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Torn Apart: San Children as Change Agents in a Process of Acculturation; A Report on the Educational Situation of San Children i

A diverse group of researchers, educators and San fieldworkers, among others, helped to compile this report by Willemien Le Roux for the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa. This cooperation has resulted in a dense survey of the histories and present state of education of San groups in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. In seeking to explain the ongoing marginalisation of the San, the authors do not shy away from addressing the reasons for San children's high dropout rate from school. Le Roux concludes that the present system of education -- where it exists at all and is deemed useful by parents -- remains problematic for San children despite their rapid acculturation. Children still face enormous cultural and material problems in adapting to mainstream education: hunger, discrimination and language difficulties are just the tip of the iceberg. Faced with the expectations of both parents and teachers, San children are burdened with demands from both sides that they presently cannot meet.

"Why are we not in control?" asks one San voice. Parents see their children as instrumental in gaining access to the world of employment and political power. San people all over southern Africa believe in a conspiracy among the more assertive ethnic groups who have claimed San land. Those with this power, San people feel, are in league to prevent them from organizing and seeking redress of past injustices. They feel that the only way to access education is to accept handouts from the very system keeping them down. This situation has created a mood of withdrawal among the San, resulting in apathy, an escape into substance abuse, or both. At the same time, San parents believe that once their children are educated to understand "the system" from which they feel excluded, they will be able to promote San interests. In doing research, opposite opinions emerged: non-San people insisted that the "San are not interested in education," whereas San parents clearly valued it. This report concludes that San children need a special system of education in order to succeed: a system in which the richness and uniqueness of San culture and language are valued. Presently, the schoolchild feels worthless from her first day of school, where the teaching begins in a language that is not her own, where English is soon added as a second language, and where none of the San people's skills are ever included. Instead of a one-way indoctrination in Western concepts, the authors recommend an exchange, where traditional knowledge and values would be integrated into the current Western-oriented curriculum. Such a project can only succeed with active involvement and control by the community itself. Even if there is no consensus within the group, San parents should engage in a dialogue with the providers of education: government officials, teachers, NGOs, and donor agencies.

A team researching for Listen to Us: San Children on the Road to Education, a documentary film funded by UNICEF, provided valuable additional information to the report. The appendices also include a paper by Jennifer Hays (SUNY) entitled "Global Problems, Local Solutions: An Overview of Indigenous Peoples in Education Systems Worldwide." Ms. Hays outlines opposite approaches to indigenous education: integration and assimilation versus preservation.

The authors conclude that even while there is no consensus among indigenous communities on the solution to their problem of education, decisions about the approach taken belong within the community. Local complexities must be recognized and a balance must be sought between community involvement and demands by the dominant society. Ideally, the outcome would be a dialogue that respects the legitimacy of all cultures involved. In the case of San children, it can only be hoped that without further delay many of this report's recommendations can be followed up. Donor agencies and NGOs should make use of this excellent handbook; even partial implementation of its suggestions would mean a turnaround for San children and the best guarantee for the survival of the San peoples of southern Africa.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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