Saturday, June 11, 2016

Remembering the code of black life

“Sithi masizodibanisa amehlo. Akuhlanga lungehliyo. Kunje kuzo zonke izizwe. Tutwini.”

I’ve heard these words many times; as though they were a litany or a poem. These are the words I heard every time I went to umthandazo, a prayer meeting, held at a home when a family member has died. These meetings were largely organised through the church. We would go after church on a Sunday or iGuildas —ulutsha, the youth—would go during the week. Thursday was reserved for uManyano. If the person who passed away was a member of uManyano, Thursday also meant kuxhonywa ibhatyi: a ritual that involves taking the manyano uniform and hanging it up in the home until the funeral. This would be a symbol and reminder to anyone who visits the home that the mother of the home was umama webhatyi, a church mother.

Recently these memories have been creeping up on me slowly, reminding me of the patterns and rituals I’ve been involved with which gave me meaning as a child and teenager. More importantly, they’ve been occupying my mind as a reminder of tangible examples of black life. I’ve only ever witnessed imithandazo and ukuxhonywa kwebhatyi in black communities. These rituals as well as most coming-of-age rituals amongst all cultures and communities are rooted in a code. Some could call it a discourse, a way of being. This code encompasses the language that is used in certain spaces, the dress code, the behaviours and the practices involved in a ritual. These differ for every family and every community, every class and every race, but they exist.

A few months ago one of my colleague’s father-in-law passed away. This was not the first time a colleague had had a bereavement in the family. Usually an email was sent around asking that we “carry so-and-so in your prayers and thoughts as they grieve the loss of so-and-so in their family”. Perhaps colleagues who were better acquainted with the bereaved would send flowers and cards. However, when one of the seSotho teacher’s father-in-law passed away the perfunctory email was followed by an email from Ma'Dlamini* (the isiZulu teacher) suggesting that we visit sis’Vuyi’s* family on Thursday afternoon. The email was addressed to all the black teachers in the school. No-one asked why we were going. There was an understanding silence amongst us that we were going to umthandazo.

On the day of umthandazo I questioned my dress code more than usual: should I wear a skirt? Should I hear a doek? What would be expected of me at sis’Vuyi’s house? Upon arrival at sis’Vuyi’s house, my fears of being inappropriately dressed were allayed when sis'Vuyi appeared in a knee-length (meaning short) shweshwe dress; sans doek. As the makoti of the home this is a surprise given the rules that govern makotis and what they wear. We were ushered into the home and greeted by the family. Before long Ma’Dlamini belted out a familiar verse from a seSotho hymn. Everyone joined in. This was followed by a prayer and only after the prayer did we explain the obvious. The family nodded knowingly throughout the explanation which went something like: we are Vuyi’s colleagues and we felt it was important to visit the family and show that we are in solidarity with her as the family prepares for the funeral. Ma’Dlamini went on to introduce each of us and explain that even though we worked among white people in a white world “Ubuntu bethu” determined that we maintain the culture of ukukhunga: visit and pray with a family during their loss. We performed a ritual that was familiar and valued by everyone in the room.

Since the ritual in sis'Vuyi’s home I’ve been thinking about the rituals I participate in while living in Johannesburg. Visiting sis’Vuyi’s home was the first time since I left home in 2006 that I had been to umthandazo. I was reminded of the multiple codes I have access to, many of which have very little resemblance with the code I used growing up. It led me to consider: if my mother had passed away what code would my sister's and I use to make meaning of the rituals assumed to be part of a funeral? Would my colleagues hold umthandazo? Would we have a Thursday prayer meeting and display her manyano uniform as she has always insisted my sisters and I should do? Would we bury my mother here in Johannesburg or back in the Eastern Cape where she spent most of her life?

