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.