From a South African Study Abroad Journal: Tara Shea Burke

Tara Shea Burke joined Dr. Jennifer Fish’s Study Abroad (service learning) course in South Africa this summer. She is a poet in her third year of the MFA Creative Writing Program.

Four weeks ago, I was touring and working in Cape Town, South Africa.  On Tuesday August 2nd, I  was either at ARESTA (Agency for Refugee Education, Skills Training & Advocacy), a refugee center outside the city that helps refugees from all over Africa resettle and  safely, or at Fezeka Secondary School in the Gugulethu Township on the other side of Table Mountain, helping seniors at a very underfunded, cold, and semi-dilapidated high school write college application essays in English; to most of them, English is their third or fourth language.   In my notebooks I was pretty obsessive about labeling the day and even time of everything I did, but these were the two days during this trip that felt most like they overlapped, and it seems hard now to tell them apart. Even so, I know it was then that I felt the most necessary and helpful as a student on a service learning study abroad trip. I confess that as a writer tagging along with social activists and international studies graduate students, there were times when my agenda as someone there to just write a lot, felt selfish or even out of place.

Today is the first time I’ve written about my trip, though I did attempt a poem a few days after the 30 hour travel and jet lag wore off.  I’m sitting on my front porch in Chesapeake Virginia, with my three dogs, my iPad, bug spray and a glass of wine.  It’s a gorgeous summer day: low 80s, no humidity, an unusually cool breeze blowing.  I was supposed to teach my first University level course this morning, but thanks to Hurricane Irene, classes have been cancelled the first two days of the semester so people can clean up, power companies can catch up, and we can have time to reorganize our lives. It wasn’t terrible or vastly devastating; the Category 3 storm came right towards us and died down enough to flood and gust the area for a full day.  We sustained minimal damage and most of us have much to be thankful for.  I’m even thankful for the extra day to prepare my syllabus and go over the literature I’ll be asking my students to think hard about over the next 15 weeks.  But for once, I’m prepared.  This must be why I’m finally staring at a blank screen wondering how to make those weeks of my life that happened not too long ago, come alive again.

If I was at ARESTA one month ago today, then I was tagging along with the two students who were placed there as part of their service to NGOs in Cape Town.  There is a Congolese artist who sells his paintings at the center and they wanted me to interview him.  As a writer, I was often asked on this trip to help collect people’s stories, and I wanted to.  Because I was there all day for a short interview, I helped my colleagues interview refugees who were waiting in line for citizenship advice at a sister center in Cape Town.  We were compiling information from parents to find out how many refugees knew their rights and the laws in place for their children to acquire full citizenship.  We also asked those waiting in line if they had experienced xenophobic attacks since they arrived in South Africa and if the air of fear about other cultures has made it difficult to make a livable life there.

I heard stories that I maybe should have never heard, helping my friends with their service that day. But I also found that because of my status as a kind of documentarist for the group, people’s stories often just came to me in this way.  I spent a lot of time latching on to other students and educators listening to them define their own reasons for being in South Africa.   The service learning course I was in was a Women’s Studies course also cross-listed as an International Studies credit for both undergraduate and graduate students; most of the students along for the trip were in these disciplines. But I’m in my third year of the MFA Creative Writing program at Old Dominion University.  I write poetry. I’ve dabbled in some non-fiction and plan to try fiction, but my focus is literature and creativity.   Why then, would I choose a Study Abroad program that focuses on social activism, international relations, the humanities, and gender?  Well, for one, my undergraduate minor was Women’s Studies and it changed my life.  I look at everything through a gendered lens and am proud to call myself a feminist and activist.  I also recently decided to work toward a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies to expand my scholarship in academia.  But my desire to take this trip, though unbeknownst to me at the time, was bigger than that. I believe in words and language.  I believe that poetry is not just words on a page that confuse most people or cause choked-up responses behind closed doors.  Good poetry is activism.  If the written and spoken word is just a creation for art’s sake, and doesn’t move a reader or listener to think differently or more openly about the world, then what is the point?  Still, when I arrived in South Africa, I was scared and resistant.  What does a poet have to offer at an AIDS center run by grandmothers who live in shacks and tin houses, a refugee center where displaced people go for the most basic human help and education, or a sexual violence relief organization run out of a public hospital in a Township?

Dr. Jennifer Fish, the chair of the Women’s Studies Department, has been going to South Africa and making connections with people, domestic workers, refugees, fair trade craftswomen, schools, politicians, and everyday human beings for many years. She works not only in her capacity as a scholar, a feminist, and ethnographic researcher, but also as a human being.  I joined the group because I wanted to travel, I wanted to do it on student loans while I still could, and I didn’t want to go on a trip whose purpose was only travel writing, though I’m sure those trips are worthwhile in their own ways.  And of course, I wanted to write.  But I didn’t want to just be a tourist who sat back and wrote about things “objectively”. I wanted to connect with real people, and I wanted to write about why connection and service is important.  I know there isn’t really such a thing as an objective anybody, especially while visiting another culture, but I wanted to be a part of a trip that took that into consideration as one of its main objects of awareness and as part of its framework.  I wanted to become more aware of my privileged gaze even as I still gazed.

