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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

When “-isms” collide: racism vs classism vs ageism vc sexism (thinking out aloud)

Recently a colleague made a jibe “not everything is about race” while we were in conversation. I would mention her race except that would perpetuate the label that’s been lumped on to me: the angry black woman. I realised that as one of the few black staff members, race talk is always awkward in the staff room. We usually play it safe by making jibes at each other by talking about the weird things Coloured people say (“You’re gonna learn…who learn you English?”) or the most recent one, why do white (often English-speaking) people think it’s okay to call older people by their name? My Coloured colleagues and I stick to titles (Mr, Mrs, sisi, bhuti etc) unless the white person insists I use their first name, even when they are old enough to be my mother (which is very awkward).

 
These conversations can be fun and light-hearted and we feel like we are the rainbow nation and we’re all getting along in spite of the differences we hold onto. That’s until one of my white colleagues say they don’t get what the big deal is with #blackface, “what's the big deal” and then I'm placed in the position of being the “expert ethnic” and speak on behalf of my race. Or a white colleague questions the credentials of a coloured woman because she doesn’t meet his standards about what an educated person should say and behave like so she couldn’t possibly have gone through the arduous task of reading and writing her Ph.D “she probably bought it” he says. Or I complain about the class dynamics and my class sensibilities are questioned. Who is the problem in this situation: the one who judges according to race or the one who judges according to class or the one who uses culture? The simple answer is, all of the above.

 
When I admit my class consciousness I have noticed some who says something potentially racist will not admit that they are racist. We don’t like racists but it’s okay for people to say horrible things about working class and middle class people. Why? It’s somewhat okay to be a nice guy and say sexists things from time to time, but it’s usually just a joke and if anyone takes offense, they lack a sense of humour. I’m starting to think that we have a pecking order: the racist is the scum of the earth; then the sexist. If you haven’t checked your privilege and you’re middle class, people often turn a blind eye to comments about poor people (“why can’t they just get a job?”). If you’re somewhere in between classes and you feel like you can point fingers at both middle and working class then you’re the expert because you’re in both worlds. And then ageist on the grounds of religion and culture is usually pardoned and the conversation can move on swiftly.

 
Of course, the problem here is that if one is working within binaries of race, class and gender the complexities about the things we say when we forget who is in our company can get lost. I haven’t worked this problem out in my head except that I want another way of talking to people about race, gender class without killing the conversation because I’m the resident “angry black woman”.

 
I’m just thinking out aloud and making sense of some awkward situations I find myself within. What happens when my “nice” colleagues say something I think is racist and they think I’m being too sensitive? What happens when I say something offensive but because I’m the “angry black woman”, I may be exempt from correction in the fear of me pulling the race card? It all sounds quite silly to be honest. Grown people who can’t have frank conversations with each other for the fear of being misunderstood.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On giving into adult peer pressure and buying a car

My worst nightmare came true. When I decided I would move to a bigger city with a “kak” public transport system, I had to make peace with the fact that I had to buy a car. I had always hoped I would stay in a small town that didn’t really require a car (only just as a luxuary) or I could be anti-establishment and try to live without a car: shun consumerism and save the environment one taxi ride at a time. But my plans were thwarted and I took the plunge and decided to buy a car.

When I look around, it seems everyone approaches this part of their life with much ease. I envy people who inherited cars from their mom, dad or grandparents. My girlfriends and I always spoke about getting cars but in a casual non-committal sort of way. It's the adult thing to do. And I don’t know what it’s like for guys but I’ve decided that it’s way easier; the same way there isn’t much anxiety about getting a drivers license. Cars aren’t a mystery for men. Growing up, I knew few women who actually drove  or even owned cars so cars became the thing men did and women tagged along. (I've never seen my mother drive)

My disdain for cars also came from a secret I harboured: with the salary I have and the responsibilities on that salary, there’s no way I could afford a car. And the expectation that I must indeed have one in spite of this slight hinderance gave me heart palpitations. It felt like a cruel joke: people ask “when are you getting a car?” and I knew the answer wasn’t allowed to be “when I get a better salary” or even better “when I don’t have to contribute a chunk of my salary to my mother”.

