Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

Day Two, Tuesday, 3/13, visiting Schools

Even though I was very tired, it took me a while to get to sleep last night. I probably didn’t go under until 3:30 AM. But once I did fall asleep I slept well. I woke up at 8:00 sharp as Donna and Alan began preparing some breakfast. I had some of Alan’s super healthy breakfast paste… a blend of oats, wheat bran, and pumpkin seeds. Mixed with a touch of jam I actually liked it. Also had some yogurt and toast.

I take a shower in the modest facilities; there isn’t that much water pressure since the hot water comes “on demand” through a small heater and so it can’t be turned up. But it works well enough and I feel a little refreshed.

We loaded up the car with a few machines and parts and headed out.

The first thing we did was to visit a friend of theirs, Simphiwe Kunene (sim-PEE-way coo-NAY-nee), who runs the first and only black owned internet cafe in town. Alan and Donna helped him open the shop last year, and it seems to be going pretty well so far. He uses Windows XP PC’s, four of them. When we came in all the machines were in use and there were a few other folks hanging out or waiting.

(note: I learn later, talking to Tabani, that Simphiwe means “gift”, and as a name it implies “gift from god”. So my Hebrew name, “Jonathan”, i.e. “gift from god” is synonymous with this Zulu name. Just call me “Simphiwe Field” when you see me next.)

He greeted us and took us around back to show us a surprise… he had just acquired another room for a good rate, and he was building desks and painting it so he could turn it into a training room. His plan was to run some computer classes there. He was very excited about it.

The main reason for our visit, though, was to meet the principal of a distant school that Simphiwe had given five computers to, but which are not working properly, and are missing keyboards and mice. Turns out Alan was bothered Simphiwe did this because the school was too far away to train or support and he knows that without training and support the machines will be wasted. Also, there were only five computers and 30 or more kids per class, and they’ve not seen any programs work with such a low ratio. It was a kind gesture on Simphiwe’s part, but Alan has grown a bit tired of kind gestures that don’t bear fruit.

He discussed the situation with the principal and his assistant for a good hour, explaining that he couldn’t justify it. It’s always a hard thing to draw lines in these kind of efforts, but Donna and Alan already support 30 schools and they have to keep from spreading themselves too thin.

While that discussion is going on, I talk with Simphiwe, who is trying to avoid causing any more trouble. He is 26 years old, and a little shorter and slighter than me. He came from Johannesburg to Dundee a few years ago to work with the Catholic church. Though he was only familiar with Windows PC’s at the time, he was able to learn the old mac systems and he soon became a useful assistant in supporting the schools. Now he runs the internet cafe. He also helps at the local hospitals with spiritual counselling for HIV patients.

Alan’s discussion with the principal and assistant is wrapping up. In the end, he offers to get two of the computers fully working for them if they return the other three. He suggests they use the computers for administration, and if things go well there, they can reopen a dialog about getting more computers later. The principal agrees and we pack the machines up.

One of the reasons that the schools want the computers so much is because it increases enrollment. Since kids have to pay to go to school, this means more money for the teachers.

After we take off, Alan tells me that he knows those computers won’t get used. He says it’s for the best because the area is far too dangerous for the project. He tells me about how sometimes the locals would trap passing cars, kill the drivers and rob them.

On the way to the first school Donna points out a rare sight: a huge military vehichle cruising down the main road going the opposite direction from us. It looks like a cross between a Hummer, a tank, and road equipment. She tells me these are the vehichles they used a lot during apartheid to quell the demonstrators. Firehosing them and such. It makes me wonder what it would feel like to see such a painful symbol out and about like that. She said it’s a rare sight… she’d not seen one on the road before.

– High School

Going to the first school, in nearby Glencoe, we take a 10 or so minute drive between towns. The landscape is open fields with a little farming. As we come into town, goats are walking alongside the street. We pass some enormous piles of trash on the side of the road which the goats seem to love.

We get to the first school, which serves approximately grades 6-12. The building is brick and the windows are barred, but it is otherwise a standard looking government issue building. The building doesn’t really have hallways, but rather the classrooms empty into the open air between the buildings. Kids are going between classrooms as we arrive. They are lively and happy looking as any other children. They wear uniforms; dark grey slacks and medium blue collared shirts.

We meet the new computer teacher, who seems pretty cool. Donna and Alan are pretty positive about him; he’s pretty knowledgable, but he’s only been here for a week. He tells me the school has just under 700 students.

