, danger. Nyanga in what I feel is such an unfair label, won the prize of being the murder capital of South Africa in the last crime survey. Moving on, one professor spoke passionately of how they need to create not just good teachers, but social activists as well. One student asked why I didn’t tell the story of a White school and a Black school. I explained that I wanted to keep my focus small, to truly tell the story of a few students, of one school, rather than a larger comparison. He seemed satisfied, but I appreciated the question, particularly coming from this space.

The final screening was back in East London for first year students. The power of this discussion was unexpected. In this mixed class, the Xhosa students spoke out. All stood up when they spoke, just like many of my students did. One talked about how the film was a challenge to all of them to be good teachers and commit to all aspects of their students lives. Another, a 37 year old mother of five, first asked forgiveness for her English, then turned to the White students and asked them not to be afraid to go into the townships, to meet the people, to teach in the townships like I had. I used the moment as an opport5unity to emphasize that no matter who they end up teaching, they have the obligation and the power to tell them and show them about the lives of all South Africans. One woman said, “But we are not free. Apartheid is still here.” Her classmate responded, “But we are here. We are all in this room together. We have opportunity.” Here I took the opportunity to be honest about the failings of my own country, to talk about the persistent segregation in U.S. schools over fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education and how as much as we want things to move forward quickly, as much as we see some of the same injustices which plagued the country during apartheid, and the legacy of that terrible system persists, that change itself takes time.

Gives us some much needed laughs, one Xhosa guy got up to speak and first said, “In my culture, we usually don’t let women cut the ice, but because of the caliber of this conversation, its okay.” And then again there was a young White woman, the daughter of a single mother, tears in her eyes, talking about how her mom struggled but about how sheltered she was. Then she gave a caveat, “don’t think I am racist,” but, she continued, some people use apartheid as a reason not to work hard for themselves and I think it is important for people to not see themselves as victims.

There is always difficult feedback too. One professor sent me an email praising pieces of the film but finding in it a sub-text of blaming apartheid for everything and the subjects, my students, identifying as victims. He feared that an African audience would leave pitying themselves, that I am perpetuating a sense of victimhood. I was surprised, for these people are certainly not victims and do not see themselves that way. But we all look with our own eyes, approach things with our own pasts and experiences that color how we see the world. So it makes me sad and disappointed that he perceives the film in that way and I certainly hope that I am not encouraging a self-perception of victimhood, and I was upset to see the email. But I move forward, knowing my intentions, knowing the story, knowing that it is not perfect, but hoping to continue sparking the kind of dialogues I was able to engage in at the University of Fort Hare and to continue to be surprised.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Testing Hope Plug

For those of you in D.C., please tell your friends that Testing Hope will be screened on March 15 at 1:30 pm in the D.C. International Film Festival. Go to for more information. If you have friends in Madison or Miami, details on those festivals to come.

Dispatch: Prior Knowledge

Prior knowledge. Have you ever been having a conversation with someone and you start to talk about something – an issue, a person, an idea – and realize the person you are talking to doesn’t know what you are talking about – they have little familiarity with the topic or one might say, minimal prior knowledge.

I think I first learned of the term “prior knowledge”, as it relates to teaching, when I was in Houston for my Teach for America training. But sometimes as a teacher you assume, especially when teaching adults, that people know certain things, have experienced certain things.

I’ve been thinking about prior knowledge for a few weeks ago, since my first day as a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape. My course -- Comparative Education A, Film and Pedagogy. I started off by asking my students to answer a simple questionnaire – where and what do you teach, what are your goals and concerns about the course, and a start to every film class, what is your favorite movie? We went around the room of about 20 teachers and each person shared one answer. The first teacher to share – my oldest and proving to be my most challenging student – felt the need to read the answers to ALL her questions. When she got to her favorite movie, she said Generations. Anyone who has ever lived in South Africa knows about Generations. It is one of the most popular soapies (soap operas) in the country. Every night at 8 pm, thousands tune in to see the dramatic goings on of characters like Queen, Sibusiso and Jack. Generations is, as you may have gathered, a television show. It is not a movie. I took a deep breath, but instead of correcting my student, probably more than 20 years my senior, I moved to the next student. As we went around, amidst Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies and one teacher who admits to being a sucker for teacher films like Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers, at least five more people named a television show as their favorite films -- Generations, another soapie Rhythm Nation, and the popular American sitcom King of Queens. There I had it, a room full of adults, some of whom did not know the difference between a television show and a movie.

