Sunday, May 17, 2009

you can be my father figure...

The poetry group continues to gather steam. When we met on Friday we were a smaller group than Tuesday, but as there were exams in the afternoon for only certain students, many of those who were not writing had been dismissed, left early or had not attended school at all that day.

Students assembled in my classroom during lunchtime as usual. Seated in a circle, those who had not yet shared their poems on growing up did so, and others read an original one of their choice. A young man had written a poem about the political situation in this country which prompted many students to share their opinions on the new president. It was inspiring to see so many of them with such strong opinions. One of the young women in the group then read a poem she had written to her absent father who left before she was born, and whom she had never known. Her powerful piece of writing was called ‘Where are the fathers?’, and resonated with many of those in the group.

The conversation that sprouted from the topic of her poem momentarily put the poetry reading on hold. While single mother-headed homes and families are no rarity anywhere in the world, they are especially common among my students and in township contexts. As such, almost everyone in the group had something to contribute to the conversation, myself included. The boys in the group felt strongly that for them, growing up without a father was more difficult than for their female colleagues. Reminding them that it was not a competition and that it is difficult for anyone to qualify or quantify an experience for someone else, I listened to them talk.

The conversation that followed was nothing short of intense. Feelings of loneliness, responsibility, so many questions never answered… were all among the thoughts expressed by the students who grew up without a father in their life. One boy explained to me how it was especially difficult for a man in his culture (he is Xhosa, but the same could be said for Sethos and Tswanas) as when a boy decides to become a man (the circumcision ritual - he must declare the clan with which he is affiliated and the father figure in his life usually vouches for him. This, the boys said, is when fatherless young men miss their fathers the most. They feel lost without this guidance and support and a sense of not belonging during their cultural coming-of-age ceremony. A culture very steeped in tradition and a strong belief in the supernatural, the spirits of your ancestors are said to haunt you if you do not align yourself with the clan of your forefathers. Not knowing your father then, makes this difficult, and apparently is a burden that many young men struggle with during this time.

Sooner or later, as conversations about my students’ family lives often do, the issue of abuse and domestic violence was raised. I never fail to be amazed at how a topic that is so incredibly sensitive and generally hush-hush in Western contexts is frequently discussed so freely amongst my students. Perhaps rates of incidence make the topic of violence and abuse not as taboo as in other milieus, or at least those in which I have previously been immersed. Or perhaps not. Either way, I am always surprised at the ease with which they discuss the tragedies that befall them so regularly.

They spoke about living with violence and the ways in which it has shaped their views of the world. I introduced them to the concept of a ‘cycle of violence’, and we discussed the ways in which they – both male and female – can break this pattern of behaviour. Two of the more vocal young men both spoke of times they had seen their mothers abused by their partners and what effect it had on them as witnesses. Both said that they have sworn they would never become the kind of man who would do that to their woman.

The saddest part of the discussion came for me when one of the young men – who to look at does not give the impression of coming from an abusive home (whatever that means), a strong, handsome, bright kid, outgoing and friendly, one of the top students in his year – said that he believes that once you have lived with violence, you can never live without it, or at least the threat of it. Growing up always knowing that there was a clap or a kick or a punch close by he said, had taught him to expect abuse and for some time had made him almost unable to function without it. He is learning to live a life without violence, he told us, although he still expects it sometimes. He too said that he would never be one to abuse his wife or children, that seeing the effect it had on his mother and himself has taught him that much. He would however make one exception, he continued. Looking out the window away from the rest of the group as he spoke, he told us of his mother’s screams that he would never forget and that no matter what else happens in his life, he is just waiting for the right day to exact revenge on the man responsible for her cries.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Many of the entries on this blog speak to the difficult issues that are faced by my students, to the injustices that are part of this country’s landscape, to the challenges that are part of the everyday for people living below the poverty line in South Africa.

But it is not all bad.

Frequently I have interactions, experiences, moments of revelation where I see the joy…beauty…inspiration that exists all around. It creeps out of the cracks, it grows from concrete and is resilient against even the most harsh of circumstance.
Thursday of last week a student came into my classroom during lunchtime. He had been one of the students who had taken part in the poetry competition earlier this year, although he had not been selected to go on to the final. He told me that he and some other students had been talking about starting a poetry club and that they wanted to know if I would take part and offer guidance and support as they felt things would run more smoothly if I was involved. Of course I accepted.

I told him that I would make an announcement the following day to call all those students who were interested in poetry to come to a meeting in my classroom at lunchtime. There we could brainstorm about what we (they) wanted to do with the poetry club and make a plan for when we would meet.

The next day about 15 students from all grades and social groups turned up for the lunchtime meeting. I had them move the desks into a circle so that we were all facing each other.