So for the first two years of working I decided I would rather travel than save for a car. The first bit of money I saved I blew on a trip to Mozambique. I knew I couldn’t have it all like my friends with corporate salaries so I decided to make a trade off: a car or travel? And I chose travelling. I blew my first bonus on a trip to Kenya the following year. After the trip in Mozambique I was surprised by a conversation which made me realize I would make a somewhat major life choice: I had decided to move to Joburg and immediately I started thinking about the logistics: when? How? What would I do when I get to Joburg? Teach? Study further? So first I decided to get my drivers license.

I started saving hoping to buy a cheap jalopy sometime during the year. I would practice driving in Cape Town so I wouldn’t have a seizure when I stall in the middle of Jan Smuts Avenue in Joburg. I didn’t realize how little I know about cars until I started getting specific with friends. I knew the basics: if you don’t have enough money, vehicle finance is what most people do. Getting a car on credit is quite normal but also outs your social class in a huge way. It says “I’m normal: I want things I can’t afford and my parents couldn’t afford to help me out with a starter pack”. I was also grateful to find out that AVIS and most car rental companies sell their cars so I went for the AVIS option.

I don’t remember if I ever had a dream car (my few attempts at being anti-consumerism). A car is an object I wasn’t willing to spend too much energy on. It’s a possession that loses value as soon as you sign on the dotted line. So I knew I wanted something simple, basic and didn’t attract any attention or say anything about me at all: I didn’t want it to be an extension of me. I didn’t consider fuel consumption or whether it’s fuel consumption friendly. I didn’t know how long I wanted the car. I just wanted a car.

AVIS responded immediately after I sent them forms and documents(a day and a bit is too quick in my world). It all happened too quickly. Within a day I knew I qualified for vehicle finance. The biggest sham ever! On my current salary, there’s no way I can afford a car. I guess they make the decision based on credit. Money I don’t have. I made the decision based on my salary starting in January next year and the savings I had so far. My heart broke every time I considered that the money I saved so studiously would end up buying a car and not go into some other long term investment

And then the jargon began. My communication at AVIS was rerouted to the sales rep and not the administrator who processed the paper work: payslips, certified copies of this and that. I started making lists and ticking off all the documents as I went I along. An email from the sales rep told me good news and made me realize I had to ask questions: “your finance has  officially been approved with no residual with an estimated instalment @ 12% linked R2650 +- including warranty and service plan and smash and grab”. She offered to find someone who would help me with insurance quotes.  She told me I had the public holiday to think about it. Think about what? I didn’t know anything about residual and 12% linked. I asked around. I was also getting loads of advice from everywhere: ask about the service plan, ask about the warranty, ask about the accident report. And every time these questions were posed I felt like I was making the biggest decision of my life. Deciding on a career or degree of study wasn’t as stressful and that determined my future in real measurable terms. Why was there more pressure when buying a car?

The questions were sent in bits and pieces and I outed myself: I’m a first time buyer who has no clue what is going on. I assumed that people think like me: a teacher. Either assume the kids know nothing about what you’re talking about or start from what they know and build from there. It turns out this basic principal only applies in the classroom. In the real world people assume you know everything.

I then went onto the Hippo website. The Hippo adverts on tv were always lost on me: why compare insurance prices anyway? Because everything is a potential scam! Everyone is trying to squeeze as much money out of us as possible and the more naïve you are, the better. The website was helpful because it gave me a sense of what to expect when I eventually got a call from someone who would give me more quotes. I saw the words “excess” on the Hippo website and I didn’t know what that meant. It turns out, for every claim I make with the insurance company I would first have to pay money. But what about all the instalments I would have made already? The excess is supposed to be a deterrent from claiming willy nilly. The remaining lessons at school on Friday were a blur. I had heart palpitations every time I thought about the car and the word insurance made me queasy.

After school, the car arrived and I went for a test drive. I did a pit stop at AVIS and finally met the people who had bombarded me with emails. I realized as I had the face to face conversation: I probably should have done my homework a bit more. I decided to be a victim and blame all the friends I kept asking who gave me half-hearted advice or worse, advice in instalments. The thought of prolonging this trauma and doing more homework gave me a sleepless night. I was up until 2am looking at other car websites. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Some people told me to look a bit more. Look for what?

