April 20, 2009

Moving (Back) Day

I’ve written before about Nolizwi, one of the students in my after-school English class. To re-cap briefly, her mother is quite sick with AIDS in a rural village and she moved to Mthatha in January to live with extended family and go to school. The extended family lives in Itipini and that is how our paths crossed. She is a bright and curious young woman. If she just had the opportunity to apply herself to school, she’d do great, I’m convinced.

But she had trouble with the extended family, moved in with some even more distant family, was robbed because she had a longer walk to school, and broke her arm, among much else. She asked for help and we eventually set up a situation where she could live with the children of one of our pre-school teachers. About two months ago, I helped her move there.

The new situation was not ideal from the get-go. There are about seven people living in the house and all younger than me. The pre-school teacher lives in Itipini but the house is in a government housing project, called Zimbane, some distance away. So there really isn’t any adult supervision by our standards but this kind of arrangement is fairly common.

Beyond that, Nolizwi had been informing me about how difficult it was to live with these people and how difficult they made her life. They always wanted her to provide her own food, for instance, even though that was explicitly not the carefully-crafted arrangement we had agreed upon. It was difficult for me to know what to do. Obviously, I could have helped her buy food or stepped in and “solved” some of the problems and once or twice I did that. But a) that kind of thing isn’t sustainable especially if I’m leaving in a few months and b) I didn’t want Nolizwi’s housemates to think I would always be there to bail them out. The whole arrangement had to work without my continual intervention. The trouble is that since my intervention brought the arrangement into existence, everyone had come to depend on it. I had several difficult conversations with Nolizwi in which she said, basically, “I’m hungry” and I said, essentially, “Sorry, but you need to work this out without me.” That wasn’t easy.

I saw Nolizwi for the first time in a few weeks on Thursday. I had been away and then school had been on its Easter break. I asked how she was. She handed me this letter, which I reproduce verbatim here.

Dear Jessy

There is nothing more that I want to tell you the place you gave me I’m no longer living in it because of the behavior of the people I was living with. I thought I must live at Corana [with the very distant relation that requires a long walk to school] for a while just to relieve some stress they cause during the holiday. Now I find it hard to go back there because of the way they make me feel. I feel it is over my dead body even you cannot solve it because they are critticising and discriminating me.

When you gave me food that I must go and prepare it for myself they ask me if there it is going to cook itself or I will eat it raw because you give me no paraffin. I didn’t bother by answering them but they kept on bulling me even wearing my clothes and my school clothes and even the blanket you gave me is their mat. Nontombi uses it as her babies blanket when I am at school and I find it hard to use it at nights because of the smell of a babies feceases.

When I think about the situation they are putting me trough they break my heart and make me think about where I came from. Even though they bully me I can have a place to live and my soul rest because at Corana I am not bullied and they care about me and my education.

When I go to school in the morning I use my legs to walk all the way to school [a 5-km walk; she leaves at 6am when it is quite cold and dark] and when I come back I borrow R5 [for a taxi so she won’t get robbed again] from anybody whom I find that day and go back to Corana because my fear is to go back to Zimbane Valley and these people they bully me again.

This situation is hard you will also find it hard to solve it too but I hope that you will find a plan to solve it for mi because I am desparette and I’m sure that I can not learn anything good while I still leave with them.

The things that happen in these last months makes me think nothing good about my life. Its not my intentions to leave school before time because there’s nobody at home who is educated and I want to be a good example but according to the situation I think I will drop out of school. And the fact them abusing me is also adding to the stress of my mother lying in a bed useless and has nothing to do for her children.

Not exactly the kind of pick-me-up I was looking for on a Thursday afternoon to make me feel good about myself and my efforts. (I was pleasantly surprised at how good the English is.)

I told her she absolutely should not drop out of school and that she needed to keep devoting her energies to that. And I told her that Corana seemed like the best place for her right now and she should keep living there. On Friday, we went to Zimbane, picked up her things, and drove back to Corana, the same place I’d helped her move from two months ago. (I’ll have more to say about our arrival in Corana in another post. It wasn’t exactly warm.)

We were literally right back where we started. All my energy and effort these last few months has amounted to nothing except heartache and trouble for Nolizwi. It’s a clear example of how one’s best efforts and intentions to help - when mediated through cultural and language barriers - can actually end up doing more harm than good. It’s an example of how misplaced people’s expectations are when they expect me to solve their problems for them. I can’t do it. And it’s not my job! I’ve found myself asking if Nolizwi wouldn’t have been better off if I had just stayed out of her life altogether.

Ultimately, I’ve taken comfort from the idea that the relationship Nolizwi and I have is of some intrinsic value. It certainly is to me. I hope it is to her. The situation then becomes an example of the folly of measuring ourselves by our results. We don’t have any control over those!

And yet… the results of my actions in this situation - however unintended they may have been - clearly did some serious damage to Nolizwi’s emotional health and I can’t help but feel responsible for that somehow. The intrinsic value of the relationship pales in comparison to the emotions expressed in this letter.

People here look at me as a problem-solver. I wish they wouldn’t. It’s completely unjustified because I haven’t solved any problems. But there becomes this temptation, and it’s a sinful one I think because it puts you at the centre of things, and you say, “Hey, if they’re looking to me for this maybe I can do it” and you give it a shot. And then you get a letter like this one.

Really, the better option is to turn it back on them and say, “Where is grace in this situation? How can it help you help yourself in this situation?” But that takes time and more energy and effort. And what would Nolizwi have done for herself when she showed up in February in tears, recently robbed and with no place to live?


vukile said...

i would just say to you this is what God gave as you talent so use it help this child.Think about if its you child would you liked you child to be abonded so ask you this question maybe it will made a difference

vukile said...

i would just say to you this is what God gave as you talent so use it help this child.Think about if its you child would you liked you child to be abonded so ask you this question maybe it will made a difference

Anonymous said...

Please tell Nolizwi that a woman named Jane is praying for her to succeed. I know that doesn't seem like much when she has so many real problems to deal with. Tell her I pray for her because I think she is strong and very smart. Her letter, written wonderfully honest - and in such fine English - shows me how smart she is. There are so many women like Nolizwi in the world who could become extraordinary leaders in their communities if they could only concentrate on learning without the difficulties of surviving. I will continue to pray for Nolizwi that she will be the one to be the strongest - and the smartest - and become a leader. -- Jane