Monday, 16 November 2009

Shall We Dance?

Curiously delightful weekend past, and thoroughly exhausting too. One of my Saturday devoirs is to read the Saturday Times Magazine, if just for Slummy Mummy and Giles Coren. However I found myself incredibly moved by one of the articles.

Having completed their final exams, the school leavers of South Africa, like those of many other Anglo-influenced nations, celebrate with a Ball. Fondly referred to as "the Matric", which comes from Matriculation (each to their own), I suspect for many it is simply a good excuse for a large party.

However, the article does not defer to this, more visible, group. Instead it focuses upon those living in the slums of outer Cape Town. In Dickensian style poverty, many families live in a single room surviving on less than £10 per week. For this oft-forgotten section of society, the Matric is by far the most glamorous event most of them will ever attend. Many will probably never again have the same opportunity to let their hair down (in a decidedly unliteral way, of course). Most spend months saving. Some barely eat to save the few Rand they can for their dresses, but this is certainly not restricted to the young ladies. The boys also dress to impress. One delighted in finding his father's white gloves he once wore whilst working in catering. Many simply cannot afford to go to their Ball. In some cases, whole villages have chipped in whatever possible. One girl whose parents simply couldn't afford it was helped by her teacher.

The battle just to be able to enjoy a party is phenomenal. Most of the girls on a daily basis wear a uniform of jeans and hooded jumpers so as not to encourage assaults and rape. In their full regalia, barely seconds are spent outdoors before jumping into waiting limousines or Hummers. Goodness knows how they would perceive the overt fashions at the average Oceana. The boys are little braver. One did touchingly say he felt worthwhile, important, as neighbours watched him through chinks in their curtains, in his "Prince Charles" inspired costume. Featuring cane and diamante earrings. Full of self-loathing, I fight my inner snob.

The story that made me saddest of all was of one girl, who was wearing a Buttercup yellow Bo-Peep inspired dress. Apparently a popular style, this girl had struggled incredibly hard to be able to go to her Matric, relying on help from her extended family. However, a long-term illness became too much for her shortly after her big night and she passed away. I mean, I could almost cry now, such is the empathy I feel.

The worst thing is, I must sound horribly twee and patronising as I write. I readily admit to having led an enormously privileged life, for which I am incredibly thankful. And that I have often been lucky. The view of their world from mine is very much in the darkness, so such glimpses do tend to affect me.

Particularly as I contrast the Matric with my own school Ball. Finding a partner - not easy at an all-boys school - then a series of satellite parties before and after the event. All were full of (generally) tasteful glamour, champagne, fun, naughtiness and freedom. Though no-alcohol was a strict condition at the Ball proper, people managed it (or worse) anyway. None of the girls needed to worry about being attacked on their way to the next party, or when milling about in parks or at the beach for photographs. The only severe problems emerged the next day, as several incidents of alcohol poisoning came to light. Unfortunately I was possibly the worst of those cases. The memory fails at about 8am the next day, only to resume at 3.30pm that afternoon. The image of my body in a hospital bed with several tubes attached to me will not easily be forgotten. Nor will that of my collection by ambulance be by my friends!

While I may dislike the fashion, I am incredibly moved by the dedication and hard work whole communities share for that one purpose. To ensure their loved ones have the chance to escape reality for one night, to "have a ball" is one of the most selfless things I have known. I consider myself the lucky one, but again, my school Ball was just another night. It was a very good one, mind, but for them, the Matric is the night. The night they will never forget, every moment etched in dreams and memories.

Perhaps I should think again?

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