Monday, November 1, 2010

Ek kan nie Afrikaans praat nie.

“You don’t speak Afrikaans?!” I’m meeting my grade two learners for the first time, and this little girl’s eyes are about to pop out of her head upon hearing this. She turns to her friends and they begin to exchange excitedly in Afrikaans. I can tell they’re talking about me, but I have no idea what they’re saying (this is something I will grow quite accustomed to in the weeks that lie ahead). In an attempt to make conversation, I point to an art project on the counter and ask what it is. “Koek!” they reply.
“Oh, a cake?” I reply with equal enthusiasm. They just look at me confusedly.
One little boy jumps in to save me. “Yes, a cake. In Afrikaans, koek.” He looks at me intently and smiles when I repeat the word. He then takes me by the hand and leads me through the classroom, pointing to various objects, saying the Afrikaans name and waiting for me to repeat it, smiling constantly and occasionally giving me a nod of affirmation. A small posse of girls follows behind us, giggling all the while and bursting into laughter any time I completely slaughter a word (which is frequently).
A little girl looks up and me and reaches for my necklace. I kneel down so she can get a better look, and several more learners crowd around. She pulls the charms apart, and they all get quite excited upon recognizing the cross (it’s a Christian school and faith is a way of life for these children). She looks at the medal and then to me, questioning with her eyes. I give my usual, child-friendly explanation, “It’s Saint Michael. He’s an angel and he protects me from demons.” I can tell she didn’t really understand me, but she is satisfied with the explanation and resumes her Afrikaans chatter with her friends.
I hold the chain in my hand and turn back to the little boy. “What is it, in Afrikaans?”
Halsketting,” I repeat and smile at him.
But this time he doesn’t smile, he just looks at the chain thoughtfully. “And in English?” His gaze shifts back to my face.
“Necklace,” he says slowly, staring at the necklace, soaking in the moment. He grabs my hand and points to my chain. “And what is it?”
“Bracelet.” He takes the same care with this word, gently twisting the chain around my wrist.
“And in Afrkikaans?”
The smile starts to creep across his face again as he grabs my other hand. “And this?”
“Ring. In Afrikaans?”
I will remember his beaming face when, a few weeks later, we cover clothing and accessories in my Afrikaans class back at university.

It’s my first week in Stellenbosch, and I go to Java for a burger with a few friends. The waitress approaches our table and says something in Afrikaans. We look awkwardly from her to one another. She quickly repeats herself, “Hi, can I get you something to drink?” Think she knew we were foreigners?

I’m teaching a lesson with a small group of my grade twos. They sit on the warm brick outside of the classroom with their worksheets laid before them while I peer over their shoulders, make conversation and answer questions. We are learning about poetry, and they have all picked a favourite object or person and are describing how it looks, feels, sounds, etc. One little girl raises her hand. “Teacher?”
“What is it?” She points to a word on her page.
“Smell?” I look around the circle, hoping one of the other learners can translate for me (as they often do). “You know, smell.” They all stare at me blankly. I begin to act out “smell” to the best of my ability, sniffing the air aggressively and wafting my hands toward my nose.
Ruik?” one of the boys exclaims.
“Yes, ruik!” I reply excitedly, remembering those years of German classes. Afrikaans is derived from Dutch, which has some similarities with German. “Smell” in German is “reichen.” I figured it was too close to be a mere coincidence.
The boy turns to the girl and says a couple of sentences in Afrikaans. Her eyes light up as she understands. She looks back to her worksheet and taps her pencil against her lips thoughtfully.
I kneel down next to her and glance at her page to see about what/whom she is writing. “So what does your mother smell like?” I ask. “Blomme?” Thank goodness I can remember the Afrikaans word for “flowers.”
Ja, blomme!” she exclaims and quickly writes the word in the blank.
Little do I know that my learners, co-teachers and I will come to use this strange combination of English, Afrikaans, German and body language more and more to communicate over the next months.

It’s my first time checking out at PickNPay. As she starts to pulls my groceries toward herself, the clerk turns to me. “Sakkies?”
“I’m sorry?”
“Plastic bags?”
“Yes, please.”

I walk across the lawn during recess, grinning as I listen to the excited chatter of the learners, a beautiful blend of Afrikaans, isiXhosa, and screaming. It has become music to my ears. Several grade one learners run up, each of them hugging my legs in succession. One particularly tiny boy looks at me, grinning from ear to ear and quickly spits out a sentence in Afrikaans. I am about to give my usual reply, “Tell me in English,” when I realize I understood him.
“Your tooth is loose?!” I exclaim, kneeling down to his level. “Let me see!”
He opens his mouth slightly and wiggles one of his front bottom teeth, then says another sentence quickly.
“What did he say?” I look around the group, hoping one of them can be my translator.
“He says the mouse will come tonight!” one little girl tells me proudly (Thank goodness I had learned the meaning of this just the week before: When a child looses a tooth in South Africa, he or she does not receive a visit from the Tooth Fairy, but rather from a mouse who leaves money and takes his or her tooth. He then builds his out of all the teeth he collects. Kind of creepy? I think so too).
“Oh, you think he’ll come tonight, huh?” The little boys beams. “What is your name?” I ask him. He simply looks at me sheepishly and then runs away, his friends following after him.
Every time he sees me in the upcoming weeks, he will run up to me excitedly, say something in Afrikaans, grin widely, and wiggle his tooth for me to see.

I am talking to the grade three teacher during recess. The tiny boy with the loose tooth is sitting behind her. I’ve developed a special fondness for him, but I still don’t know his name. “What is this little boy’s name?” I ask the teacher.
She turns to him and bends down. “Wat is jou naam?”
He replies shyly before running off.
She turns back to me and tells me his name. “He is very tiny,” she says with endearment before resuming our conversation.

