Monday, August 20, 2007

Preface: This is my final paper for the SHAWCO/Arcadia Holiday Program at UCT. It was written way too quickly and without my own computer, thus without all the nice notes and pithy paragraphs i had written previously. Still, it says a few interesting things, with some classic cheesy material mixed in. Enjoy?


Big and Slow, Let it Flow

As wealthy, white Americans in South Africa, the situations we encounter are endlessly complex. Enormous forces, often beyond the scale of our awareness (and therefore as invisible as they are influential) shape our every interaction. The issues I wish to focus on are, considering the long (and recent) history of racial oppression, and given how that history shapes the power structure as it operates today, how then, do we well-intentioned American visitors fit into the context of Khayelitsha?

Firstly, it is important to establish our intentions as service-learning students coming to Africa. From there, I will discuss how these intentions and pre-conceived ideas, combined with our work in the classroom, translate into practices in the township, leading to some speculation on how those practices act to reinforce or breakdown the existing power structure, with positive or negative results.

As we discussed many times over, our group’s motivations for traveling to Cape Town this summer were all very similar. Everybody was interested in broadening their horizons, seeing a new city/country/continent, getting some school credit - and we all wanted to hang out and play with little kids. Somewhere in there we mentioned ‘making a difference’, although that goal seemed to be rather assumed, almost too obvious, as if, of course that’s why we’re here.

With this as our base, we dove deep into self-reflexivity as we broke down the development process. The assumption that we were the only ones providing a service fell apart almost immediately, and we proceeded with the assumption that we would have to work our butts off to balance the scales of giving (I’ll come back to this later, but it occurs to me now that we – or I as it may have been – got a little carried away with short-changing ourselves as impact-ful actors). The misguided idealism of ‘saving’ these kids (in as many words), was replaced, in my mind, by goals for positive interaction and personal growth. Realistically, we only worked with the 8th and 9th graders for 10 days - we only saw the IT learners for 6 – and there is only so much impact one can have in such a tiny time span. There is a quote, I forget from who, but to paraphrase, it says, ‘People may not remember exactly what you said, and they may not remember what you were wearing, but what they will remember is the way they felt around you, and that emotional memory is what will stick with them more than anything you said or did.’ That seems to summarize what I was trying to accomplish in Khayelitsha. Beyond helping them with math or English (which I think I did also), I wanted to imprint positive memories of how they felt hanging out with us. The only way to break down racism is through interactions that do not reinforce the racist construct. I imagine that the kids of Khayelitsha don’t pass many mlungu’s on the street everyday, and so their conception of white people is based primarily on abstractions seen on TV, heard from their parents or taught in school – something along the lines of, ‘White people did this and were like this. White people think this about us and act like this towards us’ (‘this’ assumedly representing something mostly negative). Providing a safe, fun atmosphere for the kids became more important to me than following the lesson plan.

Max-Neef’s wheel of human needs speaks to this attitude quite directly, and his idea’s provided some justification that we were helping in the best way possible. If we did it right, we had the opportunity at K2 to fulfill almost every single one of Max-Neef’s delineated needs, including Participation, Creation, Protection, Affection, Understanding, Identity, Idleness and of course the all-powerful Subsistence. Some of these needs are satisfied more obviously than others, like Participation or Subsistence, and some will be manifested more sub-consciously, such as the illusive development of Identity. Nonetheless, all of these aspects of human development are present at the SHAWCO center, and not just for the kids. It seems that our role, as responsible, almost-authority figures, was to cultivate a happy atmosphere and lead everyone along into this great gorging of personal growth.

So then the question becomes, from where do we derive our power? Why is it that we can walk into K2, having never lived there a day in our life, and gain instant credibility and demand unquestioned respect, expecting to enlighten and lead the minions?

Part of our power is derived from our arrival in a SHAWCO bus. SHAWCO’s storied reputation and consistent presence in the townships creates a level of trust in the people associated with the organization. It seems that there is a certain type of person that typically steps out of that SHAWCO vehicle. That is not to say we are all similar, our volunteer group was wonderfully diverse, but there is a certain heart, a level of genuine giving spirit inherent in any person who would sign up to spend their summer volunteering in a township. This is not to say that SHAWCO volunteers are all just interchangeable parts, but it means that there is consistency in the kind of person the people of Khayelitsha expect to come from SHAWCO, and that leads to an initial, given, trust that is necessary in order for a program as short as ours to succeed.

