Saturday, March 5, 2011

An Afternoon in the Cwebe JSS

The same dusty roads we’ve driven before; winding through the same scattered fields of sorghum and maize, past the same patched rondevalls, the same paste-covered, local faces, and up to the same gate that leads through the same thick forests back to our home at the Haven. Dust is kicked up by the bakkie in front of us as the AC on the Land Rover spews clouds of dirt instead of cool air--windows up or down, it doesn’t really matter, there are tiny particles of Africa settling gently onto the beads of sweat that collect on my face. My foot aches and I can feel the swelling slowly surpassing the size of my shoe. My fingers are blistered, not from the usual steel strings I am used to, but instead, from otherwise soft nylon strings--this is either a testament to my fading calluses or to a day of constant music and guitar playing. The current comings-and-goings of my spent voice seem to favor the latter and I sit, squashed in that bumpy Land Rover with a smile on my face. Life is good.

            Today, for the first time since we arrived in Africa, I finally felt as if our presence here became truly meaningful for the local people we are living just down the road from. To this point, we have been engaged fully with academic material, conservation field work, personal reflection and understanding the complex lay of the social, political and physical landscape here in the Eastern Cape. Now, under the new and refreshing guise of a brilliant professor (Dr. Petra Tschakert), we will attempt to bridge the gap between the nature reserve and the local people, thereby living up to the second (and arguably, more important) half of our program title (South Africa: Parks and People).
            As I may or may not have discussed before, the dynamic that exists between the Dwesa-Cwebe nature reserve and the local communities is tense and highly political. Several years ago, after the fall of the apartheid administration of South Africa in 1994, a policy of land restitution began that allowed displaced people to file land claims for rights to their traditional homelands. This was accomplished successfully in several cases, some of which removed legal control of nature reserves from the hands of the government and instead, put it in the hands of local people. So was the case here in Dwesa-Cwebe, one of the largest and last remaining patches of indigenous forests on the entire eastern coast of South Africa. Through negotiations and the development of a land trust, the government was able to convince the surrounding 7 communities that it was in their best interest to leave the area as a nature reserve--in return, they would receive compensation and a portion of the revenues derived from the tourism.
            Several aspects of this negotiation were successful, others not at all and the result is a tense relationship on both ends. Local people are no longer allowed to use the desperately needed natural resources that are available in the park, although, according to the law and to the history, these lands belong to them. The situation is not quite so cut and dry, as the potential for this area to generate tourism (and therefor, economic stimulus to the communities) is immense and largely untapped.  However, such is the situation we have come to South Africa to study. Having covered all other bases (the politics, the park and the conservation), it is now time to turn our focus onto the people and deliver something tangible to this extremely marginalized and impoverished population. That is what we did yesterday.

            We arrived at the Cwebe JSS (a secondary school for students between ages of 5 and 18) around 9 am. Curious little faces poked out windows and around door frames as our dusty convoy arrived in the middle of their small courtyard. As we got out of the vehicles and approached the principals office for our initial meeting with the teachers, I am sure that not a single one of us had any idea what to expect. What we had planned were several well-thought-out lessons on climate change and global weather, primarily directed toward the older students. There were a few such activities on the drawing board, but all notions of premeditation and control soon flew swiftly out the window of those small, sun-lit classrooms.

One lesson to take away from Africa = go with the flow.

            It became quickly evident that, despite the fact that students in standards 8 and 9 were supposed to have a firm grasp on the English language, that this was not at all the case; my very limited ability to employ any relevant words in Xhosa only compounded the communication issues. It is not as if the concepts we were attempting to convey were overtly complicated, and surely, these students can (and did, to a large extent) understand the main ideas, but the language barrier was extremely challenging. Improvisation became the name of the game and my pride (rarely ever intact, as is) soon became an unnecessary restraint--so I did away with it along with my shame. The results were wonderful.
            Teaching about the greenhouse gas effect through such a pervasive language barrier was best accomplished with an animated persona, jumping about the room, making weird noises, speaking slowly, and yet super loudly. I started to act as if the students in front of me simultaneously understood everything and yet nothing I was saying. A translator was helpful, when available, but the shortage of teachers meant that there was also shortage of translators. It was me and two other fellow students in a room full of anywhere from 15-40 other students from the JSS, ranging in ages, in comprehension of language and vastly in personality.
            There were so many characters among these kids, so many smiling faces, so many funny moments--moments when I realized that we were communicating, but on a completely different and unimaginable level. We taught these students, without a doubt, but probably not everything we intended and probably many unintended things as well. And they taught us so much, about ourselves and about the world--the one we came from, the one we were now in, and the one which we were all a part of. I felt so at home, so in my element, wandering from class to class, trying to talk about greenhouse gasses with some of the older kids, teaching the young kids to sing “Old McDonald had a farm”, acting like a kid myself.
            At one point in the day, I pulled out my guitar and things changed entirely. Children swarmed, left their respective classrooms and congregated in whichever room I was in. Hundreds of little smiling faces packed into a small room with me in the middle, standing on a desk, playing the same chords over and over, singing made up lyrics and dancing around. I could barely hear myself over the yelps and excitement of these kids as they danced along and sang along with me. At points, I would place my fingers on chords and hold out the guitar to let them strum, a gesture that they loved entirely. This was probably the first such instrument they had ever touched.
            I soon made my way out to the courtyard where the crowd simply increased in size and excitement. It wasn’t long before I stumbled over a made up a song using three chords (G maj, C maj, D maj.) which I played over and over again, along with an easy to learn chorus (Lalalalala, Lala) that everyone caught on and sang along with me. Here I sat, in the middle of rural South Africa, singing a made up song in unison with hundreds of young students. Language barriers were broken. We sang and danced and I have never felt so alive, so at home, so right in the world.
            After this part of the day, we proceeded to play a pickup soccer game with the school soccer team. Needless to say, we lost pretty badly. In the end, as I decided to play barefoot like the rest of the students, I ended up with an accidental kick to my face and a broken toe--both of which were accepted with the wonderful territory and as well-earned trophies from such an amazing day.
            In the Xhosa language, when someone asks ‘unJani’ or ‘how are you?’ , you respond with ‘ntiphilile’. The phrase is meant to respond ‘I am fine’, but its literal translation is ‘I am alive’. And so, on a Tuesday afternoon during my final semester of college, just months before shipping out with the Peace Corps for 2 years, in the middle of an isolated and oftenwise disregarded community in South Africa, I can say that I truly felt ‘ntiphilile’.


  1. And all is right with the world! Love Mom

  2. ok, but how do you say "I am Jealous"? :-) With you in spirit little brother. I'm soaking up all your words and experiences.