I have to admit, it hadn’t even occurred to me that the first thing I should do is discuss the difference between a television show and a movie. Why would it? It is a classroom of adults, of teachers and of course in my world, everyone goes to the movies. I make and watch documentaries, my parents go the movies almost every week and if you ask my sister what its like to rent a movie with me, she’ll tell you difficult because I usually have seen everything she wants to see.

Once the whole class had shared, I pointed out that the television shows they mentioned were not movies. But I didn’t pursue a discussion about the differences between the two. We moved on to other activities and when I went over the homework assignment –watch your favorite film and analyze it based on the main elements of film we discussed as well as any piece or theme in the film that might carry over into your curriculum -- I emphasized that they must do a movie and not a television show. (I am grading them now, a few will have to redo their papers, and again I am learning about prior knowledge, writing levels and the skills of those educating the youth of South Africa.)

I went home feeling like class had only gone okay and mulled over what needed to change. As I read over their questionnaires, I thought more about who my students are, where they come from and their journeys to get to my class. They are all working on B. Eds, at night and on Saturdays. All but one of my students are Black or Coloured. All teach in township schools and many grew up and some live now in those same townships. While I don’t know their exact ages, it seems everyone is at least 30 or older. Some are teachers because it was one of a few professions they had access to. Many were trained at colleges were not always the highest. They are children of apartheid, they own the legacy of their country’s history and as their teacher, it is a history that I must consider as I work to help them understand and experience film and think about how to bring it to their students. I sit and write this in my favorite new café, where they make a brilliant coffee and I could find the same atmosphere in a café at home. But most days that I am here, Trish, the owner, and I get into a conversation about the latest news or something we read and it generally leads to a discussion about South Africa, often about race, about the legacy, the history. It is always present, always here.

I realized that in order to teach film in their classes, I needed to make my students watch movies, experience movies, know different genres, love movies -- maybe not as much as I do. One of the first things I did on my return to Cape Town was renew my membership at the video store. So it was there, when I was looking for a movie to screen in my second class that I had my epiphany -- how many of my students had ever been to a video store? My mom took me to a library when I was very little and I still love libraries, love bookstores, love touching books, smelling books, reading the synopsis on the back. In that same way, I love lingering in a video store. I needed my students to feel that.

So I started class two by handing out index cards and asking them when they last saw a movie in the theatre, on TV and rented one from a video store, if ever. Some answers are below:

When was the last time you went to a movie theatre? What did you see?
While a few said last week, several people said years back or a very long time ago. For one man it was 1982, another woman saw Message In A Bottle in 2000, and others said a year ago.

Have you ever been to a video store? What was the last movie you rented?
More people said yes than I expected, but it was usually a long time ago. Some may have never been to a mainstream store, but rented a movie at a small spaza shop in the township – perhaps pirated DVDs. One had been but didn’t rent. Another had been but mostly watches cable now. Movies ranged from Happy Feet to Sweet November to A Dry White Season.

As I collected the index cards, I noticed that someone a new student Walker Texas Ranger was the last movie he saw which prompted our necessary discussion about the difference between films and TV shows. Finally we were all on the same page – as we moved forward, raced to see who could list the most movies in 3 minutes – winner gets a candy bar – watched some of Mad Hot Ballroom and worked in groups to think of how to use it in the classroom, I saw the energy rise, I saw the class gel. And I was excited to give them homework:
Go to a video store. Spend at least a half an hour there. Identify ten films that you haven’t seen that you think you could use in your classroom. Then write a page response about what it is like to be in a video store.

Our third class is this Saturday afternoon and I am excited to see their homework and for our lesson. As we move forward, doing our first activity with video cameras (thanks Andres!) and writing lesson plans to test out in their classrooms in the next few weeks, I will keep in mind my prior knowledge and their prior knowledge, my life experiences and there’s. Not lower my expectations or make things easier, but just consider it as I teach and present. We are all products of our experiences, our pasts, but also where we are born – from who our parents are to our neighborhoods and our schools to our country. And for me, here in South Africa, more so than, I think, at home, the impact of country looms larger.

