Talk of the townships

Michaela Morgan

Children's author Michaela Morgan has just returned from a whirlwind tour of South Africa. It is, she says, a country of both danger and hope.

The offer had come out of the blue. Would I like to go on a British Council sponsored tour of South Africa? I needed no persuading - and a few weeks later, I stepped off the plane at Johannesburg airport. A car whisked me through the streets of Johannesburg - their names strangely redolent of England: The Cotswolds, Oxford Street, Saint Martin in the Veldt.

I later realised that this first drive was typical of Johannesburg. Doors locked. Anti-hijack alarm on. Chat about the weather. Don't notice the road blocks. Don't hesitate at traffic lights. At intersections, men clutching various household implements - dustbin liners, coathangers - leapt at the car like frenzied Betterware salesmen. At one roundabout a man with a large feather duster waved it at me, the image of a desperate Ken Dodd.

"Has he just got the one feather duster to sell?" I enquired.

"Oh, it's not his feather duster," I was told. "He'll be selling it for someone else. He'll earn a percentage of the profit".

A small percentage of the profit on the sale of one feather duster for standing in the heat all day and leaping into the path of speeding vehicles.

We sped in air-conditioned luxury past verges littered with dozing men and boys, some curled up sound asleep. "Waiting for their delivery of newspapers to start work again." Past huge houses, walled like fortresses, each promising an immediate armed response, each garlanded with razor wire. Down streets devoid of pedestrians to my posh hotel. A man to open my car door. A man to take my bags. A man to open the lift. A man to hand me the key - the key to a room with more locks and bolts and electronic security devices than I've ever seen (and as I work some of my time in English prisons I have seen quite a few). An armed guard nonchalantly strolled the hotel corridors. Everything, including myself, is thoroughly alarmed. Welcome to Johannesburg, currently the most dangerous city on earth.

Day two Sandton, a smart suburb of Jo'burg where affluent white folk looking like extras from Dynasty drift and shop. My role is to stand on a balcony and speak about children's books. I feel like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Mussolini. I am too short to see over the balcony railings. I have a terrible suspicion I am talking to myself. Some schoolchildren from Soweto have been bussed in to sing and dance and act. I am moved to tears by their singing and feel irrelevant and ashamed.

Back at the hotel an episode of Star Trek is on my television. It looks like an everyday story of countryfolk compared with the strange reality that is surrounding me. Sirens wail. Overhead -is that a helicopter? Oh God, what am I doing here?

Day Three Soweto. I am collected by a driver called Joe. He's a driver: his wife is the director of education for the region. South Africa challenges many of your preconceptions.

He tells me of a "car-jacking" in which he was involved. He was made to drive around for three hours with a gun at the back of his neck, then pushed out and told to walk away. He'd thought he was going to be killed. Cheerily, we sweep into Soweto and now the road seems to have run out. The tarmac strip in the middle led first to compacted dust and now it's just loose dust flying all around.

Soweto spreads for miles. It's as big as Birmingham and houses between four and five million people, some in acres of small, cheap, mass-produced bungalows, some in affluent looking houses (I've passed one belonging to Desmond Tutu, then a neat little building that once housed Nelson Mandela and a deluxe place belonging to the infamous Winnie). Others live in shanties - now called "informal settlements" - built out of bits of old iron.

I arrive at the school I'm visiting. Children, scrubbed and spruce in their uniforms (how have they managed that?), beam and sing a welcome.

Children start school when they can and may break off their schooling in times of difficulty. English is not the first language: in some cases it's the third. They are not over-equipped with books, paper, pencils ... and yet the passion to learn, the dedication, the energy, the hope, are all palpable. I'd like to share this with a group of disaffected English pupils for whom education long ceased being an opportunity and became a pain. There is no sign of apathy here.

In the afternoon, I run a workshop with teachers on how to stimulate writing activities. We talk about emphasising rhyme and pattern using song. "We're teaching the parts of the body at the moment," one says. "Any good songs for that?" We end the afternoon doing the hokey cokey.

In the evening I fly to Kimberly, on the edge of the Orange Free State.

Day Four I'm staying in the Kimberly Club, a gentleman's club that once housed Cecil Rhodes. No one refers to the fact that I am no gentleman. Along the wood-panelled walls, stern white male faces glare down at me. In the morning I'm collected by another driver called Joe and taken to the local township.

I read to children and run a workshop with teachers from the area. The aim is to write stories and rhymes that can be used in their classes and reflect the lives of the children who will be reading them. Several good drafts are produced and performed and then I'm off to another town - Bloemfontein.

Day Five In the morning, I give a talk to a lecture theatre full of white teacher-training students, heads cocked, smiles bright and pencils sharpened. In the very front of the auditorium, sitting very close together, are the only two black students - the first of a new breed.

Next, I go to a black college. One of the stories written in this workshop is about a school choir that cannot agree on the song to sing for a competition. Finally they all agree to sing the national anthem, Nkosi Sikel'i Afrika. When they get to this part of their story, the students stand and sing, hands on hearts. I am knocked out every time I hear this singing. The sound swells and resonates. The skin tingles.

Day Six Seven Who knows? The days blur together. If it's Wednesday then this must be Cape Town. Plans change. I turn up to talk to college lecturers but am whisked off to a festival of story-telling. I tell a story and note that all except one of the stories told, from a country rich in stories, are European.

Outside the rather dilapidated centre used for the story-telling, a burnt-out bus has become anad hoc playground. I take out my camera. Children pop up from everywhere. They smile and pose. I am amazed at the lack of bitterness I have encountered. I'm sure it must exist - and justifiably so - but at the moment the country is still high on hope and progress is being made.

But its problems are enormous. My tour is partly organised by the British Council and partly by an educational trust, READ. It trains teachers, provides materials, raises the profile of books. The schools it has been involved in show a marked contrast to the others. But there are so many of the others: schools lacking books, schools without adequately trained teachers, schools where the huge potential of the children remains untapped.

My hosts want me to go to a book launch and cocktail party in the evening. This will take place in one of the marble-floored shopping precincts of Johannesburg. After all my days in the townships I feel less than keen, but I go. And yet again the floor dissolves under my feet. Nothing in South Africa is as you expect it. This was the launch of a book about a priest, member of the ANC and victim of a letter bomb. He stands there peering through his one remaining eye and signing books with an ingenious metal replacement for his missing arms. And he is full of humour and hope. Nowadays he runs a workshop in which victims of violence and torture work through their experiences. The room is full of those who have endured the unendurable. The talk is of exploring the past but also of moving on, breaking out of the cycle of victims and victimisers. Truth and reconciliation seem like an impossible dream - but impossible things happen regularly in South Africa.

Michaela Morgan is the author of many children's books. She also runs writing workshops in schools and in prisons

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