10 July 2007

Liberation Through Education, Part One

After rising bright and early at 7:30am and chugging through my now regular morning routine (unplug computer and cameras from extension cord strung from the main house. Take extension cord into bathroom. Plug bathroom light in. Take shower. Get dressed. Go hang my towel on the line. Get stared out by entire neighborhood. Eat breakfast), Marshall (I now call him Captain) and Erin picked me up for our day of site visits in two other townships.

On our way to meet with Walter in Freedom Park, we drove through Kliptown, the township where Nelson Mandela held meetings and forums while making plans to fight against Apartheid. After Apartheid fell, big promises were made to the people of Kliptown – basic infrastructure, new schools, jobs and public spaces. Today Kliptown remains a shanty wasteland with no electricity and no running water. Port-a-potties line the dirt streets that separate the rows of corrugated steel huts. This provides the landscape for the one structure the government did build – a monument to freedom and equality.

We arrived at Freedom Park Youth Class to find hundreds of young children converging on a big green church. More than 200 preschoolers come together every Monday and Friday to participate in Walter’s “generation-gap” lessons in English, shapes, colors, numbers, days of the week and months of the year. He uses high-school aged kids as his facilitators and together, through song, dance and games they work with the tiny tots to improve their English through fun repetition activities. There are dance moves (which I learned), competitions and a “solo” section where the hot shots get to show off. After an hour-long lesson, they all head outside to groove and move while singing their enormous repertoire of songs in big circles, teachers and facilitators taking the lead.

What shocked me was how well behaved the children were! If Walter was talking, you could hear a pin drop. If a facilitator started a game, the room went silent! “Respect is rule number one,” Walter told me. Indeed, merging life skills with practical lessons seems to be at the foundation of his program. Once the preschoolers had left, Walter regrouped with the teens to talk about social issues affecting them, from HIV/Aids (the infection rate is 25% in South Africa) to teen pregnancy and safe sex. He’s found a way to empower multiple generations to teach each other while learning themselves.

From there we headed to Yeoville, another township, where we met with Denio and some of the high-schoolers she works with at a private Christian school in the neighborhood. I sat with Dineo, Daisy, Jikay, Fransisco, Everestico and MK (he said I wouldn’t be able to pronounce his actual name) for the entire afternoon talking about big issues facing them. This discussion forum is at the foundation of Dineo’s project – she wants to get young people talking about issues like sexual identity, sexual health, safe sex and HIV/Aids in an open, supportive, non-judgmental setting. Her long-term goal is to be able to train these young people as facilitators, so that they can then go out into their own communities and have these conversations, encourage exchange and educate their peers.

What I found most interesting is how different these youth were than the youth I had been around in Soweto, who attend public school (at least, when there isn’t a strike going on). They haven’t been affected by the strike. School has remained open. They took their exams. They’re gearing up for next semester. When we started talking about what motivates them, they all said the same thing: a supportive family. From there the discussion led to what society can do for those youth who don’t have that strong base at home. Answers were hard to come by. I saw looks of confusion on their faces. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to help, it was just that the idea of having no support had never entered their psyches. Indeed, it is often difficult to relate to people who aren’t in your situation, but the challenge then becomes stepping into their shoes, empathizing and as they all pointed out, not passing judgment. “This is something we all need to think about more,” Jikay told me. The group nodded in agreement. “There has to be something we can do. I’m sure of it.” That’s what this movement is about. Asking the questions that aren’t being asked. Challenging youth to think critically about their world, then supporting them when they’re ready to take action. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with!

On the drive home I noticed something else “missing” from everyday life – no streetlights. The boulevards were pitch black. How can you encourage positive change when your environment doesn’t even offer the basics? Let’s get those lights on, hang those street signs and install those trashcans. You’ve got to start somewhere, even if it seems too simple…

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