I find more and more I’ve been thinking about the shift in how I understand the world since I left home. This is probably just a case of nostalgia. There’s been an obvious change in how my shift into a more middle-class lifestyle has meant different ways of being. Even when I have been in black communities I’ve been excused from certain ways of being because people know I am educated, I live in Johannesburg which means I am exempt from certain expectations. The rules are more relaxed for me and those like me. Perhaps the relaxed rules also have something to do with being geographically removed from the community I was part of as a child. I watch with envy how some friends seem to have maintained the seamless relationship with where they grew up. But I also have a community of young, black professionals who deal with the schism in values when one goes home because they are the first graduate in the family or the one who had a better education than the poorer cousins who remain poor in the township.

This is nothing new: it sounds like another case of double consciousness where identity is contested because that's the nature of growing black in a white supremacist world. But is this the way it ought to be? If I were in another country I would expect all these emotions. But I am in Africa but I question my identity as though I were in another country that makes my difference obvious. Perhaps my nostalgia is irrelevant because identity is supposed to be complex and questioned.

*Not their real names

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Social hierarchy in the school playground

There are times when I'm teaching and I will deliberately go off the script of marking boring work and delve into a conversation under the pretence of getting the girls to engage with a text. Today was such a day. I could sense my grade 9s weren't really riveted by the work we were doing; in spite of the value of the work. We were marking a past paper which is great preparation for exams but not so great when it's just another Wednesday morning at school.

The comprehension in the past paper wasn't particularly exciting nor particularly dull. It was Daniel Browde's reflection of attending his 20 year reunion. One of the questions that became a talking point for almost half the lesson was the issue of the social hierarchy he describes as a labyrinth: "The labyrinth was not the place, although it was apt that the reunion was held there. The labyrinth was the group: the 250 human beings herded together every weekday for 5 years. And not just any 5 years: those godforsaken, tender, teenage years". Browde refers to the old order of his high school years establishing itself 20 years later at the reunion. The old order refers to the social hierarchy we've all found ourselves to be a part of at some point during our school lives and possibly even in our adult lives.

I couldn't help but use this text to find out what the girls' experience is at the moment: "Is this the case at St Mary's?" There was an awkward silence and eye contact. Eventually one of the girls responded bravely after a coaxing smile from me: "Well, it's difficult to talk about the issue without mentioning names, but there's definitely a hierarchy in our grade". This response opened the flood gates to a confession session about the dynamics among the girls in their social circles.

While listening to them regale me with their experiences and the rules of the game I couldn't help but share what I'd seen during high school. I told them about the "Snob Squad" and the "Homies" the two popular groups when my sister was in Grade 7 in 1998. The "Snob Squad" was the white girls corollary of the "Homies"; the cool black girls. They set the standard of cool in their grade 7 year which extended itself into their high school experience. It seemed this was still happening in 2016.

Some of the girls shared their experience as outsiders as some of them had been to co-ed, public primary schools which did not prepare them for the cliquey, private school, girl experience. One of the new girls initially felt that "But all the girls in our grade are friends" only to contradict herself by making a perceptive remark "I think the problem is that girls are competitive" which meant that even friendships were about competition. The same girl also made a comment about the grooming process happening in high schools: the cool girls in Matric will befriend the cool girls in grade 11 who will do the same to the grade 10s and so the cycle goes until everyone in the school knows who the cool stream consists of in the school. This initiation process made the girls believe that there's no point in even trying to break the trend of cliquishness  that is an established culture in the school.

One of the girls likened the social hierarchy to a ladder and one  way of climbing up the rungs and becoming an A-lister (yes, they actually used this word) is the proximity to boys: the more boys one had in their circle the more popular they became in school. This was nothing new to me but it saddened me that in a time where these girls have been bombarded with images of Beyonce and girls running the world, boys still determined the value they placed on themselves and each other. This is one of the greatest criticisms against single-sex schools (especially for girls): girls become obsessed with boys because they are not part of their every day experience. And the obsession can manifest itself in the strange value boys have-- even in their absence-- among teenage girls.

