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.