I think I’ve decided on the deal. It’s not my dream car but it will do the job for the next few years. I haven’t dealt with the trauma of what buying on credit really means: I will eventually end up paying more than the price I saw on the website. The system is flawed and how much room is there to find the ideal situation? What is the ideal situation when buying a car? I still resent the fact that I need a car. But the whole process has been a rite for passage. I can already see the next stress with the car (assuming there are no accidents, the breaks don’t fail, I don’t burn the clutch, the fan belt doesn’t start screaming and whatever else it is that ruins a car): how long will I keep it for? Will I trade it in? Will I be able to sell it?

I’m not anymore car savvy than when I began this process. I just feel a little more like an adult. After a 40 minute conversation with friends I realized, perhaps I should have read a little more. Perhaps I should have waited one more month. Shoulda, coulda, woulda! Now I have my heart set on having transport options from this week onwards. I don’t have to take the taxi or bus if I don’t want to. I probably will, to save and not have to worry about parking when I get to school. I don’t have to bother people with asking for lifts anymore. I don’t have to worry about carrying stuff next time I go grocery shopping.


I have given away a fraction of my soul because buying a car is a necessary evil.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On being let down by a strong, black woman


The last time I wrote a post was more than a month ago. I was in the throes of exams and trying to keep up with the mountain of exam marking. When I could finally breathe and the holiday began, my mother had a stroke a few days after my long-awaited holiday began.

A stroke isn't something that can be planned. But it feels like my mother chose the perfect time to have her stroke. My sisters and I had planned to take some time off and be home during July so when the stroke happened, we had all been preparing ourselves to come home anyway. I always have to prepare myself for going home: mentally and emotionally. Over the years, home has become an emotional desert. 

The stroke happened on Wednesday morning. Mama called me and she didn't sound like herself. My initial thought was that she had been crying. But seeing as I can count the number of times I’ve seen her cry, I immediately dismissed that thought. She told me she wasn’t well, but assured me she had everything under control. She said she would go and see a doctor. My mother never single-handedly chooses to see a doctor. She has to be coerced or in a diabetic coma for four days before she concedes that something is wrong with her. So when she said she was going to the doctor, I thought: maybe this is serious. But being my mother’s daughter, I also knew that my mother also cried wolf before so I decided to disengage and allow her to take care of herself. My 9 year old nephew was visiting her and she assured me she would be fine with the nephew around. So after I spoke to her I rolled over in my bed and carried on sleeping, enjoying the fact that I had nothing planned for the day except for a few errands that weren’t really urgent.

Later I got a message from my cousin saying she had seen my mom and something was amiss. Still, nothing moved me. My mother is a strong, black woman. Capable. This couldn’t be too serious. She called me later telling me she’d been to the doctor, got “i-treatment” (medication) and the doctor assured her that the stroke had passed her by, leaving a little damage; she was a bit wobbly but she assured me she would be fine.

Thursday morning and I get a call from my aunt who never calls me. She tells me mama had fallen over during the night and had lost feeling in the left side of her body. She asked me the dreaded question: ubuya nini? (when are you coming home?) I had planned to visit mama during the last week of my holiday. The first two weeks would be mine to do the things I wanted to do. But my aunt demanded an answer: when are you coming home? I think I lied to her and said I would make a plan. My sisters and I began to make plans via whatsapp and it was decided that the eldest would find a flight on Thursday; but later we discovered flights were full so she would be home Friday morning. By the end of the day on Thursday I had been convinced by other people that I too should abandon my plans and go home. I didn’t want to go home.

Memories of giving up time, emotions and money in order for mama to be happy came flooding back to me. A few years ago mama showed symptoms of having diabetes. My sisters and I noticed in October but mama refused to acknowledge this. I came home for the December vac and she was emaciated and drinking lots of water. Within a few days she had lost her appetite and she no longer had energy to get out of bed. She began vomiting and before long she was dragged out of the house, almost unconscious, taken to the hospital and into a coma for four days.

