Thursday, 24 March 2011

Third week in Cape Town - Twas brillig...

Monday was a holiday in South Africa. March 21st is Human Rights Day, commemorating the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. Six of us went on a “township tour”. I was a little suspicious of this – going on a walking tour of a township and taking lots of photos of poor people, and although there was an element of this it was also quite interesting. Needless to say the lives of people in the townships was pretty much as I expected it to be – poor quality housing, issues with clean water and electricity, high unemployment and HIV/AIDS, but I certainly got the feeling that people were happy. Or at least hopeful. The era of Apartheid is still recent enough for most people to at least still appreciate freedom and democracy and a sense of having ownership of there own lives. As with Robben Island I was left with a feeling of hope over expectation. I also got a glimpse into what Cameron's Big Society will look like. Lots of voluntary work going on with little State intervention or funding :)

Visiting a Township

Tuesday morning I went into school (with Jen who is teaching Maths) and all the teachers were in a meeting. We went to the Grade 7 block, just us and 180 students. As it was a Tuesday they were supposed to have a Year assembly. At 8:15 they all trotted out of their classrooms and lined up. They then spent 10 minutes singing first in Xhosa (pronounced Kohsa – it's a mesmerising language which utilises lots of clicking noises using the tongue – in fact to pronounce it correctly push your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Then flick it backwards and down creating a click noise, then say Kohsa). Then they sang the Lords' Prayer in English. Jen and I were the only teachers there. They had done this all without supervision and neatly and sensibly filed back into their classrooms to wait for their teachers. I've never witnessed anything like it (and I've taught in 6 countries) and I KNOW what students in my last school would have done if they had had an assembly and no staff had turned up.

They were then supposed to read in class for 20 minutes. They asked if I would read to them and gave me a copy of the English text book. I read them a synopsis of A Midsummer Nights Dream. Tracy would have been so proud of me. They really enjoyed it and were shocked that a father would be willing to kill her daughter. On the other page was “Jabberwocky”. A word of advice; If you're teaching Grade 7 English as a first additional language and they aren't really all that good – beware the Jabberwock, my son! Bitten off more than I could chew there.

On Wednesday night four of us went to the theatre. Sir Anthony Sher was in Arthur Miller's “Broken Glass”. I'd seem him doing some RSC stuff in Stratford -upon -Avon and he'd been in this play in London but now the Cape Town born actor had brought it back home with a South African cast. It was good and made a pleasant change from watching rubbish TV at the volunteer house. However, I counted about 250 people in the audience and only saw two black faces. Pre-theatre meal was a Pizza with honey on it. You don't get that every day do you?

This part of the world is beautiful.

My last couple of days at school involved helping out with the termly exams. Without much notice at all exams were thrust upon the class and we had two days of nothing but tests. I typed up the English exam for Mr. Mkuku and helped invigilate. Again often classes were left on their own and on more than one occasion I'd walk into a room to find the whole class quietly (indeed often silently) working away on their exam with no teacher present. There didn't seem to be any sort of exam timetable and we just went to whichever class we wanted and told them that they were now going to do their English exam. For me it was very interesting as most of the questions were based around what I and Mr. Mkuku had been teaching them the last two weeks. It soon became apparent to me that the vast majority of the students had not really understood very much of what either of us had been telling them. I'm not surprised for reasons that should be clear from my last post on the blog.

Baboons on the road to Cape of Good Hope.

But now it's time to move on. I'm posting this on Thursday night and first thing Saturday morning I'm setting off. It's time to get on the road and have an adventure. I've actually really enjoyed the three weeks I've had on the project. It's certainly opened my eyes to a few things and, although I'm sure I haven't changed anyones lives (at least not in a good way!) I've certainly learnt something and had some fun. But, obviously I'm now raring to go and although I'm quite apprehensive I'm also very excited. The whole of the last 8 months has been fantastic but there's something special (at least in my mine mind) of attempting to ride a motorbike through Southern Africa. I have no idea whether I will succeed, whether I've bitten off more that I can chew with this or even whether it's a foolish thing to be tying. But I've had it in the back of my mind since 1995 when I rode around Patagonia and I can hardly believe that I'm actually now going to have a bash at it.