I was disheartened by most of what the girls shared but I also couldn't help but share in the hilarity of the situation. One of the girls pointed out how ludicrous the cliques are when she made an example of two groups sitting back to back in their same area: instead of forming one big, inclusive circle perhaps. The girls felt that this is a clear example of how entrenched the groups are among the girls. I then became interested in how the groups formed. There wasn't a simple answer to this: some came from the same primary schools, others it was sport but for others it was just a force of nature. You saw a group of people who had the same mannerisms as you and you decided to be friends. Or for those who are more confident, like attracts like and before you know it, all the pretty and confident girls are sitting together and firmly establishing their position as the A-listers.

Instead of marking a past paper we had managed to do an analysis of the social hierarchy in the school for 40 minutes. I'm sure the girls walked out feeling victorious because they managed to to shirk away some work; but the discussion was a different kind of work I like having in my classroom. Analysis doesn't only need to happen through an assessment. Analysis can happen through a conversation looking deeper into the social interactions we take for granted.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The language of marriage

April marks a year since I got married. When I reminded my sister of the anniversary she responded by saying “They say the first year is the toughest year. It should get rosier and rosier from now on”. Her words became a reminder about the messages we pass around about marriage: the language of marriage. Before we got married my partner and I went back and forth discussing the idea of marriage. Why did we want to get married? Why not live together and have a domestic partnership? We weren’t the first couple grappling with these questions. It felt as though we weren’t going into the marriage blindly and simply accepting the idea of marriage.

Many young people have questioned the need for marriage. Many are opting out or others opt in and realise while in the marriage they’ve made a bad decision and divorce. Just about everyone I know has a story about a relative or friend who had a bad experience in marriage and called it quits within a few months or years of the marriage. Even though this is the case, women are still targeted when it comes to the question of marriage and some women are still explaining why marriage is  not an accomplishment. The reality is men have always been let off the hook when it comes to marriage and women are yet to be let off the hook.

Many friends have asked me why my partner and I got married. I always respond with a mixture of rolling my eyes and laughing off the question. But when I do muster enough courage the default answer is that there’s a sense that my partner and I agree that we are helpless romantics. We want our version of happily ever after. In spite of the break ups we see around us we believe we will be together forever because we got married on our terms. No white dress. No lobola. No wedding. No new surname for me. No expensive rings (we both kept the rings we bought each other when we got engaged). No pomp and ceremony. We got married on a weekday at Home Affairs with two friends as witnesses. The signing process took 15 minutes and afterwards we went to lunch with our friends and had a relaxed afternoon. We went home and watched soccer on TV. It was another day and in its simplicity it was special. When I tell people about our "wedding" they are in disbelief.

By starting the marriage on our own terms it meant that we owned the relationship. We wanted the marriage to be an extension of the relationship we already had rather than deal with the social pressure of dealing with “a new phase” in our life. After having been a part of many weddings I became aware of the language of marriage. Most of it is couched within a religious discourse whether the couple is religious or not. I haven’t been to any secular weddings yet but I’ve heard of people making a conscious effort of having a wedding but removing the religious discourse.

I had to explain to my sister why I had chosen not to take my partner’s surname and why we insisted on a Home Affairs signing. My sister had had the whole package when she got married five years prior to my getting married: dress, church, family—lots of family—the traditional wedding, the slaughtering of a sheep, the new makoti name. For her it felt like an important process so it was only natural I explain why we had opted out of this structure. It was a question of choice and feeling like I wasn’t simply being swept into the marriage because that’s what society expects of me. I also wanted to feel like I’m owning this part of my life: I’ve seen many friends being swept away by the euphoria of the wedding only to express that the wedding was the worst day of their lives because the day was hijacked by extended family who have other ideas about what a wedding should be. I also wanted to make it clear for myself that I was more interested in marriage rather than the wedding. My partner and I had time to talk about the marriage we wanted rather than discussing wedding venues and a guest list. The obsession with a wedding—which is a one day affair—often gets more attention than the marriage which is supposed to last a life time. Of course it’s possible for couples to do both: talk about marriage and a wedding.

