Saturday, August 9, 2008

Last South African Post

At Least For Now

I will leave South Africa tomorrow at 3:00 PM South African Time. It's been an emotional few days. I plan to keep up this blog once I get back to the States. I have a feeling the experience is going to stick with me, and there is still so much to share. But, now, I want to share the past few days with you all.

Thursday night was our last evening at Ethembeni. We had an art show for the students with all their work mounted and hung in the halls and there was Ellen Stewart's play with the kids as well as a separate play that my friends Katie and Meghan directed with the a few other kids. I walked into it as if it were any other day with the kids. I wasn't prepared for how I would end up feeling Thursday. None of us were.

We started class like it was any other. The students were finishing their comic books for the show. As they finished Alyssa started wire sculptures with them. They worked with the same focus they have for the past 4 weeks. They were so into the work, intent on finishing. Pizza came for them and Alyssa and I had bought them little bags of cheese pretzels, but none of them wanted to stop and eat. Finally, we just brought the food to their desks. As they all started finishing and eating, it hit us all that it was really ending. One of my favorite students, Siphokazi, a 3rd year prefect, came up to me, "I want you to know, in case I never see you again, you've had a huge impact on my life." She had tears in her eyes and we hugged. There were lots of hugs. I urged them to keep drawing, practice. I urged them to keep looking at everything around them and telling stories. Mamosa and her sister Mathapelo hugged me and said they would miss me. The boys hugged me. Xholoni, the big rugby player, hugged me. As I hugged him I apologized for never mastering his name which has a Xhosan click in it. He responded, "Maybe you can't say my name, but you did remember it." At this point, it was pretty miraculous that I was holding it together at all. They all wanted our addresses and they gave us theirs. We said a few words about how proud we were of them. I thanked them for being my first class and all that I learned from them. One student, Leon, called me over to his desk and presented me with a long stick with designs burned into it. "I want you to have this. It is my walking stick. I used it in my initiation." I thanked him profusely. The initiation into manhood is a Xhosan tradition when boys come of age. I was told a few minutes later by our Arts and Culture teacher, Alethea, that receiving the stick was a great honor. This was the 5th time in the evening I nearly started crying. The kids parents and family came and were so proud of their art. The kids were running around showing off their work and showing their family and teachers their comic books. I didn't think it could possibly get any better or any more emotional.

We all filed into the auditorium, and sit down. The principal went up and said some lovely things about us, so lovely that Hanna, one of my fellow classmates, started crying and I hugged her and felt tears well up in my eyes too. Then Ellen Stewart's show began. All I can say is that the kids have the most beautiful voices and they sang with such passion. Next, Katie and Meghan's kids performed their play, Master of the Microphone, a play about an aspiring rapper that has to choose between his friends and family and a career. The kids wrote the play themselves, in about 2 weeks. Katie directed them. They were funny and very professional.

After the play was over, one of Meghan and Katie's students came up and spoke about how they appreciated Meghan and Katie working with them. At this point more of the cast was on stage and they called Meghan and Katie up and presented them with lovely beaded collars that they had chipped in to buy for them. The beaded collars are a tradition among the tribes here. As the collar is placed on Katie, she started crying, and once again so do we all. There were more hugs after. A few of my students find me again we all hugged some more.

We came home buzzing with a complicated combination of happiness and sorrow. So of course, we had to go eat and then sing karaoke. But, before we did that we decide to buy newspapers as Pratt was mentioned in an article about Ellen Stewart. There are 6 homeless boys we always see in the neighborhood, hanging outside the convenience store. They are aged between 7 and 10. Alyssa buys them apples and a bag of popcorn. Someone else gives them bread and Meghan gives them a pack of jerky. Alyssa says, "I'm feeling unstable." But, I don't think it was weakness so much as humanity and I assured her it was an awesome thing to do. However she couldn't talk for a minute and walks ahead a bit. So you see, karaoke was absolutely necessary.

Mike is a musician and so was an instant hit with the South African bar crowd. He rocked Tiny Dancer as it's never been rocked before. The crowd went wild. The Pratt group's version of Love Shack was not as warmly received, but I think they were just tired.

Friday, we went to the dolphin show at nearby, Bay World. There's nothing like a dolphin show with friends. Then, it was off to a massive dinner, at an Italian restaurant with most of the people that have made this trip special. The Pratt group was there of course, but so was Alethea, the South African professor without whom we'd know nothing of the real South Africa. James, our driver and knower of all things about South Africa and it's wildlife was there. We've all grown to love him. Marc our tour guide was also there, as well as Asanda and Lubabalo, who have helped us with the students. Linkah, the Nelson Mandela University student who shared puppetry class with us was there too. A few of us went for dessert after. There were a lot of good byes, and again, some tears welling.

