Friday, November 28, 2008

Dispatch: Thanksgiving Eve

Why is it that sadness is what propels me to write? I have not dispatched since Obama’s win and today, on what is now a sad day, I decide to share. Perhaps it is because I have just finished writing an article and had to think so carefully as I wrote that, that now I can simply be guided by emotion.

Sipho’s father has died. Last week. I found out early today. I was with two of my old students, giving a tour of Nyanga to a couple people from the UK. As we walked around Oscar Mpetha HS, we ran into Anele’s homeroom teacher. She leaned out the door and said, “Mpaku, Anele, you know his father died.” Last week, she said. She apologized for sharing bad news, I ran to my car to call Anele, Siya, their cousin Sandiswa who had been my sole connection to the Mpaku family last May. I finally reached Anele a couple hours ago. He is stoic and I am often told that Xhosa men don’t cry. But his father died. One piece of a fragile support system that is taking care of these boys. He didn’t live with them, he didn’t bring them food consistently, but he was their father. I only saw him a few times in 2005 and we never formally met, but long conversations with Sipho and visits to an empty fridge at his brother’s house this year affirmed my feelings for the man who told Sipho’s cousin, “He wouldn’t have died if Molly had been here.” But he was, in the end, their father.

A few weeks ago Anele faced another difficulty. It turns out that the District department of education translated The Sunday Times article about Testing Hope into Xhosa and put it on the district wide grade 10 Xhosa exam as a comprehension exercise. When Anele sat down to take the exam, he was confronted with his brother’s story. What makes it worse was that 7 of the 10 questions were about Sipho. One asked about their parents’ divorce. Number 6 asked if Sipho was a role model or set a good example for Anele. Number 7 asked why you thought Anele failed grade 10 twice before. I can only imagine what it must have felt like for Anele sitting in that classroom, reading over this test. He went to the teacher and asked her, “What is this?” She had not reviewed the exam in advance and her only answer was, “I don’t know.” I heard from another teacher usually the school picks up the exams from the district and gets them to teachers a day in advance to look over, but for some reason the school didn’t pick up the exams early enough this time. I don’t know if that is necessarily true. Either way, if you give a class an exam, I would think a teacher would take 5 minutes to skim it over quickly. Or at least say to the boy, stop writing, I will figure this out. Something?

On one level, I am pleased that the district office is including stories about the township so that students can read of their own experiences in an exam. I just wish someone – a teacher, a district curriculum advisor, anyone, would have thought twice before sticking that paper in front of Anele. The week after, he told me people were still coming up to him. Classmates who said that they wrote that he was doing drugs. (And just to think of how many classmates, there are 11 grade 10 classes at the school this year.) Neighbors who heard from their children about Sipho and his family and were asking more questions.

I am lucky enough to know people who know people and my friend Dylan called the head of curriculum in the district office. The man felt terrible that Anele had to go through such a thing and mentioned that he wanted to at least call him and apologize. I want to make sure, also, that this doesn’t affect his grade. Nothing has happened yet on the department’s end. And for Anele, something worse has overwhelmed this incident all together.

The funeral will be in Transkei on Saturday, not Cape Town. Anele said I should come to visit them when they get back, so I’ll see them next week. When these things occur, they inevitably bring back memories of other people and today I miss Sipho more than I have in a long time. Sometimes I do wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had to leave in early 2006. I know he is not my responsibility, but I do wonder, especially now that I am back. Is it a small piece of guilt that I left or confusion that I am back, now for a year, possibly staying for another one, and yet I couldn’t stay when he needed me. We cannot use logic to explain these things, nor can we think that our single presence or power will determine whether one lives or dies, and yet I do know that my presence here does mean a lot for many – including myself. I now wonder who is going to pay for school clothes next year and groceries next week and whether their mother will move back into their house.

There is much more than sadness here lately though. New ideas, new opportunities, new change.

The summer after my first year of college, I interned at the White House. This summer, my students Amanda and Noluyanda both have internships. Amanda is working at Shikaya, a human rights and democracy education organization that works with teachers to develop young people who are responsible, critical thinking, and active democratic citizens. Noluyanda is working for the Western Cape Network on Violence Against Women. (A thank you to Bulelwa and Dylan for helping with internship opportunities.) Yesterday she went to a meeting with the MEC of Social Development for the province. Both girls are being paid through a generous donation from Eileen and Larry Kugler, who came to South Africa in July, and my friend Tom’s mother, who visited from the UK in October.

I have kept myself busy with continued Testing Hope outreach and some freelance writing. I had a great trip to Pretoria to do some work with the U.S. Embassy. We had workshops and screenings for 40 teachers in Pretoria and then went to Nelspruit, the capital of Mpumalanga province, and ended up with 95 teachers on a Saturday. 95 was a bit overwhelming, but it was really exciting to see that much energy and conversation and activity stimulated because of my work.

I will probably be in South Africa another year. I am letting this journey and this time abroad run its natural course and seeing where it will take me. Now I am fundraising and doing some pre-production for a new documentary and outreach program on students’ experiences in the xenophobia crisis in May. This time I am not going it alone, but partnering with Shikaya who will run an extensive outreach campaign. which will include a study guide and workshops for teachers on how to use the film in the classroom. As a filmmaker you are not always sure your work will be seen, much less have an impact and it is exciting to start a project knowing the potential for both.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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