We go pretty much straight to the computer lab. Inside the room is divided into two halfs; on the right are about 22 old style black and white Mac SE’s. These machines are probably about twenty years old. On the left are about an equal number of recently donated Windows PC’s. They look to be about 5-10 years old. The teacher tells us that they use Macs primarily to teach typing, and the PC’s (a recent addition) for more advanced stuff like MS Office.

Alan tells me that when they started here they were way ahead of the technology curve bringing these older machines out. But things have developed pretty rapidly and now the machines are in fact getting behind. Of course, many schools don’t have access to anything more advanced anyways; this school got lucky with a donation of used PC’s from a South African bank. And even more lucky to get a teacher who knew how to make use of them. Even so, this school still makes use of the Macs a lot too.

The room seems to be lacking chairs though, which I figure is a pretty basic problem they must encounter.

The main work is to clean unused files off the old computers and replace any broken components. Alan digs into the major fixes, and Donna shows me how they go about cleaning up the software side. These are old machines, running Apple System 6. As the number of documents increases, it actually gets pretty slow to open certain folders. So each year they have to clear away everything from the previous year. The machines are pretty well utilized; lots of files are created on each machine, typing tests and various creative writings from the students.

There’s only a couple machines that are having serious trouble, which Alan makes short work of, and then he goes to help with some of the more powerful color macs they use in the office.

The computers are locked down with a kiosk program called KidDesk. It keeps the machines from getting too messed up. Donna and I come across a machine that has had several applications renamed to “Musa”. We do a little more research and find several documents created by a student named Celamusa.

I’ll digress for a moment on the pronounciation: this is a name with one of the destinctive Zulu clicks in it… the “C” is pronounced using the sound one would use for “tsk-tsk” in English. It’s kind of a “TS” sound, but with an inward pull. The rest of the name sounds like it looks: TSEL-ah-MOO-sah.

Anyways, it seems that she had figured out the keystroke to get past the KidDesk program, and then played around and renamed some of the programs. We talked with the teacher and he wasn’t sure how she did it, or why: she wasn’t really supposed to be using the Macs since she was in the 12th grade. But she was doing her writing on the Mac for some reason. I guess there’s a little hacker in every crowd.

We also met the principal, who happened to be albino black. I’ve joked many times about being albino black, but in fact I did not look that much like the principal. His skin tone was very similar to mine, of course. His hair was a very pale reddish blonde, lighter than mine. His features were otherwise distinctly Zulu. He was a nice fellow with a severe stutter. He was promoted to be the principal after the two previous principals were killed in car accidents in the space of only a year or so. He said he has trouble getting respect from the teachers (actually, they call them “educators”, and the students “learners”) because he was just one of them last year.

The magic moment here happens when Alan hears some singing and calls me over. We go to a brick stairwell that leads up to the second level of classrooms. Inside, a group of about 15 or 20 teenage boys are gathered in a circle singing traditional Zulu music. I can immediately tell they have chosen the halfway landing of the stairwell for its acoustics. The sound of their singing reverberates off the hard walls giving it a warm chamber sound. The stairwell is enclosed, but outdoors, letting the warm air blow through with the singing.

The singing itself would, to most Americans, seem like the best bits of Paul Simon’s Graceland I think. But to see the style live and impromptu gives it a new dimension. The singing is really great, the boys have full deep voices and they do harmonies and call and response as they clap and dance. About 40 or so other students, boys and girls, are gathered around to listen. After Alan takes off I stand as a lone white outsider among these energetic and joyful black teens, smiling, tapping my feet, and loving it. They smiled at me but mostly paid me no mind. After a couple more songs their break is over and they go back to class. What a great way to spend a recess.

On the way out I peek at some of the public service posters on the wall. There is, of course, a huge focus on avoiding pregnancy and HIV. They actually go much further than we’d ever go in the US. The posters spell out how people get pregnant (when the boy’s penis ejaculates (“comes”) inside the girl’s vagina) and how to avoid it. At home his stuff would be hidding in a health class handout, but here where the pregnancy rate is so high, they’re just posting it on the walls. I especially loved a poster that suggested “throwing yourself a party!” and discussed masturbation as a fun alternative to having sex.

– Grade School

We leave the high school a little later than planned and head to the nearby K-6 school that serves the youngsters. As we pull in the little ones approach the car and say “hi” and “how are you”, the earliest English they’ve learned. They all wear this gleeful smile and laugh and get excited whenever we wave or say “hi” back.

We head into the lab here, which is actually much more advanced — it has about 30 color powermacs running System 7. These are reasonably powerful machines, and they’re loaded with educational games and creative tools. The lab is obviously well run, too. It’s a spacious room, with plenty of chairs. The windows even have curtains, which blow in the breeze, giving the room a very lighthearted feel. I think it’s a great place for the little kids.

