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.


News Flash

I’m trying to get caught up on current events in SA. Reading books is great and all (and I’ve started up another one I’ll talk about sometime: My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan), but most end either before the fall of apartheid or shortly thereafter. So I’ll try to post some news stories that I find in order to give a better view of what SA is like now. Here are the first couple:

(Possible) State of Education

I thought that I would jot down some of the problems that I’ve been warned about going into South Africa. Basically, why would they have a need to import in an educator from America for the job? Of course, all of this is book knowledge at this point, and I may have no idea what I am talking about (a pretty common situation I find myself in). But here’s what I’ve heard, at least.

  1. There’s a legacy of something called “Bantu education,” which prepared blacks to be able to be excellent servants to those getting a proper education. (Good thing that the US was never such jerks to either people of different colored skin or to native tribes. Or that we uprooted and relocated said tribes. Or even if we would have, I’m sure that we would give them decent living conditions when they got their own nations…. Sigh, nothing like studying to show you what an a-hole you are yourself.)
  2. Since the end of apartheid and the attempt to bring educational standards up, there has been constant change in curricula and teaching methods. Established teachers are getting tired of this constant revision and losing motivation.
  3. South Africa has one of the worst incidence rates of HIV/AIDS in the world, and I will be going to provinces that have some of the highest rates in South Africa. From what I gather, many, many children are being raised by grandparents. There is almost an entire generation missing in some places.

Right now, I’m trying to balance out the pressure and excitement of leaving for PC with the fact that I am still here in the States. It’s been easy to be disconnected now, as being emotionally and mentally over-prepared to leave, even though I’ll still be in Milwaukee for another month and the US for two. I figure that if I can’t stop and see my surroundings now, I won’t be able to even when I’m in the thick of it in South Africa. Time to listen to “Snails” by The Format, then go for a bike ride by the lake.


I was filling out the most recent batch of PC paperwork last week. (For the record, it never ends. The initial application is not a hurdle; it is a plateau.) I had to send out a resumé and a statement of aspiration to South Africa so that they’ll know what to do with me once I am over there (I’m sure my family could narrow it down to two words: padded room). Funny thing is that I have to talk about how I plan to do a job when I don’t quite know what that job is or even exactly it will be (for an example of my quandary: you’re told you will teach in the US. Will that be in the UP? Kansas? Texas? Southern California? Virginia? Now, what if each spoke their own language as well? Though I guess Texas already does…).

However, I do know something about the job. I will be teaching children. And by “children”, I mean 6 – 15 year olds. I had a bit of a panic attack on realizing this. Wait, me, hang out with kids all day? The guy who expressly requested when working at camp to be placed on maintenance instead of counseling? Being placed with the one group of human spawn with whom I have no experience teaching?

Examine the typical life-cycle of my interests. I become intensely enthused, study excessively, find a problem, freak out, whine and complain and annoy people around me. Fortunately, the next few steps are usually to calm down, tell myself to shut up and deal with it, learn about what I was panicking about, and find out that it actually is more interesting than I thought. Lather, rinse, repeat.

So I’m at the calming down stage now and picked up some books on primary education pedagogy from the library. And really, I like the idea of teaching young children much better than teaching blasé college students. It is a chance to actually make a difference, to shape habits when they are most moldable. I mean, I still won’t be working wonders, but there’s something to be said about teaching science to students who want something more than the “practical” applications of it, or of teaching medical habits when they might actually become instilled. And in addition, I’ve reframed it to myself as a challenge. Dealing with children and breaking up information into easily digestible pieces are not strong suits of mine. Therefore, I should get better at them.

I’m still working on getting myself excited about teaching arithmetic and word problems, however.


I have the official information now. I will be in South Africa, with orientation starting 10 July. Evidently, my job description in the invitation packet is that of “primary education”, without many specifics in the way of math. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than that I will be maintaining flexibility in the months to come. The two provinces I may be in would be Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, two of the easternmost provinces. But the specific site won’t be decided until I’ve been overseas for a month and a half, or so I gather. All info is subject to change, of course.

I’m currently adding and revising links over in the right sidebar so that people can have some basic info on the country I’ll be visiting. As I read up on history and culture, I’ll post some of that here too.


Got the email today. I’m in. July, teaching secondary ed mathematics. Where and when, you ask? That I’ll find out in the next 10 business days as the physical invitation is mailed to me. But it’s official.

I think this calls for a martini.

Update on the medical stuff (since I know that no one wanted to see that at the top of this message): the problem was not necessarily my asthma, but rather that I have been to urgent care recently and they needed to find a site that was within 4-6 hours of medical care, should I need it. So I won’t be way, way out in the boonies (which, actually, I kinda would have liked). But they found something for me, so I am happy.

Historical Perspective

One problem I’ve been seeing about PC health missions in Africa is the problem of convincing people of preventative measures. People don’t want prevention; they want a cure to the horrible parasite infecting them now. Malaria avoidance takes a back seat to chloroquine injections to cure it now.

In order to understand this, first let’s look at West African society. West Africa has a lot of bugs and little food with little protein. Death rates are high and often people have to work the whole day long to be able to eat. Of course a society like that is going to prize the present day. Saving up for tomorrow only makes sense if (a) you have enough to save up, and (b) there’s a reasonable chance you’ll make it to tomorrow. When resources are scarce and life uncertain, by contrast, societies are going to value activities that celebrate the present. I say this to underscore how material conditions affect what people value, and that it makes sense if one puts oneself in their position.

But more than that, let us not forget that preventative health did not immediately catch on in the West. When it was suggested that washing hands would cut down fatality rates in hospitals, doctors laughed! It took a while for modern medicine to catch on in the West. When you really look at it, you could go back to the Greeks, to Aristotle’s observational skills, the work of classical and medieval physicians such as Galen, Avicenna, and Maimonides, the rise of Aristotelianism, nominalism, and mechanical physics, the discovery of germs, and then the further scientific research to get to where we are today. It took our society millenia to discover this stuff; why should it be introduced elsewhere in a single generation?

When you think about it, putting aside modern education on the germ theory of disease, hand-washing does seem like an almost magical ritual. Why should it work? And even now, most people do not take advantage of preventative medicine, but wait until they are sick. Hand-washing is really a magical ritual for most, and vaccines taken because required.

Things take time, and the problem of introducing new medical practices hits against a certain inertia in human nature that we see at home just as much as overseas. I do not plan to go to change the world. I hope to make a difference in one or two lives. They can impact a couple more, and from there more, until in a few hundred years there is health and education throughout the region. I would like to see it done now, to be sure, but (1) societies change over generations, and (2) the real change needs to come as an African response to African needs, and not some middle-class white boy telling them what they need. I go to offer tools I find useful and that I think are useful to human beings in general, and hope that they will actually be so.