Saturday, June 21, 2008

Learning the Tswana Way

Tsoe Youth Day 2008

It was 10am on the 16th of June. The 150 person tent was mostly set up and I was working with some kids to get the sound system working. The Beauty Pageant coordinators were arguing that we set up the tent in the wrong place and had to move it. About 50 kids were running wildly about the school. The “Fun Walk” and games that were supposed to keep them busy from 8-10am had failed to occur due to one teacher’s ineptitude at organizing. About 10 village elders, women and men, were sitting outside the tent looking around curiously. We were supposed to have started the program by now. We were supposed to have a whole lot more people here if we expected to actually raise any money for the library with this event. We were supposed to have figured out all this stuff a long time ago. Looking at the chaos about me, I was ready to throw in the towel. I wanted to tell my teachers, “Look, this isn’t going to work, let’s call it off now and save ourselves the embarrassment.” A white pick-up pulled into the school and my good friend Fr. Tarimo stepped out. He’s a big jolly priest, originally from Tanzania, who arrived in the village about a year before me. He had asked to come out to bless the beginning of the event and lead the youth in a prayer. I was standing dejectedly in the almost empty tent trying to help explain to the Beauty Pageant organizers why we could not move the tent at this point. Fr. Tarimo walked up with his customary grin, greeting everyone and making jokes with the other teacher organizers. Finally, he came to me. “Father, I don’t know what to do. I guess we’ll start as soon as the tent is over. But no one is here and this is a mess.” He looked around and put his hands up dismissively, “Don’t worry Kabelo, this is how the Tswana people work. They will come, I’m sure of it. I’ve sat in an empty church many times wondering, where are these Christians. They will come, just on their own time.” I knew Father had a busy schedule that day so I told him it may be awhile and he could get going. He said he would return later to see if he could enter into the program then. With that he gave me a firm handshake and drove off again in his pick-up. I seriously wondered if anyone would be around when he returned…

This wasn’t really my idea in the first place…

Youth Day is a commemoration of the June 16, 1976 student uprising in Soweto. The children were protesting the government’s policy of teaching everyone Afrikaans. Schools were burned, teachers were chased out of classrooms, marches were held, students were beaten, and children were killed. Every year since independence in 1994, South Africa has used June 16 to honor those youth that died in the struggle for freedom and to celebrate the youth of today. In cities, big events are held. In my village, there had been events the first few years, but nothing for a long time. My friend and neighboring volunteer, Art, had been talking about doing some kind of event in his village, Perth, as early as February. I was game to go down and help him out on the day. Then in early May, I ran into a policeman friend, who suggested we try to organize a joint event with the school and the police. Seeing someone in my village take initiative, I soon got caught up in the excitement and was busy making plans to hold a celebration in my village. I had a meeting with my high school staff and had about a third of them on board. I made a draft program and passed around a sign-up sheet for events. Teachers signed up to lead and coordinate a Field Day/Games, a Speech Contest, Traditional Dance performances, Choir performances, a Beauty Pageant, food, and publicity. The program was in large part inspired by a Valentine’s Day event that my buddy, Adam Bohach, held in his village. Unfortunately, an incident in a neighboring village took the police away for several weeks, making their involvement non-existent. I knew that if this was going to work, I was going to need help from the teachers and community. I was going to be spending 10 days in Pretoria for a string of meetings and workshops. When I returned there would only be one week before the event. I packed my bags and hoped for the best.

It would be “in tents”

When I returned, I found that development for the event had been uneven. Some teachers had really gotten into the role and were doing a great job recruiting student participants. Others thought they were doing splendidly simply because they had thought about what they wanted to do rather than actually doing anything. I met with the main organizers and tried to get them all on the same page. I then went about doing publicity and soliciting donations from local shops and businesses since this had been neglected. I sent invites to all the parents, put up shops in stores, talked with the Kgosi (chief), and flyered the shops. Unfortunately, I got food poisoning which knocked me out for two days, limiting the publicity I could do. Fortunately, a couple of teachers picked up the torch and went to town to get the most of the food, supplies, and prizes we’d need.