The diabetic coma was a culmination of the dysfunction in my family, especially when it came to my mother. The dysfunctional nature of our family life has a long history of subtle signs throughout my childhood and adolescence. Ours has never been a normal family By the time I left for varsity, I had decided my mother has bipolar and she existed on a different reality than the one I lived within. But because she didn’t believe in doctors, that was just my conjecture based on some reading and efforts of putting together the pieces of the stories she told me. The pieces never came together.

I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t want to deal with my mother’s drama. The stroke could have been avoided but my mother didn’t look after herself even though she understood she had diabetes which needed prolonged treatment. But I conceded and went home in spite of my plans of having a peaceful holiday. When my sisters and I arrived in East London Friday evening my mother was in a pitiful state. The next day my sisters admitted her into the hospital and her road to recovery began.

As I write this, she’s been in hospital for more than a week receiving care and physio to help her along. Because she’s my mother, she’s also been drinking concoctions from a famous medicine man who makes a herbal concoction to drive away the effects of a stroke. A miracle man. I decided against visiting her in hospital today. I didn’t take any of her calls as I usually do because I am tired. Physically and emotionally spent by yet another episode of drama.

My sisters and I have been packing up her house as she can no longer live alone. I have been sorting through boxes and shelves of clothing discovering pictures and letters from my mother’s former life as a teacher and devout church lady. In the past twenty years, I have watched my mother disintegrate into a shadow of herself, relying on pictures and stories about my mother before she checked out of life.

I’m hoping I will weep at some point or whatever the appropriate response is when one has an ailing mother. I have not wept. I am only tired. I wake up in the middle of the night wondering how this happened and what will life look like now that my life and my sisters’ lives have been changed by one single person who was supposed to keep it together? Instead she has three daughters keeping it together because we are her pension plan, her retirement annuity. The strong, black woman has let us down.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Thank you, Maya Angelou

I found out about Maya Angelou’s passing from a new friend while visiting Uganda. Access to the internet was sporadic and I hadn’t checked Twitter for a glimpse of what was happening in the world. When he told me I slapped him on the arm (a terrible reflex I have when I’m shocked or angry) because in my mind I imagined her picture and words disappearing forever. But then I realised, people like her don’t really die, they live on forever.
I remember the first time I encountered her work. I was in a library looking for something new. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for but I knew it when I saw it. It was an anthology of work by African-American women. The first poem in the anthology was Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman. I couldn’t believe the treasure that was in the book. It was my first discovery of black women who wrote and wrote about things that mattered to my teenage mind. Yes, they were African-American but they made me receptive to the idea that writing and ideas matter. And black women can write and many have believed that their voices and ideas matter.
After poring over the anthology I made it my job to find more work by women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and read whatever I could find (soon after I discovered a book Zenzele by Nozipho J Maraire — this was the first book I read written by an African woman). I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Maya Angelou’s collection of essays and poems with gusto. Her voice had a conviction and a rhythm. Typically, my favourite became Phenomenal Woman. By the time I finished high school it had become a mantra and I liked the idea of having a sway in my hips or not having to jump about or talk real loud in order to be heard.
During my first term at Rhodes I had a few jarring moments that brought me back to my reality: that one can be in the numerical majority but be culturally marginalised. It took an English tutorial (and introduction to philosophy) for me to realise that the work of the black writers I was discovering were not actually the norm. The voices of black intellectuals (especially women) came much later in my education. At the end of first term the tutor had asked us to bring a poem we would read and share with the rest of the group. It was the end of our first poetry module and we had covered the work of poets (mostly white men — I still have the anthology as evidence, compiled by Dan Wylie) preparing us for the launch into the anthologies by Seamus Heaney and Gerad Manley Hopkins (more white men).
So I decided to take along Phenomenal Woman. Before I read the piece I announced the title assuming that everyone would know the poet. I was the only person in my tutorial who knew the poem and the poet. I was confused: How could they not know one of the best poets alive? I naively believed that everyone knew about this important woman who expressed the joys and heaviness of being human and more importantly, a black woman. She wasn’t a poet like William Wordsworth or Sylvia Plath. She had the timbre of a familiar voice; someone I could have met and sat with and chatted with about all the things that pain me and bring me joy. And she would have listened.
Women like Maya Angelou (notice I can’t just say Maya or Dr Maya Angelou) gave me a different way of seeing the world. I am the cliché: another black woman whose life was changed by her words. Maya Angelou’s existence, her stories and her voice will be with me forever. Her work made me question why there aren’t more women writing about their lives? Her work made me more receptive to work by Nontsizi Mgqwetho, a black, South African woman who wrote poetry in the Xhosa newspaper Isigidimi Sabantsundu in the 1920s.
I don’t think of Maya Angelou as a role model. She’s just Maya Angelou: someone who gave others the space to be and believe in the importance of their convictions and thoughts about the world. I’m not really sad she’s passed on (we all saw that coming) because she’s left us with so much more. She left us with her poetry and her words, which will live on forever. Thank you Maya Angelou.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Elections: the rural vote

