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We Thought You Were White!

It was Sandra’s suggestion that we donate supplies to a school in South Africa – preferably one that hadn’t benefited from the largesse of some other donor – and Judith and I agreed, gladly.

We bought pens, pencils, notebooks, erasers, sharpeners, pencil cases and T-shirts – enough to be given to the kids who needed them the most.

The principal had sent letters to the parents of 36 students inviting them to the school that Saturday morning “to receive gifts.”

So on our last full day in South Africa, we made our way to Soweto’s St. Peter Claver Primary School with Roger Phambane, who had made the connection.

On our way, Roger, called “Uncle” by the children, picked up between 10 and 15 of them, something we discovered he does every morning and evening. He also picked up one of the teachers, Zuzu.

Jasmine, the CEO

This young lady was one of the students Roger picked up. As she entered his van, she politely introduced herself as Jasmine, the CEO, then began scolding Roger for being late (our fault – we had gotten to a slow start after the previous night’s braai). One by one as the other students were picked up, she handed them sweets that she pulled from her bag.

Students at St. Peter Claver School, Soweto

The teachers had the students, as well as a few parents who accompanied their children, assemble in a classroom. We introduced ourselves, then each student – aged between 6 and 11 – walked to the front of the classroom and did the same. They were also asked to say what they’d like to be when they grew up.

Everyone cheered the future doctors, teachers, football players, musicians and lawyers. But the loudest cheers were heard when the smallest child in the room announced that he was going to be president of South Africa.  We were also touched by another student who said he wanted to be a father.

We took photos of each student with their gifts, then as a group. Following the presentation, we joined them in ring and tag games.

Students and teachers of St. Peter Claver School
Sandra, Pinky, Judith, Zuzu and Marcia

When we spoke to the teachers, one said matter-of-factly that she thought we’d be white. All they knew about us was that we were three women from Canada (not sure how where they got that from). Absent any other details, they assumed we had to be white.

We were surprised by her statement. But we understood: they wouldn’t have known who we were, that each of us give back regularly – whether through volunteering or donating money or supplies – as we were doing.

But it got me thinking about she was actually saying: that black people don’t give back.

Teachers at St. Peter Claver with Roger, far right

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