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By Maddie Eagan
Dressed in black from head to toe and adorned with red, yellow, and green beadwork, Zanele Ndlovu looks away, intent and smiling, as she plays a Zulu lullaby on a Umakhweyane--an African guitar--against a backdrop of large colorful paintings with intensely political themes.
We are in Soweto, the largest township in South Africa, visiting the Art Department of Funda Community College. Funda was founded in 1984 when South Africa was in turmoil as students and others were protesting the racist system of apartheid and the government was trying to crush them.
Today, the three-year arts program struggles to give 30 high school graduates an alternative education while contributing to Soweto's culture. The students study the basics in their first year and conceptual and perceptual art in their second. In the third year, they choose a theme, such as gender violence or abuse of power, and work on their own art. But what to do after that is not so clear.
Ndlovu, a Funda graduate who says she thinks of the director as her father, has yet to work a full-time job since she graduated. "My mom gets mad. She tells me to get a 9-5 job," she says. "When you live in Soweto, you don't have a way of putting food on the table."
Ndlovu says she is committed to storytelling, teaching young children in her community about their culture and about how to cook using home-grown vegetables, and playing her home-made guitar. She also has a children's book in the publication process, but she says she worries about the state of Soweto's culture.
"Our culture is dying," Ndlovu says, blaming this on the effects of globalization.
A second-year Funda student, Jason Rasogo, 22, says that people are not allowed to practice their own traditions in Soweto. "When people visit here, they expect to see something different," he says. "Most of the political people influence the culture."
Funda is struggling to stay alive after a politically connected group tried to take over the campus three years ago, thinking it was a potential money-maker, says Nkosi. But Funda also suffers from funding problems and gets little or nothing from the government, despite its strong record of community service. Instead, it relies on donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, a partnership with the prestigious University of Witwatersrand and a network of volunteers.
For their part, Funda students appear committed to their art, which mixes traditional images with social and political criticism. Some even stay overnight in their small studios to complete their final projects, says the director, Charles Nkosi. And they support each other.
When he stops to meet a group of visiting Simmons students, Rasogo says he is on his way to a poetry reading and story-telling session later, where he is likely to also see Ndlovu.