Published: August 19th 2012August 11th 2012
So, at 6am the alarm sounds and it’s time for us all to get up and go to school. Its dark at this time. And cold. Although it very quickly gets light and by lunchtime we’re usually complaining about how hot it is. These early starts also entail very early nights, which greatly amuses us as students, for by 10 o’clock (sometimes even 8 o’clock!) we are desperate to go to sleep. We take it in turns to cook the vast amounts of food needed for nine people, we wash our clothes by hand and in the evenings we catch glimpses of the Olympics with hilariously haphazard commentary.
It is hard to summarise our time here and our experiences of school life. Unlike in England where one can go through days, weeks or even months without anything of any real consequence happening, every single day we find ourselves relaying eventful stories and dramatic updates. This is largely due to the numerous social and youth issues. In the first week, one student at Thembeka (where Jess is placed) committed suicide. In the second week one learner passed away at Lekazi central (Tak and Tori) and there was an after school stabbing of one of the pupils after a fight at Masihambisane (Bex). The weird thing was that although people were of course very upset, there did not seem to be the element of shock that would accompany such incidents in the UK due to the common presence of danger and death. I’m sure all this sounds very depressing, but when you are here these events just seem part of life. People are saddened, sing, find comfort in religion then get on with their lives. It is a struggle, but amongst the struggle there is still great joy, and a resolution to make things better in the future.
Besides, this was all part of the cultural exchange we had entered into and despite such incidents we were all having a great time. Many of us had been thrown in the deep end, asked to take a whole class of 60 learners without any knowledge of their capability or curriculum. However, this was largely due to the fact that volunteers were new to secondary schools and gradually it was understood that we were only teaching assistants. As such we found teachers to work with and assisted them by helping them to plan lessons, going around the class helping with their written work or role plays and many of us taking small groups out of the class so more attention could be placed on each student. We soon identified that any sort of acting / singing/ role play worked really well and team games, even those with an educational content soon became so ridiculously competitive, often to the point of corruption. We had also expanded our staple SiSwati to include key classroom terms so as to be able to give basic commands. However, this slightly backfired when Tori proudly yelled Thulani (be quiet) angrily at a class and one boy nervously stood up for it is also a common boy’s name.
As the days went on we all got to know the teachers much better, sometimes being taken out for lunch and we soon felt completely at ease around the school. We also got to know the students much better, some of us even acquiring a keen little entourage who were desperate to tend to our every need. Yet what was overwhelmingly clear was that teenagers anywhere are teenagers. Boys were still naughty and often flirtatious (a few of us even got marriage proposals) and girls still try to wear as much make-up as they can get away with, with their skirts as short as possible. However, the educational system is very different from the UK. Here it is extremely common for most of the learners to redo the school year, often numerous times. As such, despite teaching the younger secondary school grades, some of the learners could still be close to our ages, yet sadly still not have any real grasp of how to read or write. This is exacerbated by the fact that secondary schools have strict criteria of what they have to accomplish during the year, so they have to assume everyone is literate in order to get on with the schedule, with those who are struggling getting no extra help and often not being able to even read the exam questions as they are all in English. As such many of us are focussing on teaching English, but help is needed in most areas so lots of us are also helping with maths, natural sciences, life orientation and history.
Due to it being National Women’s month, the Thursday and Friday of the second week were national holidays. The excitement of having an extra-long weekend combined with a large Union meeting also meant that Wednesday was fairly unproductive and finished before lunch. This was slightly frustrating as it delayed being able to set up after school activities, but we used our free days productively by helping in the construction of a children’s orphanage in Pienaar. This consisted of shovelling rubble, tending to their garden, painting and trying to avoid the little children who were instantly drenched in paint running directly at us. The work was exhausting but satisfying and we all greatly admired the mother who was looking after ten orphans on her husband’s wage with only extremely limited government money for a couple of the children. We were also overwhelmed by Nito, who had organised and fund-raised all the money himself, spoke ten out of the eleven languages of South Africa and seems to spend his whole time doing such noble charity work.
Twice a week after school we also go to the S.O.S. children’s orphanage. This consists of ten brightly coloured houses each with a house mother and up to ten children. For the first hour we all go to our assigned houses where we assist the children by helping them with their homework or reading skills. Then we all congregate to play endless games such as Simon says, duck duck goose, tag and even teaching them the hokey pokey. In return we have learnt many new games, especially clapping games, with all the children laughing at our pronunciation of the lyrics. All the children are so energetic, keen for our attention and very enthusiastic. This is particularly the case when it comes to playing with our hair and as such we all leave with some interesting new hair styles!
During the weekends we often go on trips and explore nearby places of interest. On the first weekend we went to Nelspruit where we had a nice dinner out, walked around the botanical gardens and visited the very western shopping mall. We have also been on a day tour of all the amazing views and waterfalls in the local area including The Pinnacle, Potholes, Blyde River Canyon and God’s Window (or the place where Jess dropped her camera as we now know it). We were also invited by Gladys to go to Sunday church with her, where we were heartily welcomed and treated to some of the most amazing gospel singing. During the week we had also celebrated Anna’s 21st
birthday. We had a traditional South African party featuring another Braai and invited our local friends. Despite having to blag how to make pap and one of us getting temporarily stuck in the bathroom it was a great night. Very quickly we were full of good food and learning how to dance from Arko who had brought his massive sound system along. We already felt so integrated into our schools and the community that it was already becoming clear how wonderful the people we have met are and how hard it would be to leave such an amazing place.