Monday, July 23, 2007

Americans Complicate Khayelitsha

Preface: This is a short story i wrote as part of our final, group project for SHAWCO and UCT. The idea behind the project was to reflect our impressions of Khayelitsha back to the community; to express to them, in some way, what we experienced in our time with them. The theoretical term is an 'Asset Map'. The finished, physical product took shape as a poster-sized photo collage, with over-sized 'postcards' (choice pictures pasted on cardboard), with little notes home, telling little stories and saying nice things. One of mine featured a joke by Mike Sisson: "What city has the most superheroes? CAPE Town!"
Anyway, the other aspect of the project was this story, clasped in construction paper and adorned with appropriate pictures. It is a simply structured story. The idea was to raise some of the issues, the complexities surrounding our presence in Khayelitsha; to briefly explore some of the situations we encountered. It started out as a children's story, but i'm not sure it's consistent in that pursuit - if only because it became necessary to discuss adult issues.
Our presentation was attended by two of our three professors, our program coordinators, some of the SHAWCO staff, and something like 10 members/leaders in organizations within the Khayelitsha, as well as a big group of the kids we'd tutored. One of the unplanned results of the presentation was a short community meeting between all these active people. Members of other organizations did not know about SHAWCO before, and were very excited to pursue further projects together with SHAWCO. So that was cool.
This version is a tuned up version of the one left in Khayelitsha, as I have since had time to edit.
Some of the names are those of actual people, but their characters have been switched around and combined.

Not too long ago, in a place we all know well, a pair of Americans came to visit. They came to Khayelitsha, and they wanted to help. But they soon found out that they would need a lot more than good intentions.

Andy and Emma look out the window in awe as their plane drifts slowly down over Cape Town.

"I can't believe we're finally here," says Emma, who had been looking forward to this trip for almost a year.
"Yea, I’m excited," replies Andy. "Do you want to go out tonight? My friend gave me a whole list of places to go..."
"Tonight? Tonight I plan to get some rest. We start our work in Khayelitsha tomorrow, remember? Working with those kids is the only reason I came, not for selfish entertainment out on the town. I'm here for them, not for me."
"Whatever you say," says Andy skeptically.

The next morning, Andy and Emma wake up early for orientation. They learn all about the history of the SHAWCO organization, how it has delivered services to thousands (maybe millions) of people over its 60-plus year history.
Leonard, the lecturer, tells them a story about his work as a driver for SHAWCO. He says, "In the middle of riots, we would drive through the townships, and everyone would put down their weapons and stop throwing rocks, just to let us through. No service vehicle, no police or anything could ever get through, but they let us pass in peace because they knew SHAWCO, they knew us, and they appreciated our presence."

"Wow," Emma thinks, "my friends back home will never believe I worked with such an important organization."

Leonard then speaks about how SHAWCO is a student-run organization, and introduces Jane, the student coordinator who will be working with Emma and Andy at the K2 center in Khayelitsha.

An enthusiastic Jane tells the two Americans what they can expect:
"These kids are going to be SO excited to have you there. They look forward to seeing you every day, so please be sure to get enough rest and try not to miss a single session --

(Emma nudges Andy with her elbow. Andy shrugs and raises his eyebrows with an innocent smile.)

Jane continues, "--We serve lunch to the learners, but there are always lots of kids at the center who are not involved in the program, and we just do not have enough food for all of them. So please do not give out food, or money for that matter, to those kids. I know, it sounds harsh, but we are not a charity organization. If you give them a bit of food, or a couple rand one day, then they're going to expect it from you again the next day, and that isn't fair to you or the kids."

Andy nods. He thinks, "That makes sense, you can't just give food away. If word got out that there was free food at the SHAWCO center, there would be a hundred new kids at the center every day."

When orientation ends, the group mingles about for a few minutes. Jane approaches Emma and Andy.

"How are you two feeling today?" Jane asks.

"I'm a little tired from the long plane ride," replies Emma, "but so excited to get out and start making a difference in these kids' lives."

Andy adds, "Yea, I think this is going to be a lot of fun! I love hanging out with little kids."

"Well good, I'm glad you're so enthusiastic," Jane says with a smile. "But I'll warn you now, it's not all fun and games, the K2 center tends to get quite hectic at times."

"Well sure," says Emma quickly, "any time you have a large group of kids in a confined space, things can get crazy."

"Yes, that's part of it..." Jane says, but before she can finish she is cut off by Leonard calling out:

"Ok everybody, time to get going!"

On the bus, Emma is glued to the window as they pass other townships on the way.

"Oh my! Look at all those shacks! They stretch as far as I can see! Oh, it's so sad!"

"Hey look, there's a soccer game going on!" Andy says, ignoring Emma's distress.

