Sunday, July 28, 2013

Poverty's better half

Teacher and students at Tshume school
Someone once told me that he had a friend in the admissions office of a prestigious New England college who had a special pile for student essays which somehow, in any of a variety of ways, fit the "poor but happy" theme, as in "Last summer I volunteered in Costa Rica and realized that the locals were much less stressed-out than anyone I know back in the USA, despite living in mud huts, using coconut husks for shoes, and eating nothing but mashed bananas twice a day."  These applications were automatically rejected.

I think I've learned a thing or two since my college essay days--not to mention all the literary train wrecks my students have shared with me--so I want to be clear that I'm not suggesting that the inhabitants of South African townships are "happier," or in any other objective way better off, than citizens of the USA or elsewhere.  Unless you're willing to trade places with someone, you probably shouldn't assume they're happier than you--and neither I nor anyone else I know is interested in taking up permanent residence in a township.  Nonetheless, after my last rather dour post, I think it's appropriate to highlight some of the good things about life here.
A laundry rainbow
A real rainbow
Greeting is a big deal in Xhosa culture: you're expected to make eye contact, smile, say something more than "Hi," and perhaps shake hands--in an elaborate way reminiscent of the Masons, or a gang--every time you pass by someone.  I'm not exactly Mr. Outgoing, but there's something refreshingly warm about this continuous reminder that we're all unique individuals, not just inconvenient steps on the ladder to overpopulation.

Any color you want so long as it's with milk and sugar
The British have really left their mark with tea, but the locals have made the ritual their own: taking tea is very much a social affair.  The downside is that women almost always make and serve it, but the upside is that a simple cup of flavored hot water becomes an elegant ritual, and a relaxing break.  It's a good thing I like tea, I've joked to myself, because the eagerness with which people offer it has induced me to drink it six times a day or more.  You're allowed to refuse, I think, but I never have.  The first time I had coffee out the waitress asked if I wanted it hot or cold.  I got rather excited, thinking that I could get iced coffee, almost unheard-of outside the USA, until she made clear that she meant the milk.  At school and at my homestay, both in the townships, it seems to be unthinkable to serve tea without heating a little pitcher of milk to go with it.  But at the B&B where I spend weekends, in the upscale suburbs, tea is served in true English fashion, with cold milk.  I suspect that those who favor heated milk see tea as more a snack than a drink, and want to maximize their milk consumption.  Likewise, township folk can't believe I don't take sugar--why refuse free calories?  The British woman sharing my homestay, predictably, expresses disgust at the idea of "cooked" milk.  But to me it brings back fond memories of Pakistan, where they boiled the tea leaves right up with the milk, producing a rich and delicious sort of unspiced chai.  I have no doubt that this milky tea was the only thing many people ate or drank between sunrise and sunset, due to poverty, or Ramadan, or both.

The most striking thing by far about Xhosa, or township, culture, is the singing.  Every morning before school the teachers gather in the staff room for prayer and announcements.  Without warning or preparation, one of them starts a song, and everyone else instantly joins in, in full harmony.  On Fridays the day begins with a brief assembly for the kids, outdoors, and they too join the teachers in complex, multi-part songs that they all somehow know by heart.  Last week, on Mandela Day, the school held a special celebration, with guest speakers (most of them ministers).  Each time someone got up to speak, the room spontaneously erupted in four- and five-part harmony. 

Of course, I'm a sucker for choral music, but it's hard to convey how awe-inspiring this is--hairs stand up on my neck every time it happens.  The music is very good, but far more impressive, really, is how spontaneously and instinctively it's created.  I asked my students how it can be that everyone here knows how to sing so well, when many Americans will only sing with a karaoke machine, or in the shower, and even trained musicians usually need sheet music and rehearsal.  "Africans always know how to sing," one boy said.  Clearly they thought this was a stupid question.  "When you sing, you are simply expressing your emotions," a girl offered.  Well that's certainly how it's supposed to be, but all too rarely it is.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Lies we tell children

It's hard to tour a South African township without getting angry.  I'd seen similar conditions in Namibia and elsewhere in South Africa, but they continue to be shocking, enraging, and dispiriting.  We teach children to share, to care for others, and to shun greed, yet we end up with a world in which unimaginable disparities prevail not only between countries, but within them. 

The obvious question is, what are conditions like in the townships?  I think it's safe to say that, for Americans, they're about the worst thing imaginable.  There's a certain rustic beauty to the way shacks are wrought from a pastiche of mismatched corrugated steel, scraps turned almost artfully, quilt-like, so that the corrugations run perpendicular, or spiraling.  When paint is available, color choices tend to be vibrant--pink, seafoam, mustard, cerulean.  And wooden fences--built from pallets and other discards--often seem as much sculptural as functional.  None of this diminishes the harsh realities of communal water spigots, dirt alleys, trash everywhere, bucket toilets changed once a week, dogs that look like strays because their owners run out of money to feed them.  It's very hard to convey the acute sense of squalor; the only question is whether it's more intense up close, where the crowdedness becomes overwhelming, or from afar, where the vast sprawl becomes obvious.

We're so good at inventing excuses, or averting our eyes.  There's no denying that specific solutions are difficult, and complicated--the devil's in the details.  But if we're honest, there's also no denying the general truth that if "we" had a little less, "they" would have a little more.  My weekly recycling in cardboard, tin foil, and plastic could quite literally constitute a wall of someone's house.  A family could bathe in the water I expend on the garden.  The electricity my computer consumes while "asleep" could reclaim them from darkness.  How have we become so adept at ignoring these connections?

Many white South Africans were opposed to apartheid, and in their own way, they suffered too--like Spaniards under Franco, or Chileans under Pinochet: totalitarianism is a blunt instrument, and unnatural disparities demand supernatural enforcement.  And it's been nearly twenty years since Mandela was elected, and the world, supposedly, stood on its head.  There are no longer any laws preventing black people from advancing, or propping up whites--indeed, many government programs have been launched to do expressly the opposite.  No doubt a lot has changed since the dark days, but things remain disturbingly close to what I imagine life to have been like in the Jim Crow days in the American South.  And let us Americans not kid ourselves: you don't have to go to South Africa to witness segregation.  8 Mile Road in my own Detroit draws as stark a color line as any street in South Africa.  Whether it's a color line, a money line, or a historical relic is beside the point: gross inequality persists.

These days a political meltdown ensues over renewing funding for food stamps, and you're branded a "socialist" for advocating universal health care.  South Africa has it, by the way--I visited a township clinic where the lines were long, but the medicine free.  The AIDS crisis, among other things, has been significantly reined in through such systems.  Yet in the US the debate rages on as if hunger were a choice, dying a philosophical question.

I came here to work with underprivileged children, yet I'm baffled as to how to explain such things as townships to them.  Of course South African children are inured to inequality, but what would we say to other kids?  You have to share, little Jimmy, but Mommy and Daddy don't.  A house made of gingerbread is evil, but a McMansion is good.  Robin Hood cut a fine figure, but you shouldn't take his aims too seriously.  It was fine for Jesus to share loaves and fishes with everyone, but that's not realistic for the rest of us.