This morning, our last morning with my roommate and teaching partner, Alyssa, we got up to watch the sunrise. Course it was hiding behind a cloud, but it was still lovely and quiet. The light was all silvery as we stood there saying nothing until Alyssa turns to us and says that she thinks the sun is probably up already.

I didn't actually start crying until I told Alyssa good bye this morning, and we were hugging. This was silly as we're both going to Pratt and she'll be living in Brooklyn near the college soon. She's also totally coming to our puppetry final in a couple of weeks. Still, I was bound to fall apart sooner or later.

The most surprising thing to result from this trip are the friendships, both with the people in the program and the people we met here. And as I write this I'm feeling pretty damned grateful for the experience and the people I've shared it with. I'm also about to bawl, of course. So, of course, many thanks to my students, for being so earnest and eager to learn and for teaching me as much as I taught them. And very special thanks to Alyssa, Katie, Hanna, Eileen, Meghan and Mike for hanging with me, encouraging me, supporting me, and making me laugh like I haven't in a long, long time. This time tomorrow I'll have already said good bye to you all, except for Katie who's miraculously got the same flights as me all the way home. But, I'll see you guys on the other side of the pond, back home. Someday, I know I'll come back, but it won't be the same without you all. It will be a whole other overwhelming experience, wonderful surely but very different, no doubt.

The next post will likely be from the comfort of my apartment surrounded by John, Jackson, Tobey and Max. As I will also be returning to wireless, the next post will also have some awesome photos! So stay tuned, people!

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Last Week

A Look Back, A Look Ahead

Today is the first day of my last week in South Africa. I have two more classes with the kids at Ethembeni. I have 6 more days with the friends I've made in the program and the ones I've made in this country. Two more puppet classes. There are seven more days until I get to see my boyfriend, John and my dogs, Tobey and Max. In ten days I will get to see my son, Jackson,and my family, when I pick him up from his grandparents house in Louisiana. So there are a lot of things to look forward to and a lot to miss, when I leave.

It will likely take some time until I can fully appreciate what this experience will mean to me. The only thing I know right now is that it has changed me, and hopefully in a lasting way. Before I came here, I had been working in an office as an assistant for nearly 11 years. I did it to support my son, and that's not nothing. I'd do it again, but my day to day life had no real purpose apart from our survival. Here, every day has had a purpose. Every day meant more than just my own survival. Every day I was able to give something back to someone else. Every day I was part of a team of people with one purpose, and that was bringing art to kids who didn't have it.

One day last week we went to a photo seminar at Nelson Mandela University. One of the seniors told us of her project to bring photography to prisoners in an attempt to help rehabilitate them. She told us the Parable of the Starfish, and it goes something like this: There was an old man walking down the beach and he came across a boy surrounded by thousands of starfish. The boy was busy picking up one starfish at a time and throwing them back into the ocean. The old man said to the boy, "There are so many starfish on the beach. You can't possibly hope to make a difference." The little boy threw another starfish into the ocean and said, "But, I made a difference to that one."

For the rest of my life, every day I'd like what I do to matter in some small way to someone. Some amazing things have happened since we've been here. A boy in my class, Samkelo, cannot read very well, but found out that he can draw beautifully. The head boy of Etembeni, Lungako Hoho, will be able to share his beautiful story with the world, if I have anything to say about it. My teacher, Sandy is helping a little girl, Cornelia get her teeth fixed and is trying to arrange to pay for her school fees. Asanda, a young local artist, who has been helping us with the kids in the program, is being hired to work at Ethembeni as an art teacher, the first the school will have in it's history. Up until this point, Asanda was unable to find employment and was selling his paintings and t-shirts wherever he could. He will also be able to get his high school equivalancy and possibly attend Nelson Mandela University for art. The details of this are being arranged.

So, I'd like to think we were able to throw some starfish back into the ocean, even if just a few of them. And, who knows. When I get home maybe I can work on flinging a few more back into the ocean. Even if it's just a few, it will be worth the effort.

Friday, August 1, 2008


South Africa is not a third world country unless you live in a township. There is electricity and paved highways and clean water fit for drinking, unless you live in a township. I didn't really have a concept of what a township was until I came here. The word itself, township, is innocuous, unless you are in South Africa.

