Tuesday, August 5, 2014

To Prove a Point I’m Leaving You Alone with 76 Sixth Graders

Today was the first day at Emfamini primary school.  The school was built in 1994 and serves a mainly Xhosa population.  The British had heavy influence on the South African political climate because SA was part of their colonial empire, presumably the educational system is modeled after the British style (Worden 24).  As of this year, the school is now a “No Fee School” which means the children do not have to pay a quarterly amount in order to attended the school.  Because of this some parents are running the library container (half of a shipping container with a door and a window) and other areas of the school without being paid.
After being greeted and briefed on the basic workings of the school we were sent out to our classrooms.  When I arrived at my classroom, I discovered a merged classroom (one large room with a divider wall which splits it into two rooms, but was raised so there was no separation) with two classes of children all working.  But there was no teacher in the classroom.  Mrs. Tambo, the woman who was dropping us off with our partnership teachers, told the class she was going to “prove a point,” assumingly about the students’ behavior, by leaving me alone with the two classes.  Shortly after that, a teacher came in and took away one of the classes in the room and another one filled in its place from outside.  This class did not have the workbooks that the other class was using.  After introducing myself and telling the kids that we would just roll with whatever we could come up with, the main teacher, Ms. Ncamble, came in.  She then told me that she was absent because she was off decorating another room in the school, something that I never realized would be allowed in a school.  Teachers at home would never leave their classroom alone or be calm when they returned to a room when a random, strange adult was sitting in on their classroom, whether or not they were aware an intern was arriving.
After getting acquainted with Ms. Ncamble, she traded out the class that had been with me for the entire time and then passed out the workbooks the other two classes had, the total of those two classes ended up being 76 students.  She then also handed me a worksheet and asked me to read aloud so the children could hear the way I pronounce the words.  After finishing the story, we read it again.  This time I read a sentence and the students repeated what I said and tried to mirror my accent.  After completing that, students read the story aloud again without hearing me pronounce it first.  Following this, I went through two matching definition activities with the kids.  They understood most of the words that were asked but I did have to try to explain and act out the idea of the word promptly.  Then the main teacher attempted to get the class to call out answers to open ended questions.  The kids looked like they would rather die then answer one of the questions, which is something I think most American students occasionally feel in class as well.  Eventually she decided to assign it as homework that I will review with them tomorrow.  Then moved on doing revision for the state exams they took last term.

Tomorrow, I’m planning to go through the next section of the workbook as well as reviewing the question they’re hopefully completing.

What was South Africa Like?

            That question was assigned to me as homework on the last night in order to prepare me for the abundance of times I would have to answer it upon returning home.  The short answer is that it was overwhelming.  I feel like I spent the entire two weeks I was in SA in a constant state of sensory and emotional overload.  None of the mental expectations I had going into the trip even remotely covered the realties, both positively and negatively, of what I saw and experienced.  Each day I felt totally consumed by the vastness of what there was to take in.  And I continually feel like I come up short when I try to explain the events of this trip to others.  Pictures barely do the vibrant landscapes any justice, showing and explaining the massive settlements of shacks and the seas of garbage covering the ground surrounding them doesn’t seem to fully convey the magnitude of their presence.  Also nothing I can say could let anyone else experience the smells, like the overbearingly potent odor of sour milk as it is being prepared in mass for lunch, which bombarded me daily. 

And I don’t know how to articulate the spirit of the people I met, especially those at Emafini.  Everyone there had an air of hopefulness and love so strong that I could feel it in every interaction I had at the school.  In the short span of a week and a half there I felt that I had gained a family that I can return to if (and when) I come back to South Africa, which will welcome me back with the same open arms they initially greeted me with.  The one thing I can say with certainty is that you need to see and feel this country for yourself before I can even begin to convey what I’ve experienced here in a way that will do it justice.