I introduced myself to the group for those I did not know, acknowledged the student whose idea it had been, then as I had been asked to do, briefly introduced what the poetry club was all about. In short, it is to be a forum for poets to read their work, get feedback from other poets and discuss poetry. I then suggested we go around the circle and one by one introduce ourselves, tell the group when we started writing poetry, why we enjoy poetry, if there is anything in particular we enjoy writing about, when we write, if there are any poets we admire, and so on.

At first some were shy, but as we went around the circle the students became more engaged and animated. It was beautiful. I then suggested that we decide on the house rules for the meetings of the poetry club, which we did. The rules, (which the students themselves chose), are below.

In order to offer a bit more structure to the club and its meetings, I suggested that we meet twice a week – Tuesdays and Fridays – at lunchtime. At the end of the Friday meetings, I would give students a topic on which they would be expected to write a poem for Tuesday’s meeting. Students would be free to interpret the topic in any way they saw fit. For Friday meetings, students could present any poem they liked – original or that of a poet they admire. My only caveat was that the poems that I assigned must be written in English. Friday’s poems could be written in any language the students liked.

For those who have not ever worked with young people or teenagers, particularly those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is difficult to describe the flood of emotions one experiences when you are involved in something that causes the faces of those kids to light up. There was no denying the excitement that each of them felt at the prospect of having a poetry club, having an opportunity to create and share with others in the creative process.

Among the countless forms of discrimination that these kids face, perhaps most saddening is their creative and artistic suffocation. There are not many opportunities for youth to express their creativity and those programs that do exist do not have the resources to accommodate the number of kids wishing to take part.

Today was our first meeting and it went extremely well. Unsurprisingly the poems were incredible…possessing of great depth and power. Students presented their poems – some shyly, some more confident, and then gave each other feedback. All said that they couldn’t wait until the next meeting. I distributed notebooks that had been brought by a friend on a visit to Cape Town to each of the poets for them to keep their poetry in. Though she brought 12 I am on my way to Walton’s this evening to buy more. It was clear very soon into the meeting that one meeting a week wouldnt be enough for each of the students to read their poems, so we decided we would do the assigned poems for both meetings one week and poetry of their choice on alternate weeks.

Yesterday the young man whose idea the group had been approached me to tell me that he had a small drum at home and if I thought it would be a good idea for him to bring the drum for the meeting. I just smiled and nodded.



1. All poems assigned by Miss Alex must be written in English.
2. Please be on time for all meetings.
3. Show professionalism and respect your fellow poets.
4. Encourage each other.
5. Be constructive with all criticism.
6. Be non-judgemental
7. What is said in the house, stays in the house.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

your move...

About two months ago we began running an after school chess class. This was made possible through an EwB collaboration with Chess for Hope (, an initiative of Ikamva Labantu, an NGO that runs various programs for youth in the townships. As part of the Chess for Hope program, a teacher would come twice a week to work with the students and teach them how to play chess, while using this platform as a “vehicle for social and personal change”. The program has thus far only been operating in Primary Schools, as this is where they feel they can have the greatest impact (and the proof is in the pudding as their success in the schools in which they have been working over the past few years is astounding), they made an exception for Fezeka.

I was in charge of recruiting students for the chess club, which didn’t prove very difficult, although unfortunately we have yet to have a female member. There are a few girls that drop in from time to time, but generally the core group is all male. In total there are about 12-15 boys who come to my classroom to practice.

Unfortunately, their teacher was recently let go from his position, so the kids have been without a teacher for the past month. I have been assured from my contact at Ikamva Labantu that they are searching for another teacher. Regardless, the students continue to come and play at every opportunity.

For the first few weeks since the Easter Break, we were without Internet at school. Because of this, when we were back up and running late last week the emails to the school came flooding in. Among these was an email to all schools about a Chess Tournament taking place in Kraaifontein. I received the email on a Friday. The tournament was the next day, the deadline to register had been the week before. Undeterred, I tracked down the event organizer and was thankfully able to convince him to let us register anywayand pay a much-reduced registration fee.

The next morning at 7:45 am, my friend Carnita and I were at school to take the 9 students who had been able to go, to the tournament. Waking up at 6:30 on a Saturday morning doesn’t exactly rate highly on my list of favorite things to do but for my kids there’s little that I won’t agree to. We were on our way and the sun was shining brightly. A warm 24 degree autumn day. Gorgeous.

We reached Aristea Primary School around 8:30am. The difference between the school we had just left and the one we were walking into was impossible to ignore, as were the facilities. A green regulation football-sized field and a huge assembly hall greeted us up arrival. Though the students said nothing, I am sure I was not the only one who noticed the stark contrast.

In the hall rows upon rows of tables had been set up, with chess boards sitting atop the length of them. Kids as young as 5 were focused on their games and the din was barely above a murmur. I had told the students to come in full uniform as we were representing the school. As soon as we walked in it was clear we were the only ones who had felt the need to do so. Although I know none of them were pleased about wearing school uniform on a Saturday, none said anything to me. Personally I think they looked the sharpest of the bunch.