This is an extract from the article written for Al Jazeera Opinion:

When voters went to the polls May 7 to cast a vote for a national and provincial government, there was already a sense of resignation because in spite of the campaign from opposition parties such as the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) , we all knew the African National Congress (ANC) would win the national election with an overwhelming support provincially. The ANC has been the default government since 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president after apartheid.

This default position is largely due to what we know happens to liberation movements: They are supported by the majority of the population, often for complex reasons long after the liberation moment has ended. One would think that given the ANC's record of corruption, lack of service delivery in poor areas, the Marikana massacre, disgruntled worker unions, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, voters would be happy to let go of the ANC after 20 years. But this is not the case. Predictions from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) indicated that the ANC would still be in power after these elections, although it wouldn't have the two-thirds majority it once enjoyed.

As the ANC celebrates victory, some analysts have pointed out that there has been a meaningful drop in support for the ANC in these elections, especially in urban areas. Indeed, rural areas have been considered ANC's stronghold for some time.  But is confidence in ANC dropping only among the urban dwellers?

The rest of the article can be found here: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/05/south-africa-elections-rural-vot-20145108365499913.html

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Ubizo (The calling)

“Utitshala ohamba emthunzini wetempile phakathi kwabalandeli bakhe, akaniki okobulumko bakhe, koko okokholo lwakhe nokothando lwakhe.” La ngamazwi wombhali obekekileyo, uKhalil Gibran kwincwadi yakhe ethi Umprofethi. La mazwi abalulekile xa sicinga ngabantu abaye bazixhamla bazibandakanya kumsebenzi ojongene nemfundo yabantwana nolutsha beli: ingakumbi ootitshala bethu. Xa sithetha ngootitshala apha eMzantsi sinento yokubagalela ngamanzi ngakumbi xa sijonge iziphumo zebanga lokuqgibela okanye xa sixelelwa ngoqhankqalazo lootitshala ngenxa yokufuna ukurhola ngcono. Ezi ziganeko zithi ootitshala bethu abazimiselanga kwimfundo yabantwana bethu. Abanye bade bathi ixesha lokuba ootitshala bazidle ngomsebenzi wabo ladlula.

Kudala kwakuthiwa xa ubani ezinikezela kumsebenzi othile, ade abalasele, abonakalise ubuchule kumsebenzi othile kuthiwa ubiziwe. Ubizo olu yinto echaphazela abantu abathile: ingakumbi oogqirha (namagqirha), umfundisi wenkonzo njalo njalo. Oku kuthi asinguye uwonke wonke obiziweyo. Liqaqobana la bantu abazinikezelayo kumsebenzi wokukhonza ilizwe. Side sithi abantu ababiziweyo ngabantu abanesiphiwo lokuzinikezela kumsebenzi odelekileyo. Ndiye ndizibuze umbuzo: xa sisithi abantu abathile babiziwe, babizwe ngubani? Lo mbuzo uzama ukuphicotha lo mba wobizo kuba xa ubani esabela ubizo uyazincama yaye uzincamela inkolelo yokubaluleka komsebenzi abizelwe wona.

