I am writing this post from a restaurant called “Chill” next to our hotel in Durban. We left Makuleke yesterday morning around 8:30 am and we arrived to the Joburg airport around 3. We all then scurried in our different directions - Chelsea and Tasha to their hotel in Joburg, Danielle for her flight home, and the rest of us to the check-in counter to make our 4:30 flight. Except for a bit of turbulence as we approached Durban, the flight was uneventful - except for the poor people that had to sit next to any of us - we all were emanating a distinct smell from our bodies and clothes that could not have been pleasant for anyone. Oh well. We got our rental car - a Eurovan - and we headed into Durban. I warned everyone of two things: 1) I had never driven a van with non-automatic transmission in SA; and 2) I have a tendency to get lost. While there were no stalls our our way in, we did get lost. I could blame the co-pilot - Jen - but that would be unfair. I think our directions were wrong. But we made it to the hotel, checked-in and then treated ourselves to pizza (after taking showers and cleaning up).
Even though we have only been in the rural areas for 10 days, the culture shock of being in a big city immediately hit all of us. For example, this morning, instead of waking up to the sign of cowbells or the infamous “go away” birds, I heard horns honking and the pounding of hammers (construction next door). The other side of the coin, of course, is that I am sitting here with a cafe latte, with free wifi at the hotel as I write this.
We are going to do some sight seeing and shopping today and then tomorrow we are going to head up to the Eshowe/Entumeni area in Zululand to see some of my friends there. I am excited for everyone to see the differences and similarities with KwaZulu-Natal as compared to Limpopo.
Okay, enough of the update and this quasi-boring stuff. Over the last week, I was taking notes on what we did and below I am going to post them. The bottom-line is that we came to SA with the goal of immersing ourselves in a rural community, making meaningful relationships with as many people as possible, and perhaps collaborate with people in the village on a project (or projects) that would be beneficial to them. In the end, I cannot imagine things working our more perfectly than they did over this last week. I am so proud of the USD students and the Equalizers for what they accomplished. There are more details below but believe me when I say that this combined effort by these two groups of students has started something that could grow in amazing ways in the future. This is what teaching, learning, and working together is all about. Enjoy.
Thoughts on June 26-July 1 in Makuleke
On Tuesday, after returning from Pafuri, a sense of panic set in with the USD students. Our time was limited and we needed to “do” something that would be lasting in the community. But what? Watching the students talk, plan, make agendas and discuss different ideas was fun to watch. They led this and they talked with the Equalizers about what they could do. This is when the idea for a community meeting, a mini-lecture, and the opportunity for the Equalizers to introduce themselves to the community was born.
I think for the entire group, Wed night felt like the high point. We had this community meeting where there were young people, a few teachers, and a few older people. I did a brief talk on US civil rights. Right before we started, we realized that there were some in the audience that did not speak any English and I asked one of the Equalizers - Tuki - to be my translator. Tuki is a great kid and he has attached himself to me a little more than the other boys. He said yes but he was very nervous. He had never translated before or spoken in front of a group so large. Well, he aced it and afterwards you could just see the pride in his face. But what made the event especially important is that after I finished, this group of 7 high school kids who formed this group called the Equalizers talked about their organization and why they joined (it is a group that is fighting for equal education and it is part of a nation wide movement). Again, for all of these kids, they had never spoken to a group this large. It just went so well. After they finished, it was like the end of a lecture at a conference. Everyone mingled. I had a lot of people - students and teachers - come to talk with me, ask me more questions, and get my email. But the most important thing that happened is that about 10 more students asked to join the Equalizers. They had an impromptu meeting and they are holding their first formal meeting - as a larger group - tonight. Between me teaching in the village, seeing these kids overcome their fears and stand up for themselves, and seeing some signs that there group is growing brought most of us to tears at some point. And just like I had hoped, the idea for the meeting was never scripted. It really did come from the USD and Equalizers talking and brainstorming about what they could do in the community. It is a weird, but amazing feeling, to see something actually happen that was only an abstract idea a year ago - or even 9 days ago.
