This is my final video for this trip, I hope you enjoy it.
Well, sorry to say, but the days here are getting shorter than in Ithaca and it's time for me to head home. "Winter" is approaching, in that there are fewer than 12 hours of daylight in a day. (That being said, the last three days have been in the high 70°'s low 80°s, so I can't complain.) It's been a good trip: I've met a lot of nice people, seen some great schools, some beautiful places, and had a lot of fun. The next few days I will finish up teaching and tie together some loose ends, and then it's back to Ithaca. Thanks to all of you who have followed this blog, it's been great to share this adventure. A special great big thanks to Betsy and Emma who have, literally, kept the home fires burning.
This is my final video for this trip, I hope you enjoy it.
This is a photo of Preston Geswint, a retired South Africa teacher with whom I sometimes visit other schools that are part of the NMMU project. Preston missed his calling as a tour guide. Everywhere we go he knows people and he knows all sorts of interesting facts about the area. In the middle of nowhere he points out the ruins of a British fort, or a 300 year old German church. Preston knows the townships thoroughly and has sensitized me to the sub-segregation of "coloured" vs. "black" townships.
Although the term "coloured" is considered mildly derogatory in the U.S., in South Africa it is a neutral term that refers primarily to the product of racial intermingling that occurred hundreds of years ago between the early Dutch and indigenous people. Under apartheid inter-racial relations were strictly illegal, so most coloured folks trace their mixed ancestry much further back. In the Cape region, coloured people are the largest ethnic group. There is a distinction between "Black" and "Coloured" culture. In 2009 an award winning film, I'm not Black, I'm Coloured, explored some of the attendant issues. In the school where I have been teaching, Sandisulwazi, there are students from both backgrounds, but they speak different languages and live in adjacent, but separate, townships.
Several times Preston has led me deep into a township and then informed me that he is going to stay there with friends, but will give me directions to get home. He says, and it's true, that it is the best way for me to learn the area and the people, although it's also a little stressful. Preston is a master of giving "African directions" which generally make no reference to compass points or street names, but rely instead landmarks ("the 4-way with a large pothole") or vague qualifiers ("you go that side, far, far, far"). In fairness, nothing in a township runs in a straight line in any direction, and there are no street names, so there really isn't any other option. In any case, Preston's directions are unfailingly good, although memorizing them is like internalizing a short story. He generally has me repeat them back until I get it right.
The amazing thing is that when you get lost, you can actually relate the "story" to some passerby and they can tell you exactly where you messed up and how to get back on track, generally in more of the same vernacular. I should also mention that I have never felt unsafe traveling through a township, or met anyone who was not friendly and willing to help. Usually they want to hear how it is that an American is wandering the township roads. It is sort of the opposite of driving through a game park: I am the strange animal and everyone wants a peek at me.
Below are some typical township sights.
With such high unemployment South Africa has a surplus of available labor. When you walk into a restaurant there are three times the number of wait staff you would see in the U.S. When you pull into a parking lot there are people whose only purpose is to direct you to an empty (and generally obvious) slot. And petrol stations are not only full service, but you feel like you are making a pit-stop during the Indy 500 because of the multiple people tending to your car.
With this glut of labor you might expect that things would move briskly, but in fact they generally move much slower than their American analogues. If you want, you could spend hours between your last cup of coffee and the check in a restaurant. Minus some strenuous arm waving, the friendly staff have no intention of disturbing your leisure.
Today while one attendant pumped petrol for me, another cleaned my windshield with lavish dedication. First he got a bucket of sudsy water and lathered the windshield. Then rinsed, and squeegeed; lathered, rinsed and squeegeed again, and then got a fist full of paper towels and rubbed particular spots that were somehow not yet satisfactory. The whole operation took longer than the time to fill the tank (and I might add that the pumps can not be set on automatic, they need to be held, and furthermore the attendant filling the tank took a breather in mid-operation, so it's not like that task was efficiently dispatched either). This doesn't even count the time required to run my credit card (and for some reason they need to record not only your license but also your odometer reading). All in all it was about 20 minutes of care taking for my vehicle. You might picture me drumming my fingers on the dash with mounting irritation, but I have learned that in Africa you have to "embrace the pace." Any efforts to accelerate a process will be both futile and bad for your mental health.
Which brings me to a critical point: there is a sort of flip side to African time. It is easy to look at the standard of life in the townships and get frustrated at the slow pace of change since the end of apartheid, especially in the last 10 years. In some ways it is hard to see how life has improved at all for the poorest South Africans. But as one teacher pointed out to me, it is instructive to compare the transition in South Africa with the efforts to achieve racial equality in the U.S. Even if we don't start the clock until the civil rights era in the mid 50's, the U.S. has had triple the time on task. In addition, the African American population in the U.S. forms about 12% of the total population, whereas in South Africa the oppressed population constituted more than 80%. That's a lot of people's lives to improve. South Africa has far fewer resources to accomplish that goal relative to the United States, and has additionally been battling a full fledged AIDS epidemic for the last 10 years (and by the way, there is universal free health care in South Africa). With more time and resources has the U.S. really had a larger impact on racial inequality? One need look no further than our own school district's data.
All of which is not to excuse the slow pace of change in South Africa, but to put it in perspective. And this is where "African Time" comes in. As I said, you have to embrace the pace. Transition has been slow and painful, but also largely peaceful. That same attendant who was cleaning my windshield has had to wait a long time for some big changes. Patience and acceptance of a leisurely pace have kept this country in one piece.