If you are not in South Africa, the word township does not conjur up images of corrugated tin shacks with no plumbing and sometimes no electricity. Somewhere else in the world the word might not mean abject poverty. Outside of Capetown there is a township that stretches out into the horizon farther than you can see, an ocean of corrugated tin.

Then I think of my kids. Most of them are township kids. It's hard to wrap my head around. They come to school sharp in their school uniforms, focused and ready to work. How is it possible for them to remain so focused in the face of such desperation at home?

Some probably do live in government housing that is slowly replacing the shacks in townships. These have electricity and indoor plumbing although many will still build an outhouse so that extended family still living in shacks can share in the plumbing. Can you imagine that? I cannot, not coming from where I do. The lists for these houses is long and the little houses go up so slowly.

When you speak to the kids you begin to understand that they know that their only hope to bring about progress is their education. It is everything for many of them. But, jobs are growing more scarce. Even if they are able to get degrees, even advanced degrees there may not be jobs for them unless the situation changes. Currently, there is increasing desperation among these people due to issues in the world market. The prices of their food, transportation and daily expenses are increasing. They cannot afford to feed their families or even get to work. Many of the kids in my classes pay taxi buses to pick them up at one stop, usually far from home. They have to walk sometimes as much as an hour to these stops and it costs their family money. The fares are rising due to the sky rocketing price of gas.

There has been progress in the past 14 years and I wonder if the current market will halt this progress for my students. Will these kids be able to continue to alter the face of the townships for the better? The worry is going to stick with me long after I leave, because now South Africa has a face. And the face isn't desperate and defeated. It's not what you see in movies. For me the face of South Africa is that of its bright-eyed, earnest students.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Monster Love

The Hot New Puppet Extravaganza!

I’ve talked a lot about the crazy South African wildlife, its beautiful landscapes and awesome kids, but I’m not just teaching down here and enjoying the scenery. I’m also building puppets! Theodora Skipatares is one of the professors here and she’s doing a class on puppets. I know that sounds awfully random, but the whole idea is that she’s also teaching puppets to the kids and the kids will perform a show at the end of the trip. The show is being put on in conjunction with Ellen Stewart, of experimental theater fame. She got a Ford Foundation Grant to come and put on a show with the kids and us.

So, we have Theodora here and she’s teaching three of us the art of puppets, and hello, its awesome fun. It’s also very intense. This is normally a 16 week program and she’s cramming into 4 weeks. We’re doing shadow puppets now, by cutting out these puppets from black paper and performing with them on a shadow screen, a large white sheet on a frame with light shining behind it.

This weekend’s homework was to write a 2 minute story and be ready to perform it Tuesday. She encouraged us to use music. I had done this crazy monster head, and decided to use it, so I wouldn’t have as much work to do. My background song was My Beloved Monster by the Eels. It’s sort of a goofy song, so my story was goofy. It went like this:

Once there was a monster.
And he loved a monster girl.
One day, the villagers captured her and put her behind a wall of fire.
The monster terrorized the villagers, but they would not let her go.
So he pleaded with the villagers.
They were moved by his love for the monster girl and freed her.
Together they ate the villagers and lived happily ever after.

It’s a simple silly story. Piece of cake, right? Alyssa and I taught at Sivuyseni (not Steve Buschemi after all), the elementary school for a few hours, Monday. It was an intense experience, but we were home by noon. I rested up from that, and then went right into making puppets at one o'clock. I finished at about 10 pm. Sure I took a quick dinner…and wine break, but then I went right back to work. My friends had to stop me as I made 12 puppets for my 2 minute production and I was going to need to bring in janitors to perform the thing. Clearly I had lost my mind. They were considering bringing in professional help when I figured out a way to cut down to 9 puppets. Tuesday morning as I ate my breakfast I figured out a way to eliminate 3 more. This would mean I’d only need my classmates to perform the story. Luckily, we have a student from Nelson Mandela taking the class too, so I still had a small audience.

Anyway, Theodora ended class by saying that I really have a flair for puppets and I’m an awesome storyteller. I almost hugged her, which would have been awkward, but it made me super happy as being a storyteller is what I’ve been trying to do with my drawings.

Next we're moving on to rod puppets and I've sculpted Kurt Vonnegut's head in clay for mine. We'll be casting it in plaster tonight.