That, however, is the easy answer. The answers get only touchier and more complex after that. For starters, we are Americans. This means different things to different countries and people around the world (as well it should), but in any case, it is an undeniably powerful thing to be from the United States. We are revered militarily, envied economically, and ridiculously replicated socially. Part of the reason there are so few good jobs for the uneducated poor in Cape Town is because the city is split between the educated upper-class, racing to keep up with the (very much US-driven) international economy, and those left behind, with no school, no job and few options. And still, it is in the townships where we find American culture most closely followed. The striving after big cars and wide TV’s, the obsession with celebrity, especially in music and more specifically, American rap, the huge cult followings of obscure American television series like ‘Prison Break’ and ‘Heroes’, all seem to be symptomatic of a conscious emulation of the modern Americana, reaching so deep that one of the most powerful gangs is actually called, The Americans.

Being that our ‘culture’ floats so pervasively overhead, it is no surprise that the kids are so happy to see us, and that locals from all walks of life are curious to talk to us. In my experiences out on the town, there were always strangers who would catch my accent and want to hear about who I was and why I was there, and they were always all-too-pleased to see me. Part of being an American in a foreign country is that, even though you may be a little bit despised, it is mostly because, for better or worse, most of the world wants to be like us – because the connection people make is that America equals money, and everyone wants to be rich.

In terms of Khayelitsha, a person wanting to be like us Americans does not concern me so much as the possible motivation for wanting to be like us. I would be perfectly comfortable, honored even, if after my work at K2, one of those kids keeps me in their head as a role model. But I wonder if it is more likely that they would only want to be like me in respect to the fact that I am perceived to be (and, relatively, actually am) quite wealthy? In which case, what does that do to the power dynamics in the social-learning context of K2?

At this point it is appropriate to discuss Hester Parr’s article, “Feeling, Reading, and Making Bodies In Space”. Whether or not we are aware of it, our body language, our dress, our speech and our facial expressions provide other people with an incredible amount of information, whether or not they are even aware of it. For this reason, it can be crucial in the development context to at least be aware of the signals you are sending.

For me, it was important not to seem too privileged. If I appeared to be ultra-rich, then I think the kids would have become more focused on that, as opposed to talking to me about other things, or just playing. So I did subtle things. I avoided wearing my glasses, and wore contacts instead, as glasses signify a certain level of affluence (note: none of the K2 learners had glasses, though I can only assume some of them probably needed them). I intentionally wore the same set of clothes several days in a row, just like most of the kids did (this is also a laundry-load saving strategy). Another thing I tried to do was speak at full-speed in English, not dumb it down for them. Of course, if they didn’t understand I would re-phrase or speak a bit slower, but to learn a language, you need to hear it spoken naturally, without artificial pauses and inflection. This was also an act of copycatting, because lots of the kids spoke to me in full-speed Xhosa, so I threw my English right back at them. I noticed at least one of our group members specifically who made me cringe with the way she spoke to both the adult IT learners and the 8th and 9th graders. She carried a tone that was meant to be kind, but was so condescending that the intended kindness only served to exacerbate the sense that she was trying so hard just to help them understand, those poor things, but they just couldn’t comprehend how to cut-and-paste, how sad, but she’s still being nice about it because that’s the right thing to do. So yea, I wanted to avoid that at all costs.

I think that in these types of situations, it is important to be self-aware, to know what kinds of messages you’re sending, both verbally and physically, but also to avoid becoming self-conscious, that is, unnaturally nervous and self-observant, so as to do and say things you would not do normally. Self-consciousness in that sense would only serve to project the sense that you are uncomfortable in your surroundings, and that will only make others uncomfortable, which is counteractive to everything we are trying to accomplish in Khayelitsha.

Of course, that is a very difficult balance to strike. I found that my most uncomfortable moments were when I became entirely too aware of myself in the grand scheme of things. For example, if I had to discipline a kid, or as I’ve discussed a lot before, when I was the doorman, shoving kids out and slamming the gate in their hungry little faces. That kind of thing, though never easy, would certainly have been less painful if I hadn’t been so conscious of the oppressive power structure so recently abolished (and its ominously lingering effects). Here I thought I was working to transcend the whole race thing, but then there I am, in practice, merely perpetuating it. And it only gets more complicated. The fact that I’m white has nothing to do with the fact that SHAWCO can’t feed everybody that shows up to the center, and somebody needs to hold the door in order to prevent chaos anytime an authorized person goes in or out, so what is so racist about that? The rational and the perceived are in contrast here, because no matter my reasons, the kids still see my pale face standing between them and the food. Further, it occurs to me that the kids I kept out were not exactly as needy as they made themselves out to be. It was a situation where they felt that I had something they wanted, and were trying to get it from me, because there must be more for me where that came from, so it would only be fair for me to pass it on to them. This brings to mind the danger of creating dependency in development practice. The old ‘give a man a fish’ versus ‘teach a man to fish’ scenario in action. I was there, in theory, trying to teach those kids how to fish, but they (the kids outside at least) were hungry and had no patience for what I might teach - they just wanted my fish (which of course was not my fish to give in the first place). Eventually, it became a game, where the only reason they wanted in was because I was trying to keep them out. At that point, they are simply children. Every child from any country and every economic class understands that game and revels in it. It is basic attention-getting rebellion.

