What is Community?
True community is based upon equality, mutuality and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together. Pauli Murray
Have you ever sat there, struggling to pay attention to your friend, while they reminisce about their holiday? As they show you the hundredth photo or tell you the story that ‘you really had to be there to get how funny it was’? You want to share their experience but it’s just too multifaceted. Journals and diaries are great but they are also a bit like looking at your friend’s holiday snaps…great as memories for those who were there but …let’s face it…they can become a bit boring for the rest of us.
So, this year, rather than a diary of what we did and where we went, I am going to write about a theme, our thoughts and feelings and then, cunningly weave into that, where we went and what we did.
Every trip we pick a word, this year it was ‘community’ not in the sense of a marketplace but in the sense of valued social interactions. The word is a catalyst, not only for our volunteering activities, but also to help us focus and deepen our understanding of difference and similarity in ourselves and others. The hope is this article makes you think about community too.
What does community mean to you? Is it where you live? Is it created by service to others? By need, by culture, by interest, by profession, by classification, by religion, by family, by experience, by race, by gender, by ability? Do you choose it or does it choose you? Which ones of the multifaceted communities on our planet do you identify with?
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. Dorothy Day
We all need to feel a sense of belonging to a community whether it is physical, emotional or virtual. But what if a community is created out of need. Bobbi Bear is such a community. Jackie Branfield and her dedicated team, support children who have been sexually abused… from disclosure, to the arrest of the perpetrator, through court and beyond. As many as 200 children meet under the Tree of Empowerment on a Saturday morning to play, eat and forget the trauma they have been through. It was on our first visit (of three) that we met, sixteen-year-old, Blessing, who had been gang raped the week before. He recited his story to us with blank eyes, obviously still in shock, but he had found his way to Bobbi Bear where he would receive support and love. By our last visit Blessing was translating our English instructions into Zulu when we were playing games, helping feed the younger children and finding a useful and respected position, as a big brother, in the Bobbi Bear community. We also met Mildred, a qualified trauma counsellor, who was once a Bobbi Bear child who told us she could never leave Bobbi Bear. They joined out of necessity, even survival and the community made them feel wanted and helped them on their journey to recovery. This is the power of community in action.
Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry. Bill Drayton
Professional Learning Communities are something I’ve just heard about. Previously, plc meant something completely different to me. (Just in case you don’t know – they are collaborative learning opportunities among colleagues, originally used in education). What I also came to realise was that I was in one… without even knowing it! The Melting Pot’s Social Innovation and Ideation Award (SIIA) put me in one, a group of like-minded social entrepreneurs learning from each other. I am also now privileged to be part of another PLC in SA, who gave me really useful feedback and support during this trip.
Jackie Branfield (Director of Bobbi Bear), Kate Brockett (Open Air School), Njabulo Hlongwane (Artist in Residence Room 13 & Mason Lincoln Special School), Ari Serlis (National Director, Quadriplegic Association of South Africa), Eira Sands (New Business & Training Director, TBWA), Happy Shoba-Morolong Principal, Mason Lincoln School) and Christopher Ndokweni (Manger, Ikwhezi Welfare Centre) all became part of my professional learning community.
But any learning community is wider than that, the Crossing Countries team learnt from each other. We also learnt from everyone we met and talked to, they taught us about their lives and we shared ours. I was happy to share all the experiences I had building Crossing Countries (with the help of SIIA); how to create a Lean Social Enterprise Model Canvas and how to give a perfect pitch, with the South African NPO’s of the Jabulani Project and BeUnited. An example of an international community of enterprises, who share a common purpose, to create social change. A community of people who, however different their backgrounds and organisations, face very similar challenges and keep learning and fighting for what they believe in.
Children are like tiny flowers: They are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers. Friedrich Frobel
What I write here might be controversial and the language not PC but keep in mind the context in which I am writing. South Africa is a country that still struggles from years of lack of education for their black population and an educational infra structure that requires large investment. I have never heard, the people I met, talk about the debate that ensued, some thirty years ago in the UK, about mainstreaming disabled learners.