It is recess, and the tiny boy with the loose tooth runs up to show me his progress. That thing is just about to fall out. I congratulate him as usual and he is about to run off when I call him back to me. “Wat is jou naam?”
The child positively lights up. Finally, one of us has spoken to him in a way he can understand. Finally, he can be confident that he knows how to answer my question. His eyes glitter and his grin grows even wider as he tells me his name.
En hoe gaan dit?” I ask.
Goed, dankie!” he declares through his smile before running off once again.

I am walking through town when a homeless person approaches me, speaking Afrikaans. I say, “I’m sorry, I only speak English.” He struggles to explain himself in English as I tell him I don’t have anything for him. The same scene happens on a near-daily basis. Some of them speak perfect English, others stumble over broken English or persist in Afrikaans, and still others simply give up and walk away.

Tarah and I are playing with a group of children while we wait for the train. One very small boy whom we have not seen before is there. After trying to talk to him several times, it becomes apparent that he doesn’t speak English. I decide to be brave and test out my Afrikaans. “Wat is jou naam?”
He ignores my question, but one of the girls answers for him. Of course, it’s one of those names I can’t even begin to pronounce without a lot of practice. I’ve gotten pretty used to this, too. There is a short wall nearby, and one of the grade one boys is climbing on it and jumping off. I play with him a bit, catch him as he jumps a few times. The new boy sees this and runs over. He says several fast sentences in Afrikaans and gestures toward the wall, stretching his hands toward the top. I only catch one word.
Op?” I ask.
He nods eagerly, and I pick him up and set him atop the wall. I back up a few steps and catch him when he jumps. I repeat this a few times before turning my attention to another child. Soon he is pulling on my hand. “Op, op!”
I lift and catch him a few more times, but I’m starting to get tired. “You can climb up there yourself,” I say. He just looks at me. “Klim!”
Ek kan nie!” He whines.
I roll my eyes and lift him a few more times before trying again. “Klim!”
Nie! Op, op!”
Ek kan nie!” It’s my turn to whine.
He stares at me in sceptical disbelief and says something in rapid-fire Afrikaans.
I sit on the wall to rest for a bit, and he sits next to me with his backpack. I point to the character on his bag and ask, “Who is this?”
He ignores me.
I point again. “Wat is dit?”
This time he responds. “Spiderman!” We both laugh before joining the group again.
Suddenly the small boy runs to Tarah and begins to speak in a distressed tone. “I don’t understand you. I don’t speak Afrikaans,” she says, but he just continues. “Ek kan nie praat...” She looks at me and I nod. “Ek kan nie Afrikaans praat nie.”
The boy falls silent and stops jumping up and down. He glares at Tarah. The he turns around, runs to me, and resumes his bouncing and frantic chattering.
Ek kan nie Afrikaans praat nie.” He stops for a moment, looks at me with disbelief, looks at Tarah, turns back to me and continues to speak. Eventually he gives up.
We are about to leave, and I try one last time to learn the boy’s name. He is standing on top of the wall as I walk by. “Wat is jou naam?”
Ek is Spiderman!” he belts at the top of his lungs. Tarah and I laugh as we walk away.

It’s my billionth time checking out at PickNPay. “Sakkies?”
“Yes, please... Dankie.”

We have all of our grade two learners outside for a lesson. They are especially crazy today. I have started to pull aside learners who are being particularly naughty to address their behaviour while Liam tries to continue the lesson. I am speaking with a little boy who has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and is one of our biggest trouble makers. He actually doesn’t start that much trouble if left alone, it’s just that if one of the other learners bumps him, whether intentionally or not, it instantly becomes a full-scale fight. I am telling him why his behaviour is not okay and asking if we can fix it together. Every time I ask a question, he simply replies, “Yes.” The bell rings and we release the students for break. I tell the little boy I love him (part of our usual discipline routine) and let him go. My eyes meet Liam’s and we both sigh heavily.
“You know, he doesn’t understand English,” Liam says, referring to the little boy.
“No, he does. He doesn’t speak it, but if you look in his eyes while you’re talking to him, you can tell he understands.” I really, really want to believe that I’m right.

After having several “I know you’re a good boy, so let’s make sure you’re acting like a good boy. I love you,” conversations with this same little boy, I’ve gotten pretty attached. I know you’re not supposed to have favourites, but...
I’m playing with several of my learners at recess and my favourite little boy climbs on to my back. “Loop!” he exclaims in my ear, “Loop, loop!”
I’ve been here long enough to know exactly what he’s saying, but I want to encourage him to learn English. “Tell me in English,” I tell him, “in Engels.”
He grows quiet. I know that he wants to tell me in English. He just doesn’t know how. I allow him to slide down to the ground and turn around to face him. “Loop,” I say.
Loop,” he repeats.
“Walk,” I say.
He just looks at me.
Loop. In Engels, walk.”
More staring.
“Can you say walk?”
“Good! In Afrikaans, loop. In Engels?”
More staring.
“Walk. In Afrikaans, loop. In Engels, walk. In Afrikaans?”
Loop,” we say together this time.
En in Engels?”
“Walk,” we say together.
This goes on for about five minutes. By the end of recess, he can answer correctly when I ask “In Afrikaans?” or “In Engels?” The bell rings and he goes to line up. I feel overwhelmingly successful even though I know he’ll forget it.

It’s recess. I’m sitting in the grass with about 15 little hands tangled up in my hair and three little bodies on either side of me, pressed up against me with their little fingers grasping mine and crawling up and down my arms. I’m surrounded by multilingual chatter. Pure bliss.
My favourite little boy comes up and plops down on my lap. “Loop, walk.”
“Very good!” My mind is blown. I am overwhelmed with joy and pride and excitement.
In Afrikaans, loop. In Engels, walk.”
“Good job!” My mind races for other words to learn. “Hardloop?” I suggest.
“Can you say run?”
“Good! In Afrikaans, hardloop. In Engels, run. In Afrikaans? Hardloop.”
Hardloop,” he repeats.
En in Engels? Run.”
“Very good!” This repeats a few times. “In Afrikaans?” I am full of hope as I wait for him to reply, “Hardloop.”
Loop. Walk. Loop, walk!” he exclaims.
I laugh. Close enough, I suppose. “Very good! Baie goed!”
Goed!” He repeats as he runs away. All I can do is smile.

