Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Day of the African Child

Today in Namibia and South Africa we are recognizing the Day of the African Child, an important day of remembrance. I know that I often joke about the massive number of public holidays and long weekends we celebrate here in Nam. Some holidays, such as “workers day” and “family day,” although appreciated, seem a bit random to me. However, today’s holiday has an incredible amount of significance that I’m guessing many people do not know about. Don’t feel bad if you’re one of those people; I presented a short lesson to my Grade 7 learners yesterday and was surprised to find that many of them were not completely certain of the history behind today. Because I know there may be many of you who are not certain, as well, I thought I would recap my Grade 7 lesson for you. Now, as you read this lesson, picture me trying to teach it (in a mixture of broken English and Afrikaans) to a class of 42 12 to 15-year old maniacs, while I'm running around the classroom pulling one learner back into the room as he is trying to escape through the window, and taking bird meat away from another learner while at the same time trying to comfort the crying learner who killed the bird and then had his meat stolen from him. Teaching is fun :)

I will admit, I hadn’t heard of the Day of the African Child until I came to Namibia, but I had heard about Soweto, as I assume many of you have. Soweto is a township, a location, outside of Johannesburg. Locations are informal settlements or shanty towns on the outskirts of towns and villages where black people were relocated during apartheid. Until recently, most townships were not maintained by town councils or municipalities. As a result, most of these areas are incredibly underdeveloped and impoverished. I’ve talked a lot about the locations here in Namibia and posted some pictures of Ozondje in Omaruru. While locations in South Africa look similar to locations in here, South African locations have hundreds of thousands of people, along with hundreds of schools, shops, and even paved roads, while in rural Namibia most locations (excluding Windhoek) don’t exceed a few thousand residents, maybe one school, and a bottle store here and there.

The single's quarters in Ozondje here in Omaruru.

In 1974, the Regional Director of Education for the Soweto region declared that, as from January 1975, the medium of instruction in Sowetan schools must be Afrikaans. While English would be used for some of the subjects, indigenous languages were to be virtually left out. A poll taken around this time showed that something like 98% of young people in Soweto did not want to be taught in Afrikaans. Afrikaans was considered by many to be the language of the apartheid regime, the language of the oppressor. Nowadays, Afrikaans has become the lingua franca in Namibia and much of South Africa, but during the days of apartheid, Afrikaans carried with it a distinct connotation. The dark association that people made between Afrikaans and apartheid is what caused most school children to prefer to learn and be taught through an English medium. But the Afrikaner-dominated government had made their decision and the concerns of the students were ignored.

Resentment continued to grow amongst the students until April 1976 when children from one Sowetan school went on strike and refused to attend until their voices and concerns were taken into account. Their strike spread to many other schools in Soweto, and school children from throughout the township decided to plan a formal demonstration for June 16.

On the morning of the demonstration, thousands of black students marched from the schools through Soweto in protest against Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in their schools. Community members and teachers also joined in their protest, including some teachers who had been previously dismissed by schools for their refusal to teach in Afrikaans. As they marched, they found police had barricaded their intended route. Instead of provoking the police, the students remained calm and continued on with their march, taking an alternative route and breaking into song as they marched. By the time the protesters had reached the stadium where they had planned their rally, the group had grown to between 3000 and 10,000 individuals. Police officers were astounded and called for reinforcement. Without having had any formal training on how to deal with a protest of this sort, the police force began to panic. Armed with tear gas and guns, police officers began to fire shots indiscriminately at the children and their fellow protesters, who were unarmed. Some people say that the children threw stones in retaliation while others say the protesters were peaceful and retaliated in no way. As the riots continued, children were admitted in streams to nearby clinics; almost all of them were said to have sustained bullet wounds. At the end of the day, 23 people, including three whites, were killed.

This is probably the most famous picture taken during the Soweto riots, and is what sparked public outrage around the world. 12-year old Hector Pieterson was one of the first children to die, after having been shot in the head. He was carried out of the riot by Mbuyisa Makhubo, an older school boy, as well as Hector's older sister, and was rushed to the nearby clinic but was pronounced dead upon arrival. After the riots, both Makhubo as well as the man who took this picture, Sam Nzima, were continuously harrassed by police officers, forcing them both to eventually flee South Africa and go into hiding.

