Crime and Punishment
30 September 2004
After the August holiday, Mr. Nuushona, the grade 11 English teacher,
didn't return to school. The principal informed the teaching staff that
Mr. Nuushona had been "beaten by thugs" in Ongwediva and was
currently in the hospital. No one seemed very disturbed by this. A week or
two later, he returned to school wearing a cap and dark classes,
presumably to hide his black eyes and bruises. He told Zac he was beaten
by four small boys. He was with another person at the time, but that
person ran away, leaving him to be beaten. It is still unclear if they
robbed him or were just beating him for the fun of it.
Four grade ten boys (all of whom I taught last year) got kicked out of
the hostel for "attempting to rape a girl" according to the
principal. Apparently, they are friends with the girl and they were in one
of the classrooms with her, when they thought it would be fun to start
grabbing her and kissing her. It got out of control, but the girl
eventually managed to escape and tell the principal. The girl decided not
to press charges, and therefore the only punishment the boys received was
to lose their place in the hostel, meaning that they had to find somewhere
else to live nearby the school.
When he told the teachers this, they were all upset about it and
convinced him to at least bring the boys to the front of the morning
assembly and essentially shame them in front of everyone, to set an
example. To his credit, the principal gave everyone a lecture on sexual
harassment and made a pretty good display of the boys, calling them
Our schoolyard is currently filled with holes and the walk from our
house to the school buildings is now a bit treacherous. Some grade 9 boys
decided to skip afternoon study and stay in their hostel room sleeping
instead. The principal found out and sentenced them all to dig holes. It
was a pretty harsh punishment. They have to take the dirt from the holes
to another part of the campus and deposit it. Then they have to fill the
holes with dirt from a different place. So for about two weeks, the kids
have been pushing wheelbarrows full of dirt past our house like peons.
On September 20th, my grade 12 HIGCSE learners wrote the first of their
three English papers that comprise their final exam. The grade 12 final
exam is extremely important since it is the sole determining factor in
whether or not a kid gets admitted to a tertiary institution. English is
perhaps the most important because if they fail that, they will not be
At the set time of the exam, two boys, David and Diogenus, were
missing. I vaguely remembered them being in my class earlier that morning,
and didn't know why they had since disappeared. Their classmates only said
they were "absent." I was angry. How could they be absent at the
time of the exam? They were throwing away everything. There aren't
Later, I was in the computer lab when Ms. Nuumbala came to return a
tape recorder to me. She was complaining about how her learners weren't
serious about the upcoming Oshindonga exam. I concurred, saying that I
even had two of my learners skip their exam today. She hesitated, then
asked, "Which ones?" I told her it was David and Diogenus from
12A. Then she said, "Yes. Well, they missed their exam because I sent
them home." It took me a while to understand her convoluted story,
but it turns out that those two did not do a certain assignment for her
class, so she sent them home to get their parents, as a punishment. I
thought to myself, didn't I announce at the staff meeting this morning
that my grade 12s would be writing their first English exam today? Well,
maybe she forgot. So I asked, "Didn't they tell you they had an
exam?" She says they didn't say anything. I thought, well, that makes
sense, because she can be really intimidating when she is angry and I am
even afraid of her at times. But I couldn't understand why they didn't at
least come to me first, before they left, so that I could then talk to Ms.
Nuumbala on their behalf. They should have known that I would listen.
We went to the principal and explained what had happened. He was in
favor of just letting them fail, as was Ms. Nuumbala, who took no
responsibility for what happened. I didn't really want this, since it was
at least partially Ms. Nuumbala's fault. So I said, "Yes, but if they
fail, it will make the school look bad. This is our first year having the
HIGCSE English examination, and if two people fail, it will hurt the image
of the school, as well as my reputation as a teacher." Well, this was
something the principal could understand, so he consented to allowing them
to make up the exam.
Later that day, I tell Mr. Iipito, the English department head, about
what had transpired. He seems perturbed, like me, that Ms. Nuumbala is
sending learners home to get their parents just for not turning in
assignments. He says, "That just punishes the parents, not the
learners." We both agree that this practice needs to end, since it
interferes with what the other teachers are doing, for example giving
exams. However, he doesn't seem motivated to do anything to change it.
