January 30, 2008

Gone Shoppin'

Since the school year began, I’ve been meeting with the five young women in Itpini who are in high school to help them with their English. Last Friday we took our relationship to another level: we went shopping together.

The purpose of the trip was to buy them the new uniforms they need for the new school they are attending. When I dreamed up the trip, I thought, “Surely, this can’t be that difficult. It’ll be a quick jaunt into town, we’ll buy the stuff, and be done with it.” We left Itipini at about 2:30 and three hours later, after they had confirmed every stereotype about women and shopping, I realized just how wrong I had been.

My plan was to go to the Plaza, the relatively new shopping center in Mthatha that I had been told would have everything we needed. It seems like I end up at the Plaza several times a week for something or other but to my surprise none of my students had ever been there before. That meant we had to walk around the entire place, window-shopping in every store so they could get a sense of what was available. They finally settled on a store and, of course, had to try on a few pairs of trousers and shoes each. When I told them they could buy two pairs of socks each, a look of wonder came across their faces at the thought that they wouldn’t have to wear the same pair of socks every single day between now and December. We found a lot of what we needed, purchased those items, and prepared to move on. Three of them couldn’t find the right size trousers but I was happy we were making progress relatively quickly.

Our next stop was a store that sells exclusively school uniforms. It was small, crowded, stuffy, and sweltering and we all complained about the heat. But when these students finally got their sweaters, with the school logo emblazoned on the left breast, the look on their faces was even better than when I told them about the socks. Up until high school, students wear a plain black sweater and I think there was something magical about the school logo. Plus, I think they thought they were never going to get them and at 25 U.S. dollars a piece they were out of their normal range. The school also requires that the students wear a blazer but they were about 50 U.S. dollars each and the students seemed to think they could get by without them, though the way their eyes lit up when I pointed at them made it clear they really wanted them. At any rate, by this point I was running seriously low on cash.

I was still feeling pretty upbeat by this point so I decided we should stop for ice cream at a soft-serve place I visit often. I bought cones for all of us, assuming they would know what to do with them. But when I came back to the table, I found them holding their melting cones and staring at them uncertainly. It was clear they’d never had one before. Teaching the fine art of ice cream cone eating is harder than it sounds. Several horizontal cones and near misses later (do not, for instance, bite off the bottom of a melting cone and not expect to get ice cream all over your uniform), we had all had our treat and some pleasant conversation in our fractured Xhosa-English argot.

We still didn’t have those three pairs of trousers so we headed to another mall in town, the one they visit most frequently. This is where the day started to get long and the stereotypes started to pile up. On a good day, I loathe shopping for clothes. On a hot, busy Friday afternoon, with every store crowded with shoppers, it becomes almost impossible for me to tolerate. We again visited seemingly every store, again without any success, though plenty of trips to the fitting rooms and conversation in rapid-fire Xhosa about what the school would and would not accept and what looked best. (I think.)

By this point, it was getting late and stores were closing for the day and we still didn’t have the elusive three pairs of trousers. So these students started asking me to come get them on Saturday to finish the shopping. I resisted at first – work? on Saturday? – but then I realized I had absolutely nothing else to do and agreed to meet them the next morning, happy to see them again but disappointed we’d have to go shopping.

Our Saturday trip was much shorter. We again visited far too many stores but in a much brisker and more business-like manner. I actually enjoyed the chance to walk around a bit of Mthatha I wasn’t familiar with a group of people who are. In what I swear was the 47th-store we visited (I could be wrong; maybe it was the 48th), we finally found the right pair of trousers. Of course, then we had to go exchange a pair of shoes from Friday that didn’t fit quite right. But it was an accomplishment, nonetheless. They still need a few more items – official ties, for instance – that can only be purchased at school but we’ll take care of that this week. Last year’s frayed and tearing hand-me-down uniforms can at last be put to rest.

To outfit a high school student, I estimate it costs about 700 rand each or about 100 U.S. dollars. That is the bare minimum and means the student will be wearing the exact same set of clothes every week day between now and December. On top of this, there’s the school fees of 715 rand per quarter. Yikes!