Perhaps there’s a need to differentiate that there’s the language and performance of the wedding and there’s a language and performance for marriage. The language of the wedding is one of consumerism and about what other people will think. Weddings have nothing to do with the bride and groom but mostly they have to do with the family and extended family. It’s a show for others while couched within the sense that the wedding is about the couple. It’s a very schizophrenic expression that couples know they buy into in order to appease the families. It’s a ritual that society has decided is essential even though we all know it can be a farce.

The language of marriage is about positioning: men and women are positioned to have different roles in the relationship. The positioning also means that the rules of engagement the couple had while they were dating must change. While dating couples kept their finances separate but once they live together their finances are merged. This is a practical arrangement but when I tell my friends that my partner and I don’t have a joint account there’s visible confusion followed by “but how do you manage your finances?” Independently. Of course we have a discussion about who is responsible for which bill and thereafter we keep our savings and daily expenses separate. We both contribute towards groceries and entertainment expenses (but this is not always equal).

Another form of positioning is a result of the domestic set up. Even couples who are not married and decide to live together have to deal with how the domestic life should unfold. This too has a set of rules that people can buy into or not. The wife is the homemaker and the husband is the handyman. I don’t want to make any grand statements about this because many couples make different choices where the home life is concerned. Even though the home is a private space it can still be governed by rules created by others. The advertising industry dictates or confirms these rules: detergents and food are aimed at women while cars and gadgets are aimed at men. Of course many couples and families are open to changing the language of marriage: some choose not to have strict rules for makotis while other families choose to let the young couple live their lives without too many expectations. Other couples are comfortable with the traditional roles in marriage. The language of marriage is being contested but because the relationship is both public and private, it’s difficult to tell who is dictating the shift in the idea of marriage. Men or women?

The language of marriage extends beyond the home and into how the couple behave socially. There’s the language of “date night”, “girls night”, “boys night” and all these events are an example of how does the couple organise its social life once they have “put their lives together” (a favourite stock phrase in the language of marriage). If the couple didn’t have mutual friends before marriage this can be a crises point because there’s an assumption that as a couple you ought to have the similar circle of friends. If not this can be a problem. And this is the rub: the idea of “two become one” can create an unnecessary crises. Why should two become one? Why can’t two remain two post marriage? Organising a social life in a relationship is about time: how much time do you spend apart and how much time do you spend together? If a relationship is working then monogamy dictates that you’re probably spending a lot of time together and spending time with friends together.

By now you’ve noticed I haven’t used the word husband but partner instead. This is also a practical opting out of the language of marriage because husband and wife means positioning. These are not just words but concepts with a long history of behaviour in a marriage. By choosing partner I am making a statement that I am not a wife but rather a partner, an equal partner because the language of husband and wife is not one of equality. The value judgment on husband and wife means that the couple respond to each other differently and the world responds to them differently. By choosing partner I am saying that my partner and I are two people who happen to have made a decision to be together rather than two people who have roles in the home and in society.

The first year of my marriage has been deciding for myself whether I want to opt into the language of marriage. More importantly, I have been trying to think through what kind of marriage does one have if they reject the language of marriage? Can it even be called a marriage?  Why does it matter so much that marriage should be experienced in a particular way? Surely the language of the relationship should matter more than anything. Each relationship has its rhythm and rituals. Why shouldn’t the same rhythm continue once a couple gets married?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Making local knowledge matter in the classroom