I still don’t have a very good solution to this issue. It is complex on too many levels to have any real solution I think. With that in mind, I feel like I acted in the best manner possible, which was to treat the kids exactly the same way I would any other kids. What else could anybody do? This goes back to self-awareness and acting natural.

The existing power structure in South Africa still operates heavily on the remnants of Apartheid. Society was set up in a certain way, and was like that for a long time, and it will take generations before real, dramatic changes become reality for the people exiled to townships. But the process has started, and it is our job, as conscientious visitors, to do our part in building momentum.

The question is, How? How does one go about altering this enormous, fleeting entity called ‘culture’?

It seems to me, that culture is created by millions of individuals making small choices that collect and combine to form our socially defined ‘norms’. These individuals are understood to be ‘agents’, operating within the ‘structure’ of society, being the government, schools, NGO’s, CBO’s etc. The structure is constituted by agents. In this way, culture is constantly either challenged or reinforced by an agent in each and every decision they make. An easy example of this would be slavery in the United States. What was once an accepted practice, slowly found some dissidents saying, ‘This is wrong,’ and slowly, surely, more and more people began to think differently about slavery. When you think differently on a subject, you’re bound to speak differently on it, and once you’re speaking differently, you’re bound to act differently. And when that process happens enough times, in enough minds, then it becomes a new ‘norm’. Culture is changed. These days it is entirely taboo to be in favor of slavery. (I am aware that there is probably evidence that the linear, Thought > Speech > Action process is actually flawed logic and practically ineffective, but in my experience, observing myself most closely, I have found it to be profoundly true. So, without any concrete evidence to the contrary, I’ll continue under the assumption that what is true for me is true for everyone.)

So culture is fleeting - an amorphous, invisible blob of thought, word and action - thank goodness. That means that we actually do have the power to change it, however so slightly. That means, in theory, that my friendly presence in Khayelitsha planted some seeds suggesting that mlungu is people too; that not all white folks are rich, the same way not all black folks are poor; that I too like to dance when I’m happy, and be silly sometimes and serious at others. This is my hope. That the mere interaction, the joking and laughing and learning and playing that went on at K2 is a nudge or a tug in the right direction. The concrete things we accomplished in our 4 weeks in Khayelitsha are, in fact, very nice: the mural, the collage, the storybook, the slide show. But equally, if not more important, are the feelings we left behind and took with us. That is what I’ll remember – what it felt like to be surrounded with playing children, loud and eager, (hopefully) oblivious to any sort of social status, completely consumed by the desire to be picked up and swung in high, fast circles.

Throughout the program I was panicked by the thought that we were trapped in an inevitably one-way relationship, that I would get all the benefit and then leave, leaving Khayelitsha unchanged, no different from my having been there. But now I’m thinking differently. Remembering the reactions we got the day we presented our ‘asset-map’, remembering the tear-jerking, heart-felt good-bye’s, I realize that there is no way this was a one-way relationship. Yes, I took a lot away from this experience. I am still realizing lessons I learned, and making all kinds of connections as the experiential and academic knowledge condense and combine in my mind. But I gave something of myself as well. I gave my time, my energy, my creativity, my love and my joy to Khayelitsha. So I realize, I gave everything I had to give. I held nothing back. And that, I think, is part of why this was such a powerful experience for everyone involved. Everyone was willing to open up and let it ride and see what happens, and it was amazing. I have to ask, what else could have been expected? If nothing else, we beat a path to SHAWCO for future study abroad students. By achieving even moderate success (and not getting kidnapped or anything), we created room for more of the same positive interactions from which we gained so much.

So that is what I learned. I learned that I can influence any situation with little more than the power of my presence; that people are essentially the same wherever you go, with the same Max-Neef needs; and that big change happens slowly, and never without discomfort, but that is no excuse not to try.