Much is happening here – Jacob Zuma announced today that if he becomes president he will think about making a referendum to reintroduce the death penalty and racism has been all over the news with a meeting of the Black Journalists Forum that excluded Whites and a video made by White students at University of the Free State in protest to the university’s racial integration of the residences. The video depicts four white male students taking Black workers in their residence through a mock hazing process – making them swallow a bottle of beer, run a race, play rugby and then kneel and eat meat, which had been urinated upon. At the end of the video, the students say in Afrikaans, “That is what we think of integration.”

No doubt there will be more to write about soon.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dispatch: What I Don't Know

Every so often I have a moment when I realize that I know absolutely nothing. Not completely nothing, but just nothing about one subject or another – I know that my electricity went out for a few hours on Friday, but can’t explain the intricacies of the electricity crisis here; I can advise a friend on how to handle a tough work situation, but I am not with her in Mississippi, so I can’t truly see; I can look at a situation, meet a person, assess their life as if they are a new story to tell, but cannot truly know all the intricacies, no matter how many questions I ask.

This most recent moment occurred on Sunday. To start with some background, since my return, I have made a commitment – really to my friend Sipho – to spend time with his brothers, show them caring and help them in whatever small way I can. They are not him, they will not be my friends, but I truly feel in my heart that Sipho would want this, that my efforts and our time together would make Sipho smile, wherever he is. And so it is because I know Sipho would desperately want his brother Anele, now 18, to finish school, that I have made a plan to tutor Anele once a week.

A few weeks ago, we found out that Anele failed 10th grade for the second time. It came as a great surprise to him and to some of his teachers. But had the teachers been paying attention, it would have come as no surprise. Anele told me that last year he missed a lot of school – sometimes he went looking for odd jobs, sometimes he just didn’t go, and there was one entire month where he didn’t attend at all. I told him that I didn’t blame him. I mean his brother died halfway through the year. And if I steal myself to be objective, I understand, at a school where students are sometimes absent not only because of sickness but because they have been arrested, where funerals in the community are common and students’ siblings, friends, cousins and parents are passing away from AIDS, violence or other things, the death of a student’s brother can go unnoticed.

But of course I am far from objective and the idea that no one at the school acknowledged that Anele’s brother died, much less noticed that he wasn’t in class, tried to give him extra help, check in to see if he was okay, and just pay a bit of extra attention. That his parents do not live with him, do not open their eyes enough to note his absence from school is a whole other story. I do not really know them and why they do or don’t do what they do or the complexities of their lives, so I should not judge. But I know how I wish they treated their sons and had treated their son. I shouldn’t blame, and there is no one in particular to focus on my energies on, but I am deeply angry. These boys deserve so much more.

I told Anele that I didn’t blame him, that it had been a hard year. But I told him that if he wanted to stay in school he needed to really make a commitment to get an education and go to school regularly. He told me he was really committed, that it was important for him to get an education. It was what came next from him that was the most difficult for me to swallow, the part where he explained why he felt like he had to get odd jobs. “Molly, I am the parent now.” The parent. Whose parent? His own parent… Siyabulela’s parent (his 13 year old brother). And why? Some of you may remember that I met their mother for the first time in July. She moved back into their house just after Sipho died, but a few months later, moved back to live with her boyfriend nearby. So now the boys live with their 24-year-old cousin who is busy, has a job and a boyfriend, and certainly does not want to be “a parent” to these boys. Caveat – I have not met her, she hasn’t been home anytime I have stopped by, but I hope to soon.

