“The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to the people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe”- Ngugi wa Thiongo
This term, our Grade 8s and 9s at Masakhane have been working on a play script about their community. What started as a debate about the intersection of language-use and daily life in the world at large turned into a much broader conversation about human rights. This play-writing process has formed part of Masakhane’s efforts to create a safe space where students can experiment with language and gain agency and confidence in doing so.
The starting theme of the piece was navigating bilingualism. Our learners don’t choose to learn a new language; the choice has been made for them. English remains a necessity for social advancement and yet our education system has not been able to adapt the way it teaches English to rural, non-native speakers of English. As a class of all isiXhosa home language students, who are in a school environment that aims and fails to be an English medium, I found it worthy that my students have a say, in a safe space, even if it's just us talking amongst ourselves saying, “Hey, this is how things are, this is how it feels, can it change?”
The play script circles around two important community gatherings/meetings. One to be held at the village school, and one at the community center. There are things to be discussed and fixed and changed.
Madoda: Heh mhhh kha utsho, where are you rushing off to?
Nothulisiwe: Heh kanti awazi? Today is the big meeting at the school, the minister of education and the Mayor will both be in attendance.
Madoda: Uhm No. hayi cha. No no, I think you might be mistaken. The Mayor is coming to attend the community meeting, and that meeting is next week.
Nothulisiwe: Hehake uza kundixaka ngephike. BOTH meetings are happening today, at the same time. Sidlala ukheth’omthandayo ndiyakuxelela.
The glue that binds the play together is this idea that there are issues that are meant for only the meeting at the school and issues that are for the entire community, with the dramatic irony being the fact that the schools are very much a part of the community.
Bigger issues come up while the characters deliberate on whether to attend the school or the community meeting, which for some bizarre reason have been scheduled to occur at the same time, causing quite the conundrum for the villagers. Oh my! Which meeting to attend? The one where they will discuss the future of my child’s schooling? Or the one where we will all sit down to find a solution to the fact I have not secured a job in the past seven years?
The play is bilingual. On some days I encouraged the students to write in their language of living, isiXhosa. And on some days we wrote in English only. It was beautiful going through the process of translating, and playing around with the English language together and doing it with stories that came from the students, stories that they already understood completely.
Miss Faleni: Yes, Iminathi
Iminathi: Sorry mem, I don't understand what you are saying, could you perhaps please explain it to me in isiXhosa?
Miss Faleni: Iminathi how many times have I told you? No isiXhosa in the English classroom. How will you learn??
In creating the script, we spoke about the difficult aspects of learning a new language, and how the education system is also playing a counteractive role in the learning of that very language. We also spoke about the very obvious opportunities that can come with just being fluent in English.
Mrs Manyindana: Mamela ke ndikutyele, kaloku there are some parents who want their children to be taught in English only at school except when they are being taught isiXhosa. And some of the parents propose a mixture of the two languages, English and isiXhosa. But there are those parents who want to take it all the way to government, who say the very Biology textbooks that their children read must be in isiXhosa. So sisi, I guess that’s the great debate about language.
The beauty of theatre is how it allows you to bring in voices other than your own. All of a sudden it stopped being only about what we as a class thought, it was also about conversations we had overheard around the community. Students wrote about communal issues like education, drugs, crime, poor service delivery, bullying, responsibilities at home, and school pressure.
Mr Nkumbi: Hayi mani wena! That’s rubbish. They should have stayed in school, afterall, education is free in South Africa!
Awonke: Free? Free? Which South Africa, and which education do you speak of?
Mr Nkumbi: What do you mean boy? You are studying at a No-fee-school; it doesn’t get any better than that.
Awonke: No fee school?! What is the condition of that No Fee school? Not to mention this year we had to pay R300 for textbooks at your No Fee school.
So we spoke and wrote and sorted, and I edited, and edited, until we had the current script, which might be just the first draft. There’s so much more we could do! We are performing the play on the 5th of July in the Zithulele Community Centre. Come and support our young artists as they put themselves and their ideas out into the world.