Am I scared? Well, no not really. But I am most certainly excited, anxious, nervous, worried, thrilled and lots of other adjectives. (See Tracy I have learnt something from my three weeks of teaching English!)

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Second week in Cape Town and some BIG news

My first weekend in Cape Town saw me doing the touristy things – up Table mountain and over to Robben Island. Both were good, Robben Island particularly interesting of course ( in case you are either under 20 or senile, you will be aware that Robben island was a prison Island during Apartheid. Mandela and others were held here). I actually found it quite moving to be taken around the island. Our guide was a former leader of the PAC (Pan African Congress – an off shoot of the ANC) who relayed the stories with enthusiasm and dedication. He continually thanked people/countries who had supported the anti-apartheid movement and it made me feel proud to have boycotted Barclays and South African oranges when I was a student. 

Cape Town from a hazy table mountain
Top right corner - Robben island

I was particularly struck by the constant reference to “truth and reconciliation” made as we toured Robben Island. How South Africa has managed to deal with it's past without resorting to a bloodbath. It's easy to forget but many were predicting, in the early 1990s, that South Africa would collapse into civil war and tear itself apart. But this didn't happen, main duly to the policy of truth and reconciliation which allowed people to admit their crimes, and, as long as they were truly remorseful, they would not be charged with anything. This was all based on the ideas and beliefs of the “big three M's” as our guide called them - Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. You would expect that visiting a former prison would be a depressing or upsetting experience, but I left Robben Island actually feeling good about humanity for once in my life. (Not something a History teacher can often say)

Table Mountain from Robben island

Nelson Mandela's Cell

Prison on Robben island, S.A. Flag and Table mountain

On Sunday there was a cycle race in Cape Town. It was coming right past our house so all the roads were shut and there was little to do but watch the race. It was quite amazing, for 5 hours thousands and thousands of cyclists streamed along the road. (35,000 in all) I walked down the road towards the beach. The Noordhoek beach was quite stunning but the water was much colder than I had expected. No swimming here.

Largest cycle race in the world

It was like this for about 5 hours

Noordhoek beach. Lovely but the water was 11C

It's been really interesting being in Ukhanyo Primary school this week. Where do I start? The students are really very well behaved. They appreciate being taught and are keen to learn. Often classes are left alone and they just seem to get on with something and work quietly on their own. They respond to praise and are a pleasure to teach. The school seems to be doing a reasonably good job with limited resources. The photos will show you more of what the place looks like.

One of the Grade 7 classes

Mr. Mkuku's tech lesson

Silent reading at the beginning of the day

Mr. Mkuku, the English teacher is friendly and helpful. He's an enthusiastic teacher and has been very open and welcoming to me turning up out of the blue for three weeks. Whilst he is usually friendly and supportive towards his classes he is not afraid to use corporal punishment and this can leave me (and no doubt his students) confused.

Classrooms are in prefab huts

Man with stick enforces order in the playground - honest

I have to honest, though, and some things have been difficult to deal with. Corporal punishment is rife here and it's hard to witness students being hit with sticks for failing a test. Classes often seem to be left unattended as well and the timetable seems to have incorporated clashes which means that I should be teaching two classes at the same time. Also, often in the middle of a lesson the class will just get up and leave as it is there time to go to the kitchen for some fruit. I suppose on one level the school is there to provide a safe haven for young people during the day and it's just as important that they get an apple to eat as is conjugating a few verbs. I was quite shocked, annoyed and confused by this all in my first week but now I'm getting used to it. I have to change my expectations and rigid attitude towards things if I'm going to survive in Africa and this is a good introduction to all that. 

At break time the students rush to the (locked) school gates where food is sold through the bars.

Chicken feet are popular

It helps to be the biggest

Grade 7, who are 12-13 year olds, get 3 hours of English a week (They also have lessons in Xhosa the local language, Science, Maths, and Geography.) Grade 7 is the top class in the Primary school. If they pass they year they move on the High School. I'm hoping to have a day in the High school next week just to check it out. As I have said the students (or learners as they are called here) are nice but they are also quite shy and stand-offish. It's quite hard to strike up a conversation with them. They are very keen to please and this means that if I ask the class if they have understood something I get 36 voices shouting out “Yes Teacher”. Except it sounds more like “Jess Teacher” with a deeply ironic undertone to the “Yes”. It's just the way they pronounce English and they don't mean anything by it but it is quite amusing. 

