To some, they might seem like they’re a long way from home. But to two South African educators breaking bread with a mixed-race Oak Park family, it was just like home.
John Ruiters and Thoko Batyi, two English teachers from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan College (formerly University of Port Elizabeth), were in town for about a week staying at Columbia College English Professor George Bailey’s house on South Clarence. George, John and Thoko were taking part in a Columbia College program called “Sharing Cultures,” which is a cross-cultural way that teachers here and there enhance student learning.
A lot of the research and reading strategy work is done via the Internet on list serve between teachers and students at both schools. George, who visited John and Thoko in South Africa, explains it this way:
“We believe that student development is integrally tied to faculty development and that this project provides a model for connecting these two areas together. It is our hope to obtain feedback that allows us to better position our project in terms of contribution to the larger field of teaching and learning.”
At a very informal dinner of catered Mexican food at George and Linda Bailey’s where we were joined by their teenage sons, Nate and Jared, Thoko and John said they felt very much at home here in Oak Park because of the similarity to the Port Elizabeth communities that they’re part of.
“There’s a friendliness and warmth here in Oak Park that quite frankly I didn’t expect to find,” John said. “It reminds me of home.” John added that even though his time in Oak Park has been brief, he sensed that “people here are friendly on the street, but appear to rarely invite people of other races to their homes on a regular basis. To me, that’s quite strange.” To me, too.
I greeted both Thoko and John speaking Xhosa explaining that when I lived in Johannesburg and Cape Town folks referred to me as “Mr. Ntschonalanga,” which means “West.” They laughed. I learned some Xhosa and Zulu living and working in southern Africa. We spent a lot of time talking about what’s in a name. They belong to the Xhosa ethnic group. Thoko’s name means “to be happy” she says, adding “my parents were so happy when I was born, they named me that.” She said Mandela’s given Xhosa name is Rohlilahla “but Whites at his elementary school made him change it to Nelson because they could not pronounce Rohlilahla.”
All this name-game prompted me to tease John about his name.
“So what’s your real name, John?”
“John. That’s it!”
“What’s your middle name?”
“Well how come I have an ethnic name and you don’t”?
“You got me, there, Ntschonalanga!”
John, who like me, is considered “Coloured” (mixed-race) in South Africa are considered “Black” here. He asked me if I knew any Coloureds from Port Elizabeth and I said, “Dennis Mumble,” which made him hug me. “His family are my neighbors in our Coloured area.” We also compared notes about Knysna, a Western Cape community where 11 years ago, I was a United Nations election monitor. I wrote a book on the experience, Prism: An African-American Reporter’s Multicultural View of the New South Africa. Thoko and I compared notes about teaching. Both of us teach research techniques to undergraduate writing students. John, too. We both live in the suburbs, but have different experiences there. “My white neighbors ignore me,” Thoko sadly said. “They make me feel unwelcome.” I told her: “My white neighbors make me feel very welcome, though white community leaders ignore me when I bring up issues of white privilege and entitlement.” “That sounds the same to me,” she mused.
Both Thoko and John are proud to be “part of a change”?#34;from apartheid to multiracial democracy. “We were both affected by the Soweto Uprising of 1976 when Black students refused to learn the White language of Afrikaans. We started a rebellion that did not end until 1994 when I finally voted,” Thoko said. “That was the best experience in my life. I played a part in decision-making. Now, I teach students how to research so they, too, can be empowered.”