I saw that for all the disadvantages ‘special schools’ have, they also have advantages. In a country emerging from apartheid and with low attainment levels (2011 SA Gov. Census) education is a hot topic. In 2001 a white paper on Special Needs Education: Building an Inclusive Education and Training System, was published with the promise to strengthen rather than abolish special needs schools. In 2010 the Integrated School Health Policy reinstated health programmes and services within education. They pledged to respond to the needs of all learners including those with special needs. However, on the ground, discussions around inclusion versus integration and who is responsible for the welfare of disabled learners becomes almost academic when finances and infrastructure are so limited in the education system as a whole.
It is the community as a whole that pulls together and the Mason Lincoln Special School in Umlazi Township is a shining example of it. The teachers, staff and wider community provide (as far as is possible given their resources) an education specific to the learners needs. Their vision is ‘to make a difference in the lives of learners with disabilities.’ With an 80% matriculation pass rate and an atmosphere in the school that is redolent of one large family, they achieve their aim.
Mason Lincoln Special School, under the strong leadership of Happy (aptly named) has 327 learners with a wide array of disabilities ranging in age from 7 years to 24 years old. It is the only school for disabled learners in Umlazi Township and started life as a hospital. The wards are still used as dormitories for the large proportion of students who live there and a classroom serves as a kitchen and dining room. It goes without saying they are short of text books and other basic equipment. But, and it is a BIG BUT, although the community was born out of learners being classified and segregated there is no doubt that these children are part of a supportive family that does not feel oppressive.
The 2014 team had many discussions around the positives (and negatives) of segregated education when we visited Open Air School (a well-funded special needs school in Durban.) Having experienced both types of education in the UK their conclusion was there are good and bad elements to both. Children in both schools helped each other; in class, to the bathroom and with their lunch. In Mason Lincoln you see kids with cerebral palsy pushing their friend’s wheelchair, you see autistic children playing football with kids on crutches, you see everywhere kids looking after each other. I don’t have rose tinted glasses on. Yes, I saw boys fighting and girls being bitchy but show me a school that this does not happen in. Would there be more bullying in mainstream education? I know that in an ideal world everyone would be educated together and each child would have a bespoke programme but that takes money and if we struggle in the UK we have no right to judge or impose our practise on South Africa. I know there are concerns that transition into the wider world might be more difficult but I am not sure of this, given the Zulu culture and the socio-economics of the country. And I know that having an individual personal assistant with you, rather than someone who ‘gets it,’ can be oppressive too. So, maybe what I have written isn’t controversial, maybe it’s just an honest reflection of the complexity of society and the sensitivity we must cultivate to the differences in global cultures.
Within Mason Lincoln there is a smaller community which centres round Njabulo’s art room and Thenjiwe craft room. They have a common purpose; to teach the learners skills they can use when they leave school and to raise funds for the school. When we were there they were in the midst of printing and making bags, cushions and Zulu bead work for an exhibition for the up and coming heritage day.
We asked Njabulo how we could help, he wanted us to paint a mural at the front of the school. The learners planned one section but there was a space which they did not know what to do with. I suggested using the international wheelchair symbol.
I told Njabulo about the debate over whether a new wheelchair icon was needed and showed him pictures of the new icon, which is based on the old one but shows the figure leaning forward, actively pushing the wheelchair. No hesitation …the new one fitted the ethos of the school.
Being at the school, playing with the kids on Women’s Day (a public holiday), showing Thenjiwe how to knit so she could teach the learners, are some of the most rewarding and special moments I have ever had in nine years of visiting South Africa.
Njabulo is also the artist in residence for another project at Znadele Primary School in Umlazi Township, which is likewise an example of a different kind of community. Creative people have always found each other whether in the artist’s colonies like Giverny in France or more recently the artistic haven of Greenwich Village, NY. Room 13 is a Scottish charity, which represents a growing network of student-run arts studios in schools and community settings worldwide. It is supported by TBWA in SA, who want to create an international school of creativity. We spent a couple of hours at the school comparing Scottish heritage with Zulu heritage as the kids prepared their pictures for a Heritage Day exhibition.
