Mind Your Language
By Rose Ssali
I went to bed euphoric after a 4-hour discussion on Whatsapp with a survivor of the Rwanda genocide. Earlier on I had spoken to my dear friend who rose above the atrocities in the decade-long civil war in Liberia. My focus on peace and security often leads me down Africa’s dark spaces and it is always refreshing to meet people, particularly women who hold a light, be it a hurricane lamp, a candle or flashlight from an antiquated cell phone. Part of my gratitude came from knowing that in this year when we celebrate 25 years since the 4th Women’s Conference in Beijing, the dialogue around women’s rights, development and peace is more than a white paper, we have made some steps, not giant leaps but steps worth being proud of.
I woke up to disturbing news about a teacher at Kyalami’s Pinnacle College. She had allegedly threatened students that she would put her knee to their necks if they did not turn in their assignments on time. She went on to add another layer of fear by stating that she would give her students something to protest about.
Sho! As we exclaim in Msanzi popularly known as the Republic of South Africa. I was aghast. I saw RED and I am as far from the bullrings of Mexico as I can be with an entire ocean between us. I looked for a caption that would say this was fake news, but I knew in my heart it was not.
I took three deep breaths and said to myself, “How would Nelson Mandela respond? What would Maya Angelou, in her soft voice, a tear in her eye, say?” I felt myself slowly and physically calm down at the thought of my hero and heroine wisdom in perpetuating peace in some of history’s most challenging times.
In a continued bid to cool the blood that had heated up in my veins, I washed the breakfast dishes that were already clean and dry on the rack, I shook the rug of imaginary dust that might have accumulated during the 24 hours since the housekeeper did her thorough cleaning just yesterday. Afraid I would be tempted to sweep the driveway to get rid of the energy overdrive I could feel rising like lava in an active volcano, I took my cup of chai out to the patio, and armed with my laptop settled down to contemplate how I could best and effectively address this challenge.
Four years at the hallowed corridors of the University of Nairobi in the years that turned law students into militants starting 1982, (the year of the abortive military coup against Daniel arap Moi’s repressive regime) had taught me some life lessons. I had learnt that there are several paths that one could take in pursuit of human rights. None were wrong, they were simply different.
Perhaps because I had been a student of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo, Grace Ogot, and Alex La Guma, to mention just a few, I knew that I could shout just as loudly as protestors on the street while sitting quietly and contemplatively at my desk, a pen in hand instead of a rock. I, however, respect those who brave heat, cold, and teargas in pursuit of justice.
As you can see from that timeline, I went to high school when Mr. Rayfield would keep us up at night in the physics lab because he was determined that his students would top the nation in the “O” Level exams; when Sr Stephanie said an extra rosary for every exam on the curriculum and I am sure Sr. Mary Owens and another nun we lovingly called ‘Mosqui’ because she resembled a reed swaying by the riverside, must have fasted for the 5 days it took for us to get through our exams; and our dear Mrs Vuzo hugged us just before we went in to take our Swahili exam, with words of encouragement ringing in our ears.
Those were the days when, once we joined the University of Nairobi, our lecturers Emeritus Prof. Gutto, the late Dr. Ooko Ombaka, Dr. Kivutha Kibwana and many others preferred to go into exile or detention rather than pollute our minds or in any compromise their values and principles as teachers of a generation that was poised to be Africa’s leaders.
It was, therefore, inevitable that this morning, I would speak through my pen or keyboard if you will. I am surprisingly calm after my cup of chai and the warmth of a winter sun embracing me as if to say, just as the seasons do, this too shall pass.
Pinnacle College, in Kyalami’s upmarket suburb is, for me, more than an advert on a billboard off of William Nicol Road or Main Road. It is the school where my beautiful niece goes to school and has done so for a while. The threat was close to home. I could not let it go without comment. I have friends whose precious children go to school there. There are parents who pay a king’s ransom to have their children’s minds developed, their spirits nurtured, and their characters formed at Pinnacle College. I knew a teacher’s assistant who had worked there for donkey years and spoke with pride of her students who started out in her baby class and are now college graduates (it was known as Summit College in the old days).
I could keep quiet and say the comment on CNN was adequate, but no! It is my duty, my obligation and responsibility as Auntie Rose to speak up. What if Rosa Parks had stood up and said someone else would sit while she kept the peace? Instead, she sat and by so doing stood for what was right. I choose to stand so that my niece may sit in class with no fear; I speak because no child should be traumatised in what should be the sanctuary of learning.
That a teacher, in Msanzi, no less, where we have not yet recovered from the weight of Apartheid’s knee on our necks, where there are still visible reminders of the insensitivity to human life and the pursuit of justice, I am aghast that a teacher could use words, “I will place my knee on your neck…”
By those words, this teacher replayed in the minds of young children, parents and the public, the horror that has America burning from Minneapolis to Miami, D.C. to Detroit and from Baltimore to Boston. What was she thinking? Is an apology enough? Were they words said in jest, unthinking or are they representative of who she is deep down?
Can we trust her? Can we trust that the school adequately vets the people they expose our children to?
If a teacher waved a gun at the students in class in order to motivate them to turn in their assignments on time would we stand by and laugh it off and accept an apology that, “I don’t know what came over me?”
I am unable to let it go at an apology. To do so would be to make a mockery of what is going on in the US right now; what went on in 1968 and everything I learned from the literary giants I mentioned above.
I am reminded of the British TV comedy, Mind Your Language, that had us in stitches over words said, seemingly innocent words that in their ambiguity meant or were interpreted very differently. There was a big lesson to be learned in that show… Mind Your Language!
I am asking, very nicely but resolutely, that Pinnacle College relieve this teacher of her duties and further, that she be barred from teaching children anywhere in the world, for a period of at least 20 years.
Am I being a tad too hard on her? Not one bit. The trauma from physical hurt can be resolved with a pain killer and a band-aid, but not so, a tortured mind and broken spirit. Perhaps Harper Lee said it best in her world-acclaimed novel, To Kill A Mockingbird,
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corn cribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Likewise, our children bring us joy and hope for a better future; they are the reason we invest heavily in their future rather than the stock exchange. They deserve our protection, determined, resolute and unwavering. They go to school hoping to come out better persons, prepared for a bright future; trusting that the adults and those in authority will do right by them. That is why it’s a cardinal sin to violate our children’s minds with careless or callous words.
I leave you with the words of a love song from yesteryears,
“It’s only words and words are all I have to take your breath away…”
Sadly, for some like this teacher, it’s only words and words are all she had; words that instilled fear and anxiety in the minds of our precious children. I believe she must pay and dearly so, for not minding her words.
Disclaimer:The views and opinions expressed in this Oped are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent official policy or position of Fullview.