Teach a man to fish

I’ve been thinking, re-thinking and challenging myself and each time I come up to the same point. Some years ago as an under grad at Wits, feeling frustrated by theories and practices of development that left people’s lives no better and their children’s futures stuck in poverty I asked my mother; the only female imprisoned out of a group of 11 school children for having incited what has become the June 16 student up rising, to help me resolve or think through my thinking as to how we can change for the better the lives of the world’s people and create the utopia I so longed for. Her response to me has since come to be the bed rock on everything I do and the work I believe I will dedicate my life to. “Treat people with respect, dignity and most of all accountability” was her simple yet challenging response. She went on to explain the Zanempilo programme that Steve Biko and Mamphela Ramphela were part of. These young black minds set up clinics, sawing rings, cultural spaces where black people could be treated with respect and dignity even during apartheid and most of all people had to be accountable not only to themselves but to their community . It seemed clear, at least to me that the only way we can change the world for the better; where people can feed their families (well and healthy), where children are taught (to think and to dream), where work and pay os fair and there is real social justice – it must be by the efforts, visions and work of these people. I sound like I should be hugging trees chasing impossible dreams but why not – this is not just a call at a personal or local level but it means states must take on a decidedly different shape, citizens must own their own voices and be accountable for the kind of society they create.

We tutor and mentor kids – grade 11 and 12 at Naledi high school. We have a small group of graduates (trained, talented, passionate) who are mostly unemployed who give of their time and passion to improve their communities. The school in which we work has a pass rate of less than 40% despite having most of the infrastructure needed in a school; they have class rooms in good condition, computers, a small library, a brand new state of the art sports field with flood lights and all, teachers, text books, stationary and yet these kids are under performing. Last year we went in and broke our backs providing daily tutorials, reading material, our time and yet still we were affecting only a minority of the kids at the school – and why? When we started we said to be in our programme they would have to be on time to school, do their school work, participate in class and instead of paying to be in the programme they would help us raise funds. Despite the fact that the fund raising never took off even with those who came; those who did not stay stated that it was because we were not providing lunch. I had the now legendary “LUNCH? With all we are doing you are asking me to feed you too?” Melt down. To be clear now no one asks me for lunch as I have been clear that the only stomach I think about is that of my 3 year old daughter. However I know some of the kids in our programme are hungry – so how does one resolve this.

For me the solution has been to throw the challenge back at them. How in deed will they get lunch when they are at our Saturday tutorials? Being clear that I will not provide an answer the kids were left to think for themselves for the first time – to be accountable for their own stomach without thinking anyone else has a responsibility to feed them. This is an important shift in post apartheid South Africa where houses, health care, education, cost of raising a child is free – though none of this is very good it has managed to make South Africans who are in the most need feel they had to have everything done for them and they had no responsibility to themselves, their children or their community. So this; the question of their lunch became a deal breaker and we were not going to fold. I suggested they could each bring a rand and put that money together to buy food, they could bring skaftien (packed lunches) but both these options seemed so very poor to them and so I said they should see to their own stomachs and either come or not. These kids in a non fee school, who are not challenge by their school teachers and are trained to get by until the system throws them out of school to be someone else’s problem are asked to make a choice to firstly prioritise their education and be responsible for their own needs in whatever way and yet again my mothers word echo to me. “Treat people like people not objects to beneficiaries or development subjects but people who earn respect, deserve dignity and must accountable.”

So today 14 February 2012, we started on the first step to getting these kids to own their own development and have charge of what happens. These kids who could not R50 (less than $5) raised R500 to support their tutoring programme. this money would not come close to running the programme but it is the most important funding I have ever sourced. Now they own the programme, have a say and can finally buy lunch. We split the kids into groups of about 6 and each one will have a turn in raising funds for the programme and these funds help pay for their tutor stipends, can be used to pay for their Varsity application fees, can buy lunch – they will help us decide this, it really does not matter. What does matter is that they did this; they went into their communities, their churches, reached out to their school mates, walked the school selling cup cakes and heart shaped cookies. These ghetto, loud kids who are said to be unteachable, unreachable selling heart shaped cookies and roses and proudly so. I know some development ethics discourse would see this as ethically a grey area. How can we take money from poor, powerless children? But treating them as powerless only got us pity and a sense of power derived from being the saviour. Yet by making the kids work – not only do they have to raise fund but they also have to do 4 hours of community service a week , this has our groups full, has the kids coming to us with solutions to the lunch issue and suggestions for community service.

I suppose my head turns only when considering what some development practitioners would say about making the project beneficiaries work, raise funds and participate – this they would say in tree hugging yet all knowing tones is an ethical grey area. Yet I see in stalk shades that the only way we can drastically improve people’s lives – socially, politically, economically, locally, globally is to treat people like people who can feel, think, manipulate, work, contribute and who actually have the ability to make the changes they seek. So for me the thinking stops at the LUNCH issue, if an opportunity can be let go because of lunch when the possibilities and solutions are endless for how to grey lunch then I would give up. But today I saw; these kids work and can surprise even themselves if challenged to do so and I am certain now there is a shift in how they see themselves and the world about them – they now have power and ability ; what more revolutionary idea can there be.