Water and Time

Beginning:  3:47 p.m. on Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014
Listening to:  The Family Crest and Diane Cluck’s Boneset (2014)
Reading:  Singing Early Music (edited by Timothy J. McGee with A. G. Rigg and David N. Klauser) and Volume I of The New Cambridge Medieval History
Rereading:  Composers at Work:  The Craft of Musical Composition 1450-1600 by Jessie Ann Owens and A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Dear Internet:

Another episode in the nine months that underscored the stark reality of T.I.A. (“This is Africa”) occurred at the end of November 2013. One morning, I arrived to teach at Hamburg Primary and discovered that the school’s water supply had been halted by Amathole District Municipality (ADM). The cessation would last over six months, during which primary school teachers and students went without a local water source. The shut-down by ADM impacted not only the school’s access to potable water, but also sanitation–water used for washing, cleaning, and cooking the students’ daily meal. There also wasn’t any water for the toilets, which one teacher told me would increase the spread of infectious disease.

The situation was heightened by the year’s meager rainfall. Rainwater was collected in two nine-meter-tall vertical tanks beside the school. Times when the tanks held enough water were celebrations for students. I noted then their excitement upon arriving at school and regardless always asked whether the water had been turned back on. Regularly inquiring after our water supply and developments with the municipality ingratiated me with primary school teachers. I learned that the supply had been shut off due to a missed payment and in my seeming compassion promised I would bring the lack to the attention of program managers at the Keiskamma Trust. With the bewildering passage of each month, all of us hoped more and more to get to the bottom of the issue with ADM and unearth funds to restore access to water.

I realize I took on a weighty responsibility in speaking with those at the Trust on behalf of Hamburg Primary teachers to seek an end to their dilemma as well as a source of funding. Throughout South Africa, there is a tragic power dynamic between whites and blacks that has persisted long after Apartheid: this played out as the Xhosa teachers broached the subject of money with me, a white woman, assuming I had influence and means to help.

Indeed, the Trust did eventually come to the rescue, landing the story of Hamburg Primary in the local paper and drawing upon the Education Program’s resources to help with payment. My involvement was merely speaking as I said I would to as many in the Trust as possible, including those primarily responsible for the donation of funds.  I am very glad in this case that the Trust performed its function of bringing vital relief to Hamburg.  In my position, I had sufficient authority to liaise between the Trust and Xhosa community and enough reason to believe that the former would follow through.  Still, in retrospect I see that it was not ethical to voice a promise I couldn’t necessarily keep, even one as benign as, “yes, I will help you.”

An additional realization spotlights my ignorance in coming to the developing world from the First. The very first time I experienced drought in South Africa happened less than a month into my contract. Teaching at St. Charles Sojola High School one afternoon, my students told me that their water had been shut off since the morning. Again, in my seeming compassion I panicked at one’s request for a drink and began rapidly filling our collection of unwashed plastic cups with my own bottled water. Barking at students to help me distribute the cups elicited both wary acceptance and angry looks.

My eyes had not yet opened to how my students lived with South Africa’s water scarcity longer than I had or ever would. Expertise landed me work across the Atlantic teaching young adults—experts in their environment, experts in their own right—with clearly as much to teach me.  Working effectively with them entailed my education in their systems and living circumstances, not the other way around. The more I became accustomed to this idea and put it into practice, the better I could adapt my teaching to Hamburg’s austere and changeable landscape. Far easier to weather drought as a member of a community than as an expert apart.

Trailing off for now,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: