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Zola and Njavwa

IT has been nearly three years since I left the sparse hills of Swaziland and my one-year teaching position at the Waterford-Kamhlaba School. Swaziland is a tiny, landlocked country almost entirely surrounded by racially volatile South Africa. Despite the long shadow of apartheid cast by its draconian neighbor, it is a country where blacks and whites live together harmoniously.

Waterford School was established over 20 years ago by a handful of South African whites not allowed to build a multiracial school in their own country. The school is now recognized as one of the finest in Africa.

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I taught French and history to 7th, 9th, and 11th grades. Among the 9th-graders were two wonderful students: Zola, a 15-year-old South African boy, and Njavwa, a 14-year-old Zambian girl.

Zola sat directly behind Njavwa and used to whisper to her during French class. I never knew what he said, but he often made her laugh out loud. During study period I often let them turn their desks toward each other. They would talk quietly and draw on each other's notebooks.

Zola, I was told, had been a poor student during his first two years at Waterford, but I saw him make real progress. He seemed to be somewhere between boyhood and adulthood, and while he still retained an adolescent playfulness, he clearly yearned for his own identity. He had become something of a leader in the class, active in class discussions. Njavwa adored him.

Zola once wrote an essay for me about race relations at Waterford and in his home of South Africa:

``I am South African. My father is South African and my mother is Xhosa. My dad is now in Tanzania working at Solomon Mahlnanga Freedom College [named after a freedom fighter who was hanged in South Africa].

``Waterford-Kamhlaba is really a successful multiracial school. Out of all the schools I have ever encountered, this one is the most fantastic. Blacks and whites are just one race. When I go to South Africa I take pictures of my class, my friends, our school, and people don't believe that I have white friends, that I have had a white girlfriend. They think that I am lying. At Waterford-Kamhlaba there aren't black groups that hang around together, or Indian, or white; everyone is mixed.

``[South Africa today is terrible] for black and white people. When I go there and meet some of my white friends from school, people look at us as though we were some kind of rubbish. Some say bad things and even spit at you for hanging around a white person. Do you blame them? They have been oppressed for generations. Some blacks, even my friends at home, think whites are superior.

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``Probably the worst thing in South Africa is the housing; four rooms for eight people to live in. In the evening a thick layer of smoke lies above the townships -- the smoke is from the stoves. At night you see people sleeping everywhere: garages, fields, shops, even sleeping in the streets, no shelter. By the year 2000 South Africa will be free. Whether it will be a bloody revolution or not, I don't know, but it will be free. And then maybe like you and many people, I will be excited when I go back home. But right now there is not a chance.''

Recently I received a letter from Njavwa. She wrote me that she was well, working hard, but a little sad. Zola had gone.

She had returned to school from the holidays and learned that he had fled to Tanzania to join his family and that they were now in England. She explained that a lot of ANC people, members of South Africa's revolutionary African National Congress, had been killed and that now it was even dangerous to be in Swaziland. She wondered if she'd ever see him again.

Zola will undoubtedly become a member of the black resistance movement and someday return to Africa to fight for the liberation of his country.

The great tragedy of South Africa is not only that it robs its children of friendships, but also of their innocence.

David McKean, a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, taught at the Waterford-Kamhlaba School in Mbabane, Swaziland, in 1981 and '82.

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