Passing


Am thinking critique is every society’s best friend.

Listened to a group of students a few days ago who talked about ignorance as the number-one problem in South Africa. Other songs on the Top Ten: lack of wise leadership, corruption, material disparity, and people not realizing how to reach their potential.

”What would it take?” I asked (you never know). They said, mentorship programs, more access to sports to level the playing field, a new identity to replace their parents’ broken record about colonialization and apartheid legacies, investment in civil society, community support. Oh yeah.

Then they told me stories of seeing people, really seeing them: seeing their pain and dreams and how sharing in fear or joy melted the divisions. “A friend of mine was raped by her uncle and gave birth as a result when she was 13. She went back to school and the community helped her keep her child. Now she runs a peer mentorship program and center for HIV and rape counseling.”

I already knew from previous trips that the shoulders of young people here must grow to bear adult-sized burdens. “Child-headed households” is the fancy name for kids who have no one but each other—an older brother or sister raising younger siblings, scraping together school fees, putting shoes on the little ones so they’ll still be allowed into school, worrying about where the one meal every day will come from, walking the tightrope between gang protection and drug markets. The aloneness is because my generation has more or less died out due to AIDS. So either the gogos, or grandmothers must raise their grandchildren, or worse, the orphans look after each other. During a previous trip here, Mbeki’s denials of the pandemic literally cost lives. Now some HIV patients have access to drugs, and there is more information about healthy diets, and children as young as 8 sometimes hear about the absolute necessity of using condoms. But it remains a taboo subject, and when I ask about a student’s family, they still look away and talk of fathers who died of TB or mothers who died of malaria. Never mind that this area is malaria-free.

So what would it mean to not see these young people as victims?

Life feels very close here because death treads so near.

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