Anele didn’t show up for our second tutoring session last Wednesday so I drove to their house to see what was going on. I ran into Siyabulela hanging out outside. He told me that Anele was sleeping and his eye was really swollen so stayed home from school. Then Siya told me that his teachers were mad at him because he hasn’t covered his books yet. He has 13 books to cover (I think some are just notebooks but they are supposed to cover them) at R3.50 a cover. Since his dad wouldn’t give him any money, he was going to see if his mom would give him 15 rand to start. Without asking me for money, he also told me that his dad hadn’t bought them new uniforms for the school year. Most students don’t get new uniforms, but Siya recently split the butt of his pants and so was really in need. I sat there wanting alternately to open my wallet and give him money for book covers, throw him in the car and go to the mall for pants, and knowing that I would do neither. If I step in, his parents will think that I will always step in, that I will give their kids money when they don’t. And that is not my role. It was easy with Sipho, he worked for me and I paid him. That was clear. I know once, the day he found out he passed Matric, his mom came by asking him for money. When he said he didn’t have any, she responded, “I know you do, you work for that White woman.” I would like to think that since we have met, and since I learned she wants to see me again, I am no longer just “that white woman,” but I still am a woman she knows has money. And aside from the fact that I have limited finances, I cannot step in with my wallet when their parents can’t or won’t.

Since I didn’t see Anele on Wednesday, and they hadn’t called me like I asked them to (they would have had to borrow a phone), I drove there on Sunday, thinking I would take them to the movies. When I told Mongamo my plan, he kindly offered to come with me to their house. Siya immediately got in the car. Before I could blink and before he even knew where we were going, he was sitting up in the back seat, seatbelt on, ready to roll. Anele told me that he went to the clinic and they said he had dirt stuck in his eye, which is why it was swollen, and it is healing well. One piece of relief.

So back to the moment when I realize what I don’t know. When I asked Anele if he would come to the movie, he said he couldn’t. He said he had washing to do and he had to cook for Siya and clean the house. I tried to persuade him, said that we would only be gone a few hours and that I would feed them so it would be okay if he cooked later. But that boy, like his older brother, is so steadfast in his responsibilities, that I couldn’t persuade him. “Molly, I can’t, I am in charge now.”

And as we drove off, I was hit by all that I don’t know. It was the “now” in the sentence that initially brought the tears, for the now is of course now that Sipho is dead. But as I said to Mongamo, I realize that I have no idea what it is like to be Anele. What it is like to own that much responsibility. The idea that an 18 year old boy would refuse an afternoon movie because he has to cook and clean, even when there is no adult in the house to assign him chores or get upset with him if he doesn’t get them done. It is such a profound sense of responsibility, sense of what it is to be the adult in the household. What a privileged childhood I had. When I was 18, I lived in Houston Hall and just had to make sure my side of the dorm room was relatively clean. My responsibilities were to study, to read and write – responsibilities that were to my parents, in part, but really more for myself than anyone else. More than that, I thought, wow, there is so much about Anele’s life, about what happens for them at U41 Mfenyane Street, that I know nothing about. And so much that I will never know. It seems like a fairly obvious conclusion – and some of you may have reached it before me – but it was 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, when I couldn’t persuade this boy to come to the movies, that I realized how much I do not know.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Dispatch: A New Man and A Birthday

Saturday was another extraordinary day -- a day when I recognized the rich relationships which I have cultivated in this fascinating place and homes away from home that are mine.

The first time I saw Sandile, a student in the Creative Arts Workshop I taught in 2005, I immediately noticed his clothes and knew the meaning of this dress. He wore nice slacks, a buttoned down shirt buttoned up to the collar, a 3-buttoned suit jacket and a hat. Always a confident person, he walks with a new stature, seems to stand a bit taller, and feel a bit more ready to take his place in the world. As Sandile’s dress indicates, in Xhosa tradition, he is now a Man. Just as my parents must have anticipated my sister and my Bat Mitzvah’s from the time we were young, Sandile’s parents have anticipated this day for years. It is a huge moment when a Xhosa boy, usually between the ages of 18 and 21, becomes a man.

This is a very secret tradition – a man’s tradition and women are generally not privy to the details of what happens in the bush when men go to perform the ceremony. I know what I know because I am nosy and asked Sipho as much as he would tell and then Sandile. Some boys have their initiation in this area, but since Sandile’s parents, like most people here are, are originally from the Eastern Cape, they went there. A boy generally stays there for about four weeks and I can't tell you much more as the details are kept for men - even Xhosa women don't know everything.

