As beautiful as she is, it’s because of her mother….

9 05 2010

Yesterday, Sunny and I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to celebrate a young woman’s twenty-first birthday. As we now know, the 21st birthday is a big deal in South Africa. This is not for the same reasons as in the States. Instead, 21 is seen as the beginning of adulthood, a time to take stock on where we’ve been and where we’re going.

The party was everything that our birthday parties should be, but never are. Well, not everything. We arrived at 1, the program started at 3, and by 5, we were still waiting to be served lunch. So, there was some room for improvement.

However, what I loved was the way the community gathered around this young woman to tell her stories. Older aunties and neighbors reminded her of what was she like when she was a child. A pastor talked about the kind of person she is to the church community. Her work colleagues spoke of her character. And each and every person got up to contribute their evidence for the claim, “This young woman is ours, we know her, and we can speak about the woman she is becoming!”

One of my favorite parts of the Xhosa tradition is the singing. Sunny and I have been to several events now where singing is treated almost as punctuation. When you’re ready to speak, you start a song and walk to the front. When someone makes a powerful point, the crowds responds in harmony.

Early on in the birthday celebration, a woman gave a lovely speech about this young woman. She spoke of her pride that Amanda has made it to the age of 21, an achievement that is not a given in this community. She praised her for not “falling pregnant,” which is a true victory in her context. And she went on to speak of her identity as an honest, confident and no-nonsense young woman, who has managed to not only make it through, but flourish in the midst of sometimes tenuous surroundings.

After her speech, a different woman stood up and said it was time for a song. For the benefit of us Westerners, she translated the words before we sang it, and then taught us to sing the Xhosa. The song is simple. It goes, “As beautiful as she is, it’s because of her mother.”

It was not only a lovely song, but a simple, huge truth. Maybe not for all of us literally, but at least metaphorically. For me, I’m lucky to have quite literally, a ideal mother. At the same time, I have a variety of metaphorical “mothers,” and I imagine everyone does. It’s the people in our pasts that inform who we each have been able to become.

When I think of all the celebrations we have at home-the birthdays, the times we land some job, win this Fulbright award, find a fantastic life partner, or what ever, maybe I need to start saying, at least to myself, but perhaps also publicly:

As beautiful as this is, it’s because of my mother.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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Procrastination Central

6 05 2010

Well, folks, time is running thin. I have two weeks left in Cape Town to finish my “work.” After that, we will spend two weeks traveling around South Africa. And then, can it be, we’re coming home! It doesn’t feel real, and yet, when we watched a movie today with characters eating thin, crispy, monster slices of New York pizza, I had to stop myself from pushing my hands through the screen to grab a piece.

However, before I can rightly claim my slice with mushroom and peppers, I actually have some things to complete. Specifically, by the end of these next weeks, I plan to have a curriculum unit written and a collection or oral histories compiled. I’ve told myself and Sunny I’m in “go mode,” but I find myself using all sorts of interesting procrastination techniques, such as writing this blog entry (because how can we keep our faithful readers waiting???); watching Iron Man, (for if I’m going to see Iron Man 2, I better understand the crucial backstory); and most excitingly, reading a story on gang life in Chicago’s public housing, because, hey, at one point in my life, I was fascinated with the Henry Horner and Robert Taylor homes.

Despite all my dawdling, I am getting somewhere, albeit very, very slowly. But, I’m getting there.

Last weekend, we had the true privilege of attending a graduation ceremony of a group of students that Sunny has been working with. The youth are all coming out of incarceration, and they were celebrating the end of a four month program, designed to help them transition back into the communities and make healthy choices in their futures. At the ceremony, students read poetry and sang songs, parents spoke of their joy at watching their child transform, and mentors spoke directly to the community and the students about the courage and excitement of a second chance.

It was all incredibly moving, but perhaps what I was most struck by was the ease in which people talked about how their personal identities affect them. One man, a board member, stood up and addressed the crowd saying, “As a white man here, I’ve come to acknowledge that things are messy. And the mess isn’t just over here, it’s also with me. Often, we white people think our role is to fix the mess “over there”, but I’m here to acknowledge that I’m part of the mess. I have to start transformation with me, and think of new ways to look at poverty, at crime, and at transformation.”

Much later, another man stood up and began talking about his own story of starting this program, and of being a black teenager in a township, trying to find the doorway into white communities. He talked about the dangers, for himself, of seeing white people as a kind of key to freedom or upward mobility.

These conversations are why I’m here in South Africa. I think they’re unique. Maybe they happen in pockets in the States, and they surely don’t happen all over this country either. However, I do think South Africa is slightly more adept at talking about messiness than we are, and I don’t think people in my communities are as able to talk about their own identity in such a comfortable and honest way. I mean, how able and willing are we white Americans to talk about our whiteness? Have we even acknowledged that there is a conversation to be had?

These moments are the reasons I’m here: a chance to witness and even participate in the conversations of a community that is comfortable stepping into the messiness. I am seeing this time and again as I interview teachers and community members about their pasts. They seem willing–if not anxious–to talk about their personal histories, not because they think they have a interesting story to tell, but because they feel the importance of telling any and all the stories.

So, on one hand, I’m procrastinating. On the other hand, I’m finally getting somewhere. Not a bad place to be.