I’m checking out at the office supply store. I place the pack of pens on the counter, and the clerk rings them up and asks, “Sak?”
Nie,” I say as I place the pens in my purse.
She tells me the price, I hand her my money and receive my change. “Dankie,” she says.
Dankie!” I call as I walk away. I’m outside of the store before I realize that I just had an entire interaction solely in Afrikaans.

I am working with the grade three teacher and three of her learners, preparing hot dogs for a school fundraiser. She is simultaneously carrying a conversation in English with me and talking to various learners in Afrikaans. I smile to myself as I listen to the language, catching a few words here and there. She makes a joke to our little helpers, and I giggle with them, mostly just from seeing their joy. She turns to me and asks, “You speak a little Afrikaans, right?”
“Well, a little. I took the class so I know a few things, but not much. I use it a lot with my grade twos, though.”
She nods in understanding.
“I don’t really use it with grown-ups like you that speak English though, because I just sound silly, but I use it with my kids because I have to.” I can’t even count how many times I’ve explained this to various people I’ve met here.
“So how much do you know? Could you have a conversation?”
“Well, maybe. Only very simple things like, ‘Wat is jou naam?’ and ‘Hoe gaan dit?’”
Oh, dit klink goed! It sounds very good!” she encourages me.
I’m secretly afraid that she will start using Afrikaans with me now. I know that she is embarrassed about her English, even though it’s almost perfect, and would much rather speak Afrikaans. Luckily, she resumes our conversation in English.
Later, we are counting the hot dogs onto trays.“Can you count in Afrikaans?” she asks me.
“Yes, that I can do.”
“Ok, this tray needs 47, but count them out in Afrikaans so the girls can hear how you speak Afrikaans,” she says with a cute little smile.
“Ok...” I am confident in my numbers, but not speaking. I count with my learners, but they laugh and correct my pronunciation all the time.
I begin nervously, “Een, twee, drie, vier, fyf...”
“Oh, that’s very good!” she encourages me. I glance at the girls and we giggle. Soon enough the teacher is distracted with another task, and it’s just me with the girls. Every few seconds I look at them, and they are watching me intently, slight grins on their faces. I ask them if I’m doing it right. They nod and we all giggle.

Today, I realized how much this language has come to mean for me, how much I’m going to miss hearing it everywhere I go. I’m going to miss walking down the street, seeing signs and hearing conversations in at least three different languages, and not always knowing what’s going on. I’ll miss people nodding and saying, “Goeie more,” (Afrikaans for “Good morning”) and calling me “sisi” (isiXhosa for “sister,” the general greeting toward all women in black culture here). I really cannot imagine going back to a monolingual context.

People describe Afrikaans as a harsh language, and it does have many hard sounds, including the “g” from the back of the throat that I still struggle to pronounce sometimes. But to me, it is a beautiful language. It is the language of Lynedoch Primary School and of Stellenbosch, the places that have become my other home. Any time I hear its unique sound, I will always think of this place and will be at home again. It has become one of the most comforting sounds that can fall upon my ears.

peace and love

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Time to Grow

In case you haven’t guessed it by now, I suppose it’s time to let you know that my time here is changing me. My experiences are overwhelmingly meaningful, and I can feel myself shifting, growing, being shaped into the person I’m becoming. And, in fact, I have never felt more like myself than I do these days.

After class each Monday, we write and submit a journal entry reflecting on our experiences for my LSCE class. Last Friday, we spent a day in the local township, Kayamandi, where 35,000 people live in extreme poverty; it was the first time I had ever been to a township. We visited two women who run home stays there, and they showed us a bit more of their neighbourhood. The following Monday, we had a particularly beautiful day of class where we reflected on our experiences and continued to grow as a team and a family. I feel one of the best ways to express the ways I’m changing is to share some excerpts from my journal from that day:

As I look back to our day in Kayamandi, I am surprised to admit that my experience was just okay. It looked like the pictures you always see of townships, but for some reason it didn’t feel that new or different to me. Maybe it’s because I was less interested in the shacks than I was in playing with the group of adorable little boys that seemed to turn up every couple of minutes. It just felt natural to be preoccupied with them and give them all of my attention, to pick them up and spin them around, to laugh with them and hold their hands, even though I could not communicate with them using spoken language, even though they were dirty and their parents were nowhere in sight. As I write that last sentence, I realise what a testament it is to how much I’ve changed since I’ve been here. Before I came here, that never would have felt natural, or even okay. But now it feels comfortable, joyful, fulfilling, even perfect. I cannot think of anything I would rather be doing than loving those children. I picked up one little boy and tried to play with him, but he wasn’t really interested in playing. He didn’t really want to be put down, either; he just wanted to be held. And I was more than content just holding him, feeling his warmth and innocence as his weight relaxed into my side and his fingers wrapped around mine while we watched Liam and Gerrit play wildly with the other boys. His sweater was wet on the back and his nose was crusted with dry mucus and he was everything society says is gross or dangerous, and all I wanted to do was cuddle him, make him feel safe, give him a few minutes of being held, realising that I don’t know how often he may or may not receive that otherwise. It was a moment that I doubt I will soon forget...

