Back to School at Thembani Primary

The past three days we’ve spent a few hours with the children across town (8 miles away) at Thembani Primary School.  We’ve spent time in the classrooms with children, from grade R (like first grade) to grade 7.  I’m not one for children really; I just feel awkward and never know what to say to them, especially in a language I don’t speak.  Nevertheless, just like at Funjwa, that didn’t seem to matter.  Most were already learning English and were more than willing to converse with us.  They ask us our names, and when we learn theirs we pretend like we understand them.  They have very traditional African names and I’m sure ours are as foreign to them as theirs are.  But yet, there’s a certain light that goes on in your heart when you hear them call your name, knowing they actually remember you from the previous day.  Subconsciously or not, I wore the same sweatshirt so they could remember me, and that seemed to work.  The first day we met them, the only thing they wanted to know was our names and where we came from.  Maybe it’s just common courtesy, or maybe there is a certain acknowledgement, culturally, that comes with knowing someone’s name here.  I learned two new and different handshakes that I didn’t know before, as someone once told me last week, “there are like 9,000 different handshakes and each time you meet someone, you never know what you’re going to get!”  Both the kids and I got a certain gratification from knowing this mutual greeting.

Of the past 3 days at Thembani, one thing stuck out the most for me:  and that is the children’s amazing tenacity, and mostly due to the teacher’s curriculum, in keeping African tribal heritages.  I have to say, I think we learned so much more from them than they have from us.  After asking our names, they asked if we know certain celebrities like John Cena, Beyoncé, Li’l Wayne and President Obama (when we told them we were from Illinois, and knowing he is too, they asked us if we lived near him.  Comical as it is, it gives a certain insight into how they perceive states in the States, and that is much like townships:  small providences where everyone knows everyone and are divided in a similar way.  They were content when we told them that no, we did not live near Senator Obama.)  I, personally, was happy yesterday when we got a djembe lesson from observing a classroom.  They were learning about traditional instruments like the djembe and the marimba.  Even though these children are growing up in an increasingly Westernized country, the schools still stress cultural heritage, whether it be the Zulus, Xhosa, Lesuthu or whatever.  With exceptions, there are Xhosas who can attend Zulu ceremonies, and vice versa, as observers.  They’re not restricted, of course if it’s a special ceremony like initiation ones, then there are exceptions.  But Xhosas can wear Zulu clothing, Lesuthu can wear Ndebele clothing, etc.  The African culture, as diverse as it is, culminates in South Africa.  I learned today that the culture is one of openness and tolerance, and from my own insight, I think part of that also comes from South Africa’s huge tourist sector.  When you have people traveling from around the world, some of those cultures are going to blend and mix.  People learn from each other and are accepting of each other.  You might be thinking that sounds like America, but think about it:  many Americans believe in a “pure” American culture of baseball, apple pie, etc.  That is severely flawed logic, and I think you get the point when I say that; I won’t take the time to explain it for redundancy, but I can say that the harshness of apartheid after 1994 has left the culture much more willing to be open to others, whether you’re white, black, colored, Indian.  In America, though we had the Civil Rights movement, I don’t think that’s exactly crystallized yet, or if it ever will.  Gladys, a teacher who led us at the school, said “they have to know their own culture before they can know another.”  And here, for my purposes of study, I begin to see the seedlings of the Black Consciousness thought, whether intentional or not. 

Today, the last day, they finally got the chance to learn from us.  We told them about our lives growing up in America, and I think we were both surprised at the parallels.  I hoped they saw that, despite the stories they heard being from Chicago, that America isn’t an entirely dangerous place, nor is it the shining city on a hill as everyone seems to think.  Many of the problems kids encounter here can be found overseas, whether in the city or in the rural areas. 

Goodbyes were bittersweet.  Again, in a short amount of time, we grew fond of them, and they of us.  Goodbyes were expressed with hugs, handshakes, smiles I-love-yous and I’ll-miss-yous.  One girl told us that she was thankful for us sharing and that they learned a lot from us.  Often we say that children are the future, education is important for creating developing societies, and while all this is true, when you remember that their black parents, who were denied education because they were women and or black, parents who cannot read or write (the Lost Generation, they’re called), these children are the hope of their parents, the leaders of the future of South Africa.  Some have ambitions to be doctors and lawyers.  Some are more outgoing than others, and I see that black or white, children’s dreams don’t change.  Their actions don’t change; kids will be kids.  They just want someone to look up to, someone to hold their hand and tell them they’re beautiful.  Someone to tell them that they’re going to do great things.  I saw a sign today and the first day that I had to keep remembering when I was with the kids.  I kept recalling it: “Even on your worst day at work, you are one child’s hope.”  And I think for the collective 6 hours we were there, that’s the lesson to be learned.


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