Now do you understand?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It was Summer 1972. I was 18 years old and found myself teaching Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath to a class in rural Swaziland (now known as eSwatini). If you don’t know the book – do read it! – it’s the story of a poor White rural family in 1930s Oklahoma forced by the dustbowl and the Depression to migrate west to California seeking work. They face starvation, police violence, wage exploitation and repression when they seek to organise against a system in which the forces of law and order are hand in hand with big corporations. Looked down on as poor ‘Okies’ they suffer dehumanising prejudice and discrimination.
The class was half-in-half Swazis from surrounding villages and Zulus from nearby South Africa whose families had got them into Swaziland to evade the racist apartheid education system. We’d previously had an animated debate when my students refused to believe that it was possible the Joad family could be White. Now we were reading a chapter in which police raid and burn down a squatter camp of migrant workers, beating up all who resist. A hand went up. Do you think this is like South Africa? I threw the question back to the class.
Another hand – as I remember it, the young man’s name was Obed. Can I tell my story? He looked straight at me as he spoke. I felt he was educating me, wanted me to understand. When he was younger, he said, around 8 years old, he’d been living with his family in a house on land in South Africa they’d occupied for generations. However, the land belonged to a White farmer. One morning, as the family were having breakfast, they heard loud noises outside the house. They all ran out to see the farmer and others with a bulldozer. The land the house was on was wanted for crops and the family were being evicted, now. Obed’s father protested and in front of the children, the farmer shot him dead. Then they bulldozed the house. When Obed read this book, he saw his father.
As Obed told his story, my sense of shock was not the response of the class. Instead they were smiling, nodding, agreeing. Yes, this is our life. This is how it is. Now do you understand?
Looking back, I think this was the moment I knew I would end up being a teacher. It was also when I realised the world of the classroom has to connect directly with the real world beyond, the lives lived by the learners. They are not empty vessels to be filled, but people who bring their rich and complex lives to the shared experience of learning. And it can be very raw. It’s also when I was confronted directly with the realities of racism and class and the need to hear and believe the struggles of others.
At other times in my life I’ve been forced up close to others’ realities. After a major accident when I needed various contraptions to get around my flat I understood temporarily what it is like to be disabled. Living for some years in upper Egypt helped me learn to respect and value ways of life within cultures – Islamic and Coptic – I don’t share. Every relationship has required me to put myself in another’s shoes, and I haven’t always done that well. But the story Obed was brave enough to share in that classroom forced me to confront the reality that a choice whether to ally with Obed or, by not doing so, choose to let the farmer win, would have to be a lifetime choice. Nearly half a century of many failures and some successes later, I’m still learning how to do that.

Martin S

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