Saturday, September 22, 2007

Potchefstrom Children’s Literature Conference

There are no children here. We are scholars, teachers and librarians meeting at one of South Africa’s historic universities to discuss children’s literature in South Africa. The group is more multicultural than I expected, although white mainstream academics dominate the sessions. At least they aren’t all male. I have been struck by what this country has in common with the post-colonial experiences of Canada and New Zealand—small markets, multi-cultures, lost in global markets dominated by U.S. mainstream culture. It takes courage to invest in letting local voices be heard.

One session dealt with books on HIV. I was familiar with most, but got some new titles that I want to track down to read and review. Issues brought up included balancing dire warnings to avoid HIV and offering hope for living with the disease. Unfortunately, research doesn’t show the dire warnings having much effect on behavior. There is a desperate need for books in general that show children of the majority population—black—but how do we then avoid implying in our HIV-related books that AIDS is a black problem?

The most valuable part of conferences like this is undoubtedly the relationships—finding others who are passionate about books for modern African children and hearing what they are doing. The Family Literacy Project started out to empower non-literate women to prepare their children for reading success by teaching them to talk and interact with their pre-schoolers, not a traditional part of African culture. Too often the non-literate see themselves as helpless and inadequate. The project convinces these mothers that they are the first teachers with a significant role to play in their children’s school success. Of course, the emphasis on reading has led moms and grandmothers to want to learn to read themselves. We saw a delightful picture of a pot simmering on an open hearth and behind it a five-year-old and her grandmother each leaning against a post engrossed in a book. Another project, Stories Across Africa, is collecting “text-lite” stories with African contexts and producing tiny, beautifully illustrated book sets in multiple languages.

Mother-tongue, cultural pride, community participation, gender respect and the spread of HIV are complicated cultural issues with long histories and patterns of thinking behind them. This week I met some dedicated people who are struggling with those issues on behalf of a new generation.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Teaching the affluent

Last week I taught creative writing to fifth through eight graders at a Catholic girls’ school in one of the wealthy northern suburbs of Johannesburg. I can hardly condemn their isolation when I myself graduated from Tudor Hall School for Girls in Indianapolis. Saint Brescia’s has a lovely campus with lawns and gardens watered by an automatic sprinkling system. The girls stood politely and recited their welcome and their thanks to me in unison. Their green blazers and straw hats reminded me of old sepia photographs of Cambridge and Oxford University students a hundred years ago. Most, but not all, were white. It was hard to imagine that they lived in the same city as the kids in Tembisa or at Saint Francis. As far as their experience goes, the girls of Saint Brescia’s are as far from Tembisa as the children of Indianapolis, even though I could drive the distance in forty-five minutes. (Make that an hour and a half in Johannesburg rush hour.)

We had a fun time talking about showing the setting and characters instead of telling the reader about them. The teachers were enthusiastic. The girls eagerly bought autographed copies of The Wooden Ox. The war in Mozambique in the 1980s is as distant to them as the Holocaust was to me at their age.

At the end of two days I spoke at a dinner meeting of librarians and English teachers from similar schools. “How can we get children from affluent white homes to be concerned about the problem of HIV?” one asked. (“How can we get affluent Americans to be concerned?” I wanted to ask in return.) Story is the best answer I have to offer, short of coming here and meeting people personally—something affluent suburban South African whites are often terrified to do. Whether it is accounts of real people or fictionalized representations of what real people go through, stories show readers that the people they have read about or seen on the TV news are more than statistics. Their pain doesn’t go away when the TV camera is turned off. Their hopes for the future, their dreams of love and hunger to be valued are similar to the reader’s hopes and dreams. What does the boy whose face lit up when I read Just Me and My Brother in a dirt yard at Arebaokeng have in common with a girl in a crisp uniform or with a child riding the school bus in Webster, Wisconsin? They are all made in the image of God. When one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts. The question for me is, how can I use story to show that reality to all three children?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Maputo, Mozambique

6- 7 September, 2007

“A luta continua” was the Mozambican political slogan during the civil war. “The struggle continues!” It was written all over this city when we lived here in the 1980s. Seventeen years have passed since we moved away. I remember sitting on the plane ready to take off, making a list of things I wouldn’t miss: potholes, garbage in the street, the sound of gunfire at night, etc. After filling a couple pages in my notebook, I felt guilty and made a short list of things I would miss—a very short list—mostly people. Many of those people have scattered in the intervening years, but we had lunch with AndrĂ© and Adelina Malombe, our closest Mozambican friends, and shared the ups and downs of both our ministries and our family lives.

