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.

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