The next day, two of my other learners and Diogenus show up on my
doorstep in the afternoon. Sakaria says, like the leader of a wild-west
posse, "Miss, we brought you the boy." I had told him to send
Diogenus to me as soon as he returned. I give Diogenus the evil eye for a
minute, just to make him feel nervous. Then I say, "Ok, I will listen
to your story first, then I'm going to yell at you. So explain what
happened." He simply says, "Miss, it was a punishment. Ms. Nuumbala
sent us home to get our parents." This acceptance of the
arbitrary punishment made me angrier. Not only at Diogenus, but also at
the culture. They encourage obedience to authority without any questioning
or thinking. Furthermore, there is a culture here of not respecting
learners' rights. There is no way a learner can talk back to an elder.
"No, Diogenus, that is not an excuse. You knew you had an exam, Ms. Nuumbala
didn't know, or didn't remember. You're supposed to come to me,
then I would talk to her. How can you just go home on the day of your
exam?" Again, with a helpless resignation, he just says, "It was
a punishment." "True," I respond, "but no one can
punish you to fail grade 12. You have to stand up for your rights and take
responsibility for yourself. Do you know that without English you cannot
pass grade 12? Since you didn't write paper three, you're going to get an
incomplete, which means you will fail English. Now, how will that affect
your future?" He quotes, without hesitation, from Things Fall Apart,
"I will be 'ill-fated.'"
Well, applying concepts learned in English class inevitably softens my
anger, so I quit bluffing and got down to business. "Now, Diogenus,
you are lucky, because I am nice. The principal wanted to let you fail,
but I convinced him to let you write a make-up exam." His fear gives
way to relief. "When David gets back, you both come here and you will
write the exam. You are also giving me more work since I have to create a
new question paper." I give him the evil eye a little more, then
release him into the custody of Sakaria and Samuel.
The next day, I learn that David did come back, but apparently just
with his grandmother and not his mother. So, Sakaria informed me, Ms. Nuumbala
sent him home again. I'd had enough of this nonsense. Doesn't she
realize that I'm dealing with exams while she is making a big fuss over
missing assignments? Furthermore, the first time could be a mistake, but
how could she send him home again? And how could he leave, again, without
coming to negotiate with me? At this point, I'm starting to take it
personally. I confront Ms. Nuumbala about it, but she is unapologetic.
"Yeah, I just forgot about the exam. But he was supposed to bring his
mother and he just brought the grandmother." Then she continues
complaining about all of her problems with him. I get angry, I feel like
shouting at her, "Don't you realize I'm working here for free? How
can you continue to disrespect me in this way? Why do you assume you are
more important than me?" But instead, I just give her a subtle
version of the evil eye, mumble, "Mmm," and walk away.
But the icing on the cake is yet to come. The next day, David is
finally allowed to stay at school, so I arrange for him and Diogenus to
come write their exam from 11am-1pm at my house. I tell Ms. Nuumbala this,
since she is also conducting some of the Oshindonga oral exams on the same
day. Around noon, the boys are in the middle of writing the exam, when a
messenger knocks on my door and says Ms. Nuumbala sent him to tell David
and Diogenus they have to do their oral exam now. I nearly flip out, but
luckily remember to "not kill the messenger." I just say,
firmly, "Tell Ms. Nuumbala they can't come now. They are writing
their English exam." I couldn't believe she had the audacity to imply
they should leave off in the middle of their exam to come do their orals
(which are more flexible with regards to time). Furthermore, it is not
possible that she forgot, since she sent the messenger to my house and
there is no other reason they would be there, except to write the exam.
I tell you this whole story not just to complain about my feelings
being hurt, but to highlight a series of problems. It's at times like this
that I realize it's about time for me to go home. I really cannot
continually deal with traditional attitudes of seniority and superiority
based merely on age and status (she is the Head of Department for history,
second in command to the principal) that override common sense. Part of
the frustration is that, as an outsider, I have to tread carefully and I
can't rage against these injustices and absurdities in the same way that I
would normally. I get so frustrated with the lack of respect for learners
and anyone else regarded as inferior, the insistence on obedience without
questioning or understanding, and the consequent insubordination on the
part of the learners toward anyone whom they do not fear (me).
The computer lab is sort of like the Coke bottle in "The Gods Must
be Crazy." With only 11 computers for over 400 learners (who are all
fully addicted now), things can get pretty crazy. The kids want to be in
there all the time and will sneak in even when it's not their turn. For
example, if I'm in there supervising 12B, I spend half my time weeding out
learners who aren't really supposed to be in there that period. Simeon
(grade 10) snuck in two days in a row, tried to hide behind a computer,
crawled under a table, and refused to leave when I told him repeatedly to
"get out." So I gave him a punishment to "clean my
yard" e.g.: remove every living thing from it and return it to the
primordial sand. Normally I just make a lot of threats and that seems to
work reasonably well, but the kids are so obsessed with the computers that
they don't even listen anymore.
