Protection. It could mean many things… a shin guard, a Band-Aid, a dad telling his daughter to change her skimpy outfit, an alarm system, a padlock, a condom. I’ve been here over a year and am still trying to figure out what it means in my rural Zulu culture. Obviously the idea of protection is organic and varies person to person – their upbringing, ideals, thought processes, and decisions. Over here, I’ve noted some levels of protection that I quite admire as well as some I wish were different.
Since arriving to South Africa, I’ve been around more babies, toddlers, and children than ever before. (Yes, this was totally by choice in the States…my maternal bone hasn’t
kicked in yet. Though less-so since arriving, snotty faces and vehement crying still leave me a tad unsettled. But don’t worry, Mom, you’ll get your grandbabies someday – I used to hate cats and now I have one!) Although I’m still slightly uncomfortable around infants and toddlers, I’ve learned a bunch about them and greatly admire some of the parenting practices I’ve seen. The common thread of those practices is: a more hands-off, less coddling approach. Four year olds are sent out the door at
07:00 to walk kilometres to school and are expected home sometime in the afternoon. Small children are given money and sent on errands, often with another infant in their care, tied to their backs. Usually, if a child falls down, gets a scrape, or didn’t get a candy like all the adults did, their crying is minimally tended to. I remember one day, in response to Thabiso falling down and his face scrunching up in that terrifying pile of wrinkles before the explosion, my Baba told me, “Thandeka, sometimes you must just pretend you did not see and then they will also not make a big show.” And, out of my peripherals, I saw Thabiso pick himself up, dust off his knees, and walk away with a dry face.
I read an article Let Your Kids Play With Matches that mentioned a tribe in the New Guinea Highlands where children self-teach by experience and experiment. Parents allow their toddlers to stick knives in their mouths or play near fire – they’ll quickly (and hopefully permanently) understand certain limits. I’m smiling as I write this, imagining some of the more…eccentric mothers I knew from my youth reading it. Jaws dropping, immediately finding their kid, snapping one of those ridiculous
child leashes disguised as a fuzzy backpack, and leading them to the loo for a hydrogen peroxide bath. A mama who helped raise me, one thankfully in stark contrast to the previous sentence, had a great zinger for when her children (or any child she heard whining, for example: me) turned up their noses to food they were served. She’d say, “I didn’t ask you to like it, I just asked you to eat it.” Though I wasn’t too fond of this back when I hated spinach and thought green gummy bears sufficed as a vegetable, I’m very appreciative of the lack of coddling I encountered during my upbringing.
In the village and in town, I have yet to fully formulate an opinion on how much the people have internalized this quasi grey area of protection. Certain situations have
shown that protecting oneself or others is acceptable and in other situations it is not. In school, I’ve somewhat glumly noted that the learners are rarely cohesive; there’s no sense of team spirit. Defending one another is an uncommon (and, to me, beautiful) thing – I guess in a culture where s/he who speaks up against authority is met with the stick, I can empathize with their silence. In every class but mine, mistakes are met with laughter (sadly, sometimes including the biologically-labeled ‘adult’ at the front of
the room). No wonder learners are terrified to hazard guesses – talk about your self-esteem detonator. Misdemeanours are met with fervent finger-pointing amongst friends and versions of a story to sift through. In town, I can count on one hand the times I’ve been voluntarily aided during harassment because, for many, it seems to be entertainment. When I’m engaged in the inevitable encounters with men, I see people slow down or even stop to watch. I’ve decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re transfixed on the odd-looking situation that it is and are simply watching to see what will happen – what will the white lady do? Usually I seek out a female onlooker or passerby and ask for help, which is given, albeit begrudgingly. Please don’t let your imagination run away with you (Dad) – I promise I’m safe and in control, but this lack of protection saddens me perhaps the most.
That said, I’ve been happily surprised when I witness protection during times I don’t expect it. Learners accompany younger ones from different families to their houses after school. My family makes sure I lock my door when I leave and, despite the burglar bars, it’s unheard of to sleep with a window open (many a safe, sweaty night in the summer). I can rarely walk anywhere alone – both an adorable and annoying fact. At school, I’ve heard that some of the bigger learners ask to take the punishment lined up for their smaller friends. In town, people can ask most any stranger to protect a parcel as they quickly run an errand. Sometimes I’m just left stupefied by what I see. Relating back to the last sentence of my previous post, there are moments, positive and negative moments, when I think, “Is this really happening right now?” Those times – both the pinnacle highs and the hazy lows – are what make my service what it is: easy, difficult, balanced, and, above all, worth it.