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 - http://www.southafricalogue.com/features/the-xhosa-circumcision-ritual.html) 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.