Recently my grade 10 pupils had to present orals using quotes from African writers. While listening to their orals I was struck by the lacklustre nature of their speeches. When I introduced the assessment to the girls there was an understanding that the speeches should be interesting and that the opportunity to research African writers would hopefully inspire them to learn more about the work done by African writers. As each pupil got up to share their oral the atmosphere in the room began to change. An outsider who doesn’t know my students would have said they are good speakers but I was disappointed.
Most of the speeches were feel-good speeches about the rainbow nation and Africa the dark continent and anecdotal references to being a proud African and South African. Some of the speeches could have been extracted from tourism brochures. Some of the speeches were very interesting but not convincing. They lacked the authenticity I was expecting. Each speech was laced with the eagerness most teenagers have in most classrooms: saying what the teacher wants to hear. As each student spoke I began to yawn. Literally. None of the speeches triggered any discussion so I had inadvertently produced an oral-producing factory in my classroom. We all began to realise that not only was the audience disengaged but so was each speaker.
Once the speeches were complete I tried to give feedback and posed questions about why the orals were “such a drag”. I conceded that perhaps I should have spent more time talking about the skills needed for effective speeches or focussed on the content of their speeches. After many attempts of explaining themselves one of the students responded that she struggled to find a quote to which she could relate. I felt that this was the most honest response. In the few years that I have been a teacher I have noticed that teenagers judge whether something is worthy of learning based on relatability and interest.
I can’t remember if this was the case when I was at school, but as a teacher it is one of the greatest challenges of teaching: how do we make learning interesting? Interesting being synonymous to fashionable and relevant. The question of relatability is also an interesting one as students have made a value judgement about their learning based on their vantage point: their sheltered, comfortable, middle-class lives in South Africa’s suburbia. This is a very myopic view because based on this view, the most interesting ideas are possibly consumerism, pop culture and keeping up with the Van Tonders.
I also asked my students if the fact that they couldn’t find quotes they could relate to had anything to do with our choice of African authors. Perhaps while doing research they had come face to face with their subconscious perception they have about African writers who are not as popular as American or British writers. Is it possible that in choosing an African writer they felt they couldn’t find anything interesting because of the unquestioned belief that Africans only have war, dictatorships, poverty and corruption to offer the world?
The experience in my classroom made me think about Nomalanga Mkhize’s article “Education for the elite lacks local intelligence” where she points out the reality that in privileged schools education can be “intellectually thin and devoid of social intelligence”. She points out the paradox: “The school was ostensibly offering the best available education under the sun, but it also seemed that it was teaching [her] nothing at all of what was going on around [her].”
Herein lies another paradox: when such a school attempts to incorporate local knowledge in order to address the gaps Mkhize points out, there’s resistance from the students and the desired effect of exposing students to other voices is thwarted. The resistance is not intentional but I’d like to think it’s a subliminal response from learners who haven’t truly questioned the perceptions they have about local knowledge. Next term this same class will read and discuss Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus as their setwork for the term. I’m very excited about teaching this text but after the disappointment with the orals I’m worried the students will not be able to “relate” to Adichie (let alone pronounce the names of the characters in the book).
This concern raises many questions about my assumptions of my students and their interests in African literature. I am also aware that Adichie is perceived as a safer option than a South African writer who may make references to apartheid and we know how tired of apartheid the born-frees seem to be.
My students are at an impressionable age and they are part of a school culture that privileges the “right” answer while challenging ideas is secondary. They are also inundated by images of celebrities who are not questioning the representation of Africa but rather interested in the shock factor and making money. They are also living in a country where racism is not dead and ideas about blackness and whiteness are centre-stage.
The problem with choosing knowledge in our classrooms has to do with how we position ourselves and our learners. The ideas and voices we choose to privilege send a message to the students about which ideas matter and which don’t. I fear that the response to the orals suggests that the voices of African writers don’t matter because it’s not possible to relate to them. This is a dangerous position to be in because then which knowledge does matter?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Stereotypes, fragmented bodies and consumerism

With the advent of the festive season the advertising industry has escalated their shock factor: advertisements seem to be working really hard to get the consumer’s attention. A few adverts have caught my eye recently—for all the wrong reasons. While browsing at Stuttafords I was confronted by an image of a woman's legs with the rest of her body forming the shape of a Christmas tree made of shopping bags. I shared the image on Facebook and friends pointed out my discomfort about the advert wasn’t irrational. One friend responded with “Woman-as-object. Shopping stereotype. Sexualization. Fragmented body.” While another cleverly joined in the conversation with “Nothing wrong, here. Just another womyn objectified to sell sh*t. Buy our sh*t. Get sex.”

