The Long Memory
“Yes, the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.” – U. Utah Phillips
The second pup of a litter of two, a runty mix of daisy yellow and off-white with a big pink belly and short round ears that had taken to me since the pregnant disappearance of her sister some weeks ago, died Monday. She had spent the last three days nestled in the soft climbing vines of the plants out front of my house, whining intermittently, ignoring food and water, hoping in the way that only small bits of life can that something would relieve her of her unseen pain. Each morning, I’d find her in the plants, all ribs and paws, as if preparing to return to the earth. Where she once was, there is now a tiny, depressed hollow of green, empty to all else. At the end, like her sister, she went away and died alone.
She passed, and my sister-in-law, my skoni, gave birth to her first child – a boy – on Tuesday, to the delight of my entire family. My older brother and she had been trying for years. His name is Mphendulo, which means The Answer. He is the second young thing to join our extended family in as many years, my nephew Sbu having only recently begun talking, walking, and eyeing me (the mulungu) warily. The Answer: to our prayers, to our hopes and desires, to our desperate need to spit in the face of death. He spent this week nestled in the arms of his many Grandmothers, groggily full of life the way that only small bits of life are. In the beginning, like his brother, he came and was born into family.
Such is the way life goes in the Lowveld. Such is the way life goes: we value until deprived. We love until we can’t. We understand until we don’t. We accept what we can’t change, savor the rest, and pretend to know the difference.
My niece Siphokazi, a 13-year-old if there ever was one, lives for her friends, giggles and smiles tumbling out of her as they walk home together. One afternoon a week, at my kitchen table, we all sit and discuss mathematics or physics or whichever lesson gave them the most trouble that week. Usually it’s mathematics, but sometimes they want to discuss physics or English. Where her friends and our neighbors excel, she lags behind, the wrinkles of frustration evident upon her face. She works laboriously to overcome each lesson, to grasp the fundamental piece of knowledge at the root of it. So far, it has been a war with few battles won.
Last weekend, in a break from the norm, Siphokazi came to me with a request to help her on her homework. As we sat down to look at the physics assignment, I understood why she needed help. On the paper before me was a diagram for a physics experiment, in which heat is conducted via convection, with an accompanying set of questions to answer related to the experiment. [The experiment used a trough full of petroleum jelly, with a line of wooden pins that stuck out below, to illustrate how heat moves from hot to colder areas by holding a candle at one end of the trough and watching which pins fell out first.] Only they had never done the experiment in class. The teacher had drawn the device, given the class the questions, and sent them home.
I got up from the table and found my host mother (a teacher at Siphokazi’s school). After explaining the situation, I asked her if she knew what had happened. Her response? Siphokazi had probably done something wrong. Her first instinct was to blame the child. I patiently explained to my host mother that this was impossible, as it was clear from the questions on the paper (“time the pins as they fall out, which ones fall first?”) that there was no way to do this experiment at home. It should have been, at the very least, demonstrated in front of the class, if not by each learner in there. My host mother occasionally likes to play dumb, as if by pretending to be oblivious of the obvious, I’ll let it go. It hurts, because it assumes the worst in me. She did this now and I gave her my meanest look.
Finally, she acknowledged that there was no way for Siphokazi to complete the homework assignment without having witnessed the experiment. I told her I was angry, that it was ridiculous to pretend to teach learners in such a way and then have the gall to give them homework. I asked her who was Siphokazi’s teacher. She refused. And here is the perfect example of the complete and utter backwardness of the education system in rural South Africa: A teacher doesn’t do his job and, after initially faulting the learner, the learner’s caretaker would rather protect the teacher from punishment than report him to the principal.
I swallowed my bile. It’s exactly this kind of timidity – from parents, principals, community members – that results in the overwhelming stultification of teachers and encourages lassitude in learners. This insipid pandering to cultural norms exacerbates the already myriad problems in rural schools and leaves children like Siphokazi in the 7th grade still doing 4+4 on her fingers. How will she ever master lowest common denominators when she doesn’t know her multiplication tables?
That was Saturday. Monday, my host community toyi-toyi’d, protesting “service delivery,” or what amounts to a lack of water for four months, roads deteriorated into sandy tracks, open sewage, and irregular electricity. They are rightfully upset. Inherent to all toyi-toyis, mobs of enraged men patrolled the streets, lighting tires on fire, dragging giant stumps and logs and massive boulders into the roads, and generally shutting down all business for the day. They also, however, visit all the schools in the community and force them to close, threatening physical violence if learners aren’t sent home. This part I will never understand. I never resolved the physics experiment issue with Siphokazi because, through Wednesday this week, she was sent home from school at 9am.
Weeks like this, it’s hard to fight the gnawing realization that this country faces a lost generation of a serious and rapidly expanding size. Until children leave South Africa’s public schools with a basic understanding of math, English, science, and social studies, a comprehension of how that knowledge interacts with itself, and a strong foundation in critical thinking and decision making skills, the majority of its populace will remain enfeebled by their inability to function on a complex level – and so the stark reality is that they will remain oppressed, too, in a restricted quality of life, seduced by a simulacrum of reality that champions superficial status symbols and meaningless accumulation of facts and figures. They will remain fascinated by their own flickering shadows.
Ultimately, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to accept that, like the puppy that made a quiet exit, I am virtually powerless to stop the situation. I can provide food and water, to nurture the potential in students and encourage educators to care; but I can’t make them. We understand until we don’t. We love until we can’t. We accept what we can’t change.
There is something we can change, though, an opportunity to drive and push and compel the better angels of South Africa forward into the future. The KLM Foundation is a South African NGO that chooses one gifted but disadvantaged South African learner each year and sponsors them for four years at the prestigious Uplands College. All costs are covered, creativity and expression are encouraged, and (as you’ll see if you check out their website here) their first round of students are graduating to promising futures.
Two of my favorite components of the scholarship are a community investment requirement, in which learners are required to undertake a development project in their home community during their third year at school, and a 1-year bridge program that acknowledges the extreme adjustment first-year students face and is designed to ease that transition. To see what recipients of the scholarship think of it and Uplands College, take a look at this short video.
Each year in March, Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa volunteer to run the Longtom Marathon, at either the full ultra-marathon distance or the half, as a fundraiser for the KLM Foundation. The money that our family, friends, and colleagues donate on our behalf goes directly to the foundation, sponsoring future generations of gifted South African students. It’s not a handout and it’s not a hand up; it’s a broad and heavy shield between one South African child and the fire’s alluring glow, blackening their shadow long enough to discover the light outside the cave. Like last year, I am running, and I hope you’ll consider donating in my name.