Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Remember Your Mothers and Fathers

When I came into Arebaokeng Center, I could hear Nomlhanlha’s voice raised in the garage classroom. It sounded like some kind of lecture. The upper primary children, some of them already adolescents, sat quietly, heads bowed, hands clutched in their laps. “Remember your mothers and fathers,” Nomlhanlha admonished, and there was not a sound from the usually rambunctious group.

I made my way to the tiny room where twenty younger children clustered around a heater. I shed layers of clothing in the over-heated space where the staff tried to compensate for the chilly winter outside. We read our stories, and I carried my boxes of books to the garage where the older children were finishing their hot meal.

The somber mood was gone. They laughed and joked and enthusiastically grabbed the books on sharks and crocodiles I had brought to replace the beloved snake books that went back to the library. One fourteen-year-old lifted his leg high to show me the eight-inch seam rip in the crotch of his trousers. The white of his underwear showed beneath. He pointed to a chubby teenage girl who has recently joined the group. “She did it,” he said with a laugh. “She wants me.”

“Remember your mothers and fathers,” Nomlhanlha had said. All these children are orphans. Most of their parents died of AIDS although AIDS is not usually a criterion in these programs. A needy child is a needy child. “Remember your mothers and fathers.” No doubt this kind of sexual joking was the cause of her lecture and yet the joking goes on. Adolescents are so sure it won’t happen to them

“Remember your mothers and fathers.” But will they?

Monday, June 23, 2008

String Mops and Golden Hair

I was worried about European fairy tales giving African girls the idea that blond = beautiful; I am not blond; therefore I cannot be beautiful. (See my May 29, 2008 entry.) Last week two girls, maybe ten years of age, showed up at the after-school club in Tembisa with string mops. If they weren’t new they were at least very well washed. The girls arranged the mops on their heads so that the long gray strings cascaded down their backs. As they delicately brushed the strings back from their faces I was reminded of the torn, cream-colored cashmere shawl my mother let us have for dress ups when I was a child. Gold metallic threads glittered in its long fringe. When I put the shawl over my head, I held my chin higher. I glided gracefully across our basement playroom. I felt beautiful, although I no doubt looked as ridiculous as a child with a mop on her head. The Tembisa girls strutted more than glided. I’m hoping they were imagining rock stars instead of Cinderella. Or maybe that isn’t an improvement…

Monday, June 9, 2008

Return to Alex

Tuesday I went back to Alexandra, the township where I visited before with colleague Ruth Maxwell and the team from Rosebank Union Church. (See the blog entry for April 27, 2008) We made a second visit to Takalani pre-school. When we arrived in April the children were just exiting the building to use buckets on the porch as substitute toilets since the neighbors were not excited about that many ‘extras’ using their public toilet. This time we saw three new toilets being installed for the pre-school. A group of men hacked away at a cement patio to make a little niche to hold the sewer pipe. Of course the new toilets are in the next courtyard where the babies stay. The pre-schoolers will have to go around other houses to get there, but hey! It’s better than buckets!

We dropped off some toys and food supplies, and I read We All Go on Safari; a Swahili Counting Book. We skipped the Swahili since it isn’t a Southern African language, but the kids had fun counting in English and identifying the different animals.

At the next place we also dropped off supplies. Maria, who runs this little pre-school, wants to reach the poorest of the poor. She only charges fifty to a hundred rand (US$8-15) per month, depending on ability to pay, and provides a hot meal for the children. There were forty-two of them plus three workers in a sheltered courtyard about 10 by 15 feet. The floor was on a couple different levels, neither of them smooth or even. Two tiny, windowless rooms on one side provide a place for napping children. I suspect they also serve as family bedrooms at night. Oh, yeah. One toilet. Maria is making plans to add toilets and close in the courtyard a bit more from the cold Johannesburg winter. Rosebank Union Church with will do what they can to help.

I read Our Gran and We all go on Safari. I was struck that not only do the children enjoy the books, but the workers seem to be encouraged by someone coming with an interesting activity. Part of the tiny courtyard was taken up with a jungle gym, hung with laundry and a few storage boxes, although they didn’t stop children from climbing. In one corner a tattered sign hung from a string: Music area. Five feet away in another corner a sign read, ‘Art area.’ I didn’t see any particular difference in the two cramped corners, but the signs said to me that this woman with little formal training is trying to put into practice what she has heard about how to run a pre-school. Her heart is huge. The need is tremendous.

Ruth is trying to recruit people who would be willing to go into the many similar pre-schools and day care centers in Alexandra Township on a regular basis. A child psychiatrist in the church said, “Read to these children every day, and you will change their lives forever.” Seeing the enthusiasm of my Tembisa kids being read to weekly, I can imagine it is true.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Surprise Workshop

I found out Friday that I was teaching a writing workshop on Saturday. It is my husband, Steve, who is good at thinking on his feet. (He’s in Bolivia right now where he was scheduled to teach a three-day workshop on he-knew-not-what, presumably something related to his field of theological education. They kept saying they would get back to him on the exact topic.)

In contrast to Steve, I am the sort who over prepares. My manuscripts go through 6, 8 even 11 drafts. I can’t stop fiddling with a presentation until the moment I give it. I’m always certain it could be better, afraid I will make a fool of myself by having completely missed the boat.

I had discussed with Dondo, the children’s librarian at Tembisa West Library, the possibility of a writing workshop for people who would like to learn to write for children. We were motivated by a writing competition by one of the local publishers. The competition has a deadline of June 30. True, we had originally discussed last week and this week for a two-Saturday course, but then he found out it had to go through the library committee, and I took off for Cape Town and Blantyr. I thought we had postponed the whole idea. I called Friday to see if he had been able to arrange anything for June. It’s a good thing I called.

“Yes, we are expecting you tomorrow morning at 10,” he said. (“Tomorrow” being the 31st of May.)

“Oh,” I said, thinking quickly. “How many?”

“We have five signed up.”

Five is not a bad number to work with. It isn’t hard to get each one involved. There is time for everyone to share his writing. They form their own relationships to encourage one another.

So I went—straight from the ice rink and my early morning practice with a stop at Mug and Bean for a hazelnut latte since it would have taken too long to go home in between. (It’s a tough life, I know.)

I think all told we were more like ten, although some who arrived early had to leave, and Dondo kept recruiting anyone who came through the doors of the library that he thought should be interested in writing for children. I merged a session from my Kenya workshops on “What makes a good children’s story?” and another on “Plotting your story”, and we didn’t quite get through all the material, but they were excited about what they got. They want to meet again in two weeks, and it sounded like they plan to recruit new members to our group. So we will probably do a lot of repeating, but have a core who knows where we are going and will come prepared with the exercise I gave them.

This is something I have wanted to do in South Africa for a long time, but it has never quite come together before. I want to ask, why now, Lord? Our visas expire in two months, and we are looking at moving back to the U.S. But we plan to take chunks of time back in South Africa, and I have to trust that the Lord has his own timing.