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.