I breifly meet a bubbly teacher lady, a friend of Alan and Donna’s, who insists we must come over and “kill a chicken together” — this is apparently a common Zulu party. Alan jokes that I can do the plucking.

Later, when I ask them how this school got such a great setup. They said it was because of the efforts of the chicken lady. In each case, the success or failure of a project depends on there being someone at the school who takes the lead. Someone who understands the potential and just makes it happen. No amount of outside assistence will work if someone on the inside doesn’t run with it. At this school, the chicken lady ran with it. I’ll be proud to kill a bird with her sometime before I go home.

The tasks here today are to replace a few bad hard drives, which I assist Alan on, and to make some software changes. Donna takes the lead on software and learns there are a few programs they’d like added, and a few they’d like removed because they occasionally cause freeze-ups. We go through a checklist and get each machine working up to spec.

Though these machines are much better, I can see how they are flakier too. There really is something very nice about working with that original Mac all-in-one form factor in a rough and tumble environment like this. Aside from that, ball mice are always a pain.

We wrap up, starving now at 4:30PM, having had only carrot sticks and apples since breakfast. We chat with the principal as we go, and he talks about how they’ve got a book problem, too. Due to some recent changes they haven’t had any money to buy books in a while. There are plenty of other countries donating books, but they’re really not useful: oftentimes in random languages, on topics of no use, or damaged. He and Donna discuss how it would be great if some South African publisher could write up some native textbooks instead of importing them.

We go to a simple little cafe run by Afrikaners (whites descended from Dutch imigrants from hundreds of years ago). I order “Bunny Chow”, which is a delicious local dish. It’s basically a beef curry in a bread bowl. Except the bread bowl is a huge half loaf of bread, standing on end, with the center hollowed out and then plopped back on top of the steaming curry. I really enjoyed it, being starving, and I washed it down with a beer.

Donna, Alan, and I are talking pretty much anytime we’re not working, and I learn more than I can possibly retain about all sorts of local lore.

– Tabani

After dropping Donna at home to do some work, Alan and I shoot back off to Sibongile (the black township just outside Dundee) to pick up a good friend of theirs, Tabani. Tabani is 16, and he needs to come over to write up and print a paper for school; actually, for a freind at school. A girl. My theory is he’s hitting on her by helping with her homework.

Going back into Sibongile during the day, I can see much better the lifestyle. It’s actually got a mixture of fairly nice houses (always surrounded by razor wire) and some rather run down little shacks. Most of the houses are the size of a garage. Again, the streets are full of folks walking the neighborhood.

We get to Tabani’s house and head in. As we approach, a gaggle of little children, probably between 3 and 6 years old gather around Alan and I. They poke at us playfully and laugh.

We get to the door. The whole house is probably about 300 square feet and from what I’m told, about 10 people live there, including the kids playing with us as we walked up. We enter the house through the kitchen, which doesn’t have a sink, but does include a full size fridge and a small stove. It’s dark inside, I’m not sure if they have electricity at first, but the sound of a TV in the next room assures me they do.

The living room is basically filled with chairs like one might find in a doctor’s office: wooden frames with fabric cushions. An older lady sits in one of them watching TV. The TV looks pretty new, is about 19″, and is hooked up to a DVD player. The older lady greets us; this is Tabani’s grandmother. There are two bedrooms that make up the other half of the house, each with a full size bed. Tabani sleeps on the chairs out here in the living room with his next eldest brother. The grandmother, mother, and the little ones all sleep in the two bedrooms. It looks like it would be pretty cramped.

Turns out that Tabani isn’t home, so we decide to take off. On the way out the kids are even more excited than when we were coming in. They jump around us and call. I pick some of them up into the air by their hands and they gather around. Alan suggests I take some pictures. I’ve been carrying around the camera today and have snuck a few shots in, though I’m probably shyer about it than I need to be. I shoot a few pictures of the kids. They love seeing themselves on the little screen afterwards. Alan takes a picture of me with the kids, too.

Then we head back home. When we get there it turns out that Tabani had called and had decided to walk over, and will be arriving shortly. We turn my bed back into a dining room table so we can sit and chat.

Tabani is a good looking young man, with a mature but lighthearted demeanor, and a sharp sense of humor. He sits with us and we chat about random things, like his provocative t-shirt (featuring a sexy sillouette of a woman in a g-string) to a limerick about Einstein’s theory of relativity that he heard at school, to his love of Shakespeare. He is particularly curious about Einstein and the possibility of time travel. The converstaion is filled with quick, light banter. His English is excellent, probably the best I’ve heard. He’s very well spoken.

