The Nordic Africa Institute

Diary from Somafco 1986-1988

by Elsa-Maria Bergström

I landed at Dar es Salaam Airport on the last day of the year in 1985. It was +28 C, quite a shock as I was coming straight from Moscow where it was -32 C. A temperature difference of 60 degrees.

I lived with Hazel and Babu September for the first few weeks. Hazel was one of the teachers in Grade One at the Primary School and Babu was the Principal. I went to bed the first night with the Annual Report of 1984, tough reading with harsh words concerning the organisation and leadership of the school. I was taken aback, but did see through the report, Babu's concern for the students. The report became a source of conversation at supper, the only meal we all ate together, around 8 in the evening. That is also where I learned that the Solomon Mahalngo Freedom School, Somafco, was a school of high ideals concerning humanity and respect.

"We are not violence-romanticists. On the contrary, it is devastating that we have been forced to fight this battle with guns. I may have to kill another human being, but I cannot imagine how", said Mohammed Jatham, one of the teachers in the same house. Mohammed was waiting for a grant to go to Sweden to get eye surgery, the alternative was to go blind.

Mazimbu is an artificial society. Mohammed asked me to be aware of this fact. Many of the students and teacher are severely damaged, psychologically. They find it hard to follow rules. They come from a destructive battle on the streets of South Africa's cities. Here within the school compound, they have to learn how to live in a constructive way. Many have managed quite well as they understand the reasons behind it and have accepted the rules. Many have a strong yearning for education but just as in any other society, there are thieves, bandits, chauvinists, drinkers and con artists. "You have to understand that", he says. "Mazimbu is not a Sunday school, the ANC are no saints. Here, it is foremost a question of providing knowledge and education. You have to explain to children, students and adults where apartheid comes from and what needs to replace it."

Cleaning the school took all of Sunday. I have never seen such a dirty place. Sand, dust and animal excrement. I scrubbed and scraped, wiped and dusted. Kept emptying the boxes and sort out what Hazel needed. [.] I then organised the benches so we could fit them in, all 12 of them. Rearranged the corner under the large shelf with the material. It looked quite good eventually, but the blackboard (grey-green broken) needed some mending. At least some paint. The cleaning of the ART-store, that I suggested, will have to wait.

Yesterday, which was the first real school day, was horrible. It started at 07:50 with the Assembly out in the yard. Pleasant and attentive children in groups. First a short, good speech by Babu. Then some songs, fantastic voices! Talk about the children being able to sing! The ceremony ended with Nkosi Sikeleli Africa when everyone stood with his or her fist raised at shoulder height. The "old" teachers took their groups and the children that were left were to be divided between Hazel, Glory and myself. Hazel was sick so Glory had to take his eight children and Hazel's 15, his small room was crowded!

We had no breaks, well, we could take a short break inside the classroom. We worked until 11o'clock when we had a tea break and the children got some fruit and a hardboiled egg. After thirty minutes we kept going until 13:00 and lunch in the Dormitory. I had made a schedule but Glory told me they weren't so strict on times - felt good for a rookie like myself.

The first hour was spelt CHAOS before everyone sat down and we could paint our nametags. We just about managed the presentation games thanks to two visitors from Resande Folkhögskola. Tiina and Cecilia arrived the night before and I couldn't have done it without them. As it was now, we managed with our joint efforts to keep the children going, at their seats and painting. Have no idea what will happen tomorrow. I am a bit anxious about that. Even though it is a lot of fun to have all the children around me. We had most fun during break when everyone wanted to feel my white hair!

The second day of school was just like the first one. I talked to Babu about splitting up the classes into two groups, but it seemed impossible. The worst is when a child starts crying. All of a sudden a child cried her heart out. She could after a while explain that Monde, a boy sitting next to her, had hit her. Another hour one little girl just cried silently. One of the boys fell asleep. I tried to wake him up but he was completely uninterested. He just went back to sleep. It is really hard to help the children who do not know any English. The children can this far say "good morning teacher", and more will come tomorrow from Mozambique! When the children are sad and beyond comforting, I speak to them in Swedish and they can understand what I am saying. Neither they nor I use this hopeless English language to show our emotions with. I also lacked some everyday common words, but I did figure out what a boy meant when he said "go out to pee".