I spoke with the woman who appeared to be in charge and paid the registration fee. She informed me that the list of opponents would be posted outside shortly. When the time for this came it ended up there had been an error and all but one of our boys were without a match. They ended up playing each other for the first round. It was a fantastic experience watching all these kids play chess and definitely a first for our kids. It was obvious that many of these children had been playing chess for years and quite a few of them seemed to know each other. In regards to the racial demographic it was indeed mixed, although truth be told, the majority of the black kids were with us or had come as part of the Chess for Hope and Chess for Change (another NGO).

After the second round two of our kids had beaten their opponents, which we celebrated. It was the first time any of them had played against anyone but each other or friends and family members so their wins were especially sweet. As it was an all-day tourney, the time in between the games was quite lengthy. 2 hours was allocated for each game, with a half hour break in between. When it came time for lunch, Carnita and I surprised them by treating them to KFC. They were especially happy about this.

During the breaks the students would play chess with each other and many of the various other kids who were attending the tournament. A large group of children from Chess for Hope were there, many of them very young. These 7-year old girls were challenging our 19-year old boys group with a simple point of the index finger and “you’re next”. And they beat them badly. These kids have been playing for two years and aside from their chess skills, the confidence that playing (and winning) the game has given them is astounding.

The later rounds were not as successful for our boys. Regardless, it was a good day. The students left keener on chess than ever, as there is little that can force a 19-year old man to recognize the need to up his game than getting checkmated by a 7-year old girl in 4 moves.

The most interesting parts of the day came for me in conversations with the group. As I often do in discussions with my students, I gently prodded for information about their lives in an as non-intrusive way as possible. How did they all turn out so good? I asked them. All good students, without any records of truancy, no obvious involvement in crime or drugs, they clearly take their education seriously. Their reply to my question was simple:

Because they have support at home.

It didn’t matter if they came from single parent, grandparent or extended-family headed families, they all have support of some kind at home. This was both poignant and saddening as although this is hardly a surprise, hearing it from the mouths of these kids was for some reason more real, if that makes sense. None of them live in shacks either, I later found out on our car ride home. Carnita’s car rides were no less informative and entertaining. As she is equally interested in the students' lives, they had several great discussions in her car. Our favorite snippet of the conversation follows. Carnita asked each young man who is currently in grade 12 what they wanted to be doing next year and what they thought they were going to be doing next year. The most chatty and confident of the group wasted no time in replying:

“I want to be a civil engineer, but I think I’m going to be a sound engineer.”


Monday, May 4, 2009

Eye on the prize.

Almost daily I am humbled in one way or another living in Cape Town and working in Gugulethu. These reminders of my privilege are generally administered by one of my students.

This morning one of my grade 11 students approached me to discuss his first term mark, with which he was unhappy. Not so much that he was unhappy with me, but rather that he was disappointed with himself and wanted to know what he could do to improve. He is genuinely dedicated to succeeding, despite the laundry list of challenges that lie before him.

He is a new student to the school this year, so I asked him where he had been before Fezeka. He told me that he and his mother had moved to the Cape Town area this year from the Free State province, located in the North West of the country and known as the Transvaal during the Apartheid era. To this day, Free State remains the most racist part of the country where the discriminatory beliefs of the old regime are still clung to by many of the Boers living there and it is where, as recently as last year, the 18 year old son of a white farmer opened fire in a black township and killed 6 – the youngest of which was 6 months old.

I asked my student what it was like growing up in Free State. “It was hard Miss,” was all he replied, though it was clear that he was understating the realities of just how bad. I asked him what he found hardest about the move to the Western Cape and Cape Town. He said that he was really struggling with the English, as the English he had been taught in Primary School was far more basic. For all intents and purposes the Bantu education system seemed to be alive and well in Free State, as this young man’s proficiency in the language is quite poor, despite the fact that he is clearly a student who is trying his best.

Then he told me where he lives.

Tokkai is located in the Southern Suburbs, about 30-odd kilometres from Fezeka. Every weekday morning, this young man leaves the house at 5:30 am and takes a bus, a train and two taxis to get to school for 8:00 am. I asked him why he then chose to attend Fezeka and not a school that was closer to home and he told me that he had heard Fezeka was the best so he knew it was the place for him.

He went on to tell me that he and one of his friends (another student of mine) have started an after school study group (of 2), so that they can help each other out in the subject areas with which they are struggling. Sometimes, he told me, they stay at school until 6:00pm or later. Stunned, I asked him what time this meant he got home.

Smiling, he looked at me and replied: “Miss, it’s okay if I’m at school late. I really want to succeed. I’m dedicated to succeeding. If I get home at 10pm its okay because I am coming from school. I’m not running the streets getting into trouble. I am at school, studying, trying to make a difference for my future. Because if I don’t, no one else will.”