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 fiancĂ©e 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?