At breaktime boys play football - Girls play quietly together. Some things are universal

PE lessons are based on speed and agility not games -bare foot.

In the afternoons this week I've been helping out in the Library with High school homework club and Primary school reading. My reading is coming along quite well but I was absolutely no bloody use at all with A Level Physics homework. Sometimes I play chess with primary school students in the library. I'm pleased to announce that I always beat them!

But the big news is that I got a call (well and email) on Thursday saying my bike was ready for me. I phoned the guy up and he very kindly offered to come and pick me up on the Friday morning. He did and by 11 a.m. I was at the depot watching a folk lift truck bringing my bike round the corner.

There she is!

Once I'd got the bike out of the crate I reconnected the mirrors and wind shield and then I connected up the battery (which I'd bought new just a few hundred miles before - but it had been sitting on the bike for 2 months.) I expected it not to work.

I turned it on and all seemed good. The lights all worked and the ignition started but when I hit the ignition switch it turned over but didn't fire up. I assumed no fuel was getting through. I tried this for some time. Eventually I decided that perhaps I didn't have enough fuel in the tank. I had only 10 miles left on the indicator, perhaps 1 litre. So I found a guy who went off to the petrol station to get me 5 litres. He can back (an hour later!) and I put it in. Nothing had changed and now the battery was getting flat. So I called the BMW garage and they sent a guy out with a trailer. He picked me up and we went to the garage. (This trip took 20 minutes and I reckoned with the call out charge I would be looking at at least $100 for this – he charged me $35.)
Not how I wanted to leave the depot.
The BMW guys thought the battery was flat and that was the issue. (True enough by now the battery WAS flat). Very kindly (It was now 4:40 pm on a Friday before a long holiday weekend) they changed batteries with a newer one, agreed to charge my battery and said I could come back in a couple of weeks when I wanted to change it again. Very nice of them.

The bike now started fine. I put my jacket, gloves and helmet on and was just about to sit on the bike when it cut out! The mechanic came over and said it was probably because the bike was on the side stand and the fuel intake is on the right side, so we put it on the centre stand and it worked. I was a little dubious about this as it had never happened before I was also so excited about actually having a working bike again that I just got on it and headed off.

It's hard to describe the feeling of actually being on the bike again – and in a brand new continent. The last time I ridden my bike was on January 12th through the streets of Panama City. The last time I'd ridden without Tracy on the back was when I rode into Mexico City on 22nd November. It was now March 18th and I was in Cape Town South Africa. All that waiting (not to mention the cost of shipping) now seemed worth it. And I'd chosen to ride back to my volunteer house along the beautiful Chapman's Peak road along the rugged windswept Atlantic coast. It reminded me of the North Californian or Oregon coast and for a moment I'd actually forgotten I was in Africa. Oh it was a wonderful 9 miles.

And then she cut out. Fuel just stopped getting through and the engine died. It was 5 p.m. on a Friday....

Broken down on the coast road

I phoned Steve “The bike collector” who said he was on another job and in traffic and wouldn't be with me for at least 2 hours. I phoned the bike shop and spoke to Shane who immediately thought the problem was a dodgy fuel pump. Now I don't want to pretend that I know anything about motorbikes or anything. But I had suggested this when I had arrived at the dealership. Mainly because I'd heard BMW suffer from fuel pump issues and it was on my list of expensive spare parts to take that I didn't have with me.

Shane jumped onto his bike and turned up at 5:45 p.m. with a spare second hand fuel pump. He changed it over and the bike worked fine. The old fuel pump (original one?? - the bike has now done 67,000 miles) was chipped at one end. He didn't even charge me for it.
Ah that's where the fuel pump lives.

Certainly looks old

Chipped at bottom corner (Photo specially for Nevil)

Saturday I had a day out on the bike. I went down to Cape of Good Hope and then around to Boulders beach to see the Penguins. It's just fantastic to be on the bike in a totally different continent. And it takes some getting used to to be riding on the left! I've never ridden this bike on the left hand side before. Feels weird, even though I should be used to it.

