Today, during some down time at the local high school, I started reading over grade nine students' English assignments. One of the first assignments was a simple "who I am" list of questions, and I found the answers encapsulated many of the cultural values of rural South Africa. So I have decided to share a few excerpts:
My Favorite Food
The answer to this question always started with porridge (also called pap, a thick white starch made from ground maize meal), bread or rice. The food here places heavy emphasis on such starches as a way of gaining empty calories, as often meat or vegetables are in short supply.
The two most common answers were: "God" and "my mom and dad".
Here we see both the substantial emphasis placed on religion and on family. But you can also look at this and see a lack of strong role models within South Africa today (in the past there have been Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, but few new people are stepping up to take an important role as a model individual or hero).
Things I Like to Do Most
This one is divided by gender, with boys giving very generic responses (reading, playing soccer, etc). But the responses of the girl students all mirror this one:
"1. Wash myself
2. Wear clean clothes every day
3. Read my books
4. Cook for my grandmother"
I think that this response speaks accurately about a lot of the cultural values of the rural communities. The first two reference the very heavy emphasis placed on cleanliness, which is often associated with not being poor (people have often expressed to me that the poor wear dirty or wrinkly clothes). And regular baths are also a manifestation of this, with my family members often bathing twice a day – before work and before bed. You can see these values in other parts of life here, such as how dirt yards are often swept on a regular basis, to remove the slightest debris. Houses are also cleaned on a regular basis, with sweeping and polishing often happening weekly. I believe that this value of cleanliness stems from a number of sources, but it is a way of expressing control over one’s life and developing an outward appearance of success (especially in rural communities, where there are so few things to strive for or succeed at).
Describing My Family
Again, the answers here speak to the importance of families, with people often writing about their aunts and uncles as well as just their immediate family. These familial connections are extremely important here. For example, uncles play an important role in life, negotiating things like bridal lebola (the price a groom must pay to the bride’s father for her hand in marriage), but also stepping in if the father is absent from the picture. In addition, the answers to this question also emphasize the size of the family, with some children describing six siblings.
"I have my younger sister her name is Asanda. And my big brother his name is Tshepiso. Also my mom and dad. They don't want to see me with dirty clothes or sleep without washing myself and dishes. And also my granny she wants me to cook for her."
This answer harks back to the previous description of the importance of cleanliness. But it also provides insight into how children are treated here. They are seen less as independent future adults, and more as helpers who can aid in the day to day activities. At home, young women are often put to work cooking and doing dishes and other tasks before they even reach adolescence. At school, teachers regularly ask the students to sweep or carry their belongings or go fetch them water, even during class.
Things I Like Best
I am going to just end with quotes from the answers to the last two questions, because I feel there are some very beautiful ones. One note first is that you see the work of the life-skills classes (classes that talk about everything from hygiene to self respect to preventing HIV/AIDS) in some of these responses, and it is nice to see that the message is sometimes getting through.
"Love myself the way I am"
"Respect the old"
"Eat too much"
My Greatest Ambition is
"Help people who are sick"
"Pass grade 12 and go to university"
"Believe god and love other people"
"To be proud of my culture"
"Be a pilot"
"To care for myself"