January 18, 2008

The resourceful missionary, who also happens to be a total softy

Of all the hundreds of families in Itipini, we’ve managed to muster five young women – at least two of whom are mothers – who want to go to high school. (When I learned this, not for the first time I despaired of the future of my gender.) As I noted, this is an expensive proposition – school fees, books, and uniforms will likely run to $500 U.S. per student for the year – but they are committed students and are serious about their education. I had so much fun describing my trip to Uganda in the present tense that I think this next story – a blow-by-blow of 45 minutes of the mission of reconciliation – is best told the same way.

I show up to work on Thursday morning and the five young women are waiting patiently outside the clinic as they’ve been told. They need to show us some receipts from the school to prove they’ve registered. Everything is order and they ask me for a ride to school. “It’s raining,” they say. Since I’m total softy, I agree. But once we’re on the road, there’s another request – they need passport-size pictures of themselves for their school applications. They seem to think I can produce those with my digital camera. I can’t.

Of the five young women, only one speaks English with any skill and while I am initially impressed, I quickly realize her comprehension is not as good as I thought it was. So I simultaneously try to drive down the muddy roads and explain in my fractured Xhosa that I can’t get them the pictures. As I’m doing this, I remember from my frequent trips last fall to get my visa extended that women wait outside the Department of Home Affairs and take I.D. pictures. So I immediately head downtown.

I imagine we are quite a sight when we get out of the car, five young women in school uniforms and one tall, white guy in shorts and t-shirt. I also stand out for another reason, the students tell me: “You hurry everywhere!” (In the Transkei, moving at anything faster than an amble is not common practice.) I just want to get them to school. We find a woman who will take their picture, they pose, and the Polaroids develop quickly. I pay what I think is an extortionate sum – even after I have haggled for a while – for the pictures and we return to the car.

But there’s another problem, which takes me a minute to grasp in our fractured English/Xhosa. They need a stapler to attach the pictures to the application. By this point, I am stuck in the middle of downtown Mthatha traffic but I have another great idea. An internet café I frequent is close by so I pull in there, hoping for a stapler. They have one but it’s a new employee who doesn’t recognize me so I have to beg and plead to take the stapler out to the car for a moment. He finally agrees and I run outside. (“You hurry everywhere!” I hear again.) We affix the pictures, I return the stapler, and we are on the road again.

I have no idea where the school is but all five young women know and have a different way of getting there and insist on giving directions – in Xhosa – simultaneously. We take a few wrong turns before I listen to just one and we finally arrive. The gate to the school is closed when we get there and we have to wait for several minutes for the security guard to show up and open it for us. They want a ride right to the door of the school (“It’s raining”). Since I’m a total softy, I agree. But I put my foot down when they ask to be picked up in the afternoon. The school looks jam-packed with students trying to register and I wonder how big the class sizes are. I drop them off, hoping everything is in order with their applications. We agree to meet Friday afternoon for the first of what will hopefully be many English lessons. They have shown an interest in the library I’m building up so hopefully I can put that to good use with them.

When I get back to Itipini, I see another young woman who I know is of high school age walking around and I ask her why she isn’t in school. We don’t have enough language in common for me to understand her answer but I do understand her dismissive shrug and the words, “I’m going to town.” Five is better than none, I suppose, but it’s not everyone.

POSTSCRIPT: We had our first English class this afternoon and read "Where the Wild Things Are." To my great surprise and delight it is far too easy ("lula kakulu") for them so I immediately assign harder books for the weekend.