By Samson Mostowfi
Freedom Cheteni came to teach math at d.tech, halfway through the year. He hasn’t been here as long as most of the other teachers, and because of that, students don’t know much about him. When he shared a brief history of his life in South Africa during math class, I was immediately intrigued and wanted to know more. I wanted to interview him to find out where he came from, and what experiences shaped who he is today.
Q: Where, exactly, were you born? What was the area like at the time, what was going on politically and socially?
I was born in 1983, in Bulawayo Zimbabwe, which was a Zulu/Xhosa/Ndebele multi dialect area. My mom is Zulu, and my dad is Xhosa. I was born [very premature] because of an inter tribal genocide between my mom and my dad’s tribes. My mom was running away from soldiers from the other tribe and went into labor. It was not likely that I would make it, but I did. My grandmother named me Freedom because of the lack of freedom she had lived through. She lived through the apartheid era, so she experienced a lot of discrimination and oppression. In Africa, names are very important. You are given a name based on your role in the world, and the future your tribe is looking at. My grandmother saw me as a symbol of freedom, and she named me as such.
Q: Where did you spend the majority of your childhood? How did the area you grew up in, and the people/role models you grew up with affect who you are now?
I spent time all over the world: England, South Africa, Zimbabwe. Nelson Mandela was a big influence on who I am, he shaped my philosophy of life. While he was in jail fighting to end apartheid, his spirit was still alive in who I was. I spent some time with him before he died, and he…told me that if we invest in young people, we will reach world peace. He also taught me that freedom comes through education. At that time South Africa was having lots of problems, and it was clear that education was where my heart was. Having lived in all these places and having faced a conflict where my mother’s tribe was being murdered by my father’s, I was used to being in the middle of things. My philosophy is still rooted in being in the middle. I look at both sides, and try to think which decision will result in the most freedom. South Africa is a very androcentric culture – it favors males as the decision makers – and I never agreed with that. Since Apartheid has ended, South Africa has begun to drift away from this male-dominant society, and I think that is because of education.
Q: How was lifestyle and culture in South Africa different than California today? What kind of traditions/norms were present?
In California, we are gifted with freedom. There are a lot of choices available, and you can have anything you want if you take the correct steps. We have moved past most of the discriminatory traditions and customs. There is tradition in South Africa, such as family values, and families are strong and big. However in California, my family is not as big, just me and my parents.
Q: What hardships or obstacles did you have to overcome in your time in South Africa? How do those obstacles affect you today? (If there were any obstacles)
Re-integrating with post apartheid was the biggest obstacle I faced. My mother purchased a plot of land and it was in a Dutch neighborhood. We got a lot of death threats, because the apartheid influence was still there, and we had to move away. My role in reintegration was focused on education and the philosophy that people need to be educated. These experiences have taught me that no obstacle is impossible to overcome, if you are committed. Look at the obstacle for what it is, and approach it like a design project. I value failing fast and failing forward, especially when it comes to difficult obstacles. Also, understand what could be influencing people in their decisions. I have come to believe that every human being is inherently good. I’ve learned how to separate a person from their actions through obstacles I’ve faced. It takes time for people to understand where I’m coming from. The obstacles I have had to overcome allows me to be more effective, and put reason aside and look at what is more actionable.
I have come to believe that every human being is inherently good.
Q: Finally, were there any important lessons you learned growing up in South Africa?
I learned many important lessons in South Africa, but the most valuable was Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Zulu philosophy that is a big part of South African culture, and a big part of who I am. Ubuntu is the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. It is rooted in the concept of humanity towards others, and the identity philosophy of “you be you”. Ubuntu makes you ask the question, “What does it take to be a human being?”