Where we grew up and went to school, there were certain teachers
In memory of my dear friend Martha, it was unavoidable that sooner or later I would have to tell the story.
You see, I was born into a tough neighbourhood — Narraville in Walvis Bay — where we were at times exposed to drunkenness and violence in the streets, to men brawling with knives or broken bottles, chasing each other with blunt axes, policemen breaking down doors, and gunshots piercing the silence of the night. These things were not uncommon in my neighbourhood.
I remember as a barefoot toddler playing outside my aunt’s house on a Sunday morning, seeing two men fighting outside the church yard, and one stabbing the other in the neck, causing him to fall down and bleed so profusely that we thought he would die… But it seems men didn’t die so easily in those days, they were made of tougher stuff.
It occurs to me now that in my early years growing up in a poor community on the wrong side of the tracks that separated the whites and blacks, I had never witnessed violence against children though. In fact, it was rare even to see a child get beaten by their parents or by anyone else — that was until I moved to Swakopmund.
When I was around seven years old and in Standard Sub B (Grade 2) I moved to Swakopmund to live with my mother. I had been living with my grandmother until that time, but the years were taking their toll on her and as my mom had a stable job, it was agreed that I should move here and live with her.
Under the old regime all the schools were still segregated then and all children were separated according to whether they qualified as white or non-white, as they referred to the majority of the human race at the time.
Utterly unaware of what was to follow, that I was about to enter the cruel world of adults and encounter the violence of the state, I started to attend a local school, Tamariskia Primary School. It was located behind the town’s sewerage works, thus ensuring that the stench of sewage that clung to the mist hung permanently over the school yard.
At the time I did not realise that colonial town planning constituted a form of violence against people of colour, but as the years progressed I came to view it as a deliberate attempt by the white rulers of the time to further humiliate and degrade the black personality by locating our homes and schools in close proximity to the sewerage works.
Yet the thick stench of raw sewage that hung over the school all day and every day would prove to be the least of our problems.
Although I’m sure there were some teachers that cared for the children, for the most part the ones I best remember were extremely cruel, violent and nonchalant. This experience caused me at a very early age already to question and reject the notion of accepting authority based on violence or the threat thereof.
My first taste of degradation and violence came when I was in Sub B. During the lunch break we often played games to while away the time. Sometimes we played at sword-fighting, or hide and seek, and there was one special favourite, where we would chase and kiss the girls.
In fact, there was a nursery rhyme we had learned about Georgie Porgie, who kissed all the girls and made them cry. So it was that I always tried to catch the girls I admired. I never thought much of it, because as kids we had no evil motives. It was all fun and games. But not everyone thought that way.
So it was that I was walking home one day. I had to go some distance to where we lived behind the furniture factory in town, but I saw a car stop near where the Cottage hospital is today. A dark blue Mercedes Benz I remember it was. The window rolled down and someone called me. I ran back, hopeful that they might give me a lift if they’re heading the same way.
When I got to the car, a woman reached out to me and slapped me in the face. She told me never to kiss her daughter again, and drove off, leaving me there in the dust with tears. It had never occurred to me that our childish games were anything but innocent. Now I felt a deep sense of humiliation. I had never been assaulted by anyone before.
This was my introduction to the world of adults and the dominant method of education, which tied all learning processes to violence against the child. I would later come to know that the woman who slapped me in the street before driving off in her Mercedez was herself a teacher named Mrs Dentlinger. Of course, I never kissed her daughter again. I don’t think anybody dared.
Yet, worse was to come.
When I entered Standard 1 (Grade 3) I was to be taught by a woman named Mrs Linda Beukes, if I’m not mistaken. Though I might forget her name I can never forget the shape of that teacher and her rotund face. She made such an impression on me that to this day the thought of her brings a deep sense of shame to me.
You see, there was a little girl who sat next to me in class, Martha was her name. She was just as small and skinny as I was, but she had an added challenge. The thing is that Martha didn’t have any hands. Her hands had been crushed by the wheels of a donkey car at Khorixas that rode over her hands when she was a toddler.
So, she only had two short stumps where her hands would be. The thing that broke my heart one day didn’t happen to me, but to Martha.
I didn’t know about alcohol or any such things back then; neither did I know that some teachers were coming to school drunk. It had never occurred to me that the teacher we looked up to might be deranged or drunk, but then I saw it for myself.
The big-boned teacher came into class that day with a morose look on her face. A heavy-set woman I remember her wide dresses, but she was highly agitated that day. She called Martha forward. She then started shouting about the child’s handwriting, which she said was terrible, illegible.
Everyone was shocked, because everyone knew and could see that Martha had to hold the pencil with her two stumps, and that she was very diligent, and did her best to learn to read and write. In fact, in our childish way we admired Martha for her determination.
But the teacher took out a long cane from the cupboard. It was no ordinary whip this. The rod had been soaked in saltwater, they said. It made a terrifying sound as it swished through the air and cut into the flesh of the child.
After the first blow ripped her skin, Martha just fell to the ground. She must have fainted.
‘Get up!’ the teacher shouted. The child crawled on the ground, the whip came down on her back. “Get up!” She squirmed and turned on the floor, covering her face with the stumps, as her bloodcurdling cries ripped through the classroom and through us.
