Kalahari Lessons (2)

It’s unpleasant to be stretched out and pinned down on a pitch. Not by people, but metal hoops. A gang of boys had caught me. The friend I was with managed to get away. Now they were hurling heavy objects 30ft in the air above my head. Laughing as they crashed down around me. One, the size of a fist, punched into the ground by my right ear. I had watched its arc and descent. Unpleasant.

I was lucky. This only happened to me once when I was about 15. For many kids, physical and/or verbal abuse happens every day. And they wither under it.

I have seen boys and young girls crumple up through bullying. Their learning also goes out the window. Fear paralyses the mind, and with it the outgoing self-assurance necessary for relationships.

One of the many cases of bullying I have seen still haunts me. It happened early on in my career, while teaching in a junior secondary school in the middle (quite literally) of the Kalahari Desert.

It was a good school by any standard, drawing students from a 300-mile radius. It was founded and supported by the local community, and funded by the World Bank. The board of governance, the principal and international staff were excellent. But all of us missed what was happening to Tseko.

Tseko was one of the few ‘bushmen’ (properly called ‘San’ or ‘Basarwa’ people) attending the school. He was of the first-generation of a people group to move beyond primary education. Like all Basarwa he differed physically from the locals. Lighter, and more Asian looking. But African, through and through for millennia.

He was also unusual because he was tall. Most of the Basarwa I knew were shorter.

Not only was Tseko tall, taller than most of his peers, he was charming. Not in a bad sense, but in a way that was absolutely delightful. Tseko would always bring a smile to your face. And he was a standout student academically who applied himself maturely. But what I didn’t know, what we all didn’t know, was he was being bullied. One of the darker things we missed.

It all ended with a goat. It went missing and Tseko, like the ridiculous villain in a pantomime, was blamed for its disappearance.

We later discovered when anything disappeared in the village, it was always a bushman’s ‘fault’.

Of course, it wasn’t; and it wasn’t Tseko’s fault. More likely, there had never been a goat—at least not like the one that went ‘missing’.

But it was enough, after a long string of unnoticed and unreported abuse, for this good man to pack it in. Without even a handful of belongings he wandered back into the desert. We never heard of him again.

I missed him deeply. And ironically, so did many of his friends.

Bullying in the classroom, the digital sphere, and the workplace remains a problem. But it is slowly being addressed.

Over the last week local and global initiatives have highlighted ways of tackling bullying on a policy and grassroots level.

How is bullying defined? Generally speaking, there are three things that make bullying what it is. Firstly, it is either verbal and/or physical. Secondly, it is marked with the intention to harm. Thirdly, and distinctively, it is repeated. Common sense (and experts) tells us that a fight in the backyard or a one-off verbal insult doesn’t amount to bullying.

Motives? Usually to dominate, impress or intimidate. Either way bullying is a manifestation of the incorrect use of power.

It’s effects? Long-term, devastating and surprisingly, intergenerational.

When does it happen? Any time, but research indicates high prevalence during middle primary school years, and then again in early high school years. Among young children it’s often verbal and physical; with older children it can have the additional attributes of manipulation and exclusion.

Prevention and cure? It’s often hard to spot, and people who are bullied usually are too ashamed or fearful to talk about it. But evidence suggests prevention begins by creating a positive culture in the communities we interact with. The home, sports clubs, schools and the like.

In a school situation, a relationship-based solution seems to be most effective in stopping bullying. Parents who not only know each other and each other’s children, but who also know teachers and school workers, can act together to emphasise specific acceptable values and behaviour. They can shape an environment that breathes the expectation of right relations and behaviour.

This weight of social expectation appears to persuade bullies to mend their ways. Isolating and punishing them, while effective in the short term, doesn’t deal with the problem. A lasting, better end to it is reconciliation and then restoration, however pie in the sky it sounds. Better still is developing the type of social environment that rejects harmful and anti-social behaviour before it ever becomes a problem.

The need for monitoring, identifying bullying and addressing it will not go away. The reasons bullies bully are complex. But parents and schools that nurture great values in individuals, and that affirm life-enriching behaviour, will see less of it, and if they are fortunate avoid it completely. I wish this had been true for Tseko.

Take away points: Bullying happens and it is nasty, having lasting effects. Bullying is intentional, verbal and/or physical and repeated. Monitoring for, identifying and addressing bullying is the duty of every parent and teacher. It is best tackled by whole community action.

Research: Current local initiatives with good explanatory links http://www.education.vic.gov.au/about/news/archive/Pages/ndaabv15.aspx An Australian resource http://www.bullyingnoway.gov.au An analysis of the benefits of kindness http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-kindness-essential-reduce-bullying-lisa-currie?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=blog-teaching-kindness-essential-reduce-bullying-title-image2 Preventing bullying in a digital age http://www.edutopia.org/blog/digital-age-bullying-and-prevention-amy-williams?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=blog-digital-age-bullying-prevention-image

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