As they pull into the K2 center, small children swarm the sides of the bus, jumping and yelling, excitedly reaching up for a high-five. Emma reprimands Andy's attempt to reach back, slapping his shoulder and insisting that, "One of them will get run over trying to touch your hand!"

The first half hour at K2 is play time. Emma meanders, meeting the girls she'll be teaching, and picking up cute little kids who are fascinated by her wispy blond hair. Andy finds the soccer ball and starts playing keep-away - a game that soon dissolves into him getting chased and playfully mobbed.

Soon enough it's time to start class. Happy and sweating just a little, Andy leaves his marauders outside, promising to come back and play later.

The learners are attentive and diligent in their work, and before they know it, it's almost time for lunch. Andy and Emma leave the learners with a short activity, and go downstairs to speak with Jane.

"How's it?" Jane asks.

"Really good! The kids are so smart!" Emma almost yells.

"Yea, and it's nice that we can all laugh and enjoy ourselves while still getting stuff done," says Andy.

"Oh good! It is always easier to teach kids who come by choice. It's amazing, these kids spend all day at school and then walk all the way here," Jane explains. "When I was in grade school I would have never done that!
“Well, it's about time for a snack, so Emma, come with me, we'll carry the food upstairs. Andy, will you shut the gate and just hold it closed?"

Andy is a bit confused by this request. "Um, sure. But why?"

"Well, once we start serving food, all the little ones outside are going to want to come in and be fed. And like I told you before, there isn't enough food for all of them," says Jane as she climbs the stairs.

So Andy walks over to the entrance. As he slowly closes the gate, five little boys appear out of nowhere and crowd the doorway. They use all their strength, piling on top of one another to push the gate back open. But even with the force of their combined effort, Andy is able to squeeze the gate closed and leave the boys standing on the outside, peering in through the iron bars. By this time, a larger crowd has gathered at the door and Andy is alone on the inside, staring out at no less than 10 kids, hungry boys and girls who know that it's lunch time.

"Let me in! I'm hungry!" says one boy.

"My sister needs a drink!" says one girl, who also claims to be a part of SHAWCO.

"But I haven't seen you all morning..." says Andy. The girl looks away.

The kids continue to push, squishing smaller children on the bottom of the pile. Physically, it is easy for Andy to hold the kids back. Mentally, emotionally, he is not so sure.

They ask him, "Why won't you let us in?"
He responds, "Because I'm not supposed to. I'm sorry, it's not up to me."

Then, from somewhere in the young horde, a voice says, "It's because you're white!"

This is a shocking statement to Andy. He had never considered the fact that he could be seen as an oppressive white person. He had read all about the (recent) atrocities in South Africa's history, and felt no connection (except for skin color) whatsoever with those people. He had assumed that his progressive ideas on humanity would allow him to transcend the race barrier, and cultivate organic relationships with the people of Khayelitsha, based on human experience, not hampered by antiquated ideologies.

But there it was - a small child accusing him of refusing food based on skin color. Is that why he held the gate so tight? (No. He would have treated any rambunctious group of children the same.) How could he respond appropriately? (He couldn't.)
Andy locks the gate and runs off to find Jane.

When Jane and Andy return, there is no one at the gate. But soon, two small children run up. Jane unlocks the gate and lets them in, instructing them to sit quietly and read, which they do happily. Soon after, another couple kids come to the door, and Jane motions for Andy to let them through as well.

Seeing this, three more little ones come to the gate and give Andy their best innocent face, using their eyes to beg for entrance. When Andy is still hesitant, they point to their friends already inside, and point out how unfair that is. Unsure about the entrance policy, and with Jane now nowhere to be found, Andy agrees it’s unfair, and opens the gate.

Just then, Jane comes back and says, "Oh no! You ought not have let those three in!"

But it’s too late. Distracted by Jane's reappearance, Andy had neglected to hold the gate closed, and several opportunistic kids scamper in. Meanwhile, the first three trespassers have snuck around back and opened the other door, allowing a miniature, guerilla army of small children to infiltrate the main room, sneaking past book stacks, running upstairs and hiding under tables. Chaos quickly engulfs the K2 center.

Each and every tutor is needed in the effort to clear the building of minions. There is chasing and shouting, pointing and falling and more chasing. A tutor drags one boy on his back towards the door while others run circles, around him laughing.
A wonderful game for the young ones is a stressful scene in a bad dream for anyone trying to maintain authority, much less teach.

After what like hours (it had only been minutes), Ernest, the center manager, emerges from his office to see about all the hubbub. A native Xhosa speaker and Khayelitsha resident, his big, commanding presence and powerful voice brings everything to a halt. A kid standing on the table freezes. Another boy is too stunned to move as he sits on top of one of his friends. In eloquent Xhosa, Ernest easily clears the room (Andy locks the gate) and returns to his office.