“Silence Means Consent”

            During the tour of Robben Island this phrase was repeated frequently by both of our guides after they asked if everyone was ready to move on to the next part of the island.  Often in safety seminars I’ve needed to sit through for school the leader repeats many times “Silence does not mean yes, only the word yes means yes.”  The re-appropriation of this phrase was striking to me and somewhat unsettling.  But there seemed to be a myriad of re-appropriations throughout the entire island, starting with the context of the island itself.  It began as a place of extreme oppression and now has transformed into a representation of freedom and equality.  On a smaller scale, those who were prisoners are now the ones who lead the prison tours and create the narrative of the island for its guests.  With the idea that history is typically written and narrated by the winners, their presence insinuates that they have been the winners of their situation.   Their presence also provided a tension between the personal connection to what happened on the island and the very impersonal and factual description that was given about the island. 

The houses of the former guards have also been re-appropriated into housing for those who work on the island giving tours.  Because the people who run the current tours used to be those who were imprisoned, I wonder if this gives them a feeling of empowerment or triumph by now residing in the homes of their former oppressors.  Through this re-appropriation it appears that some of the facilities of the island have been rejuvenated, the walls of the cells seem to have been given a fresh coat of paint and other small cosmetic touches.  Annie Coombes argues that these improvements take away from the overall experience.  The initial tour she went on was much more stark than the tours given today and says that “the no-frills quality of the tour seemed…one of the strengths of the visit…that appeared to encourage a more intimate and reflective experience of the site” (Coombes 73).  The starkness could also contribute to the experience but personally I think the abundance of re-appropriations also create a powerful feeling of unease that allows the visitor to have a reflective experience.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Do Good Fences Really Make Good Neighbors?

            Robert Frost wrote many times in “Mending Wall” that “Good fences make good neighbors.”  But being surrounded by fences, looking at fences, and being separated by fences all the time here is making me think that he was way off.  Most properties here are surrounded by at least a fence; in most cases a wall encloses the properties with an electric fence lining the top.  I was struck by the fact that these walls surrounded individual residential homes, schools, businesses, and shopping centers.  When I think off walls and fences I initially wonder, “Who are they trying to keep out?” 

At school especially, fencing in the property makes some sense to me because it can help to regulate that all school visitors are being accounted for and that random strangers aren’t roaming through school grounds.  But the homes and businesses struck me as odd, I was told that during the time shortly after the fall of apartheid many people chose to raise them because they felt they needed protection from the desegregation.  I was also told that during the 2010 World Cup walls and fences were erected around the townships in order to ensure that no tourists would accidentally enter them.  When we spoke with the man who lead us through Addo Elephant Park, he said “Oh, so you all are seeing the real South Africa” when we mentioned that we were working in a township school.  That statement along with the knowledge that the townships had been intentionally hidden from World Cup concerned me.  If it is known among locals that there are great wealth disparities and many areas of extreme poverty which need some form of assistance, why then would the government go to such great lengths to conceal this from others?  The "'New South Africa' --mean[s] all shapes and colors" but in an inclusive society made for all shapes and colors why are people still barricading themselves behind walls and hiding parts of their country from the eyes of the rest of the world? (Coombes 73).It makes me think that the great strides towards equality that have been made on paper have really only been made on paper and not in practice.

Dear Diary,

25 June 2014

Yesterday I taught my class how to write diary entries.  We began by reading an example diary entry in one of their textbooks.  I then explained to the class that diaries are always written in the first person and the past tense.  I wrote examples of first person words on the board (i.e. I, me, my, we, our) and beginnings of phrases (ex. The last time I was in an argument…) to help the students write their own diary entries.  I asked them to write an entry about the last time that they were in a fight.   They wrote silently for a few minutes then I asked the class for volunteers to share what they had written with the class.  Nobody wanted to read his or her work aloud.  Students at home are also often reluctant to participate as well but I was surprised that they did not want to read their diary entries because there was no wrong answer. Because most of what I have seen in the classroom has been very heavily guided response that aligns with the prescribed state curriculum, I wonder if the students are expecting a prescribed response.  In class the students either read directly out of the book or recite something they have memorized, this helps their pronunciation skills and the comfort level verbally articulating some English.  But I worry that they are not being given the tools to confidently create original thoughts in English or if they do not have enough vocabulary of the language to articulate what they want to say.