In a theoretical sense, I can understand what [my classmates] meant when they said that we were invading these people’s homes, and I agree that the trip should be executed differently in the future. But I did not feel uncomfortable at all throughout the day. In fact, I felt incredibly comfortable, even at home, there amidst the dirt roads and the black people, standing out in my white skin. I’ve noticed that lately – that I almost feel more comfortable walking around the northern part of Bird Street or riding the metro, being one of the only white people in sight and receiving gazes of confusion and sometimes scepticism, than I do sitting in my nice, clean classrooms at Stellenbosch with lots of other white students who have never wondered where their next meal was coming from. I know that there is nothing wrong with being privileged, and I do not mean anything bad toward those students (I certainly enjoy my privilege on a regular basis), but I’ve started to feel more at home in less privileged situations and feel that I can connect more meaningfully with the people there. The people there are real, and I can find true, deep meaning in life there. I know that we must not romanticise poverty, and by no means do I intend to justify the fact that millions of people do not have access to basic human needs and are completely dehumanised by the people and institutions at play – that is despicable. But I am realising what Jesus is always telling us in the Bible: that the more we are detached from material possessions, the freer we are to become spiritually fulfilled. There is a certain joy in my learners at Lynedoch and in the people from the township who clap and sing hymns on the metro that I have not seen anywhere else in the world (certainly not in westernised societies where possessions have become our gods and are so easily taken from us, sending our carefully built worlds crashing down around our feet and leaving us always wanting and searching in vain), and I find myself wanting to be around that beauty more than anything else...

Class today was absolutely beautiful... I heard and participated in conversations, teasing, laughing, growing and bonding among siblings and basked in the beauty of that moment... People were real. They were honest. They weren’t afraid to allow their homesickness, pain, scars, uncertainties, tears, joy, excitement and praise to pour out for all to see. I know from my conversations with others that many of us are finding ourselves at a crossroads, reconsidering the things we thought to be true, the beliefs we thought we held, the plans we thought we had figured out for our lives. It’s a point of internal awakening for many of us. Perhaps it’s because we are in the environment I described earlier, where people are lacking in material possessions but filled with spiritual riches, and we are finding the beauty in that spiritual richness as well as a longing to achieve it for ourselves. The simplicity, peace and joy of life here is infectious. I feel so blessed to have such wonderful people with whom to share this experience...

Service learning, in the truest sense, creates experiential learning environments where knowledge is produced on the spot, not strictly taught out of books, and that kind of knowledge is the stuff that becomes most meaningful and that stays with us forever. I know that this class will stay with me forever...

After the past few weeks (and months) of growth both in and out of class, I feel confused, emotional, peacefully chaotic, fulfilled, changed, and most of all loved. I couldn’t be more blessed.

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing... Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.” – Luke 12: 22-23, 31

“Love one another with brotherly affection.” – Romans 12:10

peace and love

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I love riding the train.

Ok, it probably has something to do with the fact that the train takes me to a lot of wonderful places (Lynedoch for the school and my babies, Koelenhof for the local convent and one of the most wonderful Catholic parishes in existence, Cape Town for all kinds of adventures). But even without that little perk, I really do love riding the train.

I should qualify that statement a bit. Many (white) South Africans who have not personally experienced the train will tell you not to ride it because “those people” will mug and/or murder you. Those same people will tell you not to go to Lynedoch because “those children” will steal from you (yes, those children who on multiple occasions have brought me my bag because I forgot it somewhere). Just a mark of the ignorance and prejudice that exists in so many ways.

The few white people who do ride the train use the Stellenbosch station. That station is about a 30 minute walk from my residence, depending on how easily you get lost (meaning it usually takes me longer than that). The Du Toit station is about a 20 minute walk from my residence if you go at an easy pace (meaning it usually takes me less time because I am perpetually late and must walk quickly to catch my train). The Du Toit station is the “working man’s” station; white people don’t use it. Except the students from my LSCE class. It’s a shorter walk, so it only makes sense to us that we would use it. Plus the walk is absolutely beautiful and some of our learners from Lynedoch use that station.

The train has first class cars, which have tall, gray, padded seats that face forward or backward and make you feel boxed in, and third class cars, which have short, yellow, plastic benches that face the centre and cost you much less to ride. People say that if you’re going to ride the train (as a white person), you must ride first class. They also say that if you’re going to ride the train, you must get in the most crowded cars possible and never get in an empty car. If you’ve ever ridden the train, you know that the third class cars are always packed and the first class ones are almost always empty. Yeah, I’m still trying to make sense of that advice...

Riding first class is kind of boring. Everyone is partitioned off from one another and the cars are relatively quiet (a side effect of being empty). That is, except when ayoba man is aboard. Ayoba man is a wonderful little man who is always on the last car of the train when our class boards every Monday and Friday. He is everyone’s friend and makes sure you know it – he will remind you three or four times in one ride that he loves you (and that you should tell your mother that he loves her). He can make a siren noise with his mouth, listens to music from ridiculously large headphones, colours pictures in notebooks to proudly show us, and always has candy. He gives lots of hugs and always has a new secret handshake to teach us. And he always, always shouts “ayoba!” (South African slang for cool, awesome, etc.).

Riding third class is always exciting. People squish onto the benches and stand in the centre; men and young people give up their seats for old women, mothers and children. Men walk up and down the aisles selling chips, biscuits, candy, oranges, and, less frequently, fingernail clippers, key chains and needles for a few rand each, constantly shouting in street vendor voices and a variety of languages. Groups of women sing loudly and joyfully to Jesus, stamping their feet and clapping their hands. Nicely-dressed men stand near the doors with open Bibles, loudly proclaiming the gospels in isiXhosa or engaging curious patrons in conversation, flipping knowledgeably through the pages of their books. With the exception of a few, rare cases, my friends and I are the only white people. Sometimes we receive curious and occasionally sceptical glances, but most of the time I think we’re the only ones painfully aware of our skin colour (a feeling which has quickly faded as the months go by). Some of the small children stare at us; I just use the opportunity to play peek-a-boo and make silly faces.