In a daze, Andy boards the bus to go home. Jane sits next to him.

"How am I supposed to know who to let in, and who to keep out?" asks Andy.

"By their faces," Jane responds simply.

"But," Andy stutters, "but if I judge by their faces...I'll have to let them all in."

Jane gazes silently back.

"I can tell from their faces how unfair they think it is...and I'm not sure I disagree..." Andy elaborates. "I know we can't feed them all, but how do we choose? Who are we to decide who eats and who doesn't? Where do we draw that line?"

"It's not fun, is it?" Jane finally responds.

"No. No fun at all," Andy says quietly to himself, and spends the rest of the ride staring at the window.

A week goes by, and things get better. The craziness of that first day is not repeated; Andy learns the kids faces and asserts some authority, and the kids begin to find the limits of this new umlungu's patience.
Andy gets comfortable. Emma is getting confused.

After a week of tutoring, and with less than a week left, Emma's initial enthusiasm has deteriorated into a sense of profound helplessness. She claims a quiet moment one afternoon and vents her frustration to Ernest.

"You know, I feel like I've developed relationships with these kids, but I'm not sure it's doing them any good. Take yesterday for example. I was trying to teach them about budgeting their money, which is important stuff! But they kept interrupting me and speaking to each other in Xhosa. They see me as a friend, so they forget that I'm in charge. And then, even when I yell, they still won't pay attention.”

"Well Emma, they are children. Getting angry will not help, they will just ignore your screaming. They know when you have lost control, and will continue taking advantage of that until you find a way to get it back," wise Ernest observes.

"But, on the first day, we had them come up with a list of rules they thought everybody should follow. And even when I reminded them of that, they got quiet just long enough for me to calm down and begin the lesson, AND THEN THEY STARTED TALKING AGAIN!" Emma blurts, near tears.

"Perhaps you should try silence. Or even, walking away. They want you there, Emma, but they are young, and are going to test your limits."

"I know, I guess, I just feel betrayed. Like, I'll have a really nice conversation with one of them, and then at lunchtime, that same kid will lie to me and say he didn't get any food. I try so hard, and want to help them get a better life so bad, and I just feel like it's not making any difference," Emma sniffles, as a solitary tear drops off her nose.

"Emma," Ernest can't help but chuckle kindly, "you are here for two weeks. You cannot expect to save any lives in such short time. Also, who says they need to be saved? If you ask them, I am sure they will tell you they are happy, and they would be sad to leave from friends and family in Khayelitsha, even for something you might consider to be 'better’ for them. Yes, there are things that can be better, but this is true in America also, and around the world. But still you are proud of from where you come, so please, do not assume that we are not also proud of where we live."

"I'm sorry," Emma says, staring at the ground. "I didn't mean..."

"Sorry?" Ernest stops her, "No no no, not to be sorry. We are happy to have you here. Our children, and us too, we learn very much from meeting Americans. But also, we hope that you have much to learn from us as well. See that, we are different in interesting ways and also very much the same. So you see, you do not need to 'save' any children. Being here, giving them you, is all anyone can ask. And they will do the same in return. And all of you will learn, grow. This is good for every body."

With this, Emma picks her head up and swipes her eyes clear. "Thanks Ernest, you're right. Okay. You've given me some serious thinking to do about why I'm here."

"Okay sisi, you are here for the right reasons, I am sure."

All of a sudden it's the last day of class.
The day is festive, yet sad. All the little kids who gave Andy so much stress before, now play soccer in a circle and take turns taking pictures with his fancy camera. The angry faces he confronted that first day are nowhere to be found. Emma gets her hair braided, and exchanges endless hugs with all the girls she has grown so close to.

Andy, Emma, Jane and Ernest all stand in front of the class. They call out each learner's name one by one, and hand them a certificate of participation. The learners cannot hide their pride, and the tutors smile big and wide. Group photo's flash and capture a moment none of them will forget anytime soon.

"I can't believe it's time to go home already," says Andy.

"Ah! Don't talk about it!" cries Emma. "I don't want to think about it, I don't want to go home!"

"To think, two short weeks ago we were strangers in this place, to these people, and now..."

"And now I want to take all of them home with me."

"But do you really?" Andy inquires.

"In my heart, yes. But in reality, no. No, I am honored to have interacted with these children, and with Ernest, and Jane, and to have learned so much from all of them."

"Yea I agree. We can only hope that we gave enough of ourselves to balance the scales."

“It’s complicated, you know. There are many larger forces influencing our interactions, and it can be difficult. But at least we’re all getting to have the experience; at least we get to hang out and become friends.”
“And what else could any of us hope to get out of it?”

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