How the city has changed since peace came in 1992. In our day 97% of Mozambique’s food was imported. Every two or three months we went grocery shopping—in the neighboring country of Swaziland. Soon after we arrived in Maputo we were excited to see a restaurant with a big sign: Pizzaria. But when we went in, the waiters didn’t know what ‘pizza’ was. I don’t recall whether they had any food that day or not. It wasn’t uncommon for a restaurant to have nothing but bread and broth to serve, not even butter to put on the bread. Communist laws didn’t allow for the dismissal of employees just because there was nothing for them to do.

Today the city is full of restaurants catering to South African tourists come to enjoy the beach. Shops and markets overflow with fruits and vegetables, blue jeans and athletic shoes, instead of the few carefully arranged items they used to hold, marked “Sample only. Not for sale.”

The sand road to the seminary at Laulane has been paved. The training school we helped to set up is undergoing a face-lift in preparation for a new group of students arriving in January. Our SIM colleague, Mattias Hoffmeyer, now lives in the mission house. The cushions of our old couch could use recovering. We slept in what was once our daughters’ bedroom and ate at the dining table we used to race each other around, making a game out of collating Theological Education by Extension materials. Even one of the German shepherds Mattias keeps could be the twin of our Snoopy.

Our years in Mozambique were undoubtedly the most difficult of my life so far. (See my novel The Wooden Ox to get a feel for the stress of those days.) But there were good times, too. The black paint of the chalk board we used for school is still on the wall of the garage although it is flaking, and the girls’ last math assignment can no longer be read. The mango tree still towers above our roof where Katie used to terrify me by hanging by her knees three stories above the cement yard. The sidewalk where Erika learned to ride her two-wheeler still circles the house although the branches of the lemon tree have grown low, and she would have difficulty riding under it even if she hadn’t grown taller than her mother.

As I walked down the hall to leave, my eyes grew moist. How easy it is to focus on the difficulties of those days and forget the taste of passion fruit from our vines, the brilliant magenta of the bougainvillea hedge, or the sound of children’s laughter in the back yard.

The neighborhood children no longer shout “Mae da Catarina” when they see me. The ones who played with my girls have grown up and moved away. Undoubtedly some have contracted HIV. The political war ended in 1992, but a spiritual struggle for the people of this land is still going on. “A luta continua!”

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Library Relationships

“Hello. How are you?” a little girl in a blue cotton school uniform greeted me as I came into the Tembisa township library.

“I am fine. And how are you?” I replied. Whether she had exhausted her knowledge of English or was simply overcome with shyness at that point, I’m not sure, but she giggled and turned away.

I am becoming a familiar figure at various community libraries. The librarians at Kempton Park, the old establish “white community” library, have grown accustomed to my search for picture books with children of color. They presented me with some appropriate books from the ‘withdrawn’ shelf. I read them at Saint Francis, at Tembisa Baptist, and at Arebaokeng After Care. The books found a home at Arebaokeng since those children are the most enthusiastic readers outside the libraries.

Dondo is the lively children’s librarian at Tembisa West. He has been writing stories of his own little girl, an unusually brilliant, curious and creative child, according to her doting father. Located near the community college, Tembisa West Library has a large study room and a special collection for the use of students. It is the newest of the three libraries in this area with a collection much more geared toward African users. That makes it the best place for me to find picture books that aren’t about pink-skinned blonds. It is a favorite after-school hang out. One afternoon this old librarian (me) was delighted to watch little boys racing across the vacant lot to see who could get to the reading room first.

Yesterday when I stopped by to return my last batch of books, Portia greeted me. I had met her at Dondo’s young readers club. She wanted to show me what she was reading—a giddy story of American eighth graders. There are some things kids have in common the world over even if the Southern California setting is a far cry from a Johannesburg township.

I stopped at the main Tembisa Library yesterday as well. I hadn’t seen Poppy, the children’s librarian, since I posted pictures drawn by the kids in her readers’ club on my internet site. She had gotten my note with the URL and said the children were excited to view their pictures on the library computers. She has decorated the wall of the children’s area with the originals.

Poppy once took me to read stories at a local pre-school. As a thank you the children sang a song for me. “I want to know, do you love my Jesus?” I was able to assure them that I do love their Jesus very much. In the car afterwards Poppy and I talked some more and discovered that we are sisters in Christ. “You mean you are born again?” Evidently she expected only a superficial Christianity.

It is frustrating just as these relationships are beginning to blossom to be leaving for several months. Poppy asked if I could help with a special reading celebration next week, but I will be away. She introduced me to a young man, Martin, who is an aspiring writer. I gave him information about the writers club I belong to (mainly white female retirees), but I can’t take him with me to introduce because I won’t be there again until February.

Living in more than one world can be frustrating when I feel like I am never fully a part of any. But it is also enriching. This week we will be with former students and Mozambican colleagues in Maputo. Later in the month we will visit Brazilian friends we have been close to for nearly thirty years and missionary friends we met in Ethiopia in 1976. Heaven will be a fun place when all my worlds come together in one with all eternity to enjoy the relationships.