Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Recently I attended a church ceremony where our friend Anata was receiving a special blessing because she was turning 21. She had invited myself and another local friend, Mavis. Mavis and I had drove up and down the rocky backroads roads of Maokeng in search of the church, which she’d simply told us was called St. James’s. Mavis and I didn’t know what type of structure to look for, because “churches” here are often organic communities of believers who meet wherever possible, whether in a home, under a canopy, in a field, or in a church building if they have the resources for one. Thankfully, Mavis’s first language is Sesotho, and she was able to ask around until, after we had been directed to two other “St. James’s” where we didn’t find Anata, a helpful young man directed us toward a tattered blue and white tent. As we approached from far off, we could just make out the figures young men marching with brass instruments next to the tent. Their invigorating melody grew in volume as we drove closer, and I could now see how worn and banged up these horns and trumpets were, presumably from years and years of use in the same church community. The band played up and down the road to rouse the people from their homes to come to church.
Anata had asked us to wear long skirts and head wraps, as was the policy of women in the church. When I arrived, I was so relieved I did, because even my longest skirt showed more of my lower calf than anyone else’s. As the only white person, I was acutely aware of my legs making me even more conspicuous. I soon discovered that Anata’s ceremony coincided with a very special occasion, the annual visit of the provincial bishop of this particular African denomination (called “The Church of Prophesy”) to this particular church.
Mavis and I found a spot on some weathered wooden benches. In our haste to find a seat, we had accidentally sat on what appeared to be the men’s side of the tent, but our embarrassment abated with the smiles we received. I knew this might be in for a mental struggle for the next few hours, as I soon realized that my long-sleeved sweater, another wardrobe request by Anita, would accentuate the already sweltering heat. On the women’s side of the church, I noticed an interesting pattern. After the wives of the bishop and pastors, the elderly women were placed in seats of honor near the front of the tent, and a seating system based on age (which didn’t seem to apply to men at all) continued all the way to the preteen girls in the back of the church. Almost all the members of the women proudly donned the church’s colors of blue and white, and the white was blindingly bright despite the very simple shack dwellings comprising this neighborhood, where most of them presumably live in. Similarly surprising was that many men wore suits, even though for many it was too large or too small, with a white or blue handkerchief. I instantly thought of how frequently I grumbled to my mom as a kid about having to dress in Sunday clothes for Mass.
The three-hour service was entirely in Sesotho and Zulu, two of South Africa’s eleven official languages, so most of the service was beyond my understanding. I could gather that this denomination seemed to incorporate both traditional Basotho religious practices and familiar facets of western Christian worship, such as Biblical readings and preaching. Some of the most notable elements were that the bishop and the local pastors each held their own unique sacred stick, some made of metal, others of lovely carved wood or bamboo, which was used as a pointer during their sermons and as some sort of sacred object for conferring blessings to the people. At one point in the ceremony, the bishop, who had been preaching, walked over to a woman near me on bench. He placed his stick near her, and suddenly she began to convulse and wail, requiring more than 4 people to hold her down. I was certainly startled, but as the wailing and convulsing did not prevent the bishop from continuing with his preaching, I assumed this was a fairly normal occurrence. At one point, my friend Anata collapsed in a similar way, when she and a few other people of similar age where brought forward for their initiation blessing. My experiences with charismatic Christian communities in other countries made this a bit less unnerving, though I wouldn’t say it was exactly the same.
Towards the end of the service, Mavis and I were invited to join a line of church members who went to the front of the church where we were handed a small glass of water to drink. We walked back to our seats by passing through a “tunnel” of the elderly women and men of the church. As we passed through, each pastor stopped us, touched his stick to our chest and then to our back, and then motioned for us to continue through the tunnel, until we were through. Then we returned to our seats.
To signal the service’s end, the brass band played several songs and danced around the tent, encouraging church members to dance as well. Mavis and I were a bit too self-conscious so we stayed on our bench. After church, several people came up to shake my hand and inform me that I was the first white person to visit their church. Comments like that come very frequently to my fellow volunteers, Kelly and Katie, and myself. “You are the first white people to come to my house,” is one we receive a lot too. Or recently, a teacher at St. Peter’s invited Katie and I to attend her daughter’s wedding in October, saying “It is very good luck for a couple to have a white person at their wedding.” It’s the kind of thing we’ve just learned to take with a smile and an expression of your own gratitude for their openness to us, though you can imagine our internal discomfort. The church, for example, really seemed thrilled to have an outsider amongst them, and so such comments are meant only as an expression of appreciation for your company.
Anata came to us after the service and told us now it was time to eat. I was invited to eat as the special guest under an umbrella with the bishop and Anata, another slightly embarrassing request that you just have to honor. He asked me about America, my experience in South Africa, and my own religious beliefs when he noticed the tiny gold crucifix around my neck. Interestingly, he had received money to obtain some sort of distance theological degree from a university in the U.S., though he couldn’t remember the name of the institution. As we chatted, he and Anata gracefully ate the delicious feast of potatoes (cooked in 3 different styles), beef, and a rice-banana salad with their hands. As I’m used to meals at St. Peter’s and with some of our Indian friends here, where no utensils are offered, but I was unsurprisingly the least graceful finger-eater under that umbrella, particularly of the moister dishes. In fact, I dropped some banana from my mouth to my skirt as I tried to answer one of the bishop’s questions.