Riding the train is just one of the times and places I choose to be with people different from myself in race and socio-economic status. It’s just plain practical – the train is the most convenient, cheap and entertaining way for me to get places as an international student. But it’s also meaningful. I like to think that simply by showing up wearing the skin I was born with, the clothes that I can afford to buy and a smile, I can change attitudes. When I go there, I’m not ashamed of who I am nor of what I’m doing, and that’s rare for someone who looks like me in that situation in this country. I make a point of looking people in the eye and saying hello. Sometimes it’s normal, and sometimes they seem a bit surprised. I just hope that I can impart a sense of dignity where people’s very humanity has been stripped away by institutional racism, that my life and choices can serve as a witness to whites and blacks alike that I am not better than anyone else simply because of the colour of my skin or the money in my bank account. But mostly, I think my motivation is selfish. I love being around these people because they are real. They experience the raw struggle of life and they know material poverty, but they are spiritually rich and radiate a certain joy that cannot be named or understood without experiencing it. They aren’t tied down by materialism and are free to enjoy life and love the way we are meant to. I can’t over generalise and I can’t say that poverty is a good thing, because it’s not. But the people themselves are beautiful, and I like being around them because it helps me to try to be more like them in faith and love.

I love riding the train.

peace and love

Learn Locally, Think Globally

More than anything, I’ve been putting off writing about Lynedoch. Not because it isn’t an important part of my experience in South Africa, but rather because it is the single most important part of my experience in South Africa and is so close to my heart that it hurts. The things I can write about are limited in order to respect the confidentiality of the people, especially the children, at Lynedoch, and my ability to write is limited by the constraints of language and words, which cannot come close to explaining my experience.

Nine of the 15 credits I’m taking at Stellenbosch come from my Learning for Sustainable Community Engagement (LSCE) course, which takes place at Lynedoch Primary School in the Lynedoch EcoVillage, about a ten minute train ride from Stellenbosch. This post will explain what I do there; more posts on what it means to me will come later. The following excerpt from the organisational profile which I wrote for class gives some context for our work:

Most of the learners at Lynedoch Primary School come from 26 surrounding wine farms, and they number 294 in total. Children from the Boorland Winelands area get first priority when filling positions at Lynedoch, but children from other areas (such as the Kayamandi township) also apply for admission and, supposing their families can find a way to transport them to the school, are permitted to attend. All of the children come from poor families – the average parental income is R700 (about US$100) per month – and are Black or Coloured, though the Coloured learners greatly outnumber the Black ones. These children can attend Lynedoch because their transport to and from school is paid by the state and there are no fees to attend the school, unlike the schools where their White counterparts learn, which are heavy in fees.

Social Challenges
The communities in which the learners live are plagued with social problems. The people are poor and have little education, and many of the children’s parents are unemployed. The housing conditions are poor and overcrowding is a huge problem, with 10-12 people living in a one bedroom home. The mortality rate is high. Until recently, farmers would pay their workers in alcohol, leading to a high instance of alcoholism among the working population and of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome among the children. The community also has a significant drug problem, specifically with “tik,” or methamphetamine. Along with alcohol and drugs, the children are also exposed to prostitution and sex at a young age, and there have been instances of very early pregnancies. HIV/AIDS is prevalent, and many of the learners have lost parents or other family members to the disease. Many of the children have absent fathers and their parents typically work long days, leaving the children to care for themselves and their younger siblings. All of these conditions leave the community ripe for other social ills and the children susceptible to risky decision-making and behaviours.

Religion and Language
Staying true to its roots, Lynedoch Primary School is still a Christian school, and all of the teachers and the vast majority of the students are Christian. In particular, the religious population of Lynedoch adheres to a charismatic, Pentecostal flavour of Christianity, with a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit and a personal relationship with God. This is an important source of hope for members of the community in the midst of the multitude of problems they face on a daily basis – many of the farms on which the children live have chapels on the property which become cherished sanctuaries for the children. The school is heavily decorated with verses from Scripture and other faith-related quotes, sayings and icons. The teachers incorporate faith in their lessons, and the learners pray at the beginning and end of each school day, before and after meals, and at various other times throughout the day. Mr. Jansen, the school principal, says, “We need to pray to soften the children a little bit. Some of them come to school quite damaged.” Unlike the school systems in other countries, the education department in the Western Cape allows the schools the autonomy to determine the role religion will play in their individual institutions. Still, there are a few learners at the school who are not Christian, are allowed to practice their own faiths and are not required to pray with the other students; the school places a strong emphasis on teaching religious freedom and tolerance.
Many of the learners at Lynedoch speak isiXhosa and/or other indigenous languages at home, and all of them speak Afrikaans and learn English at school. As a result, the isiXhosa-speaking learners may fall behind in their first few years at Lynedoch, though it seems that those whose home environment is conducive to learning tend to do better. The school has tried to get an isiXhosa-speaking teacher, but it is not financially plausible as he or she would have to teach a few learners from each grade...

Mission and Goals
The principle goal of Lynedoch Primary School is poverty eradication through community development. It believes that education is the best vehicle with which to achieve this, and it strives at all times to provide an excellent education to its learners in order to make some reparation for their many poverties, primarily their poverty of experience. Lynedoch is constantly encouraging its learners to value education, to develop high aspirations and to desire higher education, and it strives to lay the proper foundations so that it students can go on to attend good high schools and universities. In this way, it is instrumental in breaking the cycle of poverty in the Lynedoch community.