Ndiye ndafunda ngomzekelo omhle wotishala ozinikezeleyo, wasabela ubizo lokufundisa ulutsha. uMama Shape Msiza utitsha isiNgesi ePonelopele Oracle Secondary School, eEbony Park eMidrand. Ngonyaka ka2012 waye wavuzwa ngewonga eliphakamisa ootishala kudidi lwamawonga. Yena uMam’Msiza wafumana kwiTop Gauteng Teachers Awards kwingqinqi Ekurhuleni. Eliwonga walifumana ngenxa yeziphumo zabantwana bakhe ngexesha eyintloko yesebe lesiNgesi kwisikolo sakhe. Abafundi bakhe baphumelela emagqabini kwizifundo zesiNgesi. Kudliwano-ndlebe kunye neBBC uncokola ngesakhono sakhe nobuchule abusebenzisayo xa etitsha. Uthi uba ngumzali kubafundi bakhe ukuze bangamoyiki yaye akwazi ukuthetha nabo ngazo zonke izinto ezibalulekileyo, hayi ezesikolo kuphela. Uthando nenkathalo alubonakalisayo kubafundi bakhe lwenza angahoyi into ezinje ngemali ayirholayo yaye oku ukucacisa ngelithi : most cases teachers are not seen as a people who can be rich or who can be rich because the salary is not good. You never have money as a teacher! So we need to see it as a calling. You need to compromise.” Oku kuthi uxanduva azithathele wona uMam’Msiza libonakalisa ukuba indlovu ayisindwa ngomboko wayo.
Umsebenzi kaMam’Msiza awuphelelanga kwigumbi lokufundisa kuba ungumququzeleli kwezinye iinkonzo zesikolo kwakunye nokuncedisana nabafundi abalungiselela ukuphangela okanye abazimisele ukuqhubekeka nemfundo yabo emva komatriki. Nangona ewuthathela phezulu ubizo lwakhe, uMam’Msiza uyavuma ukuba ikhona imiceli-mngeni kulo msebenzi wakhe ingakumbi isimilo sabantwana besikolo. Nangona eligqala (uneminyaka eliyishumi amabini engutitshala), abafundi bakhe banamaxesha lokuphuma izithuba, intlonipho bayishiye ngaapha kwemida yesikolo. Abanye badibana nobunzima basebenzise iziyobisi yaye oku, kuchaphazela imfundo yabo. Iintombi zona ziye ziroxe esikolweni ngenxa yokukhulelwa. Abanye abafundi ziinkedama. Oku kuthi uMam’Msiza uthwele umthwalo wokufundisa abantwana abanemithwalo yabo.

Xa siqwalasela ibali likaMam’Msiza kumele sikhumbule ubume bezemfundo zalapha eMzantsi.Unintsi bootitshala banomsebenzi onzima wokufundisa unintsi lwabantwana nangona urhulumente engabaxhasi ngeencwadi zokufunda ezifanelekileyo (umzekelo eMpuma Koloni naseLimpopo).Oku kuthi umsebenzi wootitshala abaninzi unobunzima obungathethekiyo, kodwa obu bunzima buchaphazela abantu ababiziweyo, yaye basabela.


Ndibanovalo eleke ndicinga ngobizo; ibali likaMam’Msiza kwakunye nabo bonke ootitshala abazibandakanya kulomsebenzi ngenxa yobizo. Nje ngotitshala osandokungena kweliqela lababiziweyo, ndiye ndizithandabuze: ingaba ndingutitshala ofanelekileyo na xa ndizibona nje ngongabizwanga? Ingaba uthini umahluko phakathi kotitshala obiziweyo nongabizwanga? Ndinomrhano: le nto yobizo yeyabantu abathile. Ootitshala abafundisa kwimeko ezimaxongo nezibonakalisa ubunzima balomsebenzi; ngabo ababiziweyo. Kodwa, singathini ngootitshala abafundisa kwizikolo eziphucukileyo? Yintoni ebangela ukuba ootitshala abaninzi banganikezeli xa bedibana nobunzima ezikolweni zabo? Ingaba lubizo?

