I know that I promised something on Zulu culture. And I’ll get to that. But I have something else on my mind right now.
I went to a science workshop today. There is a science fair in two weeks. Every school sends their representative students, who will present posters and answer questions. The winning students will get scholarships to go to prestigious high schools. And everyone gets improved science materials, instruction, and funding.
Aw, how sweet. Schools that don’t send students will have funding cut, but that’s just a push to make schools take this seriously, right?
And what useful information we learned! Everyone can make a pretty border on their poster now; because that will offset the fact that the posters have both vapid and inaccurate information (beyond the mistakes in the workshop handout).
And isn’t this a great way to let students shine! Think of the possibilities: one of these poor, impoverished students might get the chance for a better education and life! Except that, you know, only the students at the already adequately managed schools even have the slightest shot at the prize.
My students? We’ll pick the brightest science students we have. They barely understand English, they have rarely seen a science experiment in their lives, and they have never been taught to think either creatively or logically for themselves. Our brightest students go to be humiliated, for science to be made an instrument of torture.
The generation before them was educated under Bantu education, where black people were taught the bare minimum to be good servants. This still has effects. I heard an adult this morning – an intelligent adult with many leading roles in the community – who could not do basic arithmetic. I mean, arithmetic like “5,315 + 0,1” (or “5.315 + 0.1” for my American readers). I have talked to teachers – teachers! – who thought that Australia and London are in the United States. (And the teachers are continuing to take courses and work for certifications, by the way – so I’m pointing out the system’s failures, rather than necessarily those of the individuals.)
Who, then, has been around to help my students? And it is worse than you might think. They don’t just have misinformation. They have never been taught to retain information or to process it themselves. I taught a basic lesson for an entire week – a lesson that should have already been review – and it was completely lost from their minds after another week. That’s the entire class, not just the layabouts. I wrote an example flashcard on the board, and 15 minutes later almost a third of the class had failed to copy it down. I could keep going on.
Oh, and then there’s the fact that the government won’t finish paying for a building sitting half-built in the yard. (They don’t mind paying large sums to change the name of the district, however.) The school needed to have pit latrines completely rebuilt, because the learners were getting diseases and rashes from the old ones. And then there’s the E. coli problem with the water source. Or the 4th-5th grade classroom which has no glass in the windows and poor lighting (all natural) together with dirty chalkboards.
And how about the 10 km walk for some students? Or their chores at home, which might include bringing herds of cows home several km more? And there are verified HIV positive students, some of whom don’t even know their status – their parents just give them their meds without explanation.
These kids have been set up for failure. It’s nice to say that maybe I will be the turning point for some of them. But honestly? They have years more of poor schooling ahead of them, enough to undo what I bring. And will the small amount that they retain be enough to get them to a better tertiary school (if any at all) or a better job? When I train the teachers at my school, will this make any difference whatsoever compared to the NGOs already there, which seem to accomplish little more than decorative reforms?
So why am I here? I started this tirade with the group of well-wishing philanthropists who don’t seem to have a clue about my school or the problems my learners have. There needs to be a change, but good intentions are not sufficient. Good intentions are never sufficient, whether coupled with charitable donations, dances around a campfire while singing “kumbahyah”, or with some feeling of “identification” with the locals. I am here to understand just what the problems are, to try to find something, anything, that might be done to change the world and right these hideously twisted systems.