At some point Alan brings out my guitar, and Tabani gets excited because he is into music too. Specifically he likes to freestyle rap. He is a fan of hip-hop. I mention to him that I can beat box a bit. I launch into my oft-heard “push it” rendition, which he really likes. He quickly starts rapping over it with some of his own lyrics… an instant little jam. We both enjoy it immensely.

We talk a bit about Dr. Dre and Tupac; he prefers them to the newer artists like 50 cent. Tupac is is all time favorite, though he really loves the South African hip-hop artist, Proverb. He gives me many examples of his favorite clever lyrics.

Alan brings out an old powerbook, and sets Tabani up. He digs in and starts writing his paper… or more specifically the paper for this girl he is friends with. He points out that she isn’t his girlfriend and he isn’t having sex yet. It’s hard to know if that’s true, though I suppose if it weren’t he’d probably have a kid: condom use has got to be about zero around here. But he’s told all the time not to have sex, and either he really isn’t or he is and he knows to tell everyone what they want to hear. I find myself thinking of how little some of these people have, and how absurd to tell them they have to give up even the one little natural pleasure that would seem free.

He tells us about his brother, who is just not that bright. He doesn’t like to read like Tabani. He tells us of his cousin who is in jail now, and how he would leave his home if that cousin tried to come live with them. He tells me about his music and how wants to take hip hop to a higher place. How he has become turned off with disrespectful rap, and though he is hardcore, he tries not to curse or be too disrespectful to others. He gives an example of a freestyle where he dissed someone’s mother, but then felt bad afterwards.

Tabani works away and I pick up the guitar and play a bit. At one point I play a few bars of something I wrote. He looks up at me, a 16 year old Zulu kid, and says “that sounds like Bryan Adams”. Shit… even here I am pegged instantly. The kid is damn sharp. “I like it” he says, but then follows up with “Bryan Adams music… is very soft and emotional, for a man. That’s all I’m going to say.” I almost laughed out loud.

I pop open my laptop and start documenting the days events. We work together there for a couple hours, chatting once in a while, the four of us. At some point Alan and I figure out how to use the modem in my laptop and I connect at 33.6 just long enough to fire off an “I’m okay” message to folks. I can’t even stay connected long enough to read any mail. I’ll do some of that tomorrow.

I continue writing, but Tabani finishes his work first. Donna prints his stuff out and we take him home. He seems excited to see me tomorrow and show me some of his favorite music. I look forward to it too.

Since I only describe in detail the most interesting people, it probably sounds like everyone is special. But that doesn’t do the exceptional people justice. Everyone is not special; most people here are just average people. Kids just wanting to have fun, and making the best of a poor situation. There’s nothing at all wrong with that. But there are some truly exceptional people, like Tabani. He was so charming and mature and downright funny, he’d stand out in any environment. And I have to wonder how it will play out for him. Are there really any opportunities? He records music with his friends and believes one of his songs was on local radio, but he didn’t have a radio to verify. In ten years, will anything remarkable come of him? Or will his context, his inability to leave this place, leaden him down?

It reminds me of how we in America have such a fascination with the self-made success. But I don’t believe in it. One does have to be exceptional to make a success of yourself, but context matters a lot. Take the best and brightest success stories from the US, cut off all their ties and drop them in a struggling area like this. Not as a visitor, but as a member. They can only rise so far. Any success is owed 90% to the environment and opportunity that was around you. That includes the immediate direct opportunities like a good job, but also the more general, like a low crime society, a functioning economy, a thousand years of building up a stable social structure. That is where your success comes from.

Yes, and you, the individual, too.

More talking with Donna about the history, politics, and struggles of the area. An important white tourism supporter, David Rattray, was murdered in nearby Rourke’s Drift back in January. He had written many books about the Zulus and their culture. He was attacked by four blacks and shot. It was considered a very serious murder. I feel it is slightly unfair to take such exception at that murder since murder is so common here. But it was symbolic in a way. It also frightened the government since they are scared of anything derailing the world cup from coming in 2010.

I climb into bed and write for another two hours. Moths and other bugs flitter through our little trailer home. Life is a bit more like camping out here, but then not quite. I don’t know if I can keep all this writing up, but I don’t want to forget anything…

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2 Responses to Day Two, Tuesday, 3/13, visiting Schools

  1. Jonathan

    I just love your blog…Your observations are brilliant.
    I am photo coping each time you write and am making a magazine it is great reading!

    Your picture brought tears and you are living my and Cheryl’s dream.

    Love, mama

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