Paved with Good Intentions

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.



I’ve been thinking about diversity since I’ve been here. South Africa has 11 different official languages. The United States has none. Both countries are highly diverse, and I feel that this sums up their different takes on diversity. (Warning: the following consists of my own subjective take on matters, and I welcome any alternative opinions on the subject.)

In the USA, diversity seems to be largely concerned with where one came from, possibly generations ago. I define myself as being Scottish, Irish, and Swedish, with colonial ancestors as well. Oh, yeah, and I’m a Midwesterner too. Others might identify as Asian-American, or Polish-American, or African- or Mexican- or Cuban-American. (Of course, there are Native Americans, too, but we sweep them under the rug usually. Seriously, South Africa eventually got rid of its “homelands” for ethnic groups – we still have sub-par reservations.).

So a good deal of American diveristy is exocentric – based on where one came from outside of the country. The metaphor used is that of a melting pot, or more recently a salad bowl, but still a hodge-podge of different sorts. We are a “nation of immigrants.”. I went to a university in Indiana, where I learned the Japanese art of origami from a Brazilian, and I still remember the Air Band performance there to the Bollywood song “Mahi Ve.” When asked about my favourite foods, I answer “Thai” or “Korean.”

South Africa contains its diversity internally, by constrast. As I pointed out in the last post, most people here stake some claim to the land (though there are also the Brits, and a huge Indian population – Mahatma Gandhi started his Satyagraha movement here, and his son was an importpant figure in anti-apartheid struggle. This is to leave out the Chinese and Malays, and the recent African immigrants – I am reporting general impressions, not necessarily accurate in the details). There are the amaZulu, the amaXhosa, Basotho, Vatsonga, and so on, just amongst the African peoples. (And the amaXhosa seems to be a confederacy of different tribes, at that.) Then the Afrikaans-speaking people, which include both those of European descent as well as those of mixed racial background.

This is the “rainbow nation.” Every colour is represented here, in theory. Most people seem to locate their identity inside South Africa. Different languages come from inside the country. People in general seem to trace their roots back hundreds of years here. The government is trying to incorporate this diversity in the country; unlike in the US, there actually are blacks in the government here in a proportion somewhat resembling the population. (Though if they actually put into effect the official language policies, my Zulu students wouldn’t so desperately need to know English.)

What does one make of this? I don’t know – I plan on trying to find out more while I am here. I feel like the US is starting the change, to be a little more similar to SA. More and more, we seem to have populations that are Spanish speaking (or Arabic, if you are around the Dearborn area, where I’m from), and they are no longer recent immigrants. They’ve been around a couple generations and are just as much a part of the population as anyone else. The white population will soon be less than a majority – and the sooner that happens in Congress too, the better. So what lessons can we take from a country that is already dealing with some of the issues that arise?

But what does this diversity here in SA entail? What do you think of when you think “Zulu”? Tune in next time, same bat-channel, some random bat-time.

View on the Walk to School


What is “Indigenous”?

South Africa raises the question of “Who really belongs here, anyway?” It is tempting to say, the Africans, of course. But it is not quite so simple. Which Africans? There was a group called the Khoi-San. The San people used to live in my area. These would be the oldest inhabitants; but they are mostly gone now, with some small pockets remaining over in the Kalahari Desert. (And I’ve heard that they were killed off both by Europeans and by Africans, so it’s not like only one side gets the blame.)

The Bantu peoples from up North migrated in some time ago; I’ve heard about a thousand years ago as well as 400 years. I think those dates refer to different events, so I’ll go do a little more research. But many of these tribes broke off and formed their current identities only within the past 200-300 years.

The Europeans of course came in and colonized as they were wont to do, with the destruction as was wont to occur. So it would seem like they have the least title to the land. But what does one do with the Afrikaners? Their ancestors were mainly Dutch, as was their historical language, but they have a differenty identity now, one forged on African soil. To call them Dutch would be like calling an American British.

And on top of these groups, there are the Coloureds, who are the descendents of mixed unions. They form yet another social grouping in South Africa. Since they come from the specific cultures that met here in South Africa, this population would seem to be at least as indigenous as thos who migrated in.

Basically, there are many claimants to the land, and the most rightful ones are mostly dead. So who is genuinely South African?


One Month In

I’m not dead; I just haven’t felt like I’ve had much to write about. A lot of what happens here is just part of a daily grind. There are also restrictions on what is prudent to post here, so when a story does happen, I can’t necessarily share it in a public forum. Which is why you should all message me instead for juicy details (FB, BBM, What’s App, or email).

I honestly don’t feel like I’m in Africa. It’s weird – I remember feeling like everything was surreal when I saw a band of goats walking down the street in our training village that first phone call I made. Now I just make sure the goats aren’t eating my laundry. And cows blocking the road as the khumbi (public taxi) comes barreling through? Normal. Yawn.

The weather might as well be in the Midwest, except with seasons reversed. People listen and dance to hip-hop and house music, not traditional Zulu chants. People wear jeans and t-shirts, at least the men (women tend to be more traditionally dressed).

This is not to say that it’s a bad thing; just that (a) Africa isn’t what y’all think it is, and (b) one gets used to things surprisingly quickly.