One of my colleagues here observed, "When Africans are mournful they sing, and when they are joyful they also sing." I'd say that's seems to be true. My first clip here is of Sandisulwazi students entering school on a Monday. Not sure if that counts as mournful or joyful, but the students spontaneously burst into song as they entered the school compound.
This second clip is from the equivalent of a student of the quarter presentation this last Wednesday. Not a lot of teaching was accomplished this day. It started with a song, then some of the students started dancing, then some of the parents (several of whom are wearing traditional Xhosa dress) got into it. My camera unfortunately ran out of gas just as the whole ceremony devolved into a dance party. The principal was trying to restore order, but eventually he gave up and joined in. Okay, not enough furniture, teachers, books or calculators, but a lot of spirit. That counts for something.
Xhosa is the predominant language in the province of the Eastern Cape. Although structurally similar to Setswana and Zulu, Xhosa is famous for its "clicks." There are three basic clicks, which are consonant sounds, these are combined with 5 different vowels (very similar to the vowel sounds of Spanish) to create a total of 15 click/vowel combinations. I have a link to a great youtube video for an example of the clicks (see below, trust me it's worth it). An animated conversation in Xhosa -- and it seems all conversations are animated -- sounds like someone is making popcorn in the background.
One of my life goals -- one which it seems I will not attain -- is to become fluent in Xhosa. It is such a beautiful and dynamic language. I find myself eavesdropping on conversations just to listen to the music of the language. Nelson Mandela is a Xhosa speaker, and one of our superintendent's favorite words, ubuntu, is a Xhosa word.
umntu - means "a person"
abantu - means "people"
uhuntu - is "community"
ubuntu - is "humanity" or "human kindness"
In this next video you can here some Xhosa tongue twisters.
Several people have asked what I'm doing (aside from the beach). I guess you could say the theme of this venture is, "Technology and Education." The first half of my trip I was visiting schools that are doing innovative things with math and technology, particularly with a view towards developing a partnership between South African and Ithaca High School students. I think I've made good progress on that front.
The second half of my trip, here in Port Elizabeth, I have been working with the university which has a substantial project placing computers in impoverished schools. In South Africa not only is there a national curriculum, there is a national sequence of topics. That means everyone is teaching how to solve linear equations at the same time across the country. Many poor and rural schools lack qualified teachers, especially in math and science. It makes sense to take advantage of technology to help fill the gap. That might mean watching a video, a live internet broadcast lesson, or using interactive software. Is a computer as good as a teacher? Nope. But it is a lot better than no teacher. The best is a combination of both.
I spend a lot of time at one particular school, Sandisulwazi, which has not had a math teacher for more than a year. This is rural poverty at its worst. You never escape this life if you don't get a high school degree, you don't get a degree if you don't pass a major math exam at the end of senior year, and without a math teacher the odds of passing are pretty low.
The school is so impoverished that they don't have enough furniture for the rooms. (The five broken desks you see in the photo are all there is for a class of 30, most of whom sit on the floor). I have to bring my own chalk, because there isn't any at the school. There are not enough books for the students, and most of them don't have calculators (and yet they still have to learn trigonometry and logarithms). The thing is, there are a lot students in this school who have outstanding ability and motivation.
But thanks to this project, they do have a functioning computer lab with internet access. (It's also the only room with enough chairs.) So on days when I'm not there I can give them assignments to watch videos on specific lessons and to do problems with online software. It doesn't replace a full time teacher, but it keeps them in the game.
So at the risk of losing the sympathy of my audience I will show you some pictures of Port Elizabeth. As the name suggests, it is on the ocean (the Indian) right at the "bottom" of Africa. The city itself is quite large, and like every other city in South Africa, it has extensive satellite townships. However the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), where I am currently housed, is right on the edge of the bay. Long story short: I hear the ocean from my bedroom, it's about a mile to a long stretch of beautiful and deserted beach (except for a bunch of frolicking dolphins). The weather tends to be moderated by the ocean, so year-round it's in the 70°- 85° range. It rains sometimes, but the duration is generally measured in hours, not weeks (as in Ithaca). I will just say on my behalf that I chose to go to NMMU first, and then learned of its idyllic setting later.
Sunrise on my beach...
So I have to say, I seem to be an elephant magnet. From the moment I entered the park I kept encountering elephants (when I drove in the gate they said no one had spotted one yet that day). One thing about elephants is that although they are capable of great speed, they generally move pretty slowly (they have lots of time on their hands), so you need to be patient. At one point I was watching one elephant eating his lunch, and then suddenly three more came over the hill, then five more. They just kept coming and moving around me (in my car). Eventually I was surround by a herd of about 25 elephants. They were a bunch of goofballs, stealing food out of each other's mouths, pushing each other around. I was a little nervous that someone was going to get knocked right into my car. One of my favorite African sayings is: "When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers." This first clip shows a juvenile sharing food with it's mother, then a little rough housing between adolescents, some babies, and then an adult giving me the eye. (Unfortunately it was windy and the sound is bad).
I have lots of footage, too much to upload, but this second clip is pretty good. This young bull just came out of nowhere and started walking down the road. I love the way they walk, they know they are the coolest thing. I just let the car roll in neutral for a while while we checked each other out. I feel we had a moment of connection.
I finally went to a game preserve yesterday (Addo National park). Contrary to popular belief, township students do not live with lions and elephants in their backyards. Most of my students have never seen these animals. Nonetheless, the park is actually only 25 kilometers from Sandisulwazi school, where I have been teaching.
Hopefully this will work. Here is an interactive map of my travels. If you click on the names it will give you more information. You can also zoom in and change the base map to a satellite version. Basically I have been traveling from North to South.