For what seemed a very long time, the teacher just kept hitting and hitting. She was in a blind rage, the blows fell everywhere, on the child’s legs, her back, her face. It looked like she might murder the child.
We were terrified, the children screamed in horror. Martha lay helpless, she just kept writhing on the floor and squirming to try and evade the blows, but they kept coming. The teacher wouldn’t stop until she herself was exhausted.
I was almost ten years old then. But that was the day I realised that there is something very wrong in the world. I realized that I would never accept this or be accepted by this system that abused little children; that I would have to resist and stand up against it, against the people who would beat a small child who has no hands, for her poor “handwriting”.
I would soon graduate from that class, but the memory of what happened to my classmate didn’t leave me in peace. It bothered me. I felt guilty. I felt then and as I feel now, that I had betrayed a friend; that I had let a weak person be harmed when I should have done something to help her. It troubled me.
It is true that after that incident I never quite considered that teacher to be a real person with real feelings and real thoughts, but a monster of sorts. I soon noticed though that she was not alone; that there were others like her in the school system, even more fierce and sadistic.
There was one sadist that was particularly feared. They called her Mrs Hoef. On a cold winter’s day the old monster would come outside and whip any of the children within range for standing around in the cold.
She would whip them for sitting too quietly, she would whip them for speaking to one another. She would whip them for running, for sitting or standing. In fact, it seemed she could assault them for any reason. In sunshine and in rain there was always a reason to bring out the whip and to leave scars on the child. This was known back then as “formal education”.
If you mentioned this violence to your parents, you would be told that no teacher would beat a child without good cause. Thus, the children soon realised that they could not confide in adults, that the adults all believed children deserved to be beaten, even for just standing around waiting to go into class.
During lunch-breaks the children compared the wounds on their legs and backs, Hoef’s cane would usually leave a pair of blue and purple ‘lips’ where the rod landed. It was “normal” for all schoolchildren to have such marks and wounds: some were permanently scarred.
As children without legal knowledge, we did not yet know that what we were experiencing was a form of torture that had been outlawed in most countries. We thought it was just school. That was just how the world is, and we would have to cope with it.
But not all teachers were violent monsters. Some openly worried that we would be destroyed by the school system. And one of them convinced my mother to send me away. She said the boy represents the hope of his generation, but left in the apartheid school system, he would surely be destroyed.
Shortly before that I had written a short story about my fictional uncle on his farm that I read out loud in class. I had never been to a farm, but the story was so silly it struck a chord with the learners and the teacher. Some laughed until they fell from their chairs, other came to hug me afterwards.
In fact, when I was writing that story, I laughed so much that I realised I might like to do it for a living. It was shortly after reading my story in class that one of the more sympathetic teachers came to see my mom.
‘You must send him away from here,” the teacher came to tell my mother late one night. “The boy cannot stay here. You must send him away.”
It was the time of apartheid and everything important was said in hushed tones, but from where I lay in the room I could hear what they were talking about.
So it was — despite my childhood fears — that I was sent away to a private boarding school in Windhoek where only the children of the rich went. There I would study world literature, science, philosophy, match my wits and strength against children of all colours and backgrounds.
It was many years later, after I had returned to Swakopmund from university and travels abroad, that I was walking through Mondesa, not far from my old primary school in Tamariskia, when I heard someone call my name and come running towards me. “Wait Jada! Is that you? Jada, wait!”
I turned around and saw it was Martha. She was a young woman now. She was beautiful. She still had the same shy and pretty smile, but I could see some sadness in her eyes and I thought again of that day the teacher beat her up. I saw her lying helpless on the floor with only her thin arms and stumps to defend her from the vicious blows, I remember her cries of despair. She was a child so full of hope.
I had forgotten her, but she remembered me, her childhood friend. Now she had grown up. She still had her lovely smile, but I could see the traces of so many disappointments in her young face. It had been twenty years since we last met. We were glad to see each other, as if in a dream, but the painful memories soon came over me.
I had thought of it as a form of cruel and unusual punishment to be sent away from my home and family only because I was a thoughtful child, but now I started to think of all the privileges I had enjoyed these years; how I had been saved from a life of despair and abuse in the government schools.
Although I was far from home all those years, far from family, I had enough food, I had my books and poetry, music, a few friends and professors to discuss with, while the talented young Martha stayed at home.
I felt a wave of sorrow wash over me as I walked away from her and down that dusty street that she called home. I promised myself that I would come back to see her as soon as I can; that this time I would do something to help Martha; that I wouldn’t forget.
When I returned to Swakopmund from university a few months later, I went as soon as I could to Mondesa and I asked for her in that street where we last met, but the neighbours said Martha had died from tuberculosis a few weeks before I arrived.
So it was that I learned as a child of the need to fight back.
School taught me that the world of adults is a cruel place; that my obedience and quiet acceptance would lead to the suffering of others; that standing up against injustice is good; that rebelling against what is wrong is righteous and virtuous; that kindness and compassion are traits more common among children than adults.
So it was that I came to the conclusion that the defense of children — their happiness and future — is the only good and proper reason to rise up, to raise one’s voice, to sacrifice oneself in the struggle against the system, and to revolt against every injustice and every form of oppression, so as to make the world a place where children can be free and happy, as they should be.