“We are all meant to shine, as children do.” by Marianne Williamson.
“Why do you want an education?” Mkuma Mkosinathi, a student in 11th grade at the Ximayi Khoso High School, asked his fellow classmates.
He walked around the room and used his arms and sometimes his entire body to express his thoughts and ideas to his classmates: thoughts on why an education was important, thoughts on why it was important to pay attention in class. Every once in a while he would pause and then emphatically ask, “Do you understand what I am saying?” And the students would answer, “Yes!” in unison.
As a leader-in -training, today was Mkuma’s day to teach a class and as guests of the school and UNICEF South Africa, we (IKEA Norway and myself) were there to see what was being done to improve schools in South Africa. The school we were visiting was being run under a program called “Safe and Friendly Schools” which has been orchestrated in several schools in the area through education officials, UNICEF and local communities, including parent councils and police officials.
After a fantastic welcome including South African song and dance, we walked into the classroom to see Mkuma in the middle of his lesson. It wasn’t until later that we learned he was a student, not a teacher.
We couldn’t tell when we watched him lead the classroom. He wore a dark blue suit jacket and freshly ironed matching trousers. He spoke with confidence and purpose and had the students’ complete attention. He challenged the students and made sure everyone was paying attention. He had the confidence of a man beyond his years. It took a while to realize that we were witnessing a man in training.
As I gathered my thoughts at the end of a day that was full of welcoming greetings, classroom visits and playing with children on a half-built football (soccer) field, I couldn’t help but think that Mkuma was a living example of what is happening in South Africa today.
Despite the statistics you read about South Africa – and we have witnessed many of these things with our own eyes – poverty, lack of resources, families tore apart by AIDs – there is an overwhelming sense of optimism and ownership.
But it’s not blind optimism. Or the kind of optimism you read in white papers and annual reports. It was an “alive” form of optimism that washes over you when you talk to students, teachers and parents.
I heard so many ideas today from all members of the community and agencies working hard on finding solutions. I also heard an admittance that many of these challenges are so complex that even with the best schooling, experience and passion for solutions that the answer don’t always come easily.
It was such a brief encounter today with children ages 5-18 and the adults that are helping to shape their lives. I wondered if our presence there was of any help. We were only there to “witness” the work that others have done. We didn’t pick up a shovel and imagine a soccer field or learn how to make bricks so that we could help build a school, like many of the parents had done before there was help from a new democratic government.
But even though we didn’t pick up a shovel or lay bricks, I still believe there is value in being a “witness.” Sometimes when words fail or actions don’t come at the right time, if we can stand next to someone and say, “I see you,” that can be a powerful moment. Like the most important moments in life, like birth and death, words often fail us, but as long as we are there, standing next to someone, with more feelings than words, there is still something being shared.
I felt like the distance that we traveled from Norway and Sweden to see these schools meant something to the children, parents and teachers. They felt “seen,” and the work will carry on long after we go. Maybe by students like Mkuma.
As Judas Tmnisi, the assistant principal, said as we were leaving, “Because you came here you will always be a part of us moving forward. We will always remember you and this day.”
He also said, “We will only part, so we can meet again.”
I hope I can come back to South Africa and see the results of the changes that have taken place. I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw Mkuma teaching a class of small children, telling his students that they are the future of South Africa.