Oh, but I forgot. Earlier in the day (on Wed) we all visited the high school where the Equalizers attend. It was like an abandoned school - seriously, it is a complete mess and to imagine that these kids are being forced to learn in this environment was a serious reality check for all of us. We left the high school so low and depressed but then by the end of the evening we were so happy because of the meeting. The days seem to go like this where we are super hopeful and optimistic and then depressed.
But while at the HS, one of the Equalizers told Nadalie - one of the USD students - that the principal was there. So Nadalie walked in there with the student and asked to see the principal. This was the first time this Equalizer - Mawisa - had even been in the administration office. She told the principal about the meeting we were having that night and that he should come - he didn’t. But she also set up a meeting for him at 9 am on Friday for more of us to go and see him.
So, that was Wed. And it felt like the summit was reached and that we were now just going to enjoy the kids and the village. On Thur, we visited a primary school - the one where Denise built the library (there is a community library near us on the chief’s land and then this other one). The principal there is very nice and the school is in good shape. There was such a stark difference between how well kept the primary school was compared to the high school. Still, we learned that not many students are actually using the library because the teachers do not go there.
After leaving the primary school, Denise started telling us about a private school in the main town Malumulele where the kids get a much better education. She had actually sponsored one Equalizer to go last year but he did not pass and now he is back at the Makuleke high school. She called the principal of this private school - a woman from Ghana - and told her that we were going to the town to shop and asked if we could visit the school. So, a group of us went into town, did some shopping, and then visited the school. I forgot to mention that two new people showed up on Wed night - Dale and Patrice. Dale is a school principal in CT and Patrice is an artist there. Dale wants to bring some of her teachers here next year and Patrice is here to do artwork with the kids. I am not sure how they know Denise but they are all friends. Anyway, it was me, Danielle, Patrice, Dale, and Denise who went to town and met the principal. This school could not have been more different from the public ones we have seen. We spent a while walking the grounds and visiting the classrooms and it showed what $800.00 per year could buy. We got back and ate together. Like I said, it had felt like Wed was the highlight of the trip and that our work was now done except for teaching the Equalizers about the internet, getting them email addresses, and just having fun with them. I am scheduled to do more informal lectures with them as well. So, Thur night we stayed up a bit later, drank some wine, and just laughed a lot about the week.
I did not want to go to the principal meeting on Friday morning. I was tired and I figured it was going to be lame. But I got up and Denise, Dale, Nadalie and I went. He is a nice enough guy but the students really do not like or respect him. He is lazy. He gave us his interpretation of the challenges of being a principal in a rural school but Nadalie and Denise both kept pushing him on ways he could improve things - it was a bit weird at times but it was fascinating to watch the dynamics. We talked with him for an hour and at the end of that conversation, he had agreed to come and meet the Equalizers and to learn more about their group. We walked around the HS a bit and I talked to him one and one for a bit and then we left at 11 - he was going to be at the bed and breakfast at 11:30.
The Equalizers fear this guy and they do not like him at all. So, when we told them that he was coming to meet with them as a group, I am sure they were scared. We formed a circle of chairs for the Equalizers, the principal, a teacher he brought as well, and then a few of the USD students. The rest of us were sitting in back of the circle - it seemed awkward at first as none of the Equalizers were talking. Nadalie kept the conversation going and then the kids started to speak. It was amazing to watch. They told him their experiences of learning at the HS, they told him about being an Equalizer, and they requested his permission to have a classroom at the school to hold their meetings since their group was getting bigger. He agreed to all of this. He then said that the group should have a teacher supervisor and that the group should “report back” to him. So, the group suggested a teacher they like to be the supervisor and he said yes. Tuki then said that he wanted a specific date when one of them should meet with him and they set the date. It ended with the principal saying he was very pleased with the group, pleased that he could help, and that this finished “Chapter One” and that now they would write more chapters together. We were all so proud of the kids and again, there were some tears.
