Thursday, March 23, 2006

Looking for words for today

I pride myself in my ability to connect with people, to make them comfortable, to make them happy, to talk with them across divides of nationality, language, race, religion, gender, sexuality.

But none of those characteristics, nothing that I have learned in school, just plain nothing prepares you for when your new friend sits in front of you and tells you how her mother, who is returning from the hospital this very day, had 8 children, and only 2 of them- she and her sister- have died. What words of comfort can I begin to offer when she tells me that her sister has cancer, HIV, and TB...she could died any day. What could I say when I learn that my friend too is HIV positive. No words, no hugs, I just sit there.

This was the last half an hour of my day at the MadaboutArt Center today. It is what I am thinking about in this very moment, but I would also like to give a bigger picture of the day, because there were both highs and obviously lows, and it will give a good glimpse as to what I am doing here and what the MadAboutArt Center is all about.

I wake up at 8 at the home of Larry and Liz in Plettenberg Bay (as I have said, an upscale white vacation town) , have breakfast and coffee, and Melanie and I set off for the MadaboutArt Center, which is about a half hour ride from where we live in a town called Knysna (the township though is called Nekkies). As Melanie drives I close my eyes and try to get a few more moments of sleep but end up just thinking about a fight I had with a friend back at home. Despite being thousands of miles away, it feels so close to my heart and makes me sad.

By 9:30 we turn from the highway into the township, past small shops and a bar, onto a dirt road where we dodge pigs dogs and small children, and finally park at the MadAboutArt Center. Larry and Liz are not coming in today so the only ones there are the Youth Ambassadors, five or six young people from the township who work full time at the center, part of a training process so that they can take over Larry's job and run the entire place themselves. Siphewe, one of the Youth Ambassadors and future leaders of the center, asks if I can give him a ride into Kynsa to pick up some groceries and cardboard for the hero books we will be making that day. I love having one on one time with him, since it gives me a chance to get to know him better. He is an aspiring artist who is actually selling many of his paintings for a good price. Though he probably doesn't need the small stipend as a Youth Ambassador, he wants to give back to the community, to use art as a way to teach about HIV. He has taken a film course and he and I start talking about the possibility of teaching a few film lessons to the kids there. We both get really excited about this idea and decide to meet on Saturday to plan out how this might look. I think what a wonderful opportunity this could be, rather than to only film these guys but to give them the tools to film themselves and put something together. I'm sure it would be a powerful story, there are many to tell that I have already seen in only the three days I've been here. Plus, they have Larry's videocamera (one better than the one I used for Mechina actually) so that even when I leave they can do their own thing. It reminds me of Hillel's degrees of repairing the world, with the highest one being teach someone to fish rather than give them fish. In a small way, it feels like that's what this would be, and it is an exciting idea.

We return to the Center where the six Youth Ambassadors are getting trained in first aid by a woman visiting from London. On my way back from walking out to the car quickly to make sure it was locked, I stop to watch the preschoolers who have a building right next to the center. Perhaps it is my biological clock, but I love watching children and probably stood there for about fifteen minutes watching the little people run around, gossip with each other, fall over, comfort one that has started to cry...all of this without taking notice that I - a white woman- am watching them. Something in the back of my head creeps up and wonders what their lives will turn out to a town with amongst the highest rates of HIV, I wonder how many could become infected...or are already. I hate this thought. a lot. It would never have come up had I been watching the same children in the US.

Later, we all have lunch together and I like being able to just talk and get to know the Youth Ambassadors, who are all about my age. Siphewe has to run back to his house and he and another Ambassador, Shaida, take me on a walk through parts of the township. Siphewe goes into automatic tourguide mode, talking into the camera about wanting to organize the community to make change, particularly through art. In my head, I think it seems they are well on their way. We walk through mud paths, past wood houses with tin roofs, that look like shacks but it doesn't feel right to call them that. Indeed, my new friends and everyone I meet in the center lives I'm not sure what to call them yet (will write more later about them though once I figure how to say it). I think in my head also that this is great footage.

Then, the Young Youth Ambassadors (yes I know it's confusing) start trickling in. These are the kids who are still in high school but who all are also training to become leaders in the center. They have all been to London as part of the Rainbow of Hope project, a year long project that began right there at the Center and snowballed into a huge artpiece that showcased in Trafalgar Square in London. They decided they wanted to update their hero books and this is what I filmed. It was extremely powerful to hear what the hero book process has done for them- it gave them voice to a problem they are dealing with. It lifted a huge burden off their shoulders once they were able to write it down and talk about it. It makes them feel stronger for having dealt with it. It makes them feel proud that now other kids around the world are reading them (including in the US, Canada, Honduras, Zambia, Malawi, the UK to name a few) and being able to learn from their lessons how to deal with similar projects. All of the kids are excited to update their books, with a couple years of strength and wisdom to add depth to the books. After being in South Africa for one month, this is the first time I'm actually hearing from authors of the hero books (whose books I read months ago back in North Carolina) how powerful and strong the books were. It was an exciting feeling to be capturing this, to be part of a movement that will allow other children to also see themselves as heroes.

As the kids left the center, that's when my friend and I started just chatting. She's clearly the leader of all of the Ambassadors and I was excited just to have a few moments to get to know her better and for her to feel comfortable around me. We spoke about who a few of the Youth Ambassadors wanted to come visit me in Cape Town to get away for a few days, about how they want me to stay with them in the township to see what it is really like, about me being Jewish...and then, about how she takes care of her nephew because her sister, his mother, died many years ago. And about how her own hero is her mother because, despite the fact that she has buried six of her children, she continues to be strong and to help the community (for example, I know she runs a soup kitchen for children in the morning). As she tells me about how she is only left with her mom and her dying sister, I am surprised at how calm she is, how she just takes it in. Apparently, right before Larry came and MadAboutArt started, she was a different person, having nervous attacks and even attacked her teacher out of all her bottled up hatred of men...but today, she has learned to talk about it, to see her own strength and grow as a leader. It seems to me she has so much on her plate, I can't even fathom how strong she is to deal with it all, with her family, with the children at the MadAboutArt Center, with her own child who is, by the way, HIV negative...

Melanie and I are silent for the entire half hour ride back. Beside the highway we pass three other townships with their shacks seemingly piled on beside the other. Then we turn into Plettenberg Bay, where people again look like us with big-windowed houses overlooking the water. It seems so unfair, and yet it feels natural, that's just the way it is. Another day in South Africa, another day as a white person.


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