Teaching in South Africa

Andrea Strimling

Commissioner, International ADR, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service; also a founder of ACRON (the Applied Conflict Resolution Organizations Network)

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003


This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

The really glowingly positive story is from South Africa and that is the picture of the students that I taught in South Africa. I was there on a three and half month Full-Bright senior fellowship and it was a joint teaching research position at a University called ???, which is an old world, formerly Afrikaner University that has since diversified. However the administration and the senior faculty are still very much from that old world. Yet they have a very racially diverse student body. I was teaching this class of absolutely wonderful, wonderful students and this is just such a long story so I really have to think about what aspects of it to really emphasize for you.

These students had never had structured opportunities; in fact they never had opportunities to really talk across the black white divide about apartheid and their experiences. Now they were about eighteen or nineteen when I was teaching them, so they had been young adolescents when apartheid ended. They had therefore lived through apartheid and lived into the new democracy. And they were so good hearted and they really were eager to learn about international conflict resolution and peace building. I told them that we couldn't engage in this learning process without looking at their experiences and they were incredibly frightened because they had really never talked about racism or apartheid with members outside their racial groups. So, it was a very slow process of trying to create situations in which they could feel comfortable to have these discussions.

Over the course of the semester they managed to, very, very cautiously and I had to be very, very careful, but they built this incredible group, sort of a spirit. They really came together as a group and for the last class I decided that I wanted to give them an opportunity to express artistically what they had learned and what it meant for them and also to really kind of affirm this. To celebrate as a group what they had done together. The assignment was to find some creative means whether it was writing a story, or writing a poem, or a song, or painting a picture, or creating a collage. Something artistic to express what they had learned during the course about the material or about themselves or about their classmates and how they would use it or incorporate it into their life in the future. Then my husband and I invited them to come to our tiny campus apartment for a big feast. He cooked a traditional Himalayan feast for them and we had a class and then we had this feast. And so, for the class they were to bring their creative projects, and come prepared to share them. So everybody arrived and we sat in this tiny living room, with everybody just sort of scrunched together in a circle.

I had invited one other person, this was a young man, who was about, I don't, nineteen or twenty, who had been taken in by this program to identify promising artists in the community and get them off the street and give them a means of using their art to create a living for them and their families. He was this remarkable musician, he is this remarkable musician and had started studying, I don't know if he calls it, I guess he called it music therapy, using music and especially percussion, but all music to, for healing purposes and he was studying this. So I had met him in the course of my research, and I invited him to come and to lead us in this process.

What he did was he brought all of these instruments and he handed them out to the group and he opened by, and he had never had an opportunity like this, to lead anything I mean it was you know, it was quite, it was placing a lot of trust in him. It was very important for him to, but I just had this feeling that he would connect so strongly with the students and what they had done. So he brought all these instruments and I opened by framing it a little bit and introducing him, but then I handed this process over to him and he opened with a piece he had written about healing on the finger harp to set the stage. Then he took out a drum and he created a drumbeat and he asked people to sort of, to use their instruments with ??? to support what he was doing. Then he asked, he kept playing this drum and asked each person to either read their poem or introduce what they had done and he was going to back them up very quietly in the background with rhythm.

So people just, I don't think we went in order, just as people were ready to share they did, and all the, meanwhile, in the background he's playing the drum to the rhythm of their voice and the story that their sharing or whatever their sharing. It meant that sort of each of these individual works of art became a collective work of art because he was creating a theme that brought it all together. And I will never forget. You could even see it in this photo, the students' eyes and faces were so lit up with joy as they shared what they had done. It was nothing to do with the material that I was teaching; it was what they had done. One of my students who could barely write, he couldn't write a grammatically correct sentence, he was difficult to understand in class, I considered him just incredibly inarticulate and it wasn't that English was he's second language, it was just how he used language. He read the most beautiful poem and spoke afterwards about it with such eloquence. I mean I have never heard anything like it. So these students, it was like they just came to life and they were at their best. You know their most intelligent, their most articulate, their most creative, their most caring and their most loving. That is an experience that I will hold with me for the rest of my life. I will just never forget that evening with them, it was just beautiful. That's the purely, purely inspiring story.