For the next 6 months, when he is outside of the house, Sandile must wear his jacket and hat. I think that if he is in the company of other men, he is permitted to take his jacket and hat off, but I am not entirely sure.

Saturday was the big ceremony and party for the community where he lives to recognize his manhood. I decided to bring some new friends to share in this tradition, so bottles of brandy in hand, Katie, a senior at the University of Connecticut, and Jeff, a grad student and R.A. on Katie’s program, and I headed out to Khayelitsha.

As we were driving into Mandela Park, I heard a scream outside the car and there was Luando, one of my former students. We hugged and caught up and then there was another scream and my former student Phila was running down the street. She hugged me, but I tell you this because in her enthusiasm promptly hugged Katie and Jeff too.

When we walked into Sandile’s, there were several “Mamas” or older women sitting in the living room. One was in the middle and she began singing for us. Katie and I sat down and Jeff was ushered into the garage with the other men where he had his first sip of African beer. Then the ceremony began.

Video camera in hand, I followed everyone into the garage. Benches were set up on either side, lined with men and the women sat further in the back. Sandile was on a bench in between the men, hat and jacket on. As the ceremony went on, people would get up, explain to Sandile what it means to be a man, how he needs to act and behave in his new role, and what is responsibilities are to the community. Then each person would announce that they were giving him money – usually 20 rand – and put it in a bowl by his feet. Before the women spoke, they would start singing, then everyone would sing some, then the woman would make her speech and also give money. Sandile’s mother was wearing a stunning red traditional outfit and cried as she told him how happy she was (See attached of her dancing.) The ceremony took about an hour and as things progressed, the men passed around a tin bucket filled with Umqomboti, homemade African beer. It tastes a bit smoky and looks kind of creamy and people drink it out of a communal bucket. (Again, see photo of me enjoying the tradition.)

Then there was the presentation of the gifts. This was done by the women of the community who had arranged everything – the new bed set, the electronics, and the dresser – at the opening of the garage. Several women spoke as they presented the gifts to Sandile. The tradition is that members of the community buy the gifts for each new man. Sandile’s mother had bought a bed set for the man next door so they bought one for Sandile.

Then the party began. Everyone separates – the men in the garage, the women in the living room, girls somewhere else, young men in another room. Case after case of beer and other alcohol were brought in. One woman told me that as a man Sandile wasn’t supposed to drink – I told her I guess that starts tomorrow! We were handed massive plates of a big slab of meat, potato, rice, cabbage, and samp, which is dried corn kernels that have been stamped on and broken and are similar in consistency of rice. Then the drinking began. Katie and I were encouraged by the mama’s to join them, so we took a seat on the floor and grabbed the bucket of African beer. Then came the brandy. There was a woman walking around giving all the women shots of brandy. She told us she couldn’t give us any because were not women and were not wearing head scarves and pointed to the females around us who were not in head scarves and had no drink. But in a quick second, she smiled and said, “But you are visitors!” and the libations flowed. I tried to imagine of my mother and my aunts and her friends sitting around singing and drinking brandy, but I don’t think it’s a tradition that will catch on in Chevy Chase, MD.

We left Sandile’s and headed to celebrate my friend Max’s mom’s 70th birthday. We got there just in time for me to make a speech to Hilda and present my gift. Once again, we were given big plates of food, but this time, since this feels like my extended family, I told the woman that Jeff didn’t eat meet. “Oh, a vegetarian,” a woman echoed from the next table. Katie encouraged us to find our second stomachs, but none of us were able to eat much. We moved outside to Max and the other men. I had a great conversation about politics with 3 men. We talked about Clinton and Obama, who I thought would and could win. We talked about Bush and one man was incredulous that the U.S. could have elected him twice. We fantasized about what the world would look like if Gore had won. Of course his incredulousness allowed me to open the Zuma door. I knew Max, a former member of the armed wing of the ANC and a major housing activist, didn’t like Zuma, but I had never met these men. They all said they wouldn’t vote for Zuma. But then who? The ANC is their party and the party of the struggle, they would never vote for another party. So if Zuma were the candidate, they said they just wouldn’t vote. But then, he explained the dilemma, “If we don’t vote, we are giving away all of our power.” How tragic it seems that people fought so hard for the right to vote and 14 years later are considering giving it up for one election. Here’s hoping that Zuma is not the candidate, but I think it will take several decades before the ANC is no longer the party of the people and there is a shift in what democracy means here.

