January 27, 2009

Buying lots of stuff

I have successfully navigated the treacherous terrain of back-to-school shopping with the group of high school students we support in Itipini. On Friday, I took the students in grade 10 and on Saturday I went with the students in grades 11 and 12.

Before we left, I had them all make shopping lists of what they needed. Last year, when we arrived in the store, they would keep seeing things and claiming they needed them. This year, I could check the items against their lists. That modest change along with a few others helped me feel much more in control of the process than I did last year.

The uniform shopping was fairly straightforward. Unlike last year, the first few stores we visited had the right-sized trousers and shoes so we didn’t have to go all over town late into the afternoon. We went to the giant wholesale place where we have an account and spent hundreds of dollars on back-to-school supplies. I know the manager there and she was helpful in getting us boxes of stuff taken down with the forklift. I was constantly worried we were spending too much money but overall the experience was mostly pleasant. There are some fun and interesting new students I enjoyed getting to know better.

Here are some of the pictures.

Technically, the idea is that we support students who live in Itipini. “Support” means we help them with school fees, uniforms, and supplies. I ended up taking 15 students shopping over the two days but not all of them live in Itipini. I was a victim of my own generosity (generosity with other people’s money, I should note).

Of those 15, 11 live in Itipini - seven new and four continuing on from last year. (The fact that there are seven new students, three of them boys, I find so incredibly delightful and surprising.) Last year during my English class, some of the students who live in Itipini brought along their friends. Naturally, I came to know those friends and now this year they have come asking for help. I was a bit torn as to what I should do in response.

On the one hand, I actually do know these students so they meet a requirement of mine for support, namely that I have a relationship with the person. Just because they don’t live in Itipini doesn’t mean they aren’t living a pretty deprived life. And the reasons they have for needing help are often quite legitimate; I’ve already written about Ziyanda whose father died last December and other students have similar hard-luck stories. Because they are continuing students, it is important that they take the grades in consecutive years (rather than, say, taking a year off to earn money to pay for fees). If they don’t the school will make them start again. In Ziyanda’s case, this is particularly important because she is in grade 12, the final and most important year.

But I’m reluctant to spend our resources on people not directly connected to Itipini because I worry about not having enough money, about diluting our influence, and about setting a precedent that opens the door in the future to more and more non-Itipini people. Plus, I think that some of these students, no matter how how hard-up they may sound, could scrounge together some money from their families. There is always more money floating around than I realize. And I’m reluctant to spend the money because I don’t want to confirm the stereotype that white people have lots of money they can toss around however they want. I am very budget-conscious and want people to know they can’t just treat me like a giant ATM machine.

Ultimately, it didn’t seem very graceful to exclude some needy students on the grounds of their address. That “technically” four paragraphs ago should tip you off to the law inherent in the statement. If we can help these students, why shouldn’t we? (But there are plenty of other students who need help and because they don’t know me, won’t get my help. How is that right?)

My decision, then, was to take them along with me on the shopping trip and concentrate on making sure they had school supplies. All of them are returning students so they have last year’s uniform to wear again, perhaps a little small or a little worn but it’ll do. I explained to them we would make the first payment of school fees - about R300 - due this week and they would be responsible for paying off the balance - about R400 - over the course of the year. They quickly assented to that offer, which confirms for me there is at least some money in the family. Yes, the family might have to sacrifice to pay for it but isn’t education worth a little sacrifice? And by having the family invest money in the education perhaps they will take more interest in how hard their children work.

After I wrote that story about Ziyanda and her father, several of you have written to ask how you can support her. I intentionally do not make pleas for money on this blog but to forestall any more e-mails, if you are interested in supporting Ziyanda and the many other students like her - not to mention the 110 in primary school - the best thing to do is donate money to African Medical Mission, the organization that pays all our bills. They are about to receive some whopping big bills from this past weekend’s shopping trip.


Janet said...

Jesse: I see a familar navy T-shirt in one of the photos of you!
Janet Smith Coyne