This past April, I decided to take a trip outside my comfort zone. It all started when I graduated college and wanted to experience the world outside of a dorm room. As a student of History and Education, I had developed a deep interest and appreciation for South African history and culture– an interest and appreciation so deep, in fact, it led me to take a month-long hiatus from my job to live and teach in the country.
While in South Africa, I stayed with a host family in Steenberg, which is an area on the outskirts of Capetown. I loved Steenberg, although it was known to be violent. I think living in this area made me feel like a real part of the Capetown community, rather than a tourist.
During the apartheid era, black and colored South Africans were forced out of the city’s center, and into townships where they had to rebuild their lives from the ground up. (“In other places in the world, the word colored used to describe race is considered disparaging. In South Africa, it is used to describe an important segment of the population.”) Even today, twenty-three years after apartheid has ended, many people in the townships still struggle to make enough money to feed their families. My school was located in one such township: Cape Flats.
I immediately fell in love with the kids at Zerilda Park Primary School; I worked with grades one through four teaching literacy. Each teacher made a list of the students in her classroom who needed the most assistance with reading and writing. Another volunteer at the school and I would pull 3-4 students at a time and bring them to the literacy room to work with them. It’s hard to explain how excited the students were to come and work with us. For them, I think the best part was getting individualized attention. In the school, just like most schools in the area, there are about 40 students to one teacher, which makes individualized instruction very difficult. Therefore, the opportunity to work in a small group with a teacher was a big deal to these kids. We played games and wrote stories, but what really stood out to me while working closely with these kids was their positive attitudes.
Every single student I worked with lived in the township. Whether they lived in a small one-room shack or a crowded apartment, they still came to school every day ready to listen and learn. In the mornings, students would run up to us with huge smiles. They always had questions in their classrooms and wanted to know more. These kids were curious and ready to learn anything new. It didn’t matter what was going on at home. School was a safe, routine, and engaging environment where they were free to be themselves.
In order to better understand the lives of the students with whom I was working, I decided to go on a tour of a township. This was probably my favorite activity during my time in South Africa—outside of work. I felt it gave me a real look into the lives of the kids I worked with every day. Our tour guide was a young adult woman who lived in Langa, the township I visited. She was fantastic at her job and took us into the homes of many of the residents. I was shocked when she took us into a small apartment that had only two beds and a refrigerator. She explained that eleven people shared that small apartment, but that’s not what shocked me. She then explained that this was her home. She lived in this small room with her mother and nine siblings. Two people shared each twin bed, and the rest slept on the floor. I think knowing that this apartment belonged to the incredibly kind and personable woman with whom I had spent the last two hours made everything seem real. These people who live in small crowded homes or shacks have lives. They work but still struggle to stay on their feet. On top of their job, they have to find materials to fix their homes, make food for large families, and share small beds or sleep on the floor. Yet, they make it work. Just like my students who didn’t have bathrooms in their homes, and didn’t have toys to play with. They still came to school ready to learn so that when they are grown up they will be able to work and make money to help their families.
I was also extremely impressed with the dedication of the teachers. The majority of the teachers at the school also live in the township and face the hardships of township life. Yet, despite the tough circumstances, they come to work every day and put a huge amount of energy into teaching their exceptionally large classes of elementary students. These teachers have very little time without students and don’t even have a set lunch time. Throughout the day, teachers get two fifteen minute breaks while the students have Interval, which is basically recess. However, once or twice a week, each teacher has a turn being a monitor during this time, therefore giving up the little time they have to themselves. Despite the small amount of time they had to prepare, the teachers were always ready with their plans for the day and made every effort to ensure their students had a beneficial day at school. Like all teachers, these teachers were not only in charge of making sure their students learned math, science, English, Afrikaans (the local language), and social studies. They also had to teach students how to become good South African citizens and warn them against becoming involved with gangs (in a way that wasn’t offensive, because most of the students have family who are members of some notorious Cape Flats gangs).
When I wasn’t at the school and in the townships, I participated in everything Capetown had to offer. I hiked the famous Table Mountain and had the most fantastic view of the city. I went to an elephant sanctuary where I got to touch and walk with African elephants in their natural environment. I also spent considerable time walking around the local market and hanging out with my newfound friends. I wish I could have stayed in this incredible country more than one month, but I wouldn’t take back my experience for anything. By working among people who live there, I was able to gain cultural and community insight into what life is really like in a less visited part of the city.