I end this on an extraordinary note. Today is the first day of school for Mongamo, Noluyanda and Amanda at the University of the Western Cape. Noluyanda said it’s great and I smile imagining them sitting in class, walking through campus and simply being university students. So if you need a lift today, think of them and smile, for this simple act of getting an education for me represents so much.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Week One - Mission: University Acceptance

I have been back in Cape Town only a week and it feels like much longer. It has been a week of reunions, hot sunny days, checking out cars, and settling in. In between I met with the professor who brought me here to teach at University of the Western Cape and went to the first day of school at Oscar Mpetha on Wednesday.

But the bulk of my energy, both actual and emotional, was spent in my capacity as, what my sister calls, social worker. I arrived just at the right time to take on the mission of making sure that every student I know who is trying to go to university or some sort of tertiary institute gets settled with everything before school starts. This list includes Mongamo, Babalwa and Noluyanda, three of the students from Testing Hope, as well as my former student Sithembele, and two students from my Creative Arts Workshop, Sandile and his sister Amanda.

And so the story begins with Noluyanda. She has big dreams of becoming a lawyer and helping people in the rural areas where she grew up. The fact that she is now a mother has not tempered her enthusiasm for the law a bit. Last year she took a paralegal course, but UWC won’t count those scores for admission to their LLB program. On only her Matric scores, she was rejected. But the door was not closed completely and a few weeks ago she took a test that could let her into the B.A. program in the Law Faculty (department) if she does well enough. Scores didn’t come out until this Friday. Of course when Noluyanda tried calling on Friday the phone rang and rang and no one answered. She is persistent and says she will try again tomorrow and go to the school on Tuesday, when she has childcare, if there is still no word.

I saw Mongamo on Monday. He retook the Matric exams in November and is disappointed with the results. His scores did not improve the way he had hoped, the way that he knew would get him into the University of Cape Town (UCT). In the midst of this new self-doubt about whether he would be able to study, his mom recently lost her job as a domestic worker because the family she works for got a divorce. He said he was thinking of forgoing university and working for his family, but when I asked, he said his mom wants him to go to school. Mongamo’s first choice was to study Math at University of Cape Town, his second choice, to study Math at UWC. His back up plan – study to be a Math teacher.

And so it was on Thursday morning we found ourselves in a long line outside the Faculty of Sciences, which includes the Math Department, at UWC. This compares to no line I ever waited in at Tufts or Berkeley. I have never seen anything quite like it -- a long line of students, far more than fit in the few chairs set out, curling around the hall, all waiting for some piece of information from the department, most with Matric scores in hand hoping hear that they have been accepted. There was a man running back and forth, talking to people in line, rushing back to the office, and back out again with his answers. Mongamo had his provisional acceptance letter that he received a few months ago and his Matric scores, but if his scores weren’t high enough, the provisional acceptance would be rescinded. After about an hour, the man came to us, took Mongamo’s scores and disappeared. 15 minutes later he came back, called out a few people’s names and finally we heard, “Mr. Tyhala.” He walked up to Mongamo, handed him a piece of paper and said, “Congratulations, you are accepted.” I was ready to jump up and down and scream and cheer, but Mongamo was more subdued. He was thinking of the next step… money.

Our next mission was the residence office where my excitement turned into anger when we found out there are only 575 spaces for 3000 first year students and even though Mongamo had indicated on his original application that he wanted to stay in the residence, he is now number 1101 on the waiting list. But that’s next week’s project.

I dropped off Mongamo and drove out to Khayelitsha to pick up Sandile so we could go into town to City Varsity College to find out about their journalism program. When I called Sandile to tell him I was moving back to Cape Town, he said, “When you get here, remind me that I want to talk to you about an idea for starting a youth magazine.” He is spunky and curious and thoughtful and I think he would be a great journalist.