Hostility, already very high between police and young people continued to grow throughout the Soweto area as the demonstrations spilled over into the following days. As more protestors, both blacks and whites, joined the demonstrators, police continued to shoot and kill people at random. The day after the riots began in Soweto, 1500 police officers, armed with automatic rifles and stun guns, patrolled the township in police vehicles and helicopters. The South African Army was on standby, ready if military force became necessary. Soweto had become a war zone.

No accurate accounts of how many people died during the Soweto riots can be found. While the South African government originally claimed only 23 were killed, Reuters estimates that there were more than 500 fatalities. The number wounded is estimated at over 1000.

I was talking with my secretary yesterday morning about the Day of the African Child. A coloured (the term we use here for a person of mixed race) South African woman who was just 8-years old during the Soweto riots, she remembers this time clearly. We were talking about racism in South Africa and Namibia, and I asked her if things began to improve in South Africa immediately after independence. “They improved then, yes,” she said. “But after Soweto… after Soweto is when things really started to change.”

Many people consider the Soweto riots to be the beginning of the end of the apartheid era in South Africa. Black people who may have been passive about the separation of the races now saw clearly just how bad things were. Similarly, many white people were outraged with what their government had done, and they joined in the fight against apartheid, as well. Prior to Soweto, many South Africans, especially whites, considered “liberation struggles” to be outside their borders in places like Namibia and Zimbabwe. Soweto opened many people’s eyes to the realities of life and freedoms in South Africa.

Racism is something I haven’t written much about since I’ve been in Namibia, though I feel it and experience it every single day here. Writing about it seems so overwhelming to me because it’s such a big part of my life. For many Namibians, white people symbolize the colonial past. While getting to know me does (I hope) quickly dissolve those thoughts, initial perceptions of me, based simply on my skin color, are often not positive. I experienced racism a bit when I was in South Africa as well, but on a different level. “Racism is still around in South Africa, but it’s not so bad,” my secretary told me. “Not like in Namibia. Racism is alive and kicking in Namibia.”

PCVs and PC staff in Namibia occasionally speak in hushed tones about the story that more Peace Corps Volunteers in Namibia ET (early terminate, meaning they do not fulfill their 2-year service agreement) than in any other country in which Peace Corps serves. I don't know how accurate that claim is, but it is what many people say is true. Considering some of the countries that volunteers work in, that story may seem a bit surprising. On the surface Namibia seems like a very friendly, livable country. Many volunteers have running water, electricity, actual houses to live in—things we all expected to sacrifice when we signed up for Peace Corps-Africa. One would think that life as a volunteer would be easy here. Once you crack that surface, though, you find things to be very different than what you originally perceived.

The truth is that it isn’t the physical hardships that volunteers have to endure that cause many to ET. Anyone can live without running water or learn to pee in a pit latrine. The human spirit is very strong and can adapt to simple challenges like that. While the physical may be hard, I’ve come to realize that it’s the mental, emotional challenges that cause so many volunteers to break down.

I cannot speak for all the volunteers in Namibia, but for me I can say that of all the mental and emotional challenges I encounter, racism is easily the most difficult part of my life in Namibia and it’s something I struggle with almost everyday.

I don’t want to write about race right now—it will be a very long story that I may write about someday, but not now. I think today it’s better to acknowledge those young people who stood up so many years ago to fight against something they believed was wrong. These children, some of them only primary school-aged, gave their lives to make change happen, a sacrifice unparalleled by any other. They changed the world, and they deserve so much more than one day of recognition for that.

On today, I read that a former KKK member in the US was convicted of racially motivated murders he committed more than 40 years ago. I thought it was a great coincidence to read about such justice on a day when we in Africa are remembering a day that is considered “the beginning of the end” of the legal separation of races. So there are some reasons to remain hopeful, no?

Namibia definitely has a long way to go, but I am encouraged that I see a similar fighting spirit in some of my learners. Young people truly are amazing; if anyone is going to save the world, it’s going to be them. Today they should be honored.

And that’s my lesson :) Now, get off of your desk Johannes, please give Kuhande’s shoe back to her Abel, and take that bird outside, Ndimulunde! The bell is about to ring.

And remember Soweto today.

Some Grade 1 cuties at our African Child Day celebration yesterday.


Blogger Jason said...

Thank you for this awesome blog. My wife and I are going into teacher training in South Africa next month and your stories are amazing. I'm just starting to read your other postings, and I look forward to future ones! Best of luck!

11:56 PM  

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