This is Rev. Shari Brink’s second in a three-part blog series on her trip to South Africa and Malawi. To read the third and final installment in the series, please click here. And for more information join Rev. Brink and other Marble members for a special Spiritual Growth Hour reflecting on the trip on Sunday, November 9 at 1:15pm in the Labyrinth Room.
Thembalesizwe means “Hope of the Nation.” And Thabo means joy. As we traveled through South Africa and Malawi, visiting 8 primary and secondary schools, we learned to ask “What does the name of your school mean?” and “What does YOUR name mean?”
You see, Zulu and Chichewa names are often given to communicate a message – perhaps something the parents want to remember about the child’s birth or their own first reactions to the baby. (Zulu is the language of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s Eastern-most province, and Chichewa is spoken in the Southern part of Malawi where we visited.)
Asking a person’s name is a great friend-making question! Joy, Peace, Laughter, Have You Seen, The Last One, and, believe it or not, Ugly, these were all names of new friends we met along the way.
And schools are often named by the students themselves or the larger community in order to say something about the school, its values and aspirations. Here are two of my favorites:
- Gezahlale Primary School: Gezahlale means “Wash Up and Stay Awhile”
- Thembalesizwe Primary School: Thembalesizwe means “Hope of the Nation”
I will forever carry these names with me as I think about all 8 schools; they are images of hospitality, welcome and hope, all of which we experienced in overflowing abundance. Everywhere we went we were invited to “Wash Up and Stay Awhile.” Sometimes the welcome was so exuberant that we felt like rock stars and occasionally joked that 11-year old Marble member, Jordan Banks, was the Justin Bieber of South Africa. And everywhere, we were heartened by the hunger for learning of this generation of students that is the future leadership – the “Hope of the Nations” – of South Africa and Malawi.
At the very last school we visited, Jevu Secondary School high on a windswept plateau outside St. Lucia, after the students had sung the inspiring South Africa National Anthem, I was asked to bring greetings.My heart was full and my eyes wet as, overcome by emotion, I attempted to communicate something of our gratitude for all we had experienced. The word Thembalesizwe was pounding in my chest – “Hope of the Nation” my heart thumped over and over again. “You are the hope of the nation,” I told them, in a way that I trusted would communicate across any language or cultural barriers.
Here’s a few of the memories from throughout our trip that brought us to that moment:
- Ordinary names (you know, ones like “Roosevelt High”) were given to the classrooms themselves and used to give tribute to us, the people of The Collegiate Churches of New York. Here is one photo of Marble members in front of one of 7 classrooms we’ve built, with the Collegiate name. With 50 students per class (and classes often have many more students), this means that 350 students per year (and ongoing every year!) are able to build toward a brighter future because of our investment. In a region where 23 people depend on each income-earner’s wages, our investment in educating a child pays an almost unbelievable long-term dividend! Classrooms were built via Africa Classroom Connection, which has built 4,000 classrooms in 1,000 South African villages since its founding in 1977.
- “My body is my own and mine alone”: we visited a 2nd grade classroom where this was written on the chalkboard and the students were learning how to say “No” to any stranger who tried to touch their body. It was a clear reminder that education doesn’t simply expand knowledge, but empowers people in ways that strengthen community and reduce violence and oppression.
- Students greeted us with traditional Zulu dancing at each and every school. And occasionally we joined in, adding our own distinctive New York City twist to the steps.
- Faith played a key role in sustaining the people of South Africa through the decades of apartheid AND in bringing it to an end. Student-led Gospel Choirs oozed with the indomitable faith and courage of the people of South Africa.
- We were treated to poetry (here in New York City we would call it Spoken Word Art) by a talented young female voice at Matamzana Dube. Her message was echoed by so many young people we encountered: “I am South Africa and Proud”.
- In Malawi, the world’s 8th poorest country, we met with chief and sub-chiefs (including the first 2 women chiefs), PTA and community leaders. At this school of 1,500 students, learners gather under 5 trees (a “classroom” under each tree) and on the floor in 8 classrooms (some classrooms have 200 students.) Filled, not with despair, but with a vision for what can be, community leaders asked us to partner with them in building housing for teachers, a fence to protect children from the road and, needless to say, additional classrooms. We were so glad to be able to be there with Africa Classroom Connection as they announced that funds have now been raised for the first 4 classrooms in Malawi and that this school would be at the top of the list.
We were greeted with such warmth and enthusiasm in each and every school we visited, and with deep gratitude for the classrooms we’ve helped to build. The real joy, however, was in the bright and beautiful faces of the students we met, youth with a voracious hunger for learning. May they – and we with them – continue to create the future of which we all dream!