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.


  1. I remember learning in a world music class in college that in many African cultures there's no such concept as "not being able to sing"; to say "I can't sing" would be tantamount to saying "I can't talk". One of the best things about Wohelo that alumnae remember most fondly (and pass on to their children through lullabies) is how we sang all the time, about everything: at all meals and all other gatherings, and to accompany all kinds of activities. Before technology turned the First World into a culture of spectators rather than participants, singing used to be a normal part of most people's lives in the form of lullabies, children's songs, school songs, college songs, hymns, chants, sing-alongs, folk songs, work songs, etc.

  2. That’s a fine opening disclaimer about who’s happiest—a very wise approach. I’m also interested that Graceful Space and I both land on the singing—esp. by children—as the center of the piece, though it’s not the bulk of it by word count. Again, it’s probably the human element coming through more stirringly than the section on tea, though that’s interesting in its own right. That video of the kids is terrific, and what a voice the teacher has!

    How do the folks of the region refer to or talk about the arm crossing and head bowing at the end of the song? It’s very cute but also a touch disturbing, I think—the somewhat heavy-handed imposition of order after the singing and swaying, which is a whole other kind of order, a sweet, happy order, or so it would seem.

    “The Masons or a gang” . . . Provocative!