At night: You can say that the school day came and went! Only one hour turned into a "lesson" of some sort. Otherwise it was just like a day care centre for children with extremely limited resources. The children had to show me their songs and games, they became my resource.

I spoke to Babu about the children falling asleep during class. He said there was nothing strange about it. They don't sleep very well in the Dormitory. They may have been ill during night. They may be worried and long for home. Sometimes they pee in their beds and there is no one there to help them. They have to get up and wash their sheets and their pyjamas themselves and they do that from the age of 6-7. Failing to do so they are punished. But Babu did tell me to beware of any children who started to feel cold and went out into the sunshine. That would be a sign of malaria. Then an older child has to accompany the younger one to the health centre for an injection and make sure they go to bed. (The clinic is situated within the compound and is run by Dutch volunteers and Cuban doctors.)

What a horrible school start for the children and me! Totally disgusting! I don't know if I can stand this. I already spoke to Babu on the second day to say that it was wrong to give half of the Grade One to me and let the other two teachers split the other half. But he didn't care. Only said he left it to us teachers to decide and get along. What a damn thing for the leader of the school to say. There he sank!

I guess the pedagogy is the next issue to be dealt with. If I have to work with Hazel's methods, and I don't believe in them for one second - they are ancient and ineffective - I don't know how to tell her without hurting her feelings. On the other hand, I am not sure "my methods" would work here. She doesn't want to hear about plans, goals or administration of the courses. A schedule full of subjects without content is what is presented to us teachers. Slaps are handed out more often than hugs! No one cares about Babu's ban on hitting the children.

Rather a good day today. Seven children were sick or just gone. Then we all fit in! We all get a desk of our own! It felt like a day off!

I seem to have got a friend of the heart. I believe it was the first afternoon at Somafco when I discovered Sidwell crying under a mango tree, hitting one of the roots. I tried to ask him why he cried but he couldn't talk at all so I just hugged him and spoke "Swedish" with him. Now he follows me around everywhere, shouts teacher to me and waves with all his body. Babu says he's a bit retarded. I for one believe more that he is one of those children starving for love that gather around us. But I don't have the time to "speak Swedish" to all of them.

I find Art to be the easiest of subjects, and Story Time and Library Time. After that comes sports. Imagine that! We have "Culture" every Saturday when a few children from Secondary School come to us as leaders. We practise songs and dances from South Africa. It is a very important part of the ANC education curriculum.

Somafco is in reality a military area. To be able to take the volunteer vehicle to Dar es Salaam we have to apply for permission from the Head Master of Primary School. Just to , for example, see a doctor at the Swedish Embassy or collect my luggage that I brought from Sweden. This procedure needs to be kept to for safety reasons. There has been espionage on students and teachers from Soweto. Even we volunteers can be suspicious subversive elements. I am white in a black society.

So, I am a teacher in Grade Two since February 13. This is equivalent to grade one in Sweden and my area of competence. I am not a pre-school teacher and find it hard with all the "babysitting". I am getting a partner, a student waiting for a scholarship to go to Sweden and teacher training. He speaks several tribal languages and Portuguese, as well as street language and Afrikaans. It will be a great relief. That is how I thought it would be when I accepted the job offer. The problems will remain though - no plan, no books and new students with difficult names to memorise.

ANC chose English as the language of education. But I believe it is wrong to recruit teachers other than English-speaking ANCs for this job. There should always be an ANC teacher with a Bantu-language background present when the children are meeting a new world such as this. Babu is talking about EFL (English as a Foreign Language) and he has big expectations of us volunteers. None of us can live up to it. I believe this period has done more damage than good. At least for the children. The only good thing I do now is to discuss alternative ways of pedagogy with the teachers, especially how they relate to corporal and other punishment. "Love and Care", says Freda (Freda is a refugee from South Africa with Jewish parents).