My class consists of 23 students from American and European universities. Our professor, Grant, is trained as a Community Development Worker (CDW) and also has training in psychology (it often feels like he’s inside all of our heads, but in a good way). He is absolutely brilliant and I could not ask for a better teacher and mentor. We spend Mondays and Fridays, 9am-4pm at Lynedoch for the course, though our day starts just before 8 so we can walk across town to catch the 8:20 train, and we typically get home around 4:30. I am always completely exhausted at the end of the day, but it is the most fulfilling type of exhaustion there is. Our class is divided into eight teams of three, one team for each of the grades taught at the school, and we are responsible for teaching three short lessons each Monday to our respective grades – this is the community engagement part of our learning. For the community service aspect, we are contributing to the beautification of the school by cleaning, painting, bringing in plants, etc. We spend all day Friday in lecture and complete assignments surrounding the study of community development. We work within the context of Lynedoch and South Africa, but we also apply the concepts to many other situations, including those in our home countries. Enter one of Grant’s many mottos: “Learn locally, think globally.”

My team works in the grade 2 classroom, and I could not be more blessed. We have 37 learners who are almost all eight or nine years old and are all beyond adorable. Some of them speak perfect English and can act as translators for us, and some of them do not speak a word of English, though they can mostly understand us when we talk to them (I also get to implement the Afrikaans that I’m learning at Stellenbosch frequently at Lynedoch – I think I learn far more of it there through practical application than I do in the classroom). Each Monday we do a session on physical education, typically consisting of singing, dancing, simple games and lots of silliness; a session on animals, typically consisting of worksheets, stories, activities and more singing, games and silliness; and a session on careers, following the same format. Several of the students from my class have chosen to go to Lynedoch on Wednesdays in order to give more time to the school. We all have individual projects that we do during that time, ranging from teaching a creative writing class to repairing and prepping the walls for painting, from playing rugby with the children to gardening to organising and beautifying the student library and teachers’ lounge. I partner with some other students to lead a worship service with the children during their morning recess, where we sing praise songs with learners from all grades. The children love to sing and dance to very upbeat praise songs that include lots of clapping and dancing and are filled with overwhelming joy. I also help my friend with her work in the library and spend a lot of time just playing with the children between their classes, interacting and building relationships with my classmates, and loving life. Stellenbosch may be the place that I sleep at night, but Lynedoch is my newest home.

peace and love

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Reality check

So I just skimmed over my first blog post, and I was somewhat appalled by my naivety with regard to race and class issues in my first weeks here. Time to set the record straight (or at least expose more of my experience of the reality of this place).

Things look really good on paper. The constitution promises equality for all people regardless of race, class, background, language, all that good stuff, just like in the US. But the implementation fails in a lot of ways, despite some honest and some not so honest efforts (also just like in the US, but that’s a different conversation). Racism still exists in some discreet and some not so discreet ways, in personal interactions, cultural ideas and values, and in institutional barriers to success for oppressed groups. It’s like they have a lot of the same issues that we still do in the States, it’s just that they’re not as “pc” about it – what we push under the rug in the US is still out there in the everyday language and discourse of the people and politics here in sometimes shocking ways.

Stellenbosch, especially on and near campus, seems really nice on the surface. The buildings and culture maintain a lot of their European influence. The people are pretty; even the Blacks and Coloureds are the “acceptable” kinds of Blacks and Coloureds, the ones that are clean, well-dressed and educated, speak proper English and have conformed to upper-class White norms (I’m being facetious here, if you didn’t catch it). You kind of feel like you’re in a musical until a homeless person comes and asks you for money, possibly yelling at you in a language you don’t understand as you walk away. Race disparities exist. Some 90% of the Stellenbosch population consists of people of colour, and less than 10% of Stellenbosch University students are of colour. And then there’s Khayamandi, the local township, where 35,000 people live in unbelievably poor conditions, 10-40 people living in each of the single-room tin houses that are packed in on top of one another. It’s like Stellenbosch’s embarrassing little brother whom he tries to pretend doesn’t exist as far as is possible. I can see the very edge of it creeping up over the hill and extending off into the distance from the train station – these people literally live on the other side of the tracks.

The constitution promises language equity – of the 11 official languages, the most important governmental documents must be available in all of them, and other important documents and signs must be printed in at least three. Again, these are policies that are not perfectly implemented. The poorest, most disadvantaged people typically speak one of the (9 official) indigenous languages, not English or Afrikaans – those are the rich, educated languages, the languages in which most of political and public goings on take place. Someone living in a township may receive a notification that they cannot read (even if it is printed in the required three languages, it is likely in English, Afrikaans and one indigenous language, possibly not the one they speak), and wonder why some major change that deeply affects their lives takes place a week later without their knowledge or consent.

The indigenous languages (primarily isiXhosa and some isiZulu in the area where I’m living) are not yet considered languages of education. They are considered “real” languages because they have dictionaries and translations of the Bible, the typical markers of a recognized language, but they do not have the set of literature, etc. necessary to be used for higher education (scholars have said that it would be possible to elevate them to this level with some money, but apparently it’s not a cause worth the money at this time). Even for the few poor students who are able to receive primary education in their mother tongue, it does them little good as soon as they move into higher levels of education (not to mention that teachers who teach in indigenous language-speaking schools probably haven’t gotten the best education themselves – the only real requirement to teach a specific grade is that you have passed that grade yourself). For the vast majority of poor students, though, education comes in a language that they do not speak at home and that their parents cannot speak (Afrikaans and/or English), from teachers who probably do not speak their mother tongue. Extend this concept of language exclusion to the workplace (especially decent-paying jobs), and you start to understand just one of the many interconnected barriers to advancement. Keep in mind that language is tightly tied to race, which in turn is deeply entangled in class – the divisions between groups of people are enforced in multiple dimensions.

Education is also exclusive along monetary lines. The state guarantees public education to all children. However, the schools become exclusive by including fees: my (Coloured) children at Lynedoch Primary School (my service site/new home – more on this to come later) pay 5 rand per month in school fees, while the fees at the nicer (White) schools far exceed my learners’ parents’ salaries, making it impossible for my learners’ to ever attend them. The schools don’t explicitly say that they’re segregated, but they don’t have to; the money separates them. The White schools have both the monetary and social capital to provide their learners with quality education in a quality building with a vast number of resources, while the poor schools are lacking in many areas that we take for granted in the US. Then throw in the issue of transportation: the higher-income children have parents or personal drivers to take them to school; the poor children must go to schools that they can access by foot or by public or state-funded transportation (which is slim), further limiting their options.