So now I pretty much have decided that when I grow up I want to be a puppeteer… or a race car driver. You know, if teaching doesn't work out as I've planned. It's important to have something to have a back up plan. We’ll see how it all pans out.

Note: I know I haven't posted many photos, but that turns out to be a time consuming, tricky thing here. I have taken over 1100 photos though. So I'll get some up soon.

Also, I'm hoping to get up some video of my performances, including Monster Love. So stay tuned!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Take My Picture!

The children smile and wave as our van pulls up to the school. A few greet us in the front hall as we look at their artwork from last summer. We are introduced to the children.

-Can we show them our classrooms?

Sandy says they can, and a small girl with beautiful braids has taken a shine to Meghan. She grabs her hand and then mine. She takes us to her classroom and proudly shows us where she sits.

-What is your favorite thing to do in school?

We go outside. We take pictures. Meghan takes a Polaroid. There are several children now and they delight in seeing their faces appear on the small photo. More are taken. Since there isn’t enough to give to everyone, we take them to the teacher to keep and show in class.

Little girls are holding my hands and swinging them.

-This is like Ring Around the Rosie.
-Ring Ring Rosies!

They know the game. Suddenly we are dancing in a circle. We all fall laughing. It’s effortless. The experience has taken on a life of its own.

-Take my picture!
-Take my picture!

I take many photos, always showing the children their images in my digital camera.
They tell me their names, beautiful, musical, difficult names for my American brain to hang onto.

The girls show me clapping games. I don’t know the words but remember the rhythm. It is all so much the same but not the same.

-Take my picture!
-Take my picture!

Boys pose like gangster rappers, just like the little boys at home.
The girl with the braids sings an Usher song, “You’re much too beautiful girl…..” She knows all the words.

-Take my picture!
-Take my picture!

Now there are older girls, about age 15. They share their names. One wants to be called Vu Vu. I can do that! One is Yolanda. I know that name! They all laugh.

Yolanda is well-spoken, self-possessed. She is the leader, the voice of the group.

-What do you think of South Africa?
-It’s beautiful. Do you know how beautiful your country is?
-Yes, we love it!

And she means this. She says is almost reverently.

-Do you like school?
-Yes, it is important for making a life.
-What do you all want to do when you grow up?
-To be a lawyer.
-To be a doctor.
-To be a social worker.
-To be a doctor.
-To be a social worker.
-Those are important things.
-It is important to give back to our country.

Again, this is not a platitude. She means this.

They are baffled when I tell them my son attends school just a little more than 9 months out of the year.

-What does he do with all that extra time?!

They are elegant and mature. I want to stay and talk. There is much to learn from these girls.

But, it is time to go and I make my way back to the van, stopping along the way to take more photos.

A boy stops me.

-Will you be my friend?
-Here is my card.
It is a postcard photo of him. His name is written on the back, Thembelani Mtshengu.
-We are friends now.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Kids

Or Cindy Teaches for the First Time

So a lot has happened. It seems like a week's worth of events take place in each day here. If only I could pop online each night and share it all, but it's just not possible, given the internet situation at the hotel.

Once I get the 800 plus photos I've taken situated there will be more talk of Capetown and the end of Travel Week, but I want to skip forward now to the past week, and the kids, those amazing kids. Also there will be pictures of them as well. So check back maybe tomorrow.

I fear that any words I use here will seem trite or overly sentimental, but if you could know what I am feeling, what all of us are feeling you'd know it's all very real. Sandy told us during Travel Week that as amazingly beautiful as South Africa is, it's the kids you come back for. We all sort of poo pooed that. We felt she was being a tad over sentimental. We were wrong.

Tuesday was our first day at the high school, Ethembeni. The kids are, for the most part, township kids, mostly Xhosa (prounounced with a click and then Kohsa). Most of them are on waiting lists for more prestigious schools, but their parents have waited in line for a day or so to get them into this school. The pass rate is 100%. They are not allowed to be absent and there parents must be active in their education. Those are the rules.

We all wait for them in a small seatless auditorium. 80 or so kids file in. I steel myself for jeers and teenaged attitude, but it's just not there. They are thrilled to see us. We teach in teams and are all introduced as such. We talk about what we'll be teaching. The kids are very excited about the puppetry and drama, but very nervous about drawing. We only get 8 students the first day. That's okay as I've never done this before. A small group is fine with me.

We all file into our classroom. Alyssa, my teaching partner and roommate has been teaching in Brooklyn for a year. She takes the first class which is still life drawing. She speaks to them about what she wants them to do as she demos for them. Then they start to draw.

