I have just returned from my second term at Emafini School in the Kwa-Dwesi Township near Port Elizabeth. I make no apologies for banging on a bit I am passionate about this programme!
We all fell in love with all the Calabash staff immediately- especially Paul- and became quite possessive about our ‘report’ time with him each week. I hope you get to spend time with Nelson, Monga and Luyanda too, all of whom we could have happily packed into our suitcases and taken home with us. Paul, in particular, is an inspirational person, totally dedicated, hard-working and committed to the programme. He has wisdom well beyond his years. I will have no hesitation in crossing seas and continents again to work with him and his staff.
There are many things that are similar and many things that are different between the schools you are going to and those we have become accustomed to back home. I believe you need to come with eyes wide open, broad minds, a certain amount of tolerance and above all, a big heart. The most important thing to hold on to, I believe is, that the staff at the schools are all professionals with good qualifications, just as in our schools, and we should not let their lack of resources and sometimes imperfect command of English fool us into thinking they are in any way lacking in skills or commitment. For the most part they work extremely hard with huge classes in the hardest of conditions - I am in awe of them.
Those who disagree with me see lots of time-wasting on the part of teaching staff while they answer their mobile phones; lots of hours of teaching time lost because the teacher is not in the class or even in school; lots of resources wasted because they lie hidden in cupboards or in boxes, forgotten and unused, and lots of children spending hours out of the classroom when they should be learning. They are entitled to their opinions and they are right- all of this does happen in all of the schools to a greater or lesser degree. It upsets me as much as it does them but where we differ is how we react to it. We could walk away and say ‘Why should we bother? If they are not prepared to put in the hours in the classroom and use the resources donated to them, why should I waste my time and money? They are not interested in what I have to offer, they are only interested in my money.’ Or we could say, ‘This is not my school, this is not my country; I don’t live their lives; I don’t suffer their hardship. I came to give and I did not expect to put conditions on the giving. And if invited we can help them to manage their time in the classrooms, show them how to use the resources that have been donated, show them by our own example how precious and valuable is the time spent helping the children to learn. Their morale is very low especially following a period of largely unsuccessful industrial action last year and then finding that the pay they received during the strike last year is being docked from their pay over a period of very few months this year. You will see for yourselves the conditions under which they work. There are people far more qualified than me who can explain the struggles and the hardship they have endured. In any case you must form your own opinions and react in your own ways.
It can be quite hard, initially, to break down perceived barriers between them and us. We are nervous because we don't know what to expect, but they are even more nervous of us and can feel anxious that we might pose a threat to them. We have to remember that we are guests in their country and their school and can't impose our culture and beliefs on them. On the other hand they will soon show you how grateful they are for the fact that we have travelled so far at great cost to come and support them. I still don’t think I have broken down the barriers as much as I would like and I want to improve on this next time.
. You don’t have to be a qualified teacher to give support in many of the tasks involved in the support of Literacy skills, especially in reading, and there are many other areas where help can be given. One of the most successful experiences from the point of view of the volunteer and of the children that I have witnessed happened with a non-teacher volunteer who taught a couple of hundred children basic computer skills in a month. She unlocked the mysterious world of computers for a load of nervous teachers too! Another volunteer this year, whose work back home was in a totally different field and who had had no formal training in teaching reading, worked with a group of very low ability children and the progress they made in a month was astounding.
I volunteered at Emafini
Emafini is a huge primary school, at least, by our standards. It is situated in a middle class area but many of the children travel on foot to the school from the poorer Townships, often 3 to 5 km away. There were 1364 pupils there when we left in March 2008! The building itself is well-constructed and laid out in terraces of classes going down a slope linked by a central, partly covered stone flight of steps. Each row of classrooms has a partly covered veranda. There are grassed areas around the school and an area which has been made into a sports pitch. There are outside water taps which have drinking water.
The children all wear school uniform and are very proud of it and take great care of it. While the uniform has the desired effect of equalising them, it does hide the fact that they come from mostly poor, disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of the children come from very impoverished circumstances and their families struggle to find the R100 annual school fees. We were fortunate and privileged this year in being invited to visit the homes of some of the children. There is a nutrition programme at the school and this has been extended this year to include all children who want it.
Be prepared for anything that might happen; like a staff meeting being called in the middle of a lesson and the whole school being left unattended; like bars and locks on the classroom doors until the teacher or monitor unlocks them in the morning and at the end of break; like buckets full of bread and jam being brought into the classroom just before break for those without food; like classrooms where the furniture is falling apart or there isn't enough to go around so some pupils have to share seats; like windows having to be held locked with nails because the locks have been stolen and like lessons coming to an end at 11 am on Fridays so that the children can clean their classrooms, and I really do mean clean them- soap and water, floor scrubbing and polishing- the lot! Be prepared also for non-flushing toilets in some schools and a limited electricity supply in others.
But be prepared above all for a community of people who, I believe, care deeply about the children in their care, about their education and their well-being and whose gratitude to us for coming to their school is effusive, overwhelming and can move you to tears.
Jenny, a teacher has now volunteered at Emafina twice in 2007 and 2008 and plans to go back next year! ED