It was a thought-provoking day, to say the least, especially with my interest in the Catholic Church in Africa. It was my first real taste of a Christian church that so heavily incorporated traditional religious rituals into their worship, and I felt grateful that Anata asked me to join them. It also helped me understand the culture of my students a bit more, as several St. Peter's students, I discovered that day, belong to this church or churches like it.
Posted by Sarah Moran at 9:55 AM
Sunday, September 5, 2010
It’s a fascinating, albeit unsettling, time to be a teacher in South Africa. Three weeks have passed in a seemingly indefinite strike of South Africa’s public unions. Schools and hospitals nationwide have become battlegrounds as more than a million public employees, tens of thousands of teachers among themf, are demanding an 8.6 percent pay rise despite insistence from the debt-stricken government.
St. Peter’s is one of the only non-government schools in the area. Though they aren’t government employees, many of our teachers are still members of SADTU, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, and thus have joined the strike. The strike began on a Monday, and out of desire that learning continue, even the SADTU teachers remained in their posts for much of the week despite pressure from fellow teachers striking in our rural streets. All of us began parking our cars in the center of the schoolyard because strikers who were out of school had threatened to vandalize cars (which they could easily do with rocks if the cars were parked along the fence).
On Wednesday of that week, the SADTU teachers (the vast majority) of St. Peter’s walked away from their posts halfway through the school day to join a huge march of strikers that was gathering a few kilometers away. The scattered few non-union teachers (obviously including my fellow volunteer Katie and me), the principal, and the assistant principle tried to manage as many classes as we could after the walkout. I rotated between three classrooms of 8th graders and two classes of 9th graders.
We’d been warned that there could be hostility and even violence towards St. Peter’s staff, who some government teachers and community members saw as treacherous for remaining in session despite the strike. Roughly an hour after the teachers had walked out, hundreds of marchers made their way down the dusty road towards St. Peter’s. As the chants of struggle songs and hoots of vuvuzelas (horns) grew louder, our principal asked the oldest male students (9th graders) to ensure that all the students stayed in their classrooms with the doors shut. Some of the older female students were asked to run to the younger children in grades 1-5, many of whom were alone in their classrooms. One of the 9th grade boys came to my classroom and said, “Don’t let the students out for any reason Ma’am Sarah. You don’t understand how angry these people are. The teenagers will hurt us if they can.” More than striking teachers, he was referring to gang members and radical youth who, their schools being closed or having dropped out of school themselves, had joined the protests.
It was hard to keep cool in front of thirty fearful 8th graders. As I tried to carry on with a lesson about the history of paper making, my head swelled with thoughts like how we might blockade the door with desks if protesters got inside the fence. One student started shacking with fear, and several others began crying. I thought to myself that these students know the destruction of which a select few are capable. We heard shouts and rocks being thrown at the library, the building closest to the fence where the marchers passed. After about fifteen minutes, the march had passed us. Thankfully, the first days of the strikes came and went without any serious acts of violence toward the school.
Into its fourth week, the strike rages on. Each night on the news, we hear of chaos breaking out when strikers gain illegal access to schools that have remained in session. Some strikers go in with the intention of disrupting learning. Others try (and often succeed) to intimidate teachers and pupils to abandon their classrooms. Sadly, in some cases, the intention is in fact to damage school property or teach so-called treacherous teachers a lesson.
Some St. Peter’s students have experienced taunts and even threats from peers from other schools over the past weeks. Fearful of being targeted and attacked for attending school, those who walk several kilometers have sometimes waited to put on their conspicuous uniform shirts until safely within the fenced grounds.
The emotional intensity of this standoff between the government and unions has grown, even in such a town as Kroonstad. On the news last night, an angry union official being interviewed encouraged striking teachers to carry the pickets to private schools and hospitals where the “political elite” educate their children and send their families. The official was presumably referring to posh schools in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, not a rural township school like St. Peter’s. Our school fees are nominal, and our funding less than that of many government schools. And there are certainly no “political elite” living in this impoverished community for that matter. But strikers in Maokeng seem to have felt the same anger toward St. Peter’s for remaining in session.
Following threats, other non-government schools throughout South Africa have shut their doors, telling non-union teachers they mustn’t come because of the intimidation from striking colleagues and risk of violence against them. In areas nearby Kroonstad, rubber bullets and water cannons were used against protesters when picketing in front of open schools became hostile. In many towns, demonstrators have forced their way into schools and hospitals and forced non-union doctors, nurses, and teachers to leave, tearing up exam papers were torn up and using physical force to “release” the students. Katie and I have planned alternative routes to and from St. Peter’s after hearing that strikers might block roads accessing hospitals and schools. St. Peter’s has urged the local community to remain peaceful despite protests, but the anxiety of teachers who’ve decided to return to work is palpable. Being a volunteer teacher has put Katie and I in a unique position amidst battling teachers and schools, but we are also anxious about the welfare of all involved, particularly the students.
Thankfully, St. Peter’s only goes through grade nine, though students at other schools are less fortunate. Throughout the country, 12th graders are struggling to study for their trial examinations as their teachers strike. With only two weeks before the exams, many people fear the strike will affect their performance. Government officials have even appealed to community members, former teachers and university students to teach learners during the strike. So please pray for South Africa, especially as the strike continues to block access to the basic services on which the majority of the poorest among us depend.
Posted by Sarah Moran at 12:31 PM