Look close - in the shadows - is it the Vashta Nerada?
 Sorry - Dr. Who joke - limited audience. For the rest of you. Can you see the penguins in the shadow?

On Sunday I did a 320 mile round trip to Cape L'Aguhlas. It's the southern most point in Africa. Question. What's the difference between (North) America and (South) Africa? Answer: At the Arctic Circle they have someone there to take your photo for you, give you some information, have a chat and wish you a good day. At the southern most point of the continent of Africa they have practically zilch. There is a sign but you can't park near it so the furthest you can ride/drive is some dusty little car park. No sign, no welcoming committee nothing. Although the actual area is stunningly beautiful (even on a windy day like I had) it must be somewhat of a disappointment if you've ridden ALL THE WAY down Africa.

That's it.

As far south as I could ride.

The guy who took this says he does wedding photos. Really?

Anyway, I parked Heidi as far south as I could and took a couple of pictures. Some guy offered to take my photo for me, so he did. I then got on, said something like, “Let's go to Nairobi” and headed north.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Cape Town

I've arrived. I'm actually here – Cape Town. I had that weird feeling leaving Dubai and seeing the last familiar faces I was going to see for a while. The same feeling I'd had when I left Tracy at Birmingham airport last July. It's difficult to describe, a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Again I had the feeling of extreme nervousness. What the hell am I doing? Why am I doing this? What have I let myself in for? Of course this time I didn't really have a choice as my bike was arriving in Cape Town so I had to go get it. 

Simon's Town - near where I'm staying
Beautiful coast road south of Cape Town

I'm volunteering with an organisation called african impact.. It's a locally run non-denominational outfit geared up to help in the local townships. They run various projects and I could have volunteered in the animal rescue centre, medical centre or with the schools programmes. I've opted, for once in my life, to put people above animals and am assisting in teaching in a local primary school. The school has 1400 primary aged children (aged 8-14) and I am helping teach English to Grade 7. Which I think is supposed to be 12-13 year olds but there are many older children.(They only pass to the next grade if they pass the exams.) Each class has about 36-40 students, housed in portocabins under the blazing South African skies. Makes for a lovely smell by lunchtime. 

My volunteer accomodation

View from my room

Dining hall and some volunteers

Mr Mkuku, whom I'm working with is the Grade 7 English teacher. He teaches all 5 classes. They have 30 minute or one hour lessons, totalling 3 hours a week. So far it appears to me as if everything is run in a rather haphazard way. There is a timetable but lessons seem to start and finish whenever the teacher wishes (Mr Mkuku doesn't have a watch) and occasionally we've moved to the next class to find that someone else is teaching there (even though the timetable says it should be us) so we've moved on. On one occasion I had just started my 30 minute lesson and someone came into the lesson and said some of the class needed to go and get some food. So half the class got up and left for 15 minutes. I'm not trying to judge or complain – it's all REALLY interesting and certainly challenging. 

PE at the primary school

I've taken a few photos around the school and township but felt very self conscious doing it. I'll try to get better pictures once I'm established there.

Nice uniform!

I have to report that the students are really very well behaved. They clearly appreciate having a teacher and are very keen to please and ever so happy when they get things right. A breath of fresh air having just worked in a private school in the UK, where everything is taken for granted. You will not be surprised (I think) to here that the less people have the more they appreciate the little they do have. At this school the rooms are messy, students are in uniform but very untidy, resources are limited (they all have exercise books and pens, text books are usually one between two and quite old) and we certainly don't have anything like interactive white boards/projectors or computers. I'm teaching with chalk for the first time in 10 years. BUT (and this is a big but) students are keen to learn and work quite hard. All that nonsense about students having to wear blazers with their top buttons done up (Didn't Gove say that?). Not necessary mate. What they need is a desire to learn and teachers willing to help. This is not a revelation to me and I'm not trying to beat up on UK private schools. It's no ones fault. You can't appreciate what you've got if you've always had it. And I've worked in enough places to have known all this already but it's opened my eyes to it again and I am so pleased I decided to do this. Don't worry I'm not about to sell my bike and dedicate my life to teaching English in a township – my English isn't good enough – but this is certainly good for me and although I hate to say it, it's reminded me that I miss teaching and want to get back into it when I'm done with this shenanigans.

