I want to paint a picture for you I recently had the pleasure and pain of witnessing from the back seat of a car heading to the airport from Stellenbosch to Cape Town to return home to Dublin. I had spent the week facilitating an experimental design and analysis class at the wonderful African Doctoral Academy (ADA), Stellenbosch University. When I am not working on my addiction research I am working on my other passion of teaching. It was a Friday afternoon in July, mid-winter in Cape Town and the sun was struggling to break through the grey cloud. We drove along the highway past miles and miles of informal settlements with their rows upon rows of porta loos. Each one after the other lined up against the grey corrugated iron fences which held back the settlements from the green roadside verge. As we drove I witnessed group after group of happy children, escaped for the afternoon, sheer joy on their faces as they played football, free in that moment from the shackles of school, the confines of the fences, the dark winter and uncertain futures. There were boys of all ages, grouped and running. There were those aged maybe from 13 to 16 years old with assured confident football skills, those aged perhaps 8 to 12 some looking less able than others and finally there were the very young, maybe 4 or 5 or a little older. Boy that were too young to be playing by a road side but equally as joyful. Perhaps even more so as their innocence protected them. What struck me most was the beauty of the sheer joy expressed upon their faces contrasted with the terrible sadness of their surroundings, the known deprivation, substance use, violence and murders.
As we drove closer to the airport I realised I had not seen any little girls. Where were they playing? Did they not get to run and play and be free? Were their mothers keeping them close for fear of their safety? I had seen one little girl previously walking towards the rows of stinking porta loos while men, most likely other children’s fathers, husbands, brothers huddled in conversation groups outside. Who wants their child to have to negotiate these journeys simply to use the toilet? In the week I had been in Stellenbosch there had been three women brutally murdered. There had been arrests of older women for selling ‘dagga’ an old South African name for cannabis. I had seen a reality television programme that interviewed a mother who had been raped three times and had one of her children taken away from her by its father afterwards. South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited, but the word terrible came to mind yet again.
W.B. Yeats line ‘A terrible beauty’ from the poem Easter 1916 was evoked as we drove past. I had not read the poem since school. Rereading it for this blog (see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43289/easter-1916) I am struck by some of the similarities and struggles of a new Ireland after 1916 and a new South Africa after apartheid. The challenges are being addressed in health and in education but change is slow and painful as we in Ireland know. We also know that investment in education and in health work. We have seen this in our economy, in our educated workforce and in our drug strategies. We and the north of Ireland are facing these challenges again with the threat of Brexit. The African Doctoral Academy is doing its part for education in South Africa and I will continue to do my small part when invited. I may not make a difference to the boys playing football or to the girls tied closely to their mother’s apron strings but perhaps someday their lives may be changed, inspired or helped by the education of my former ADA students.
‘All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born. ’ (Easter 1916, W.B. Yeats).