Students. Learners. Children, really. Around the world, they are adorable and surprisingly similar. As my presence at the primary school has gone from shocking to consistent, I’ve been able to glean a bit about the culture of learners here in South Africa. The past several weeks I have delved into my institution’s administrative side, established relationships with the educators and an awesome security guard named Augustine, observed classes, and read to some grade 5 learners. Throughout my time on and off the school grounds I’ve consciously noticed, and subconsciously pieced together, some neat observations…
I am new, I look different, and my accent is crazy weird. Instead of shunning or ignoring me, when I speak in front of a classroom or a group, the learners snap into this incredibly concentrated mode. It’s both intimidating and flattering to see them lean in, their eyes trained on me. Active listening truly is visible. From majoring in Spanish and studying abroad in Mexico and Spain, I totally know that second language trance. It’s really gratifying to see them, these tiny people in uniform, with a raw craving to learn. That desire is arguably un-teachable and I’m really excited to start formal lessons in January.
I’m glad that they want to learn, because I’ve got quite a bit of work cut out for me in the literal English department. Conversing with comprehension (for them in English and for me in Zulu) has been slow-going and difficult, but that’s expected. Often we’ll be so confused, out of miming ability, and at a loss of how to try to communicate next that we’ll just laugh because that is a common language. Something that has made one-on-one communication difficult is how the learners respond. You’ll pose a question and they’ll turn their head away, look down, and speak so softly. I knew they were shy with me and about trying out their English but it was somewhat frustrating, especially when I’m used to eye contact going hand-in-hand with communication. After a while I asked my principal what she thought and it turns out that here, the respectful gesture is to avert your eyes when you reply to someone older than you. Woah! If only I had asked sooner. A little lesson for me on the importance of gaining information before making judgments.
Some learners bring candy or fruit to school to get profit for their families. My own brother, Zweli, brings marbles to sell for a small price because he’s saving up money to buy a soccer ball. On a good day his profit will be 2 rand, about 25 cents. It has been really fun to watch and encourage these small business endeavors. It’s also been a really important lesson on how valuable one cent is – I remember cleaning my room in July and sweeping a couple pennies into the trashcan with all the dust and paperclips. Now I see that they absolutely were not trash. What I previously thought was complete rubbish (ba-dum-pshh).
At our outdoor assembly every morning, learners are asked to “come up and read aloud”, which they begrudgingly do. It is a thankless and mundane endeavor that I am slowly trying to spice up and make more fun. This Friday marks the first awarding of certificates I made for each grade’s Best Reader of the Week. Today (Thursday – the last day to perform for the award), a certain grade 7 boy, who probably wouldn’t put school as a priority, got up to read and later my principal told me that it was the first time he did so in all of his years at the school (which hosts grades 5, 6, and 7). It was an inspiring moment to be a part of.
- I’ve been trying to find creative ways of working out. I’m going to run at some point, but it’s difficult to find the time when you use every ray of sunlight to get things done before nightfall. Thus far I’ve jogged in place, done a few crunches here and there, and executed some incredibly fast-paced fung shui due to a leaky roof. Tonight, I tried the Insanity program on my computer. My skirt caught fire during a squat. Candle Cardio, 7x a week.
- I always considered myself a nature-y person in the States (hiking, camping, general
frolicking) but living out here, literally in the sticks, really brings it up to a whole new level of reliance and preparation. I know that if the wind is blowing hard from the east, I’d better set out my rain buckets; that if it downpours at night, on my walk to school the next day my learner entourage and I will need to throw large stones into the ditch’s creek bed in order to cross; and that if a cow or goat dies, you’d better use it or lose it. Although some routine activities now take longer than they did in America, it’s pretty damn cool and fun to live this particular walk of life.
- Some darker moments are when I’m asked for my perceived riches. Some people hint; some people blatantly demand. Learners have come to my home to ask me for money, a friend asked me to buy her a cell phone, and often I’m asked for water. That’s the hardest one. When there was a serious shortage a couple weeks ago, as a last resort I bought bottled water in town to lug home. At the taxi rank, someone stared pointedly at my bottle and said, “Oh, Thandeka, I am so thirsty. Please, may I have some water?” It’s difficult to apologize and decline an inquiry like that, but I had to. Ethical internal debates always arise when one person requests something and I know that whatever treatment I give him or her, I should be okay with giving that very treatment to everyone else.
- Thus far, I haven’t been very homesick. The fact that it’s spring here and autumn at home (my favorite season) does tug a bit on the ol’ heartstrings though – the bonfires and the special beers and the seasonal flavors I love shan’t be enjoyed by me for a couple more years. This weekend is my college class’ first Homecoming and I’m trying not to think about it too much or I get a lump in my throat. All I can say is that I love my friends, I hope they do it up right, and they should get ready to run the flame nonstop at Homecoming 2014!
- The preferential strength of coffee here pales in comparison to what we (or at least I) learned to drink in America. I let some of my fellow educators try some Starbucks VIAs I got in the mail (thanks, y’all!) and they each made three cups out of the one serving sleeve. When a teacher saw me put a whole one in, she said, “You will be drugged – it’s like a medicine!”
- Sunglasses are called ‘dimmers.’
- When people double-take as my Baba introduces me as his daughter and exclaim, “Oh?!”, he says, “Yes. We heat by the same stove.” It’s a really beautiful sentiment to what family is, I think.
- If mispronounced, the name of my shopping town actually means “vagina.” Awesome; my pronunciation’s not that good yet.
- After a huge storm last night (can you imagine hail on a tin roof?) my Mama saw me, wide-eyed and pants-pooed, laughed and said, “Oh, you have a swimming pool in your house!” And with 23 roof leaks, I most certainly did.
- The phrase that all people of the Zulu culture know is, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” – “A person is a person through people.” I don’t think I even need to comment on how beautiful it is.
And with that, friends, family, and people who may have stumbled upon this, I leave you. Carry on doing great things and being you, for no one can do it better. Ngiyakuthanda! I love you!