Loving the People I’ve Befriended
By Roxanne Henkin
“Loving the people I’ve befriended…and singing a song of long ago…”
Mary Lou and I had been singing along to the music as I drove my car to the coast. Ngokoana and Nakedi had been talking in Sepedi in the backseat, when suddenly they stopped and Nakedi asked, “Roxanne is that Carol King singing?”
“Carol King? Yes, do you know her?” I replied.
“Oh yes. We sing her songs all the time. “Do you know the album Tapestry?”
“I love that album,” I said. “I’ve played it over and over in college.”
Then the next song began to play on my CD drive. And all four of us sang together, “Where you go, I will follow, anywhere that you ask me to, where you go, I will follow, follow…”
We were driving down to the Gulf of Mexico, past Corpus Christi, past the oil refineries and as we drove across the bridge, water appeared everywhere.
“Is that the Gulf of Mexico?” asked Ngokoana. “I’ve only seen it on the map. I never imagined that I would be there.”
They weren’t exactly seeing Texas from a native’s eyes. Mary Lou and I moved here five years ago from the Chicago area, and we’ve become aware that Nakedi and Ngokoana see things through our perspective whether we’re talking about the heat of the San Antonio summer or pronouncing Spanish or German street names with a Midwestern accent.
“ I’ve learned to say “hot” not “haught,” from you Roxanne,” Ngokoana says. I start worrying about my Chicago accent and I tell her, well at least you’re pronouncing it correctly in Chicago. I’m not sure about San Antonio though.”
Nakedi and Ngokoana were scheduled to arrive at 4:30 pm on Sunday, June 8th, 2008 the day before the writing project was to begin. We were excited about their arrival, so we drove to the airport early, and after waiting 30 minutes, we stood proudly in the baggage area holding up our twin signs that read,
& Ngokoana Dikgari
San Antonio, Texas
We realized that the plane was going to be an hour late so we turned around and went home. An hour later we were again standing in the baggage area holding up our signs to no avail. The continuous flow of people had exited the plane and no one else was appearing. We realized that we had no way to contact the women, nor they us. I walked up to the check-in desk and explained the situation to the staff. Although they couldn’t tell me if they were on the next plane, they suggested that we come back at midnight.
So there we were at 12:15 a.m. waiting for the third time that evening at the airport, holding up our signs. Once again the plane emptied out and the women weren’t there. I was ready to give up when two women walked up, spied our card, and one of them said “That’s my name.” All four of us were so relieved that we hugged each other and became instant friends.
I don’t know how to explain what happened next. We were all filled with worry and anxiety after the long wait and not knowing what to expect, that when we actually met, between the laughter and the smiles, a deep bond was formed.
By the time we arrived home and showed them around the house and gardens, it was close to 3 in the morning. We had to get up at 6 to be ready for the first day of the workshop. I told them that I would understand if they wanted to sleep in on the first day, but they would have none of that.
“We didn’t come here to sleep,” said Ngokoana. “We can sleep when we’re old. Besides, we don’t want to miss a minute of this.”
After the first day of the workshop, I drove them around the UTSA campus, showing them all the new buildings being constructed. When we arrived home, they went right to bed and slept soundly through dinner and into the next morning.
“America is not exactly how I thought,” Ngokoana told me.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“At home, we have fences around our front and back yards. You have them only in your backyards.”
“And,” she continued, “It’s not like in the movies. I thought that I’d see Michael Jackson or Bill Cosby walking down the street.”
Each morning we begin the San Antonio workshop by journaling. On June 16th, Ngokoana shared that it was Youth Day in South Africa, which commemorated that day in 1976 when Black children planned a peaceful march protesting the fact that they were taught in Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, rather than in their native languages or English. The police turned the peaceful protest into a massacre of the children. Hector Pieterson, a 12 year old boy was one of the first fatalities. Honor, one of our Co-Directors, had been to Soweto and read her poem about the event. This was followed by a moment of silence. In those ten minutes our project had been transformed. Our hearts had been touched and we had become a global writing project focused on social justice.
“Roxanne, how is that you are not prejudiced toward Black people?” Ngokoana asked.
How do I begin to explain this or the complicated relationship between race and equality in America. How do I explain what I’ve learned from the long history of Anti-Semitism that my ancestors faced as Jews? Or how do I share that most Americans do believe in liberty and equality for all people?
“These are the happiest days of my life,” says Ngokoana. “We feel like celebrities,” adds Nakedi. People have reached out and been so kind to them. They have eaten at many restaurants, been to museums, the Missions, festivals, the River Walk and musical events. They’ve walked in the water and on the beach at Aransas Pass. They’ve been invited into peoples’ homes for dinners and parties. They’ve gone to Temple Beth El and to Grace Baptist Church, and received gifts of books, mementos and clothing. Most of all the participants of our writing project have reached into their hearts and provided both practical help and emotional support to them both.
Nakedi and Ngokoana don’t take anything for granted. They are constantly thanking us and telling us how grateful they are. While they are thanking us, we are thanking them. They help us to appreciate our teaching situations where we have computers in our classrooms and libraries full of books for our students to use. When Nakedi tells us about the 60 or more students she has in her classroom, we are thankful for our smaller class sizes. So many of our participants have asked how they can help, that with Dr. Leketi Makalela’s help, our vision of the South African Writing Project has grown deeper and wider than we could have imagined when we first met.
The Limpopo Writing Project will be the first writing project in all of South Africa. It will be supported in part by the teacher consultants of the San Antonio Writing Project and as many of our friends that we can reach through fund-raising projects. Our dream is to have 10 teachers go through a summer institute during the first two weeks of January 2009. We’re hoping that we can provide both Nakedi and Ngokoana with lap-tops and internet access, but it would be truly amazing if we could also provide it for the 10 teachers in the institute, too. And, because Leketi has shared that $50 could change a child’s life in South Africa for a school year, we’d like to give one writing student in each of the teachers’ classrooms $50 toward food and school expenses.
Can we actually do this? We know that we are dreaming big and that we have a lot of work to do to make this a reality. But as Ngokoana and Nakedi point out, it’s a miracle that they were even able to come to America. None of the teachers they worked with really believed they would make the trip. They expected them to come to work on June 9th. Even Nakedi and Ngokoana weren’t sure it would happen when 5 days before they were to leave, they still didn’t have their airplane tickets. But with the help and support of so many people at UTSA, especially Dean Betty Merchant, the San Antonio Writing Project and Leketi in South Africa, their trip became a reality.
This is my 43rd writing project, and we’ve had an incredible 5 weeks together. All of our participants have been unique, talented and amazingly supportive of each other. As they join our community of San Antonio Writing Project Teacher Consultants, I know that together, we can make more miracles happen. This may be the ending of our 2008 SAWP Summer Institute, but it’s the beginning of so much more.
And as Leketi, Nakedi and Ngokoana leave for South Africa, we’ll all be singing Carol King’s words, “Where you lead, I will follow, anywhere that you ask me to” and know that “All you need to do is call my name, and I’ll be there on the next plane.” There’s a long list of us who want to follow where you three lead.