I do not know if any of this will be sustainable but I think it is the best chance we got. We have worked with a pre-existing group of kids that are motivated to learn but who have little community presence. Over the week, these kids have met the chief’s son, held a community meeting, and met the principal. They may have a shot now to grow there group and to create an even bigger support group for themselves. It has been just incredible to watch and while I know it may flop, it seems like there is a foundation for this to keep going - with next year’s USD students building on these relationships and with all of us keeping in touch with them through internet.
Later in the day on Friday - after the meeting with the principal - I sat with the Equalizers in a circle to see if they had any questions on SA or the USA. It started slowly and I could not tell if they were enjoying it. But it ended very well, they started to ask good questions and I started being more animated and more interactive with them. They definitely learned something. But the questions they asked were so profound (these are questions from the meeting on Wed and the one on Friday):
-why did the apartheid government make blacks carry pass books and relocate them? [for this one, I told Nesta that some people are just mean and have bad ideas about who can live with each other; I told them these people exist everywhere and that when they meet people like this they should just walk away]
-how did Mandela become president?
-what is the cold war? what is civil war?
-did the 1994 govt get rid of all of the apartheid laws? if so, why were schools still so unequal?
-why did Obama win in 2008?
-in other places, do whites separate themselves from each other like apartheid did with blacks and whites?
-what are the major differences b/n politics in USA and SA?
Answering their questions and doing mock lectures has been the best part of the trip for me. And they really like it. I think next year we will do more of this.
So, that gets us to last night. It was movie night - the Incredibles - and then a bit of dancing. During the dance, we would start random chants. We started one where we repeated “Equalizers!” Then the Equalizers started one that said “USD”. Then we all chanted “Makuleke”. All to some random techno music. The dance party ended and Denise took her car to take a few of the kids home. It was just the Equalizers and us. We formed a circle, put on some music and each took turns dancing in the middle - with the person who danced in the middle last picking someone to go in. We then walked back and started talking about how we spent our first full day with the kids one week ago and just thought about how must we have come together in this week.
As you can gather, this trip has affected all of my senses: intellectual, emotional and physical (Tuki took me for a run on Thursday morning). Each day has its highs and lows. I could not have imagined this trip working out any better. I am exhausted but so proud of the students. I am ready to leave but I also know that this group will never come together in this way again and that makes me sad.
I am excited to see Vusi, Rudi, Mary, and the Gogo family in KZN, but right now I am not ready for that part of the trip.
On Saturday, we met the equalizers and played some football (aka soccer). It was really a lot of fun, and thankfully, no one got hurt. We played on this dirt field behind the Makuleke Primary School. The skills some of these kids have are really impressive. We played well in the “first half” – with the score only 2-1 but then they dominated us the second half and we lost 6-1. I filmed the last 15 minutes or so – pretty silly but it was just a great time.
On Sunday, we attended church with the Equalizers and then we just spent the day with them - doing crafts, talking, etc. It was that odd feeling that we knew we were leaving on Monday and that there were no more “projects” to complete - we could just enjoy each other’s presence.
One of the things that Denise has started with the Equalizers is that they should be writing every day. They write stories, letters, or personal reflections. It is a way for them to practice writing (and our students have been doing a lot of tutoring with them on their writing) but it is also a way for them to process their thoughts and feelings. Well, what has happened this week is that the Equalizers and the USD students have been exchanging letters with each other almost every day. These letters are so profound and heartfelt (I will share a portion of the one I received later). So, on Sunday, there was a lot of time spent writing to each other. Coming from a society where no one writes letters anymore, it was fun to see this happen.
On Sunday night we saw a play that depicted the forced removal of the Makuleke people. The older women who performed were very good. It was all in ixiTsonga. There were our students, the Equalizers, and members of the community there watching. Each of our students was sitting next to an Equalizer and during the play, they were whispering the translation to them. These are kids (the Equalizers) that could not speak very good English last year and now they were all translating.
When we left on Monday morning there were a lot of tears. The USD students helped all of the Equalizers set up email accounts and everyone plans to stay in touch but it will always be different than seeing them in person.
There will never be the “first group” of USD students and Equalizers again. But next year there will be another group of USD students and even more Equalizers (I hope) and we will do it all again.