A similar article written in English can be found here:
http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/athambilemasola/2014/04/22/the-calling/

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

#TeacherTuesday Week 10: On teaching "creatures"

For the past two months I have been writing about the lives of teachers and their students from across the globe (for a project called #TeacherTuesday). All these stories have been highlighting the complexities in classrooms and policies that often underpin what happens in the classroom. Most of the reflections I’ve written for #TeacherTuesday have largely questioned the notion of access to education: inclusion and exclusion. The question of equal education and equal opportunities within education has been the golden thread over the past few weeks. And more importantly, thinking through ways in which education can be a tool for changing lives, especially for those who are often poor or marginalised.

When I read about Sitira from Indonesia I realised that my view about inclusion and exclusion in schools still needs to be challenged. Sitira is a Special Need Education Coordinator at Tunas Harapan Elementary School in Bandung City. There are 672 children in her school and 44 of them have a  disability. She reflects that there are many challenges she faces in her school. Dealing with the negative perceptions about people with disabilities means that their education is often not taken seriously and inadequately funded. Many do not get the skills to work or study further once they have completed secondary school.
The word disability is often seen as synonymous with abnormal. In Xhosa people with disabilities or perceived as “special needs” are referred to as “Isidalwa” (literal translation, a creature). This word bothers me because there is a lack of recognition of the humanity of people who do not meet the standards of what it means to be normal. In Grahamstown there’s a school that caters to children who have special needs (physical and mental barriers to learning); the school is called Kuyasa Special Schhol. While I lived in Grahamstown and observed and worked in mainstream, township schools I often heard teachers referring to deviant or unacceptable behaviour amongst their “normal” students “wenza ikuyasa” (literally, you are doing a kuyasa, implying something wrong) thus associating Kuyasa with deviance. Such everyday utterances have implications about what it means to be a good or bad student or more importantly about what it constitutes to be human and non-human.

When we consider the reality of the education of children with disabilities, reliable data are notoriously difficult to obtain to get a real sense of the inequality in their access to education. One estimate is that 93 million children under age 14, or 5.1% of the world’s children, were living with a ‘moderate or severe disability’. Of these, 13 million, or 0.7% of the world’s children, experience severe disabilities[1]. Around four in five children with disabilities are in developing countries. At all ages, levels of both moderate and severe disability are higher in low- and middle-income countries than in rich countries. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest[2]. The scale of disabilities is often under-reported and therefore difficult to gauge for possible interventions. To take one example, according to GMR 2010,  a 2004 census in Sierra Leone reported only 3,300 cases of mental impairment, while a detailed national survey the year before had estimated the real figure to be ten times higher. This is questionable and highlights the shame that seems to be associated with being isidalwa.

If one is in a developing country there are also myths one has to contend with that often perpetuate the silence and stigma around people with disabilities. When I was growing up, I was taught to believe that people with disabilities had made the ancestors angry and therefore their disability was a punishment from the ancestors. For those who were mentally impaired, someone had cast a spell on them to render them senseless and shame their family. The irony of these stories is that there were certain people who were exempt from the myths and shame associated with physical disability. By society’s measures my grandmother was isidalwa. As a child she contracted polio on both legs. One of her legs healed but the other didn’t and she spent most of her life using a walking stick. In spite of the stigma of being disabled, black and female, my grandmother was educated and she was able to become financially independent because she worked and became as a well-known seamstress in East London. With her measly salary she raised her own children as a single mother and later opened a small business sewing for people in her community. My grandmother’s story has always made me think differently about the stigma attached to disability. Because she was educated she had the chance to live a public life where she could earn a living rather than become invisible in her family because of the shame that comes with disability. The only limitations that were placed on her were those imposed by an apartheid government which narrowed the opportunities black women could make use of.

The silence and stigma attached to people with disabilities means that there isn’t a global recognition of the importance of making education meaningful for a group of people who are often marginalised for their difference. In South Africa a separate ministry for women, children and people with disabilities was created in order to address the rights of people who fall within society’s perception of “the vulnerable group”. I’m ambivalent about the ministry because on the one hand it aims to recognise that there’s a need to protect the rights of certain groups of people, on the other hand, it runs the risk of highlighting what is normal and what is abnormal where the issues of marginalised groups are a footnote in political discourse.

 This blog post is part of the #Teacher Tuesday blog project, which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Global Monitoring Report.

[1] Global Monitoring Report (GMR) 2013/14
[2] Global Monitoring Report 2010