Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A New Year, New Stories

It has been over three months since I last dispatched. A month of that was spent at home – I managed New York, Florida, Boston and the inauguration in that time. I returned to Cape Town on January 23 and picked up my exceptional skills visa, which lets me stay here until the end of 2011. I can’t envision that far ahead and imagine that I will move home sooner than that, but it does open up possibilities and make life easier for the interim. Three weeks after returning to Cape Town my sister Liza came to visit. We had an incredible time, relishing the beaches, spending time with my former students and just experiencing this fabulous country together.

So now it is back to reality and back to work. The start of 2009 has brought a new project, a short documentary film about young people’s experiences in and perspectives on the xenophobia crisis in May.

During the xenophobia crisis last May, one of the scenes that panned across television screens was of young people, some in school uniforms, picking up pangas, throwing bricks, looting shops and homes. I am working with an NGO Shikaya to create a short film about the experiences and perspectives of youth during the crisis. I will profile young refugees, perpetrators, people who stood up and did something different, and bystanders, who simply stood by, and try to understand and explore all sides. The film will be used in workshops with teachers who will in turn use it in the classroom. We plan to do some broader outreach as well. The goal is to get young people to reflect on the lives of other youth, their own actions in May and how they might act in similar situations, and also consider how they can be agents of positive change in their communities and active citizens in South Africa. It is a powerful thing, the potential here, and the idea of working on a film that will be used to affect change and engage young people in the world around them is exciting.

For now I remain on step one, finding those youth. I define youth as between 14 and 21 and began my search in Johannesburg a few weeks ago. A man who heads the Alexandra Civic Organization in Alexandra township where the violence started promised to take me in to meet some guys he knew who were involved in the violence. But to my frustration, he cancelled on me twice because he had several meetings for COPE, the new political party. Good for COPE, not so great for me. I was extremely frustrated, feeling a little like my entire trip to Joburg was all for naught, when I called Bishop Paul Verryn and made a plan to go to his church on a Wednesday evening. Bishop Verryn heads the Central Methodist Church. The church is very well known here and around the world for its massive effort to assist refugees and the poor. Currently around 1,000 refugees, mostly from Zimbabwe, but also across Africa and some South Africans, find shelter in the church where they also get some social support services including food, basic health care, counseling, advocacy and help finding jobs.

I had read a lot about the church by the time I walked in at 5:30 p.m. But there is no way to imagine this place by simply reading about it. It is dark, the stairs are lined with people lying down, sitting on steps, on landings, people everywhere. Men, women and children, many of whom made the journey here without their parents. There are people who have lost limbs, others limping or on crutches. Their lives and pasts are difficult to truly envision. Many have run away from something, many are here in search of a better life. Have they found it here in this country? In this church? One man approaches me and asks if I have any work for him -- I– sweeping, varnishing, electrical, anything.

I joined a line of people waiting to talk to the Bishop, and after 45 minutes the Bishop came by, asked if I was waiting for him, remembered that I was looking for youth and asked if I was staying for the service. When a Bishop asks if you are staying for the service, you say yes. So I stayed in line talking to Emanuel who was looking for a scholarship to college and then after an hour or so, went down to the service. The chapel was filling up and groups of men and women were dancing and singing in Shona, waiting for the service to start. As it did, the Bishop walked over to me and took me to meet the principal and vice principal of the church’s new school. These men had been teachers in Zimbabwe. A few months ago, noticing the large numbers of children at the church and the need, the Bishop and these men decided to start a school. We talked, made a plan for me to come to the school at 7:30 the next morning, and then enjoyed the service.

It was an unusually cold day for Joburg in February on the morning that I arrived at the school. Some students were wearing uniforms, donated or bought with donations; others were in whatever they had. I recognized some from the church service by the clothes that I saw them in the day before. The school is attached to an old church and is not very big. Classrooms are packed; some are divided and shared between grades. I passed through a room of about 75 third graders crowded around three long wooden tables with two teachers. A class of very young children was sitting in a hallway. As the vice principal walked me around, he would pause in a class and ask, “Raise your hand if you are from Zimbabwe.” “Raise your hand if you are from South Africa.” Mozambique? DRC? Swaziland? He would continue. Over 100 of these students are unaccompanied minors; they have come to South Africa alone. I talked to several of them.

Takudzwa is 16. Both of his parents died in 1997 and 1998. He came to Joburg in August after walking through the forest for a week and slipping by gangs who prey on foreigners near the border. He came from the border at Messina to Joburg by hiding on a train. “What goes around comes around,” he says of the xenophobia in South Africa. “We will show them we are good. Now it’s our turn. We are people, we eat, they eat.” Takudwzwa loves school and wants to be a lawyer. In the mean time, for fun he goes to Johannesburg Park to play chess and soccer. Sometimes the police stop him to ask for papers, sometimes people call out to him, “Move out Makwerekwere,” a slang word for foreigners, especially illegal immigrants. He is happy because he is learning and with this education he believes he can help Zimbabwe. “What they are doing is not democracy or freedom. I will bring democracy, there will be freedom,” he says. But when I ask what is the best part of being in South Africa, he starts, “The best part of being in South Africa…” Then he smiles, pauses, is silent, laughs, and has no answer.

His classmate Wellington, a head boy at the school, came here after seeing his father tortured by members of Zanu-PF (Mugabe’s party) after being accused of being a supporter of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). His father died a few days later and Wellington fled south, through the waist deep water and crocodiles of the Limpopo River. “I expected to live better than in Zimbabwe because now everything there is expensive,” he says. “I thought life would be good. Its not so good for me for the moment, there are challenges. If you are walking in the street or in a shop, people are rude and it embarrasses me, they say, ‘you are a foreigner.’ But I am an African and you are an African.”

I interviewed about eight students in total, boys and girls. The last was Nkosinathi. At 14 he has lost both parents and his two older sisters. His favorite author is Shakespeare. After his family died, he stayed with relatives, but they didn’t send him to school after grade 5 and wanted him to work in the yard and the house. “One day my aunt hit me,” he says. “I had a bike and I sold it and boarded a train to Beitbridge [a town on the border with a major border post] and then got a taxi to Johannesburg. I’d heard of a school in Joburg.” It was this school. This crowded cold place, warmed by the sounds of learning, which holds the futures and hopes of Nkosinathi and over 300 others.

Tomorrow I am going to visit a school just outside Worcester, about an hour north of Cape Town, where a teacher is doing an anti-xenophobia project with his students. Several Somali shopkeepers here were forced out, their shops looted and some burned and destroyed. One of these shops is directly outside the school’s gate. Thursday, I’ll return to Masiphumelele, a township known for its effort to assist foreigners after the attacks. A couple days after foreigners there were attacked, residents publicly apologized and asked them to return. People went door to door to collect stolen goods and return them to their owners. However, Masiphumelele is not a panacea, there were attacks and since May there have been incidents of violence against foreigners who have returned.

This step in filmmaking is exciting and can be quite frustrating as well. In the next few weeks, I will continue to talk to anyone who will talk to me about these issues and ask as many people as I can if they have suggestions of young refugees, perpetrators, resistors and bystanders who I can meet. Soon enough, I will have found my youth and be ready to pick up a camera and share their stories.