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 www.edutopia.org, 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, www.theakarasdesign.com 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.

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