Fangirl in a Foreign Land

Cape Town as viewed from Table Mountain

The Fangirl Initiative

by Cindy Cooper

If you ever have the opportunity to go to South Africa, go. Just pack your clothes, get your shots and go. You will be glad you did. I was presented with such an opportunity this summer, when I was asked to be part of Pratt Institute’s Summer in South Africa program, and against all sanity, I went. I’ve been trying to write this article since I got back. The experience was so overwhelming that it has been difficult to distill it into one blog article. Those of you who read my travel blog, Fangirl in a Foreign Land will understand. There were days that were so full that I couldn’t believe they were just twenty four hours. But, I’ll start at the beginning and do my best.

Sunset in Port Elizabeth and no Photoshop was necessary.

The plan was one week of travel along South Africa’s Garden Route to Cape Town from Port Elizabeth and back. The last four weeks we spent teaching art to kids, in Port Elizabeth. My own personal plan was to teach these kids some art basics and then dovetail into the fine art of visual storytelling aka comic books.

Now, part of me sort of doubted I’d get away with my geek laden lesson plans. Surely, I’d get an email from my teacher, Sandy, telling me how ridiculous the whole things was. After all, I’ve never taught before. What did I know? However, miraculously, I was paired with Alyssa, a fellow Fangirl as teaching partner and roommate. Alyssa just happens to be writing a graphic novel as well. Coincidentally, she also had comic books in her lesson plans. This isn’t something we knew when we chose each other as partners. We were green lit for what I like to call The Fangirl Initiative.

There were times during that first week of travel that I’d find myself in complete awe of the stunning beauty of South Africa. Sandy would comment, “Yes it is beautiful, but you’ll come back for the kids.” We hadn’t met the kids, yet. So we all just sort of snorted, “Yeah, right.” Was she seeing what we were seeing? Then the first week of teaching began and we met the kids.

Siphokazi and Alyssa talk art.

What can I tell you about these kids? I could tell you about their trembling hands the first day of class and how focused and earnest they were. According to their principal, failure is not accepted in their culture. They would rather not try at all than fail, but they also have a great respect for teachers. So they will do whatever a teacher asks. Speaking to them you realize their education is everything to them. For them it’s not about having a job where they can make a lot of money. It’s about creating a better future for their country. It’s about making the townships a better place to live. They made it easy to teach them.

I could tell you that most of them live in townships where some are some so desperate that they have to steal copper wire to put electricity in their shacks. And, yet they come to school sharp in burgundy uniforms, full of hope and ready to learn. This isn’t a country of victims, as our media and movies would have us believe. This is a country of people dedicated to the future of their country. These are all things you should understand about the kids I was teaching. This way maybe you can understand how I could be so moved and become so attached in such a short period of time. As a mother of a 12 year old boy, raised in the land of Xbox 360 and American Girl I was blown away by the self –awareness and poise of kids who had nothing by American standards. My eyes were opened.

By the end, we’d finally learned names that were difficult for our American tongues. For their part, they were doing some pretty amazing art work. Their comic books were imaginative, funny and sometimes touching. There was a group of three boys we called The Architects due to their love of doing precise artwork with their rulers. They surprised Alyssa and me by turning in comic books about first dates and relationships with girls. The Head Boy, Lungako, created a comic book that told us of his struggle to come to school from the Homelands and how he’d had to live alone and struggle to excel in his studies. One girl, Siphokazi, told a story of a girl who had to battle monsters in her nightmares. End of the day, these kids proved to have a knack for visual storytelling.

Awesome cover art!

We learned from one student, Gcobani, that the comics they usually have available are about sports and relationships. “But, we don’t have cool action comics like these,” he sighed in awe as he flipped through my Ultimates trade. They also enjoyed the Nelson Mandela biographic comic I brought in for them. “This is about Madiba!” One boy exclaimed reverently. They call Nelson Mandela by his clan name, Madiba. They speak of him as if he’s a beloved uncle. I’ve decided to gather all the gently used back issues I can and send them to the kids. Also, I’m going to arrange for Umlando Wezithombe, the South African comic book company that released the Nelson Mandela comic to send the school a copy of his graphic biography for their library.

The last day of class, the kids finished up their comic books and then there was an art show. As they finished up their books and we started them on quick wire sculptures, it occurred to me that we’d have to say good bye that day. Suddenly, we were exchanging tearful hugs and addresses. “In case I never see you again, I want you to know that you’ve had a big impact on my life,” said Siphokazi with tears spilling from her eyes. It hit me in the gut. Just a few minutes before this another boy, Leon, had called me to his desk to give me his initiation stick. I’d find out later that this is a huge honor. The whole evening would be full of moments like this for all of us. We spent the last three days of our trip saying good bye to new friends and were on the edge of tears the whole time.

Me, Alyssa and the kids

Everyday had a purpose there, a purpose outside my own survival. The feeling proved to be addictive. I need more of it. That’s why I’ll be going back. That’s why there will be another round of The Fangirl Initiative. This time the program will be an intensive visual storytelling program, which will be more focused on producing an actual comic book from beginning to end. The idea being that kids everywhere have powerful stories to tell, if given the tools and it’s important for them to be heard. Umlando Wezithombe said they would love to be involved and I already have people volunteering to teach. It just comes down to getting some grants and other financial backing. I’d like to be able to have the program in the US as well.

So who knows, maybe The Fangirl Initiative could be coming to a school near you.


Brandon said...

Great article, Cindy. I have always wanted to do this, but I've lacked the guts and time to do so. Maybe some summer when I'm off I'll do this. People who do this kind of stuff rock.

Cindy Cooper said...

Thanks, Brandon. I definitely reccomend the experience. It's addictive. Most everyone who went is trying to figure out how to go back or do something similar in other areas.

I hear National Geographic has a program for teachers. I spoke to a teacher who taught in the Galapagos this summer, with them. She loved it.

Jolene Harris said...

Hey, another project you could consider doing, based in Cape Town is African Impact's community based project: http://www.africanimpact.com/volunteers/community-work-south-africa/

Cindy Cooper said...

Thanks, Jolene! This looks interesting.