I had Study Duty tonight with Grade Four and Five. The light went out just after the first hour so we had to break it off. As usual, I went with the students to the Dormitory. Even these somewhat older children are very scared of the dark and afraid of snakes when it is dark. I had a flashlight that made them feel safe. So even though I didn't have Dormitory Duty (we have that every third week) I stayed with them for an hour to make sure they got their evening meal. (Sometimes a thick maize porridge that they eat with their fingers on their own plates that they have to clean themselves. Sometimes they get some fruit and a piece of bread that is highly appreciated! Sometimes just a cup of tea - if there is any sugar that is, as without sugar they don't drink tea.)

What is happening now is very encouraging. Financiers are to meet ANC in Zambia tomorrow. The government is giving the blacks citizenship, both in the homelands and in South Africa. They are prepared to use the gold reserve to straighten up the economy. And then people say "sanctions do not pay off"!

I have probably made myself impossible with all the Grade One "teachers". I came out rather strongly against the so-called cleaning and lack of supervision.

New Year's thoughts: the grey everyday work, the endless grey, the constantly growing demands that take over more and more from it having been adventurous, unused to, exciting, impossible. I probably crash-landed in Africa and am only now starting to find a balance again after the shock, or it took this long to really come down to solid earth. To feel somewhat at home, somewhat unafraid, that initiatives are possible... Inside this new field of vision, I was struck by near-sightedness. I myself created a chaos that has to be structured even though I was unaware of the rules. Old direction indicators need to be retested, maybe abandoned. A new process? The old ideals of faith are of course disturbing. But still, I have an ideology as my foundation, a view of life, a view of the world order that gives me stability and comfort. If I express myself in a contradictory manner, it is OK. That is, the disturbed order I am currently living in. Nothing to regret, just a bit unused to being so helpless.

Babu wants me to write down my experiences after this first year. He knows my views and arguments and has received my suggestions for the activities. We will have days for future training just as Secondary School has had and we will adopt an English course of education. What I am against is the English love for close evaluations of the students. I believe that more important in this situation, is for a teacher to evaluate him/herself and how he/she manages to fulfil goals and plans.

Somafco is a last resort for the students from South Africa, Soweto and other places. But it is also a school village, a society and an experiment. We are living in the middle of a war. Rumours come and go. A possible attack is being discussed right now as South Africa assumes that several political leaders are hiding here. Most of the children get very scared when they hear such talk. I do too sometimes. A whole squadron of fighter planes passed over just the other day. The children were screaming right out, no one knew whether they were Tanzanian or bombers from South Africa. Urgent meeting 6/2 in Unit 3 Hall! The Directorate decided that every house was to dig shelters. But our house decided not to. We thought it was unrealistic, naive and quite pointless. A shelter like that would mean that we had dug our own grave during a bomb attack. And if there were to be a commando raid, then it was better to lock oneself in the bathroom. The real effect of the decision was that the children became even more nervous. The Dormitory arranged an evacuation practice during night on top of everything else. We teachers and other staff in the Dormitory had an enormous task for the coming weeks to calm the children down. I believe many children were seriously damaged by that experience.

The event also uncovered the lack of psychological expertise. Babu kept a cool head and pointed out that the "Boers" had more efficient weapons - e.g. organising burglary, raising the sense of insecurity, supporting black business, the beer consumption, the dissatisfaction anxiety etc - such undermining of the trust in the organisation, that is apartheid's effective weapon.

Shock message from home. Freda ran into my room in the middle of the night saying she'd been listening to the BBC. Palme had been murdered on a street late last night on his way home from the movies together with Lisbet. I turned on the short wave radio at once. It was completely unthinkable, so horrible, so frightening. BUT IT WAS TRUE.

