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Culture, Reality

The Bard of Bantu Education

by Morrel Shilenge, illustration by Jason Bronkhorst / 19.10.2010

Challenging the status quo was my thing as a kid. In primary school, other kids grappled with ABC while I drew on everything. Doodles, landscapes, cartoons. Whenever I came across someone who could draw better than me, I watched them closely. Took in their skills. It became an obsession. Eventually I developed from tracing pictures, with my tongue hanging out, as I concentrated, learning accuracy, to the full free flow of my own vision.

But Bantu Education got in the way of independent thought, originality, singular imagination. It wasn’t designed for that. Hidings from makeshift tree branches summed up many teacher’s responses to my waywardness. You were expected to sit still and drink it up. Whatever they put in front of you. They’d pinch me under my armpits for drawing in class. Pinch me hard. Whenever I see injustice it still tingles down there. Like Spiderman sense. I failed Sub B because instead of writing the answers out in boring linear fluency on the test paper, I drew them as I saw them in my mind.

I was discouraged from drawing. They shut that down. Stamped it out of me. So that’s when the writing started. Another lifeline of self-expression simply opened up. I stopped sketching and began writing poetry. It was quickly apparent that this was a surefire way to get girls. It came easy too. I slung words for the sake of my “sexual” intentions. Drawing was done. Who gets girls drawing? Lucien Freud? Have you seen his subjects?

I was trying to be willfully original, determined to do what other kids were not, experimenting all the time. But the system shuts you in. Grinds you down. Even I had painfully conventional dreams deep down of becoming Dr Shilenge. Because of the Bantu Education system, that seemed like the best career possible. Paging Dr Shilenge. Dr Shilenge to reception please. Plus, you know, nurses!

But once I made it into a Model C School all the subjects you study to become a doctor bored me. I was more interested in Shakespeare. The Bard had a way with the ladies and his felicitous turn of phrase was devastating. I was the love letter king. The Bard of Bantu Education. Sure I plagiarized lines from my brother and sister writers, but they would’ve cheered me on in the cause of young love. Besides, doesn’t everyone copy at first? Bill himself owed a lot to Chaucer. If you are not allowed to copy, then school, which is the engine room of learned behavior, of edifying imitation, is madness.

When love letters occasionally failed – hey there are limits when you’re a wordsmith up against soccer players and budding alpha males – I had to relieve the romantic in me myself. Self Abuse was inevitable because of the unfocused energy of runaway adolescence. You’re telling me Shelley didn’t pump the monkey!

Conventional dreams of being a doctor fell away – besides I didn’t like the sight of blood. Who wants to be an engineer? I wanted to be different. A God! Riding the spirit of unlimited creativity. But Bantu Education never taught me much more than how to plant cabbage, tend beetroot and water the school garden. On Fridays girls cleaned classrooms and boys cleaned toilets. I never wanted to be a gardener or a janitor – I wanted to create!

Model C taught me English at least. English spoken like English speakers. Unlike being taught English in Tsonga. Which sucked. At times it was fun. We’d watch bioscope. Ninja’s and Bruce Lee. We followed the pictures, the English went over our heads. I wanted to be a Ninja. Who could speak English.
Now my own little brother is in the same boat. The current education system is a mess. It’s failing dismally. Not exactly encouraging young creatives to have light bulb moments! Overcrowded, understaffed.

My little brother hates math, so they wanted him to see a shrink to find out if he has Attention Deficit Disorder. But he’s just bored. Bored. Bored.

There was once Bantu education, then Model C (Curriculum 2000), then OBE, and now there is a new one with a funny name. New format same deal: failing creative kids. Who knows how many bright sparks with global solutions waiting to bloom in their desperate brains are staring out of the broken windows of our riotous classrooms?

*Illustration © Jason Bronkhorst.

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