From the Editor

| October 12, 2011 | 0 Comments

I’d like to tell you a little about one of the teachers who helped me reshape my life. She was not South African, yet she lived the philosophy of ubuntu more authentically than many sons and daughters of the African soil.

I taught for almost 15 years in a cosseted, private school environment, and mistakenly thought I knew pretty much everything about my craft. Then fate, as they say, brought me to a small non-profit group in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

The Themba HIV/Aids Organisation trained young people – peer educators – to go out into their communities and schools and using a unique theatre-based model, to talk about sexual health. It was founded by two remarkable women, Kim Hope and Theresa Lynne.

Theresa – a native New Zealander – and what she taught me, is my focus here. She showed me that the greatest teaching happens when a mentor lives a philosophy of conscious care in every aspect of her daily life. It’s never a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” With truly effective teachers, life is the lesson.

Theresa was the first person to show me how to live richly, joyously, without excess material possessions. “Live simply, that others may simply live”, was her Quaker credo. She actively, daily, gave things away that would serve someone else’s needs better, showing our young colleagues from severely disadvantaged backgrounds that we all had something to offer. She chose not to drive a car – a privilege many South Africans take for granted – using instead the unpredictable buses and taxis in both sleet and heat. This showed the Themba trainees her willingness to experience some of their daily hardships.

When you consciously live without much, you re-evaluate the value of all things. Theresa opened my eyes to the fact that to many South Africans, an ordinary plastic packet is a useful possession, not to be needlessly discarded. And, she said, every job is important, chiding me for carelessly throwing a broken glass into the trash without wrapping the deadly shards in newspaper so that those who picked up our rubbish would not cut their hands.

Valuing our bodies is equally critical, said Theresa.

In a country where HIV is rampant, simple, accessible nutrition can mean the difference between wellness and illness, and Theresa modelled affordable, quality choices at the communal table every day. In time, those choices rubbed off on others.

Theresa believed implicitly in empowerment in its best possible sense; incorporating the actual – often shocking – experiences of young black South Africans into Themba’s theatrical work to show them how to initiate positive change.

It was a deliberate decision to draw me – a white South African used to great privilege, and with Afrikaans roots – into the Themba community. As linguist Peter Johnston put it, “Experiences of being in a cultural minority are good for reminding us that different peoples do things in different ways.”

I would add that in this country, until we’re prepared to really understand each other’s realities – without judgement, but rather with applied compassion – cross-cultural suspicion will continue to reign.

My first training session with the company – observed closely by Theresa, was a revelation. In one day, she completely undid entrenched teacher’s habits. One was my tendency to pepper my instructional talk with negatives – “Don’t stretch too high”, or “Don’t talk when I am talking”, for example. When you think actively about what you are going to say next, and purposefully inject positives into the situation, you set the scene for respectful and inspired dialogue and the recovery of agency.

Monitoring growth, (or ‘performance assessment’ in ‘corporate-speak’) happened every day at Themba. Under Theresa’s guidance, and using a simple, direct, verbal system, trainers and trainees alike grew comfortable with the notion of letting a colleague know “one thing they had done well, and one thing they could have done differently in situation X”.

Not too much criticism, not too little praise, and everyone could proceed mindfully. And accepting that everyone slips up every so often made it that much easier to accept that some had a lifethreatening, sexually transmitted illness.

At the time, I wasn’t ready for all of these gifts given to me by this tiny woman with a huge heart. But great teachers walk with you forever, changing your habits as you go. Theresa Lynne enabled me to echo Newton, saying: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

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Category: Spring 2011

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