Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Behaving childishly in South Africa

Like the bear? You want one? Sorry, THEY’RE FOR THE CHILDREN.

The Mother Bear Project—check them out at—provides hand-made bears to children living all over the world, children living with the effects of HIV/AIDS. Each bear is lovingly crafted, either knitted or crocheted, with the hope of comforting a child. The bears are sent at the asking, free of charge, with only a request for pictures of the bears being distributed to the children—the pictures of the children with the bears is the only “payment” the makers require, the only payment required to warm their hearts and keep those knitting needles knitting. Sound too good to be true? IT IS, so check them out and send them some money!

I’m a grown woman living and working in rural South Africa. I come from America, where individualism and self-sufficiency are traits that are admired. Within the American family unit, we help each other, but it is with the expectation that once children are successfully reared, they become self-sufficient adults, freely functioning within society, without aid or support from others. In my culture, we also have the advantages that come with living in the United States, a first-world nation with infrastructure and a democracy. For the most part, most of us in America have adequate shelter, clean water, safe food, safe transportation, and laws in place to keep us safe.

This is me, the grown woman, my background, and where I’m coming from.

The people that I live and work have not come from America. They have suffered for generations under the brutality of apartheid. They are from a culture that values community above individualism and it is the group’s responsibility to make sure all are well—regardless of anyone’s age. In this culture, if I’m in need, it is YOUR responsibility to care for me. The people that I live and work with, for the most part, do not have adequate shelter, do not have clean water, or safe food, or safe transportation, and the laws in place to keep them safe are corrupted and benefit those holding power, rather than those vulnerable and needing protection.

When I first arrived in South Africa, some of my fellow educators, grown women, would tell me and ask me, “I’m an orphan. Will you be my mother?” I didn’t understand the question: Why are these grown women, who are almost my age, asking me to be their mother? I would always feel irritated and think, “You’re a grown up, be your own mother.”

I was once in the post office, and there was a mother and a young child. I had some candy in my pocket and asked the mother if it ok to give her child some candy. The mother agreed and when I turned away from the child, the mother was standing with her hands outstretched, “begging” for her share of the candy. I was irritated at this: She was an adult, she could get her own candy.

When I am in the rare position of offering something, the offer is usually received with a request for something further still. I’ve spoken about this before, as when a guest asks for drinking water, and I offer tepid water, the offer is challenged with a request that the water be chilled. In this way, when I offered a group of boys some tennis balls that someone had sent me from the States, the boys thanked me and asked for tennis rackets. And I felt irritated and often think to myself, “A ‘thank you’ would be nice.”

I have come to understand that the people that I live with see me as a person that “has” and not only “has,” but “can get more.” So, it’s perfectly natural for them to ask me for things and to want more. I need to try to be more compassionate and forgiving and less judgmental, because how they see me, is in fact true: I really do “have” and really can “always get more.” (As evidenced by my camera breaking, and then replacing it with two.) I am ever checking my criticism because the people I live with have come from a place of deprivation and brutality.

I have been teaching in my schools but have recently moved out of teaching and into community project work. One of the projects I have in place with one of my schools is to distribute bears from the Mother Bear Project to one of my schools for World AIDS Day, which is on December 1. (I wish I could say that the idea for this project was mine alone; in fact, I stole the idea from a fellow PCV, Emily C. Thanks Emily!)

When I approached the school about the project, everyone seemed happy at first. Then, culture being what it is and a people living in poverty being what it is, came back with the reply, in the offer of the bears, “Can we have horses or ponies? Or trucks? Or baby dolls? Or ANYTHING but BEARS??” I swallowed my anger as best as I could, realized they didn’t understand the nature of the gift, and replied, “I’m sorry, but we’ve requested bears and bears are what we’ll get.”

A few days later, the first box of bears arrived and I happily opened the box, retrieved one of the wonderful bears, and skipped off to school, feeling certain I would win everyone’s heart.

Well, win everyone’s heart is what I did, but I was so shocked at the response: the TEACHERS wanted the bears: FOR THEMSELVES! Ooo, I want one, they cooed. I was supremely irritated and replied, a bit too sternly: THEY ARE FOR THE CHILDREN! “But I’m a child,” one adult replied.


I have no training in psychology or social work, but I do know that children who come from abusive homes are stunted emotionally in their development and often mature much later than normal. I’ve often wondered if the brutalized peoples of South Africa have shared a similar stunting emotionally. It would make sense.

But the people that I live with aren’t the only ones prone to behaving childishly.

One of my co-workers and I do not get along. We got off on a bad foot initially, and have never recovered. It has been one of my personal goals: to win his favor, because I love the other educators at the school and I love the children. If I left in a huff over him, the children, would ultimately lose. But I have yet to win his favor, and I’m not sure if I will, but I will keep trying.

I was going to list all of the instances of which I feel I’ve been “wronged” by this person, but this in and of itself, would be childish and immature. The short of it is, for all the reasons listed above, I am the adult coming in from an advantaged circumstance and I need to remain forgiving and tolerant and to keep trying. At a recent parents’ meeting, I felt I was publically wronged (by him) and got my huffy self up and stormed out.

I, the grown up American woman, stormed out of the parent’s meeting. How mature was that?

So, we have World AIDS Day quickly approaching, the wonderful bears from the Mother Bears Project are coming in batches, and I will protectively keep the bears and make sure they are given to the children of my school.

How old will these children be? We’ll have to wait and see, but let’s hope that Karen remains an adult through the thick of it.


PS. If there are any readers dying to give money to any cause, the Mother Bear Project is a good one. They ask for no money in return, but to ship one box of 50 bears costs the organization nearly a hundred US dollars. The organization has already shipped my school 4 boxes of bears.

PSS. Yes, I’ve finally gotten a camera again! Hooray!


  1. I heard about that! Very cool.. our kids have gotten knit dolls every year as well as bears from a different source. They are rather spoiled I think ;-).

    As for a thank you? I never get one it seems, even from superiors, though I know it's not a slight, just they are busy or don't think I need it.

  2. Emily inspired me too. My village's mother bears are on their way. If they arrive in time, I will organize a distribution for Dec. 1, World AIDS Day. Thanks for the idea. I have said, and will repeat, a great big THANK YOU to Emily C. B

  3. Great picture of you and the bear. Your writing is wonderful and thank you so much for sharing with us.