His sister Amanda was home and I asked her how her efforts to get into the Law Faculty at UWC were going. Amanda took a semester of law courses at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and as is not uncommon in correspondence courses I think, did not do nearly as well as she anticipated and certainly not as well as she would have done in a class, with a real live teacher and other students to study with. So her hopes of studying law at UWC are gone and with it her confidence. My comment that she had a future that was more than as a checkout person at a grocery store (her current part-time job) actually brought her to tears. I can’t tell you how angry those tears made me – this is an energetic, bright person who loves learning, speaks brilliant English and when I last saw her had big dreams. So I said what seems to be coming out of my mouth a lot lately, “I know it isn’t your first choice, but how would you feel about being a teacher?” What an terrible thing to tell a kid –I know you are smart and I know you want to be a lawyer, but since you can’t, it would be better to do something at a university than another year of struggling so what about this alternative? (Caveat, I think teaching is a great career and wonderful alternative for her, I would just like Amanda to get her dreams and not her second choices.) Her response, “I might be interested in being a teacher if I thought I could be good at it.” Her lack of success at UNISA had made her believe that she couldn’t be good at anything.

Teaching is Amanda’s option because Aslam Fataar, an education professor at UWC who is now my boss, met Amanda (and Mongamo) when we had a screening of Testing Hope here in July, and basically said that if either one of them wanted to be teachers he would get them into the program.

While Amanda was thinking it over, we got into the car and drove into town for Sandile. Sandile just got back from the bush in the Eastern Cape, where he had his initiation ceremony which signals manhood in the Xhosa tribe (and includes circumcision) and has returned now a Xhosa man. He is dressed in nice slacks, a button down shirt buttoned all the way to the top, a beige suit jacket with 3 buttons, and a black cap. He will dress this way for the next 6 months, an indication to everyone who meets him that he is now a man.

Colleges are generally one to three-year programs, more career focused. City College focuses on multimedia, film, television, and journalism. The person we spoke with was very nice and gave us all the details. He addressed my biggest concern when he said that most students get jobs in the field after they finish the program. I was excited, Sandile was excited, he took the application and then asked how much the year costs. 30,000 rand or about $4,300. It is a private school so there are no loans. You can pay it off in a few installments over the first 6 months but it is a huge amount of money. It would be a great opportunity for Sandile, if only he had the money, and that is where I wish I was independently wealthy and where my ability to advise stops. How can I keep encouraging him or pushing him to go to school and seek out opportunities when I have no idea how to help him pay for them? There are so many different private colleges, some trustworthier than others, and I don’t want him to have to settle in life. He remains optimistic on the drive home and says he will talk to his parents about it and check out a few other things because, “Molly, I must keep my options open.”

We were supposed to go yesterday to the Open Day at the college to learn more about the program and any credit payment programs, but Sandile called me yesterday at 7:30 am to say he couldn’t go. I know that if he had the money he would be applying. I am not sure he will even apply but he is capable and independent and I am trying to let go, to know that if he wants to, he will and if he wants my help, he will ask.

That night I got a call from Amanda. She decided she wants to be a teacher, so Friday she went to the education faculty at UWC with her application fee and applied – well tried to. There is an electricity shortage here and that means occasional blackouts, one of which Amanda encountered at UWC on Friday. But she applied online at the internet café in Khayelitsha yesterday and I think orientation starts this week. There are a lot of scholarships around for teaching so I hope that she can get one.

Last, but not least, there is Babalwa. She is starting her third year in the Mechanical Engineering program at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and I saw her Friday to give her the R600 she needed to register and get her grades from last term. I received two generous donations for Babalwa’s education, one from my dear friend Anja’s mother in Berlin and another from a Hebrew School teacher at Beth El Congregation in Bethesda, MD, and so I actually have the money to help her. She called me a few hours after with her results from last term – 3 Bs and 2 Cs!

As it turns out, the rest of the donation I got for Babalwa will not be necessary for this year’s tuition. A bank in South Africa has offered Mongamo, Noluyanda and Babalwa full scholarships, including tuition, room, board and books for their entire education – all 3 years. We are still trying to find out if they will pay Babalwa’s loans, but if not, the donations will go towards that. Let me publicly thank my friend Dylan Wray who works at an NGO here in Cape Town for helping to make this happen. It is certainly beyond my wildest dreams.