It strikes you how quiet and focused they are. Alyssa whispers, "This situation you're seeing now doesn't exist in the US." And, I notice as I am going around helping them that some of them are trembling. This breaks my freaking heart. I go around and I ask one girl in a whisper, "Are you nervous?" She looks up at me wide-eyed and grateful. "Yes, I've not done this before." I touch her on the shoulder and tell her she is doing very well. "Just relax. It's okay. We're all learning here." And she does relax. She's smiling now. It's amazing!

More amazing than that is how well they draw. My teacher, Sandy comes in and I whisper, "I think some of this have done this before." "No, most of them have never drawn in their lives. They haven't had the classes and they usually don't have paper or materials." I'm floored.

I tell the principal later how focused they were, and how nervous. She comments, "Failure is not accepted in their culture. They'd rather not try than fail." However if an adult tells them to do something, especially a teacher they will give it their all.

Yesterday was our second class, and my first as a teacher....ever. I am teaching them about storytelling in art, and as an introduction I talk about cave art and I decide to have them do a simple story about an animal or animals in two scenes. First, we talk about their homework which was to draw an object that has significance to them. They each tell us what it means to them. One girl is shy about her drawing and will only show it to me, but explains proudly that she drew a calculator and books, because she loves school and is "a bit of a bookworm." She is beaming about telling us this. School is important to these kids. It's not something they have to do. It's a chance at a better life, and this is not a platitude here it's reality. Education is the only way to something better for these kids and even then only 10% will go onto college. They fight hard and study hard for what they get.

Then, I demo the drawing using my dogs, Tobey and Max as example. I get a little choked up when I say their names. I miss my boys. But, Alyssa says that wasn't noticeable. I'm told they enjoyed hearing me talk about my dogs and my silly story drawing about them.

Then we tape up paper for them on the walls. They immediately get into it. They really seem to understand the concept and are natural storytellers. I believe all kids are, really. Two kids are having a hard time because they are frustrated about how their animals look. I spend a few minutes with them and presto, they get it too!

It was the most amazing feeling ever. I wasn't sure about teaching, honestly. But, it's very rare in life to have that feeling that you are exactly where you should be. I felt that yesterday.

My post tomorrow will focus on the kids at the Steve Bushcemi* school. Also, come back as there will be pics on this post and much much more! :-D

*Okay so the name just sounds like Steve Bushcemi, but for the longest time we pictured there being a oil portrait of the actor in the front hall. There wasn't though.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Breaking News! Baboon Attack, South Africa


Sandwich and two quiches stolen. Film at eleven.

Many of my friends have been teasing me about being eaten by a zebra. Turns out, zebras aren't an issue, but watch out for those baboons! Today at the Cape Point Nature Reserve, I'm sitting at my table with some friends. We're at a deli, outside, behind electrified fencing, feeling all safe, happy about our quiche and tuna sandwiches. Next thing we know a lady on a cliff is making odd noises and throwing rocks, large rocks, and a man with a large stick is approaching. There are baboons, they are screaming. It didn't occur to us to move. It didn't seem possible that they were talking to us.

Just then a rather large baboon vaults over the elecrtified fence and onto our table. We moved away as if in a dream. I stood a few feet from the table and watched him eat half my tuna sandwich and inhale two little quiches. Then the people with big sticks got him to leave and we were ushered into the restaurant.

People, I didn't even scream, and I'm a screamer. If you know me, you know this. It was just didn't seem possible that a baboon had nearly landed in my lap and was sharing my sandwich with me. Luckily he left my chocolate alone, because otherwise he and I would have thrown down.

Here he is later, on top of a car after stealing a bag of food from another tourist.

We also went to a reserve on the beach to see penguins. The penguins were just hanging out looking us from the bushes and rocks, with this look on their faces like, whatever, we're adorable.

There were also, dassies. I'm told dassies are related to elephants, but they look like giant guinea pigs to me. There were like ten of them eating this flowers running around on the boardwalk around us.

They're sort of sirly looking. Yeah, take my picture and then leave me the hell alone. I haven't had coffee!

None of these pictures were taken with a telephoto. Apart from the baboon, but really he was pretty close too.

It's pretty clear that in Africa, it's their party and if we want to come that's okay. Just remember to step away from the sandwiches.

Okay, so I know you're looking for pics, but I'm dealing with dial up here and am being told it's time to go.

Check back tomorrow for critter pics!