I will never forget Fezeka Secondary School that day, though I hope to forget nothing of this entire trip.  Fezeka is a rundown high school in a South African Township, which are pieces of land beyond the main cities that were deemed black or African during the Apartheid regime.  Though the country is now technically democratic, the townships remain for many reasons too complicated to analyze here.  To picture a Township is a hard thing for most of us. But try perhaps to picture shipping containers the size of a small kitchens as houses for multiple families, attached to each other and crowded together on small tracts of land like chicken cages at factory farms.  I was at Fezeka that day hoping to get into an English class and observe, to talk to students, and to write about anything I could, as viscerally as I could.  It turned out that instead my hands were needed to organize a library that was built but never finished many years ago by Education Without Borders, a Canadian NGO.  They have helped this school create after school arts programs, build safer, newer classrooms, as well as many other things.  That day they needed help cataloging hundreds of books that they received by donation for the slowly growing collection.  The library is something the students are excited to have finished, so they come between classes to hang out and chat with the EWB volunteers, and once they found out there were students visiting from America, they came to check us out, too.

Many of the students are in the process of applying to colleges, so as I was helping organize, sort and catalog books, students who I’d been chatting with heard I was good at writing and asked me to help them with their application essays and English usage.  I tutored in ODU’s writing center last year, a place where many college students whose second language is English came for help with all kinds of essays, so this something I felt comfortable with.  I  had more fun chatting with highschoolers than I ever thought I would.  Vimbai, the head of EWB at Fezeka, asked if I’d like to tutor in their after school program that day.  I agreed, thinking it would be one-on-one or group tutoring like I’m used to.  After school, I was surprised and nervous as I walked into a classroom of 20 ninth graders and was told I was there to teach them (not tutor) how to write personal narratives and mini-autobiographies.  I took a deep breath and dove in.  I never thought I’d enjoy something like that, but since I’ve been in creative writing workshops for almost 8 years, I ran the hour in a similar way. I joked about myself when they made fun of my accent and let them ask questions about America, making sure to ask them just as many questions about their own culture in turn.  I even tried a few words in Xhosa, one of the African languages that “clicks” on the tongue for certain words, and we laughed and laughed.

Tara Shea Burke with the girls at Fezeka

During the workshop, I wrote my own mini-autobiography with them and was surprised to find a silent room of ninth graders writing away.  Near the end, I walked around and asked them to share personally with me if they’d like, since Vimbai planned to make a mini-book for EWB donors out of their stories anyway.  Two shy girls that didn’t seem to write much during the workshop called me over near their end of the room to share their stories.  I don’t want to give their life away, but it’s safe to say that many of these children, including these two young girls, have experienced horrors that are hard to digest and most wouldn’t even believe.  We cried together as I read, and I shared some of my own stories, even though nothing compares.  It was all I could do.   They left that day thanking me; they hadn’t shared their secrets in a long time.  I was picked up by a van of energetic, talkative ODU students only seconds later and we were driven to a group outing with wine and heaping plates of food.  I barely had time to digest it at all.

This type of scenario happened often to me in my short time in South Africa.  Because of my privilege, I was a part of situations and heard stories that I felt like I never should have heard.  The people who live in the raw wound of post-Apartheid South Africa have lived through some terrible experiences, and I’m not even sure how to share and give back.  However, every organization I visited had similar goals: to talk about their lives, share their stories, empower each other, and heal from the inside.  I have two huge notebooks full of narratives, ideas, and themes and I hope soon to be able to share these with others here at home willing to listen and learn.  But what I have to give back is only my own perspective.  My service was an open street, bustling with people, crafts, and trade, like the Townships I walked through just a few times.  I helped a little, but they helped me to see that healing comes from telling our stories in our own cultures and collective narratives.  They’re doing it themselves. I was lucky enough to witness some of it.

Sitting on this porch in Virginia, I’m thinking about the refugees waiting in warehouses for information and help; I’m thinking about Nolufefe, one of my Fezeka girls, and if her shack was sealed enough around the edges to survive a hurricane; I’m jotting down some ideas for poems about the trip, and feeling lucky to have the extra time and space to be creative and hopefully make a career out of writing.  In the end, I come to the realization that perhaps I was more useful in South Africa than I thought I would be.  And to the realization that yes, stories must be told.

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