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Is It? Or, On Christmas Eve, A Historian Puzzles Over What Happened At Camp

December 24, 2009, 7:32 am

Several days ago my partner and I completed two weeks working in a South African summer camp for teenagers who have been affected by HIV. A few campers were actually infected and being treated with antiretrovirals (ARVs); most had lost at least one parent and other close relatives to the disease. As our stay progressed, the question of who in South Africa’s mostly black townships and rural villages has not been affected by HIV was very present in my mind. Current statistics are that 1 in 8 South Africans are infected, although this is an estimate that many people will tell you is too low. As South African journalist Jonny Steinberg points out in his recent book, Three Letter Plague: A Young Man’s Journey Through A Great Epidemic (Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2008), the stigma attached to a diagnosis and the erratic quality of health care extended to the poor means that many of those infected have never been tested; that many who have been tested are shut out of poorly administered treatment programs and simply go away to die; and that those who die from the effects of HIV, thirty years after the mysteries of the virus were first uncovered, are said by the hospital authorities issuing a death certificate to have died from tuberculosis, meningitis, or other opportunistic infections.

The camp I worked at is partly funded by an NGO that cooperates with the ANC-led government, and was originally funded by the Bush administration through USAID. It extends educational and medical resources to South Africa’s poor majority, almost entirely black and often living in townships, large urban clusters of mostly tin shacks where basic sanitation and nutrition issues have contributed mightily to the havoc HIV creates in the human body. But the camp addresses another problem as well: that the disease also creates tremendous social disruptions in the kin networks that, as feminist anthropologist Carol Stack argued half a century ago, often help the poor to survive world-wide. Such disruptions have a particularly devastating effect on the young and on post-apartheid upward mobility. One young Soweto woman (I’ll call her R) whose care I was charged with at camp described how HIV had transformed her life in this way: “Two years ago my mother died, and I moved in with my aunt,” she said. “Then my aunt died. Now I live with her oldest daughter.” In addition to going to school, she cares for two children who are both younger than eight; she also does the cooking and cleaning for the family to earn her keep.

Now reader, don’t respond — if you can help it — with comments about how sad this is, since this girl is not sad about her own life. Quite the opposite, in fact, and as I have said in an earlier post, the South Africans I have met are simultaneously dissatisfied about their political leadership, angry about broken promises and inadequate public funding, and more optimistic about the future than an American would be in similar circumstances. For example, I am quite sure that R misses her mother, because she said so. Besides — what child would not be distressed about losing two homes in three years? And yet, although she has quickly acquired the responsibilities of a grown woman, one might also point out that she has lost homes and also found new ones. As I got to know her, and she talked to me more as a friend than as a stranger who had accidentally become one of her camp counsellors for a week, I came to know her as a gritty, determined young woman, resolutely facing forward and ready to make a go of it in a South Africa where opportunities exist for the poor but can be exhaustingly difficult for an individual to grasp all by herself. R loves to read, she loves science and she hopes to go on to university to become a chemical engineer. The other girls in our cabin, several of whom were already mothers of children they cherished, had a similar grit. They spoke warmly of their love for books and for science, of the universities they hoped to attend, and of the careers they were willing to fight for. And having watched many of these young women in action, I have hope for them and for their dreams on this Christmas Eve.

One of the turns of phrase that expresses what I learned in my two weeks of camp, and that captures the suspension between what seems impossible and what the young people I knew claimed they would make possible, was this complex interrogative phrase: “Is it?” I heard it most frequently from a young friend and co-worker who was part of my activity team at camp (which was, dear reader, Nutrition class.) Said in a tone of gentle inquiry, or sometimes just acknowledgment, it was a listener’s response to an unfamiliar story. Depending on context, it meant roughly the following:

“Is that so?” A polite acknowledgment that one has just said something interesting that requires no response.
“Tell me more.” A heavy emphasis on “is” urged the speaker to expand on the previous statement.
“I find that hard to believe, but do go on.” In this case, the phrase would be expanded to “Is it, now?” Skepticism was hardly definitive among my new friends, whose graciousness is unsurpassed in my experience. But the conversation that followed “Is it, now?” was usually actively comparative — you tell me about yours, and I’ll tell you about mine — without being in the least argumentative.

This phrase — “is it?”– keeps returning to me as I try to sort my memories of camp, and of getting to know in brief and often surprising intimacy the wonderful South Africans I met there. I am trying to have faith that if I keep writing the stories people told me, recording my memories of what happened as accurately as I can, something will begin to emerge that will address the most basic question a historian can answer: “What happened?” In the two weeks I was at camp with several dozen counselors (all but ten of us South African, the majority Zulu from the Johannesburg and Durban areas) and 150 African campers between the ages of 12 and 20 (standard six through pre-matric) I heard dozens of stories like the one I opened this post with. And although I took notes, made recordings and took pictures I have yet to wrap my highly schooled intellect around what I saw, listened to and observed during these last two weeks (hence, my inability to post even after I returned to internet contact four days ago.)

One of the few things I can articulate clearly at this point, other than expressing my endless gratitude to the friends I made at camp who answered every question I asked and who were equally curious about me, is that I was dazzled by language itself for the two weeks I spent surrounded by the young black citizens of the new South Africa. As in a few other parts of the world I have been in, South African counselors and campers easily slipped from language to language (there are thirteen official languages here, including English and Afrikaans), and one of my closest friends was often beside me at key moments when campers or counselors were singing or performing, offering a priceless translation service that often included instruction on how a particular word was used and why.

The number of languages also sometimes had an effect on my brain that could only be described as crossed wires: I recall speaking to a camper once and hearing, to my dismay, the correct phrase come out — in Spanish. He looked at me with amusement and replied, “Bonjour?” And yet although I came to understand virtually no words, as time progressed, I also grew to have a better idea what people were talking about by following expressions, tone and gestures. I learned to understand, for example, when a disagreement among the campers I was assigned to had escalated into an actual quarrel and needed to be dealt with. But I was also dazzled with the new expressiveness that English took on as well. Another wonderful way of speaking was the use of the word “borrow.” “Can you borrow me a pen?” for example, is qui
te different from saying “Can you hand me your pen?” or “Can you give me your pen?” It expresses gratitude for your generosity in advance, acknowledges your connection to your own pen, and expresses a sense of obligation that will surely result in the timely return of the pen.*

When I mull over my experiences and my new South African friendships on this Christmas Eve, a part of my brain keeps saying “Is it?” I learned so much, but I also know it was so little. I have many things in my head, but I don’t yet know what to make of them– except that every experience I have had was a good one in some way, often because an African person was willing to take the time to explain, and to “borrow me” a bit of knowledge that would allow me to understand an event or song enough to record it in my notes. My friends taught me enough for me to have a glimpse of what it might mean to know more.

One vivid memory I have is, in the din of the dining hall, one of my campers would say after I asked her for a translation, smiling and shaking her head in mock reproof: “Radical, you must learn Zulu.”

Is it?

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*Returning pens is a skill my administrative assistants at Zenith know I could use some work on.

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