The picture I took while at Stuttafords

I made my discomfort known to Stuttafords via Twitter only to be told the ad is part of a larger “Spoil campaign” with images of men and women whose faces and bodies have been replaced with shopping bags. I guess the advert got my attention but for the wrong reasons. My initial outcry was the fragmented female body but the images Stuttafords uses for their campaign feature a fragmented male body as well. This does not make the advert any more palatable but more dangerous. The fragmentation of the body in the name of consumerism highlights the consequences of the lifestyle: that we are in fact dehumanised by the need to consume objects we probably don’t need. Exaggerating is a strong feature in advertising but in the “Spoil campaign” case I think it is inadvertently illuminating about the state of our humanity in a consumerist society.

I was then struck by a PEP advert on television about quick and easy loans by simply walking into a PEP store with an ID. This is not the first ad of its kind (there’s one about a guy in a taxi who gets rejected by the bank and discovers PEP loans after all his efforts). What caught my attention in this advert was the use of the black,working class woman caricature (or stereotype). It shouldn't be a surprise that this image of the black, poor woman is used given the target market and the customers of PEP stores. It’s the same kind of woman used to advertise washing powder and chakalaka. Instead of offering poor, black women a way to save rather than spend, the advert PEP has before Christmas encourages debt. This advert highlights the lack of regard for a group of marginalised people who need financial security rather than getting into more debt in the name of the Christmas season. I am yet to see an advert about a service that encourages the stokvel savings (many black women are part of stokvels in their communities) rather than the usual image of the poor, black woman who must consume blindly even though we know in reality this kind of consumption has dire consequences for the woman and her family.
One of the woman in the the advert:

Right at the beginning of the festive season Shoprite had a Christmas advert with a striking, cute, black, little girl used in the advert. She was very light-skinned to the point where I noticed the yellowing of her skin. Perhaps it's the lighting used in the advert to highlight the happiness associated with Christmas shopping but her skin tone made me question the kind of babies that are used in adverts: mostly white children and if there are black children they often appeal to the aesthetic of whiteness with excessively light skin because white babies are more palatable to the consumer(the Telkom ad with the baby with the afro also falls into the category of yellow-looking children). 
The cute, little girl:

This shouldn’t be a surprise seeing as most black people in advertisements are light-skinned black people. They are often referred to as yellow bones: an offensive term initially used to describe light-skinned women to highlight their attractiveness. This is colourism. Alice Walker coined the phrase to explain the “discrimination within communities of colour towards those with darker skin.” This is a dangerous reality given the attention on the skin lightening industry in South Africa and the rest of the continent. And now young children watching t.v. adverts are getting a strong message about what it means to be pretty and cute on t.v. and magazines. Colourism mostly affects women as black men are seen as more attractive (think alcohol adverts in smokey rooms and pubs with sauve, dark chocolate-skinned men). The obvious problem with colourism is its link to whiteness being privileged as the standard of beauty: the closer a black person is to whiteness, the more desirable they are.

I could list more adverts that have caught my attention for the wrong reasons recently. This probably means the adverts have been successful because adverts are designed to catch the consumer's attention. However they didn't catch my attention because I'm interested in the product. They caught my attention because of they are problematic and perpetuate images that appeal to negative stereotypes and racist ideas about beauty and attractiveness. Perhaps this is the purpose of advertising: to confirm our reality as consumers so that we can rely on the same tropes which define our reality. Heaven forbid advertising challenged our reality.