Rubbing the sweat off his large, brown, brow with the back of his hand, Unathi looked up pensively at the corrugated sheet, which formed the roof of the lean-to covering his school. He gazed appraisingly along the length of the covered space, to where a patch of sun was already infiltrating, enriching the brown mud floor to the colour of beaten copper.
“How many today?” he wondered and clutched in vain at the pocket in his shorts. “Not again”! No pen to fill in the attendance sheet, and he had heard that inspectors were in the area. Too late now.
When he heard the distant cries of the children, he felt a surging lift to his spirits. He rubbed his moist hands against his shorts, and smothered all his apprehensions, striding out to greet them.
The sight of two boys far off clambering down from the tree they had been climbing, dusting off their shorts and unbuttoned shirts before starting to run, made him smile with affection. He shaded his eyes to peer further along the scrub-lined track leading to this oasis in the middle of the South African ‘homelands’. He was relieved to see a colourful straggle of children, ambling along towards him; Of all shapes and sizes, some with younger children astride their shoulders. They waved, gathered speed, and arrived in a cloud of dust and a bubble of cheerful noise. He knew how far some had walked, that some had started out soon after dawn.
Once inside the schoolroom, squatting cross-legged on the floor, they were silent, expectant. He greeted them again formally, awaited their practised sing-song response in English. He was swept up then in a warm glow of enthusiasm for what the day might accomplish.
Unathi had only a large slate board as a teaching aid and he had already prepared this with the lesson for the day, laboriously writing on it with a stub of chalk. He had propped it up on a makeshift wooden easel.
Today was Mathematics, which should only be taught in Afrikaans – a language they did not understand, except a few words they had heard shouted as orders. Today he would use their own native tongue. Forbidden under the Bantu system, as were all the other technical subjects he tried to teach them. How else were they to learn?
Unathi sorted the children into groups; the older children to help the younger ones. He handed out pointers made of sticks, and his monitors, the older ones, were soon involved with their charges. The hum of question and answer grew in intensity. It was a sound which he loved.
Perhaps he would be able to extend their childhood, to equip them with more skills for the future when that childhood ended, was cut short so young. Perhaps some of them would be able to avoid what seemed so inevitable; always to be relegated as servant skivvies, with the long days of labour on heavy tasks, the submission to their imposed inferiority, the fear of losing their Pass and of dismissal if they spoke out of place, while they worked inside the gated housing estates of the whites in Durban. Or worse, as they grew, the slavery of the mines.
The rumble of the truck interrupted the morning session when it was well under way. It cut violently through the repetitive chanting of the children, the hum of insects and the persistent, raucous screech of grey parrots. Unathi gasped and felt his legs buckling as he turned round towards the sound. He stood, rigid, trying to restrain his own rush of fear.
Abruptly he brought the children to a quiet, almost reverential hush. “Wait here. Keep still.” he ordered.
With one alarming motion he swept his hand, then more furiously his forearm, across the slate board, obliterating the lesson.
The look on the children’s faces, heads swivelling around to the source of the noise outside, frightened him. A look changing within seconds from curiosity, to puzzlement, to consternation. It forced him to act.
Unathi abandoned the sense of calm he had instinctively tried to instil, a passivity he did not feel. He lunged forward towards the wide opening because there was nowhere to hide and no time. He had to confront them.
He checked his pace, pulled back his shoulders and tried to achieve a saunter. His mouth was dry, he could not think of an appropriate greeting. Did you greet inspectors? Perhaps it was better to say nothing at all. They would give their orders soon enough. Did they have guns, or only clubs?
Three men alighted from the truck, gingerly rubbing backs and legs; it had been a rocky ride, no doubt. They stood in a line as if waiting for him to speak, which he found he could not do. His mouth would not work, his tongue lay as if frozen inside it.
One of the men moved forward and Unathi could not help but take a step back. The man hand out his hand.
“You must be Unathi, I’m Peter.” The tall, blonde man with flecks of grey hair and red cheeks smiled. He walked forward slowly until he reached Unathi and put out his hand again. Unathi’s hand trembled, but he clasped the other man’s hand.
The group immediately relaxed. The blonde man put his hand on Unathi’s shoulder, turned him towards the others, made introductions. They exchanged names, although Unathi could not take them in.
The three men spoke slowly in English. They pointed to the truck, flipped down the tailboard and began to unload crates and boxes.
Not inspectors, thank God not inspectors, was Unathi’s only thought, a comforting repetition. Then ‘Charity workers’. Even more reassuring. It was too early to feel the relief that this knowledge brought, so he feasted his eyes on the cargo. He shouted to the children to come and help. It was for him, the children, the school.
At first timid, the children were soon caught up in the activity and formed a chain of eager hands as the contents of the truck were lifted down and carried into the school. They began to talk, to smile, and finally to laugh, wide-eyed in surprise as the men unloaded more and more goods.
Unathi recognised the initial shock and pity on the faces of the three men as they entered the lean-to. It silenced them. There were no facilities in his school; no water, no sanitation, no electricity, no equipment. No anything.
The white man, called Peter, suddenly encouraged them all to open all the boxes and find what was inside. Amazed, Unathi saw reading books, piles of exercise books, Art materials, sets of tools and equipment for Science work, even to test and experiment and – his heart pounded – instruments for Maths! Everything, that in his dreams he could ever have imagined using, was there.
Unathi tore at the packaging of a long oblong box and sensuously ran his hand through the contents, listening to the tinkling sound it made. A deep pile of long, silver-coloured pencils.
The long tension of the morning drew to a close. The men departed and Unathi wondered where to begin. He picked up a book of stories, and beckoned the children to the shade of the trees.
This story is set in the apartheid period in South Africa, from 1948 until the early 1990s. The system ended after the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, who became President in 1994.