And then there’s the issue of interpersonal relations and personal dignity. I only want to use one example to explain the problems that still exist: the service learning class that I’m taking was open to all Stellenbosch students last semester, but now it is only open to international students. Why? We work with Coloured primary school teachers, and when they worked with the White South African students, they felt inferior and poorly-treated, while White students from other countries (and let’s face it, almost all of my classmates are White) see them as figures of authority and treat them with respect. This seems to be one area where other countries of the world are doing a bit better, while many South Africans of my generation still grew up with apartheid ideals engrained into them. Our guardian teachers still freak out on a regular basis, overwhelmed by the way we treat them, by little things like asking their permission to do things or giving them hugs. I get overwhelmed when I realize that my white privilege even extends to my ability to make an impact in the schools – my presence there creates an amplified effect for the students and teachers simply by virtue of my Whiteness.

I know this is really harsh language, and it’s not like everything here is horrible. This is an incredible place of diversity; I have seen differences celebrated and love the milieu of cultural experiences I have been having. It’s just that issues of inequality are so entangled in everything here (South Africa has the greatest inequality of any country in the world), and I cannot escape thinking about them constantly. I know I will never be the same again, that I will never be able to ignore these kinds of issues again. But I suppose it’s just moving me toward the person I’m becoming and the career I’ll someday have. Keep in mind that this is my experience of reality and does not by any means encompass everything about this country. But it is very real and, at least in my little world, very important.

peace and love

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Continued adventures in paradise

Yes, it’s true that I haven’t posted in over a month. And no, I didn’t fall off the face of the earth (though I did, at one point, fall into the Indian Ocean). I like to think that I’ve been too busy living life to write about it.

My activities over the past month have included: a weekend in Hermanus where I experienced my first ever backpackers (youth hostel), sea kayaking (R.I.P. sunglasses - see above comment about falling into the ocean), boat-based whale watching, strolling on the cliffs along the beach, great white shark cage diving, paintballing in the woods, and quad biking in the mountains and vineyards just before sunset; an afternoon in Cape Town watching the demolition of the cooling towers, a decades-old landmark; a day touring Cape Town, including Mass at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral (where Desmond Tutu used to preside) and a visit to the South African Holocaust Museum; daily Mass, prayer at the reproductive health clinic in Cape Town, and various other events with the Catholic student group; a couple of braai’s; a couple of rainy afternoons snuggled up with my blanket and coffee mug; countless hours playing, working, teaching and learning at Lynedoch Primary School, my service site and one of my favourite places in the world; dozens of train rides; miles of walking; minor Afrikaans acquisition and implementation; class attendance and homework; three papers; two written tests; new friendship development; and lots of time in conversation and reflection, attempting to hash out my continually-developing world view amidst the social, political, economic, cultural, historical and spiritual landscape of my new home. And, upon completing my Afrikaans midterm this morning, I am now officially on holiday. Hello, Spring Break.

I don’t know what more to say about my adventures except that they are incredible. I was under water with great white sharks, only a couple of feet and a few iron bars separating us. I worshiped in the same place an internationally known and celebrated bishop and pioneer for peace did for years (granted, I could say also that of my worship at the Cathedral at home – my priest here immediately commented on “that fantastic Archbishop of yours” when he found out I was from Denver). Every day I ride past fields of zebras and ostriches, past wine farms that are known for their cheetah and white lion sanctuaries. Where else in the world could I say that?

I’ve settled into life here quite comfortably – I’m confident in my ability to find my way around Stellenbosch and to use the train, I’m learning the value of a rand and a degree Celsius without constantly converting to US dollars or Fahrenheit, and I’m not so nervous about interacting with the locals. I go to church, school, the bank and the grocery store as if I actually live here, and I can (almost) always understand the South African accent and slang. And I’m not really sure how I ever lived without rooibos tea and breakfast rusks.

peace and love

ps. My friend coerced me into doing a 30 day blog with her friends from back home. You can follow it at

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is this real life?

Well, I’ve been putting off blogging for quite some time because I simply do not know where to begin. You’d think that, having been a chronic procrastinator for many years now, I would realize that that just leaves me more to do when I finally get around to the job, but that never seems to stop me. The past two weeks have consisted of one new and incredible experience after another. I don’t know how to cover them all here, but here’s my best shot:

First of all, it is beautiful here! In an attempt to share some of it with you back home, I've including some pictures. Here is the view from the parking lot just outside my building and the view from my kitchen window at sunrise. Below are shots of Table Mountain and the Waterfront in Cape Town (it's ok to be jealous).

What do you get when you mix a liberal, feminist lesbian with a conservative, traditionalist Catholic? I know you’re waiting for the punch line, but that’s my roommate and I. Throw in some exotic-looking bugs, a freezer that doesn’t freeze and a couple near-death experiences, and you’ve got a bad sitcom, I mean, our lives together here. As much as we may joke about it, the truth is that we get along quite beautifully, and I’m not sure I could ask for a better roommate. Obviously, we have to agree to respectfully disagree on a few issues and to live our lives differently. Differences aside, though, Sam and I have found that we have quite a bit in common – a shared taste in music, a love of chocolate, random physical ailments from which only bodies much older than ours should suffer, a lack of desire to get drunk almost every night (which many of the international students here seem to have), and a heart for children and the poor – and I am very grateful to have her friendship as we navigate this new country.

And my friendship with Sam is not the only one that has required me to bridge some gaps. All of my classes are with international students only, which disappointed me at first, and I know I will have to put forth effort to involve myself in the South African community. However, my classes have not contained the homogeneity that I expected. Differences in culture and thought are evident in my discussions with the many Europeans and even the Americans from other parts of the country who are studying here. I find it quite interesting that my many opportunities for personal reflection and growth stem not only from my interactions with the native South Africans, but also those with the people I expected to be more similar to myself.