The Tanzanian government declared 14 days of mourning for the murder of Olof Palme. A memorial service was held at Somafco in the Ruth First Hall and the students wrote poems to be given to Lisbet Palme through the Embassy.

Chris Hane visited Primary at our Assembly: "What ANC needs is Discipline and Hard Work". That was the kind of encouragement he spoke to the children about. I guess he means well. But I can't say I liked him. I don't like soldiers. Particularly not in our school.

I fetched Mia today, my youngest, in Dar. She has received an entry permit to Mazimbu to visit me. When I get my week off, we are going to Zanzibar. We are visiting Bahari Beach before we drive out to Mazimbu tomorrow. Our "water hole" when we have a joint free weekend and none of us is on "Duty". I want to show Mia that it is not only malaria and work for us (I had my sixth malaria attack 14 days ago but am getting better now. It will be good to get away with Mia for a couple of weeks).

Pedagogy day, we'd say in Sweden. We started with toy-toy early in the morning for the National Education Council. It was emphasised that ANC are guests in Tanzania. A lot of our success is dependent on their goodwill. Our school is a training institute. The democratisation of the education needs to be developed in the new education programme. We are to have a look at concrete curricula. Formulate principles and policies for the ANC schools. The goal is to get knowledgeable leaders and workers in responsible jobs. It can be difficult for many adults to make room for younger ones that are now acquiring a broad knowledge base and adequate education.

This school would never have been built had it not been for the international solidarity with material support and knowledge. But the "new human" needs to be created by ANC itself. The work for a new anti-racist democratic school is our most important work here at Mazimbu.

Volunteers have previously not been allowed to participate during the ANC teachers "Political Meetings" but we have been invited this time and I believe we should look upon it as an order! The meeting was very interesting and rewarding. In short: first, an historical background of UDF from 1983 up till today (1987), the formation and the preconditions to reach the goals. Over 600 organisations are involved and form a front. The Freedom Charter is the foundation for UDF. All decisions are consensual. Every group owns the same right to bring their politics and their activities forward, but they have to be based on the democratic founding principles. The tactic changed in 1985. President Botha announced in his propaganda that UDF was an offshoot of ANC, meaning that UDF may also be banned just like the ANC. UDF has taken a stand against armed struggle but has a powerful non-violence strategy that is provocative. This means a lot for the cooperation with COSATU when working inside the country. A broad mass movement cannot be put in jail! Such a broad movement has not emerged in over 30 years inside South Africa, that is since 1950. The key word is Unity. It is important that the UDF is a front, not an alliance. PAC is outside as well as a few other organisations.

"The criterion is not the dream about the struggle, but the activities!" (Chris NkosHani)

"Ideas are mirrors of reality." (Jimmy)

"We are the ones laying the foundation for ANC to get into the country." (Boesak)

An atmosphere of departure. Freda is packing . We had a farewell party for her yesterday. Very good, with songs, dances and stories about her. She is still somewhat weak after her severe malaria attack. I made a tape recording for her. She will get it tomorrow when she comes to school to say goodbye to her class. It is going to be very empty after her. Both here and there. Now I'll have no one to worry about when she doesn't get home in time at night.

We are having the Samora Machel Memorial in Unit 3 Hall (Lilian Ngoye Hall) tonight. Samora was killed in a plane crash in South Africa on October 19. The message wasn't sent to Maputo until nine hours later. By then, the South African secret police had seized all the documents, even private ones. Everything was confiscated, tape-recordings, videos and photos.

My last day of school. We ended at break. Staff gave a farewell talk. Pirkko and I invited them all for coffee, tea and cakes. Went back to the classroom to collect my notes. Then the children all started to cry uncontrollably. It was quite horrible. They bear so much sadness and abandonment inside them - they need an outlet for all their longing and disappointment over adults who just abandon them. I cried too - maybe for the same reason.

Elsa-Maria Bergström