The keystone though was supposed to be the tent. Big tents are set up for most major village gatherings. Unfortunately, the majority of those tend to be funerals or tombstone unveilings but they are also used at weddings. If you see a big tent in a village, it usually means, there are lots of people there and maybe you should go too. I figured, if we had a big tent, people would come. Problem is, tents can be expensive so I needed to convince someone to “borrow me” a tent free of charge. With one of my teachers who is from the village, I set out to talk to one enterprising villager who runs a tent rental company. He works as a policeman in Vryburg so getting in touch was a bit tough. Finally, we phoned him and tried to plead our case. In the end he generously agreed to give us a tent for free provided only teachers set it up (worried about children getting injured) and that the school took responsibility to pay in the event of damage. I agreed to the terms and got him to throw in a microphone too. The plan was to pick up the tent at 8am (as the games began at the school) so that we could have it all set up by 10am for the main event to begin.

A little help from my friends

Feeling a little overwhelmed by the amount of things that had to come together. I sent out an invitation to other PCVs to come out and help with the event. In the end my friend, Megan Clapp (i.e. the talking zebra) answered my call and came out during the weekend. We spent the weekend checking in with teachers, making programs, making raffle tickets, and figuring out how exactly things were supposed to work out for Monday. When Monday morning came, Megan went to the school a little before 8am to help out with the games and set up. I went with my teacher Mr. Mphatwe to pick up the tent and sound system.

I had been under the impression that it would be very easy to get the tent and take it to the school. I had asked Mr. Mphatwe where the tent was to make sure we didn’t have to drive half an hour to get it. “It’s not far, it’s just around here,” he had said waving his hand in the air. We drove to about 4 different houses all around the village, asking where the tent was, where the key was, where the guy that was supposed to help us was, etc. Finally we drove out up over some hills to one end of my village and met some guys that worked with the tents. We loaded up and headed back, picking up the sound system and microphone along the way. By the time we arrived at the school, it was 9am. Apart from a few teachers coordinating the beauty pageant Megan, and a dozen kids, no one was there. I tried not to think about it and worked with my teachers to get the tent set up.

Keeping the Faith

By the time 10am rolled around, when the program was supposed to begin, things were not looking good. With a little encouragement from my friend, the priest though, I resolved to see the event through and braced myself to deal with minimal attendance and a big negative balance for the library.

Mr. Mphatwe and one of the pageant coordinators, Mme Kekana, finally came up with a compromise for the pageant and went about slightly modifying the set up. I recruited students to help set up chairs. By 10:30am, Mr. Sepeng, my right hand man and the MC of the day came to me. “KB, you know there are some people who have a bad attitude and want to see this fail. We cannot let them be satisfied. We must begin the program now and deal with things.” With that he went to assemble the color guard for the flag raising and I herded all the wandering people out to the flag pole. Mr. Sepeng and another teacher led the flag raising and singing of the national anthem. Unfortunately, the kids raising the flag somehow managed to get it tangled up. I couldn’t help but see it as a bad omen.

After a short opening speech, everyone raced back to the tent to try and get in without paying. I chased them out as quickly as possible and set up the entry line. One guy walked in visibly drunk, carrying a liter bottle of hard cider. This is going to be great… I thought about ejecting him but soon found myself overwhelmed. I had thought there was almost no one, but the Father was correct. People had begun to come by 11am as I finished getting the early birds seated. Other teachers took over the entrance and I looked out over the village to see people kilometers away making their way towards the school. The drizzle became a downpour and people were coming in for the whole first half. Mr. Sepeng dealt commendably with the amorphous program, creatively inserting events that had been prepared without my knowledge and removing events that failed to materialize.

I began selling raffle tickets late but still made enough money to cover the costs of the prizes as well as the prizes from the failed field day. Everywhere I looked, my teachers were busy taking initiative, making decisions, and helping out (I know my fellow PCVs are as stunned by that statement as I am). We ran a lot later than expected and we had to cancel the scheduled movie. The Beauty Pageant was wonderfully organized but took a ridiculously long time. However, in the end, we had probably over 500 people attending (close to 600 if you include participants and teachers). We raised a few hundred Rand for the library and for the Grade 12 farewell function. Though only 1/3 of my teachers had shown initial interest in the event, a full ¾ played major roles in the day. Best of all, the kids seemed to have a great time and most people involved felt successful though exhausted. When I returned home, my host sister, Kego, who goes to college in Cape Town, congratulated me on successful event. She said, it was something big for the village, getting parents involved in their kids, and even took people out of the taverns. She cited the guy that had walked in with the hard cider and I laughed thinking back on my previous disappointment at seeing him there.

Though I am still just beginning to understand it, the Tswana way of life has its own measures of success and its own way of looking at things. People, especially my teachers, surprised me, and made me feel a little ashamed for doubting them. The village came together around their youth and gave me faith that together we can make a difference in their lives.