Long-distance learning

Every Sunday afternoon Siyabonga Nkabinde walks 2km from his home in Drummond, an informal settlement near Lanseria, for his half-hour weekly video-conferencing session with Chuck Weintraub, a white middle-aged computer analyst from Pittsburgh in the United States.

Nkabinde (17) is one of a growing number of teenagers who clocks in every week for his “vc”, or talk session with an adult “mentor” or “net buddy” overseas. These unique transatlantic relationships are the fruits of Infinite Family, an initiative that seeks to develop the interpersonal, academic, computer and life skills of South African teenagers who lack parental guidance in their lives.

“When they first told me I would be doing this with someone abroad, I thought, ‘How is this possible? A relationship?’,” says an animated Nkabinde, who has been speaking to his mentor Weintraub (55) every week now for the past six months.

He clocks in for his regular chat from a computer room at the Lanseria premises of Refilwe, one of three HIV/Aids-related NGOs that partner with Infinite Family in this initiative. The others are Nkosi’s Haven in Johannesburg and Noah (Nurturing Orphans of Aids for Humanity).

“Now when I talk to him [Weintraub] it’s like I’m talking to someone I know,” the 17-year-old pupil at St Ansgars school in Lanseria, Johannesburg, says excitedly.

“He teaches me so many things I didn’t know. We talk about school, where I live, how life is going. To me he’s become more than a friend.”

Nkabinde’s nickname is “Wisdom” and he is a poet of note. He confidently expresses views on politics, United States President Barack Obama and the state of the world’s economies. He is planning to take a four-year engineering course after matric.

“[Weintraub] is giving me guidelines,” says Nkabinde. “If you want to follow this career you have to do this and this,” he tells me. “When I pronounce something wrong he’ll say, ‘For you to know English you need to read books and magazines to improve your grammar’.”

Infinite Family is the brainchild of Amy Stokes, who together with fellow American Dana Gold, developed the innovative programme that makes these cross-cultural, transatlantic relationships between adults and teenagers happen. Stokes became interested in Southern Africa at university. When she adopted a South African child years later she came face-to-face with the Aids-orphan crisis and started looking for ways to help many other South African children whose lives have been scarred in one way or another by HIV/Aids.

“The realisation that all these children would grow up without a caring adult in their lives to navigate them through every difficult step to adulthood,” is what prompted Stokes into action in 2005. She teemed up with Gold, a single mother in Pittsburgh who has also adopted a South African child. By combining their skills, they secured funding, partly through the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and adapted a video-conferencing platform to enable mentors and mentees—or net buddies—to talk to and see each other, as well as chat via texting, send pictures and scan homework and drawings. They also created a training programme for would-be mentors.

The mentors, who are first assessed to see if they are suitable, must offer at least one year’s commitment to their mentee. Some of the net relationships have been going for nearly three years and there are now more than 100 children with “net buddies”. Most mentors are in the United States, but there are others in the United Kingdom, Puerto Rico, and now South Africa.

Corporate partners in South Africa include Bombardier and Internet Solutions, which are now bringing their own employees into the mentoring programme. Internet Solutions provides satellites and brings high-speed connection to the various sites at no charge.

Infinite Family takes its lead from its NGO partners, which find suitable children and provide the space for the video conferencing to take place. Net fundis are older, more experienced people who are trained to help with the video conferencing sessions and give technical support. Annual gifts for the children, assistance with school funds and any other help is given to the NGOs via Infinite Family as a whole and not between mentor and mentee.

Nkabinde, who lives with his mother and two brothers, says at first he was deeply sceptical about having a net buddy.

“I asked myself, what are the benefits? But my mother said, ‘You’re always so negative. Just think of the positive and go for it’”. Nkabinde is now a zealous convert and wants to stay with Infinite Family “until he leaves this Earth”.

Clearly Weintraub has come to occupy a pivotal place in his life. “My father is still alive but I don’t know when I will meet him. If he passed away, I wouldn’t know.”

Weintraub describes Nkabinde as “a brilliant young man”, who writes (excellent) poetry faster than he speaks and who is in many ways “years above his age in his writings about love, pain, death, life while being eternally optimistic”. He says Nkabinde never speaks about his difficulties but focuses on education and his hopes for the future.

“I can only assume that his devotion to being on the other end of the camera every week on Sundays means he’s getting something good out of it.” Weintraub says the teenager is helping him to become wise and he hopes their relationship endures for the rest of their lives.

Tragic reality
Another teenager whose “net buddy relationship” has brought light to her life is Liba Moyo, a soft-spoken, shy 15-year-old. Moyo left Zimbabwe five years ago to stay with an aunt who she claims “abused her” by forcing her to stay home and care for her children instead of going to school.

Executive director of Nkosi’s Haven Gail Johnson says many of the home’s children have had traumatic experiences. Some have been infected with HIV through rape, for example. “A US-based net buddy may never have been exposed to what is tragically a reality in South Africa.”

One child, recalls Johnson, told her net buddy how she was infected with the virus only once trust had grown between them. The net buddies’ training prepares them for moments like these.

Another challenge is the difference in manner between typically “outspoken” Western children and African children, who tend to be more shy, says Johnson.

Although still very withdrawn, Moyo is slowly becoming more talkative. Her “net buddy” is Cheryl Pollard, a 45-year-old African-American New Yorker who she has been talking to for two years now “about her secrets and her life”.

Moyo’s voice lifts when she speaks about Pollard: “If I have a problem I can talk to her. She helps me with my homework.”

Last year Pollard came on an Infinite Family visit to see her. She describes her joy at seeing Moyo begin to open up to her. “It’s been so wonderful to see this young girl come out of her shell.”

Pollard says Moyo is still very guarded, however, and their Saturday morning chats are interspersed with silences. “In African culture it’s okay to be quiet,” Pollard has learnt. “You don’t always have to fill the space with words.” At 45 she’s still a pop music fanatic—like Moyo. “I’ll play my tunes when we talk and that’s when her personality comes out. She’ll sing and dance.”

Johnson says the programme has had a “lovely, positive impact on the children” and is thrilled that eight more have just joined up, some as young as 10. “They have become more confident and outspoken [in a positive way]. Their command of the English language has improved magnificently, as has their spelling and obviously their computer skills.”

She says that being introduced to a different culture and way of thinking is doing them “a world of good”. It’s also improved their sense of self-worth. “So often I feel that the children of South Africa are so neglected. Their emotional and psychological needs have often been totally ignored. The Infinite Family programme helps to resolve this and I know that the children are ‘very special’ to their net buddies.”

Most of the mentees interviewed by Mail & Guardian say they would love nothing more than to go to the US. Does Infinite Family inadvertently create expectations that cannot be fulfilled?

“Infinite Family is not about taking the youth out of their culture or context,” Gold says. “It’s about enriching them where they are.” She adds that it is a “two-way exchange”. Just as the teenagers are learning from the mentors, they too are “enriching the mentors, expanding their lives and their families’ lives”.

The mentors are trained to encourage their net buddies to pursue their ambitions in their own communities and not harbour unrealistic fantasies about fame and fortune in the US.

She sums up: “We want these children to stay where they have been blessed to be born in a wonderful country with an incredibly rich history and a promising future. There are many challenges that South Africa is facing as a new democracy. What we’re giving these children is going to help them develop their communities.”

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