Before realizing the significance of the name of the story, I thought more appropriate titles might be My Friend, Frikka or, perhaps, War and Peas. Last Tengo in Jo’burg came to mind but was quickly dismissed because of the nature of the original movie. Then, I saw a metaphorical relationship that equated the rain, relief from the drought, to peaceful coexistence of blacks and whites in South Africa so that education for all could be attained. Just as the rain never came, neither has the much desired defeat of apartheid nor equality of education. Not, yet. The story affected me not so much for the reality of the social problem it depicted as for the many quotes that awakened long-dormant memories of the innocence of youth that is adulterated by the unreasonable hatred that grows from unfounded fear based on illogical premises and perpetuated by uninformed ignorance (to use an appropriate redundancy).
I empathized with both Frikkie and Tengo as they innocently frolicked unmindful of the raging social conflicts that exploded in the urban centers. To one another they were equals in all ways, the different color of their skin having as much affect as either one’s dislike of boiled okra. They were two young boys involved in life for the love of it. My own youth was spent, for two months every year, in total isolation from the destructive power of prejudicial conflict. The camp at Boys’ Harbor in East Hampton was secluded and insulated from the mainstream of social lines of demarcation; there, blacks, whites, Chicanos, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews intermingled with total imperviousness to the differences that otherwise would have had us at each other’s throats for no other reason than the fact that we were different. There, we were all the same. I recalled with Ferrant fondness the relationship I had with a young Hispanic boy with whom I lived within a group at a convent in Sparkhill, New York. We were playing cowboys and Indians. At five years old each, we enjoyed the role playing and changed sides as often as the Spring breezes changed directions. During one of our capturing moments, when the Indian wrestled the cowboy to the ground or the cowboy held the Indian at bay with a sneak attack hammerlock, we fell together to the ground still intertwined inseparably. We were exhausted from the play and rested still caught in the entanglement as if in a lover’s erotic embrace. I was on top and looked into the eyes of Fernando Hernandez with a deep love for another human being because he was alive and happy to be with me as I was with him. I often watch puppies and kittens play with the same disregard for their differences as I did for what made Fernando and me different. The fact that we were both human beings was all that really mattered. I still feel that way, but society, as a whole, doesn’t. That is unfortunate.
The contrast of Frikkie’s negative attitude toward school to Tengo’s thirst for knowledge remained constant. It was pleasant to see that Tengo was able to get the opportunity and took advantage of that occasion to the ultimate of his capability. It was likewise sad to see that Frikkie never saw the light, that Tengo’s enthusiasm was not contagious. That scenario may have seemed too ideal and unrealistic for a story that stresses the real world conflicts rather than story book endings. It was not unbelievable that the army would have done for Frikkie what it did nor was it incredible that the chance meeting of Frikkie and Tengo under those direst of circumstances could have happened. It could and many similar chance meetings with more serious consequences have occurred.
How wonderful it would be if all children of reading age had the same hunger for knowledge that Tengo shows throughout the story until his decision to return to the farm. A world of adventure opened for me like windows to the universe when I discovered how I could vicariously experience the wonders of other countries without ever leaving the ghetto of my birthplace.
Need I say more? This theme of the threat by the educated black was hammered mercilessly by Sannie and the oubaas. I do not, however, believe that this is a universally accepted conviction. Education is the key to eliminating prejudicial hatred. Ignorance is the poker that stokes the fires of racism not just against blacks by whites but any minority by any other group that thinks it is superior.
Consider the following concept.
In the black schools and universities, they’re giving us an inferior education — gutter education. Bantu education is designed to make us better slaves. (page 113)
The truth of this presumption may very well have some basis in Africa, but the aim is not to make better slaves as was intimated. That is the kind of fallacy that perpetuates the hate based on fear ideology. There are poor schools in third world countries that try to do the best with what they have and they coexist with far wealthier institutions. But, it is an economic problem, not a social one. Both schools vie with one another for the dollars of the student base. Those who can afford the more prestigious school with the more motivated teachers and more copious supplies do so. The others suffer with less than the best. The motivation is not suppression. It is part of the way of life, a kind of survival of the fittest.
These lines struck a note that reinforces the idea that in our youthful innocence, when we are green like young saplings, we feel no prejudice other than what we learn from others, particularly those from whom we learn — parents and teachers — and our peers who affect us with their experiences and beliefs and infect us with what poisons were unwittingly slipped into their unsuspecting bodies and minds. I saw the relationship of green with innocence immediately and connected the rain, which makes nature green again, to education, which can make the darkness of ignorance light again.
This Catch-22 goes on even now regarding any conflict that involves two sides each of which wants concessions before concord. For example, one faction won’t give up its guns until peace talks begin while the other side won’t begin talks until the guns are surrendered. These are power struggles that will exist in innumerable forms so long as one group has something the other wants and neither will budge until the other sacrifices something of value — like power, possession, or assets. This is a recurrent theme for which there are countless stories, one for each conflict about man versus man, man against god, or man in conflict with society.
There are passages that remind me that when we feel all is lost and we sink into the unfathomable abyss of despair, we can reach out to someone who can make life seem more worthwhile because of his/her existence. Happiness is sharing even unhappiness with another who is willing to understand, be compassionate, and still remain steadfast and loyal to one another. It was disappointing to see Tengo release his tentative grip on someone he cared for because of the fear of falling into a trap that caught someone else. He had a chance to show integrity and strength. Instead, he succumbed to the fear of failure. Well, we all have our Achilles heels.
Everyone pays for prejudice. It is not inherent. It is learned from those from whom we least expect it. Education is a healing remedy, but by the time education can apply its balm, the cancer had already spread its deadly venom too late to cure the unwilling victim.