My first morning went quite well in the sense that it was extremely interesting as basically the teacher handed over to me, told me what the class should be doing and told me to get on with it whilst he sat at the desk reading a magazine. (“Mr. Dom, you should do active and passive voice, OK.”) Honest! I don't think I'm going to let him get away with that for long but as it was my first day.... I taught (if that's the right word) the same lesson for four different classes between 9 a.m. and 12:30 with a 10 minute break.

It's certainly educational – for me if not for them! Which, to be honest, is why I'm doing it. I doubt if in three weeks I'm going to make much of a contribution to the education of so many students but I'M learning something. It's quite hard to teach in an environmental which is similar but different to my own. I can't teach the way I want to or the way I'm used to and I certainly can't do anything interesting with them. Apart from the fact that it would extremely difficult for the students to suddenly have to adapt to a whole new way of learning (working in groups, collaborating, sharing, thinking etc) it wouldn't be fair as I'm only there for three weeks. I'm there to help, and learn, not introduce my own ideas and impose my style of teaching on them. So there's lots of teacher instruction (although they struggle with my accent), answering questions from the text book and copying things down. If you went to school in the UK more than 20 years ago you'd probably be familiar with the concept. Oh I forgot. When we enter the classroom all the students stand up and say (in a drooling, slow group kind of way singing way that groups adopt when speaking together) “Good morning teachers how are you?” To which we reply “Very well thank you, how are you?” And they say “We are well thank you teachers.” We then tell them to sit down. Priceless!

And another thing. If any of them annoy me I can send them to the Principle for the cane. Smacking is big time OK here. I won't be doing that. There's a British Gap student working in the Maths department and she said the maths teacher routinely smack students with her ruler at the end of the lesson if they have misbehaved. No truth and reconciliation commission here.

Back to the volunteer programme. I expected most of the other volunteers to be GAP Year students, however, I didn't expect ALL of them to be. There are a dozen of us. Ten female gappies, almost all from America and the only other guy is a season ticket holder at the Emirates. Makes me feel I'm working at a sixth form school and I'm on a school trip. At least it means that, at the moment anyway, I have my own room.

Aids orphanage - great picture I know.

In the afternoon we help out for a couple of hours on one of several projects. On my first day I was at a home for Aids orphans and we were helping them with there homework. I've also spent the afternoon painting one of the container huts at the pre-school, and helped out with the cats at the animal centre. I think next week I'm helping out at a homework club for High school students.

RedHill township pre-school


RedHill Township

On my second day we took a tour of the various projects that Africa Impact work with. They have projects in three nearby township. In Ocean View which is an established, reasonably wealthy community (it has roads, and structured housing and water/electricity) there is a clinic. They get a lot of gang related injuries at the clinic, and, as always, lots of HIV/Aids. Best guess is that about 40% of the townships here are HIV/AIDS infected. Staggering.

Ocean View township

In Masiphumelele township there is a clinic, an animal rescue centre, an orphanage for children affected and infected by HIV/AIDS, a preschool and a Primary school. I'm at the Primary school. Masiphumelele is probably what you would think of when you think of a township. There are some concrete structures, some electricity and some running water. Many of the buildings are actually container boxes. About 40,000 people live here. 

RedHill pre-school

RedHill is the third township. This is really little more than a series of shacks on the hillside. The project has a pre-school and a nursery here. The history of this township is interesting. It's on private land owned by a guy who, during apartheid, allowed blacks to set up temporary homes. The idea was that whilst traveling around this part of the Cape they could use this land as a bolt hole should they be chased by the police whilst breaking curfew. Now the government leases the land off the landowner and 1,600 people call it home.

RedHill pre-schoolers playing in the dirt

Going up Table Mountain and to Robben Island this weekend. And rumour has it that my bike might be in town. I would love to think that by the time I post next weeks blog I'll have my bike with me.