I believe that the community – in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures – is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms. Wendell Berry
Community is often associated with place. People bound together because of where they work, live or visit. A physical place. Sometimes this place becomes home because of the circumstances of your life. A set of concrete single story buildings on a hillside in Mandeni is the home to 150 disabled people (Ikwhezi Welfare Organisation) and 15 old people (Ekuphumuleni KwamaShandu Old Age Home.) It is their home for the rest of their lives… if they wish to stay. Christopher Ndokweni lived there as a child and is now the manager. His story, and that of Miriam (another staff member), shows how strong their attachment is to a place. Loyalty, sentiment and emotional bonds, a sense of security and well-being comes from the place that brought them together and also keeps them there.
Ikwhezi Welfare Centre is the legacy of Mrs Ethel Mthiyane who saw a disabled child eating from a rubbish bin and took them home. She started to look after more and more vulnerable children and in 1979 Ikwhezi was established. She saw a need in her community and filled it. She also founded a school where the children with less complex needs could get an education or training. The Ethel Mthiyane Special School now educates disabled children from the surrounding communities.
Over the years the buildings have become run down and are very basic with little for the residents to do or see. They wanted a mural to brighten the day room, one which they could extend and add more simple colours and shapes to after we left. As some of the children go to school we also thought a chalk board (at an appropriate height) would mean those who didn’t go to school could use it during the day and the support worker could use it to help the school learners in the evening. A parachute and bubbles that you can catch also caused some excitement, as did the learners from another local school come in to help feed the children and to tidy the grounds.
Throughout this article I have thought long and hard about my motivation and my ethical responsibility for what it contains. This has been especially difficult writing and choosing photos for Ikwhezi. I realise that it will be you, the viewer, who will judge whether what I have shared of my experiences is appropriate.
Last year I met a Gogo who thought I was her daughter she cuddled me and cried. This year I met her again… and again she cuddled me and cried… called me ‘her love’ and said she never thought she would see me, her mother, again. She did not see age or colour and we know young children ignore appearance. I hope in these photos you do not see volunteer tourism, victimhood or an appeal for charity. They are a call for you to think about what equality really means…would you think twice about these photos if they were of people like you playing with bubbles or a parachute? For me, these photos show a community of people with different embodiments enjoying time together and that has to be good for everyone’s health.
We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Baynard Rustin
Here I just want to add a little about communities formed by gender and to salute, the Gogos (Grannies), Aunties, Sisis (Sisters) and Mahs (Mothers), who hold their families and communities together. The 9th of August is National Women’s Day, a public holiday to remember the women who marched against the act that made all black people carry a pass so they could be segregated and controlled during the apartheid era. The saying ‘You strike a woman you strike a rock’ finds its roots on that day. We met so many strong women, Sue at Ray of Hope, who cares for babies until they are adopted. We met a gem of Gogo at Masibambane, a woman who has taken in 12 disabled children and looks after them on her pension. The local kids come in and play with the children, help feed them and generally take care of them; a sign of the community spirit in the area. She is now being supported through the Jabulani Project.
Another force to be reckoned with is Roz who has adopted or has custody of the 15 children who live in her extended family at the Palm Tree Care Centre. They are home schooled by Roz and her volunteers who also run a day care centre to support the families in the adjacent township…and of course, the indominatable Jackie and her team of Rough Aunties from Bobbi Bear. These women (and many others around the world) have created families from strangers by their selflessness and energy. They are not kin but they are nevertheless families and these extended families form communities in which women have a central role in fighting for a healthier society. They are the unsung backbone of their country and I would suggest the world.
So what is community?
Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in. Unknown
Throughout this article I have raised various questions and I hope it has made you think about the patchwork of overlapping communities that you belong to. Whether they are formed because you share the same interests, live in the same physical place, do the same things or share the same circumstance, you are all part of a community and rather than use it as a label it can be used as a power to create a more equal world.
On our trip our understanding of communities changed and we found a deeper and wider appreciation of not only where we belong but how we can create and modify communities that we identify with. There are always alternative viewpoints to any actions or words anyone makes, especially in areas such as disability and volunteering in the global south. We always try to choose respected, ethical placements to work with and are careful to ask what the local community organisations want rather than what we think they need. However, as when you vote in an election, not everyone will agree but at least we have voted for community, as a movement for change and equality.
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