Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

I get up at 7 and knock on Marco’s door. He had asked me to wake him when I was leaving. He grunts “okay thanks” and I take off to the warehouse. I meet Alan and Zenzo there, and we load up the car. Alan and I exchange thoughts on last night’s braai with Marco, and we both agree he was a bit off. Alan tells me that despite Donna’s apparent good humor last night, she was actually very bothered by him.

In a way I was curious about that — I had found him uncomfortable, but I sort of wanted external verification from someone who was more used to the culture here. For all I knew, many white South Africans were like Marco. According to Alan and Donna, no. He was a freak.

We drive to a school called “Springlake”, which is out on the road to Nqutu. Alan picks up Donna and I go in my car with Zenzo. On the way I tell Zenzo about my mom and how I’m going to be flying back home early to help her out, probably within the next couple days. He understands, but is obviously sad to hear I’ll be leaving so soon.

As we get near the school, Zenzo asks if we can drop off some invitations to his sister’s party. Zenzo’s mom had prepared them for some of her old neighbors that live out in these parts.

I’ve been in the homes and streets of the suburban Sibongile, I’ve been to rural schools, and I’ve driven by the spread out rural homes that line the major roads. But I’ve never visited those rural homes, so that would be cool.

He identifies the area, and we pull off the road into the grass. The homes here are small simple homes with outhouses and large yards. Many have chickens or goats on the premises. This area is where Zenzo grew up until they moved to Sibongile eleven years ago. He hasn’t been here since.

As we walk up to one of the houses, the owner immediately recognizes him and calls out “Zenzo!”. This is pretty impressive, being that the last time they saw him he was about eight years old. The folks are an older middle aged couple. He chats with them a bit in Zulu and introduces me, the curious white friend.

I look around as they catch up. This is simple living, but it looks pleasant and peaceful. The view of the land spotted with little homes and gardens is rather beautiful. I try to imagine what it might be like to wake each day to this: performing the basic tasks that ensure you’ll have enough food and shelter. Beyond that, the pressures of life seem minimal; the people seem unhurried and unworried. It’s a stretch for me to understand, but how do the pains of this simpler life measure against its joys? How deep or shallow is the apparent peace and happiness that they exude?

Zenzo gives them the invitations and says goodbye. He seems to have enjoyed the visit, too. As we walk back to the car he points out the house where he used to live; a modest place. I try to picture the path of his life — starting as a little boy out here amongst the scattered farms, moving into town and growing into a fine young man.

We head over to the Springlake school. Alan and Donna are there wrapping things up. I see Donna for the first time today and ask her about last night’s braai. She raises her eyebrows and energetically expresses her terrific annoyance with Marco; saying that after they left last night she just about burst, complaining to Alan about what a jerk she thought the guy was.

I tell Alan and Donna about my plans to head back to the US in the next couple days, and they are very understanding.

We split up, and Alan, Zenzo, and I head off to a little place called Dalala that is several kilometers off the paved roads. We trundle along the twisted rutted paths; through crusty sandy soil and wild brittle grass. The school looks deserted when we get there: the gate is locked and not a person is to be seen. It is silent as well. We call and honk the horn and just before we give up and leave we hear some voices and see someone coming out to let us in.

Once in, we talk a bit with the educators on duty: there are only three of them and a secretary that day. Originally the principal, who isn’t around today, had told Alan that he could take the computers out, but later did an about-face and said that the teachers wanted to keep them. Either case is fine with Alan as long as the computers are being put to good use. As we look into things further, it turns out that the computers have all been locked up in a walk-in safe for a while. Apparently there was a break in at some point, and though no computers were stolen, someone decided to dismantle the lab and lock everything up. Alan suggests that if they’re just going to be locked up we might as well take them to another school where they can be used.

But the teachers insist that they need them. Alan seems skeptical that they could really “need” computers that are locked up in a safe and points this out to them, but they continue their pleas to keep the machines. I share Alan’s skepticism; and I even feel slightly annoyed at such shenanigans. We check out the stuff in the safe. There are about sixteen machines there, coated in a fine red powder that makes them seem pretty well unused. One of the teachers admits that they haven’t used them since last October, but he continues to say that it is important that they have them. Alan eventually agrees that we can set up the lab again, so we start our work.

As the lab is coming together, we see our first kids: two boys, probably around fourteen years of age, peeking in the window at us. Zenzo and I wave and they laugh. They keep peeking in and seem very curious and interested, so I gesture for them to come in. They smile and quickly come around and into the room. I sit them down at a couple of the working computers and fire up Kid Pix for them to play with. They jump right in and start drawing things that I would consider intermediate level. They’ve obviously used the computers before at some point, and are pretty good with them.

A few minutes later the rest of the lab is ready so we decide to do a class. The educators come in, and the two boys quickly erase what they were drawing, as though they were afraid to be caught in the forbidden act of having fun. We ask the educators to bring in a group of learners and we’ll help them guide things. The first two boys I had called in remain, and another twenty or so kids come in, two to a computer.

Once the kids are seated, the male teacher takes the lead and starts barking commands in Zulu. And an amazing thing happened, I think: the kids barely react. He gives them very specific instructions that I can sort of make out with Zenzo’s help: “Grab the mouse! Come on! Press the button! Move it around! Come on!” Some of the kids timidly poke at the computers, making very small dots and lines on the screen, but none of them really start drawing, even the two boys I had called in earlier, who had already demonstrated an ability to use the computers and draw just fine.