Speaking of my interactions with European students, I must say that I am incredibly impressed by their ability to speak English despite the fact that it is not their mother tongue. I knew that many European schools begin teaching their students English at a very young age, but I have only started to fully realize it here. Most of the German students speak German and English fluently, along with a fair bit of French and/or Spanish. After taking four years of German, exceeding the language requirements in the US, I could barely attempt to greet them in their native language, and they always speak English around me. It’s the same with the South Africans. Even the young children from poor communities with whom I will be working speak isiXhosa and/or other indigenous tongues at home and Afrikaans and English at school, and they always speak English to me even though it may be their third or fourth language. I am realizing at an even deeper level how ethnocentric the US school system can be compared to those around the world, and the way people everywhere go out of their way to conform to our norms. I am humbled.

On a lighter note, I have been thoroughly enjoying South Africa before I get too busy with classes. My study abroad program brought us to Cape Town twice in the past two weeks to meet up with the University of Cape Town (UCT) students and attend events there. The first time, we went to a dinner theatre in an old church building in District 6, the township where the poorest of the poor live and which infamously evacuated all Black and Coloured residents during apartheid. The show was intended to entertain and to educate about race relations in Cape Town, and it included traditional and modern music and dancing, performed by a very talented and very young cast. We stood in a cafeteria-style line to get our food just like many of the residents of District 6 would have, and the performers taught us parts of the famous African “gumboot” dance, which was originally developed as a way for the slaves in the mines to communicate when they were not allowed to speak to one another. It constantly amazes me how, in the midst of great poverty, I always find the people full of great joy. Our program also brought us to Cape Town to watch a professional rugby game, and I found a new favourite sport. It has all the great aspects of American football – running, throwing, tackling – without the less awesome aspects – helmets, pads, stopping the play every three seconds – and it can actually keep my interest for a full 90 minute game.

Aside from those bigger excursions, we have been finding ways to keep busy. The international office had a showing of “District 9” followed by a wine tasting, where I watched the movie for the first time (it’s about District 6, and I very highly recommend it to anyone who has not seen it!) and had my first legal drink (I also highly recommend South African wine). Yesterday, we rode the train to Cape Town and spent the day shopping and wandering at the Waterfront, which was beyond gorgeous (plus we got to see the FIFA Soccer City). We have also been wandering around Stellenbosch, acquainting ourselves with the shops and restaurants, and simply going grocery shopping can sometimes be an adventure. When all else fails, you can find a braai just about any night of the week. What’s a braai? A South African barbeque where they burn lots of wood, grill and eat lots of meat, and drink lots of alcohol (the last part is optional). It seems like South Africans are always celebrating, even when there’s nothing to celebrate other than simply being alive.

And I’ve saved the best part for last: Church. The Catholic church in Stellenbosch is St. Nicholas, and it’s within walking distance of my residence. The priest works at multiple parishes, so the Masses are limited – only 8am on Sunday mornings and a couple other times throughout the week. Now that classes are starting again, they will resume student Mass on Sunday evenings, which I will begin attending next week and where I will be able to connect with members of the SU Catholic community (so excited!). The church is very little but very comfortable and beautiful, the people are wonderful and faithful, and I already feel at home there. Much as I expected, Mass is the same as in the US and easy for me to follow, but totally different at the same time. At the beginning of my first Mass, the priest said, “The Lord be with you,” to which I responded with a confident and solid, “And also with you,” before realizing that was not at all what everyone else was saying. Since then, I have mumbled my way through Mass, trying to learn the responses, which are almost all slightly different than at home (even the Nicene Creed and Gloria say the same thing but with different words and in a different order).

The priest is passionate and fiery but still compassionate and loving in his preaching. I love that he is not afraid to call us out, to light a bit of a fire beneath the rumps of our spiritual lives, as many of the priests at home seem to avoid out of fear of scaring people away. Last week was the story of Mary and Martha, and he talked about ensuring that we do not get so caught up in doing things, even good things, that we forget why and for Whom we are doing them. This week was Jesus’ teachings on prayer, including the Our Father, and he talked about approaching God as our Abba, Daddy, and ensuring that we don’t go into auto-pilot during prayer, citing Jesus’ warning against babbling like the Pagans. At the end of his sermons, you feel like you need to step up and make some changes in your life, but it’s a feeling of being lovingly compelled rather than condemned.

The sign of peace is during the offertory, which I just learned is specific to my parish and not characteristic of the country as a whole. The priest always gets up after the collection has been taken but before the gifts have been brought forward and cites Jesus’ teaching that, if we come to make our offering at the altar and realize we have not made peace with our brother, we should leave the offering and go to make peace before returning. He then invites us to at least make peace with one another, and many people move up and down the aisles, genuinely wishing peace to as many people as possible. It is beautiful. They also serve communion by intinction, the Eucharist minister dipping the Body into the Blood before administering it, so everyone receives on the tongue. Even though there is not a communion row, people act like there is. The altar is on a platform one step up from the main floor, and the ministers stay on the step while people fill in spaces along the edge. Some people choose to remain standing, but most people kneel on the step while the minister moves back and forth administering the Blessed Sacrament. Not too many people stay in their pew during communion, but certainly more than at home. While I would love to see everyone receive communion, I like to see that people are deliberate about ensuring that they are in a state of grace in order to receive and are humble enough to stay back if they are not. Kneeling to receive, receiving on the tongue, only receiving in a state of grace – it is all so reverent and beautiful.

And they love Mama Mary. There are statues of her everywhere in the church, we lift all of our prayers to her and recite Marian prayers at the end of the prayers of the faithful every week, and we invoke her frequently. I already love it here.

peace and love