Tuna and Peya (grade 10) both lost books of mine last term. The
standard procedure at the school is to withhold their exam until they pay
or miraculously produce the book. I didn't really want money for the
books, since I got them for free. Furthermore, the kids don't have any
money of their own, so it was really just punishing the parents for the
irresponsibility of their children. Anyway, I told them they would have to
come clean my yard this term, as their punishment instead.
So when school started again this term, I told them to come. Peya
claimed he had the book and would return it. This claim went on for
several weeks without any sight of the book. Tuna sustained an alleged leg
injury during soccer and claimed to be unfit for yard cleaning. This claim
also went on for several weeks. Finally, in exasperation, I gave the boys
and ultimatum: come and clean my yard on Saturday or I'm going to the
principal and he will find a better punishment for you.
They didn't show up Saturday.
Monday morning, I went to the principal and told my story. When I told
him it was Peya and Tuna, his response was, "Oh! Those boys…why,
they are semi-criminals. They are always in trouble." I said it
wasn't really that big of a deal, but it was the principle of the matter.
He agreed, and I convinced him to call the boys to his office from the
morning assembly, as it is embarrassing to get in trouble with the
principal in front of everyone.
That afternoon, Peya returned "Lord of the Flies," although
the cover was ripped off. Tuna came to clean my yard.
The Tortoise and the Hare
At the beginning of this term, I knew it would be tough. I had a
significant amount of material left to cover (still making up for the
three months I lost) and yet the learners were tired. I worked them really
hard the previous term, and planned to continue doing so this term. But,
like seniors in the states, I knew they would inevitably come down with
the fabled disease of "senioritis" where they would burn out
right before the end and become indolent. This is somewhat OK in the
states, where seniors get admitted to the University based on their GPA at
that time, so the final GPA is not very important. However, here, they
apply with their August exams, but are only admitted based on their final
(October/November) grade 12 exams.
To try and motivate them to keep working hard right up to the bitter
end, I gave them a moving rendition of "The Tortoise and the
Hare" on their first day back from the August holiday. I went into
great detail about how disappointed the Hare was when he lost the race
just because he fell asleep under a tree at the end. They were very amused
by my impressions of the tortoise and the hare, and applauded my antics.
Then I asked, "Now, how does this apply to you?" They all became
serious as they realized that I wasn't merely entertaining them after all.
Eino said, "Just because we're at the end of grade 12, we can't relax
and do nothing, or we might fail." Yes, good. And the tortoise?
Katrina offers, "If we keep working hard, we can be successful."
So they understood.
But, unfortunately, even the most well-acted, one-woman play about the
tortoise and the hare couldn't completely daunt the perceived
invincibility that the grade 12s had. I caught people skipping class,
allegedly in order to have time to study for their upcoming exams, only to
find them in the computer lab later. A few stopped doing their homework.
Then, one day, half of 12B is missing. I ask, "Where is
everyone?" I'm met with the usually blank stares and apparent
ignorance. They don't like to nark on each other. Miina, however, is
caught off guard and mumbles something like, "I think they're taking
pictures." She probably regrets it when I respond, "Are you
serious? They're taking pictures instead of coming to class? That is
ridiculous." I shake my head in dismay, but warn myself to not get
angry at these people, since they're the ones who are here.
After about ten minutes, the rest of the class saunters in, led by Eino
with a giant camera dangling around his neck. As they enter, each one
mumbles the obligatory, yet unremorseful, "Sorry miss, for coming
late." I demand, "Why are you late?" They don't answer, but
just repeat, "Sorry." "Ok, I know you're sorry, but why are
you late? What is your reason?" They don't reply. Without divulging
my source, I say, "You were taking photos instead of coming to class.
So you all can leave. Go take more pictures since you seem to think that
will help you pass grade 12."
I rarely kick people out of class, especially not grade 12s, especially
not my HIGCSE learners, especially not 12B. The latecomers are all in
shock, wondering if I'm serious. "I said you should leave. Get out.
You are not serious about English. Go take more photos; I'm sure that will
improve your English." I don't really yell when I'm mad, but I speak
loudly and with a certain severity that they are not used to from me.
Slowly and nervously, they go back outside. I realized this did not
actually make sense-to kick people out of class for not coming to class.
But I wanted them to understand it was all or nothing: either they come on
time and take class seriously, or they might as well give up now.