It was an interesting thing to observe; had I not just seen the two boys drawing I would have thought the roomful of kids to be strangely apathetic or dumb. And the way the teachers responded, by condescendingly pushing the kids’ hands through the motions, it seemed that this exactly what they thought: the kids were apathetic or dumb. But I knew that the two boys I had called in earlier were not only curious and smart, they were skilled at this very task! It was just this over-instructive situation that made them become incapable.

I know there’s something to be learned here about how we respond to our environment, about squashing creativity and curiosity, learned helplessness and all that. And if anyone gives me the line about how only the tough survive, I promise I’ll come stomp all the flowers in their neighborhood to death and justify it on the same grounds.

As the kids slowly started exploring, with the more gentle encouragement of Zenzo, Alan, and I, the teachers calmed down a bit and seemed to enjoy watching the kids blossom. Pulling the kids out of their shells takes longer than at other schools, but eventually they’re drawing and exploring and laughing like I’ve come to expect. In the end we have great fun, as always.

We take off and on the dirt road back, Alan suddenly suggests that Zenzo drive. Zenzo is in disbelief at first, asking several times “you really mean it?” Eventually he hops in the front, and Alan hops in the back, and we give him a little lesson. He’s never driven at all before. It’s a manual shift, so he has to contend with the clutch and the stick as well as the gas, brake, and steering. I give some thoughts, Alan gives some thoughts, and then Zenzo gives it a try. The car bucks a few times as the clutch comes out too fast, like it does for all first time stick drivers. But Alan goes on to explain a bit more, actually describing how the clutch works physically so that Zenzo can have a better image in his head of what the pedal is doing. After that, his starting improves a lot, and he practices starting and stopping several times.

Then he drives down the dirt road for quite a way, and has a big smile the whole time. He seems very excited and pleased to be driving. He jokes that it is his car now and that he’ll drive us home. He gets in a good 15 minutes of practice before we swap back. He thanks Alan again, and asks if he can practice again another time, which Alan agrees to.

We meet up with Donna and finish up some other school stuff before heading home. When Zenzo and I pull up to my place, Evan is outside walking the dogs. I am actually a bit worried that Marco might still be here and I’m not interested in bumping into him. In fact, I had taken all my valuables with me in the car this morning, expecting he’d try to break into my room and steal my guitar or computer. But Evan says that he took off this morning and he hasn’t seen him since.

“That guy was a bit zonked, I think,” he says with a weary laugh, “must have been on drugs.” I tell him that I did see Marco taking some questionable pills last night. Evan nods, “well, he just checked out this morning and that was that”. I check my room, it wasn’t opened, so all is well. Even if it had been, I don’t know that he would have benefitted much from stealing my ratty clothes.

And ratty they are: a couple holes have appeared in the knees and crotch of both pairs. They are several years old, and it looks like they’re about to be done for.

Zenzo has an appointment tonight. He’s joined a drama group. Through our talking with the singing waitress at Spur’s we’ve hooked him up with some folks wanting to do a little theater. Zenzo’s karate instructor is also excited to be part of it. Thabani had considered it, but ended up opting out. In any case, a group of them are getting together tonight at the Sibongile community center to practice. Alan and I are both curious to see what it is like, so we tag along.

We wait out in front of the Sibongile community center for about 30 minutes, and worry a bit that things aren’t going to come together; but eventually a group of people do show up, and we all head into the building. It’s a nice plain brick building with several large unfurnished rooms bathed in bright fluorescent light. Zenzo’s karate group used to have their practices here. He says they’ll be doing that again soon, too. But tonight is drama.

Alan and I stand off to the side, and the group of about eight, including Zenzo and the waitress (the only girl) form a circle in the room and introduce themselves to each other in Zulu. Then one of the fellows, who seems to be the natural leader, says they’re going to do some practices. They start by singing what sounds to me a traditional song, including some improvised dancing. That goes pretty well. Then he has them do a drill that takes a moment to figure out: they all walk quickly in a circle, and when he calls out a number they either switch directions, stop and clap some number of times, or some other specific action. Whoever does the action wrong has to stand in the middle of the circle.

They all dive into the game enthusiastically, marching and clapping with great energy. The pace is so fast it confuses me just to watch it, but they do well, and when someone makes a mistake they all have a good laugh. I’ve not often seen people in this age range so quick to be open and uninhibited with new folks. Of course, I think these are a rare and special bunch, to have taken the initiative to try forming a drama group in the first place. I greatly enjoy watching them and wonder what inspiration I can take from it.

After a bit we decide to take off and leave them to their practice. We head back to the trailer and encounter Thabani. He plays me a CD of his rapping. Though I really like the lyrics, his delivery is not tight enough. Donna notes that it’s not expressive enough either. I wonder if he’d benefit from joining the drama group, but he’s not interested. We give him encouragement to keep working at it. I give him my thoughts as a former rap artist, though I decide not to play anything for him since it’s pretty damn offensive. But he seems to trust my suggestions anyways and takes it well, excited to make his next recording. He says he knows he has a long way to go, and hopes to improve.

As dinner is prepared I chat with Sophie about changing my flight. She kindly takes care of all the details since talking to Delta from here was costing me over a dollar a minute. She finds me a flight for Thursday, the day after tomorrow. I also make a mix CD for Zenzo of some of my favorite music, though I only have a small selection with me to start with.

After all that I head back to the B&B. There’s a large group of friendly Germans there, three guys and three girls, probably in their late twenties or so. They’re a bit loud and talkative, but they quiet down quickly as the night gets on. I fall asleep more easily without Marco around, on my second to last night in Africa.

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