Fleur Harris - Teaching English & Other Subjects in South Africa
AFRICA: from South to West - Fleur Harris
A few days before Christmas 2000, I decided in a spontaneous act of teenage rebellion that I would spend 6 months after leaving school working as a volunteer in Africa. Warned by family and friends that this was not a decision I should rush into, I took the plunge, and just after a year later I was on a plane to a strange new continent: deepest, darkest Africa.
I joined 'Projects Abroad ' on a double placement. January to April I spent on a farm in the Waterberg area of Northern South Africa, teaching children in a primary school. The following three months I worked as a journalist for 'The Statesman' newspaper in Ghana's capital city of Accra.
The contrast between the two placements could not have been stronger and the joint placement definitely taught me something of Africa's diversity.
South Africa to Ghana was agoraphobia to claustrophobia. Huge green expanses of South African farmland to the busy, open sewered streets of Accra, swarming with people. Rattling down farm tracks on cattle lorries in South Africa, to squashing between two seats on tro-tros in Ghana (the west African mini-bus taxis). The contrast was between drinking rich white wine on mountain-tops in South Africa, to drinking potent Ghanaian gin - 'appateshi' on the beaches of Accra. From picnicking on fresh corn on the cob to snacking on 'goat kebabs'.
Teaching in South Africa was terrifying, rewarding and sometimes frustrating. The transition from sitting facing the blackboard to standing back to the blackboard was a strange one but I was humoured along the way by 40 bright-eyed and hyperactive pupils. Aged between six and fourteen these were the children of farm labourers who lived on Boschdrai farm where the primary school was situated. To begin with I grew impatient at how long it often took to get through to the children. A poignant entry in my diary relates to this: '28th January, Today was breakthrough day, after 10 days the middle class all now understand that cat rhymes with bat - I have never been so thrilled in my life!' I soon learned to relax in my new job and rejoice in every small step of progress we made in our lessons. Instead of adopting the role of stiff English grammar teacher, I tried to liven up lessons by injecting colour, songs and photos. In return the children taught me to do cartwheels, find porcupine quills and sing like an African.
The beauty and peacefulness of the Waterberg area is something I continue to miss. Air so fresh it made your lungs tingle and water from the tap as good as mineral water. It was certainly not something I was to find in Accra, although this in itself was the very reason I grew to be so passionate about Accra: because it was not peaceful, but noisy, busy, colourful and smelly. It was an awakening of the senses. I recorded my first trip to the city's central market in my diary: 'Makola market is like nothing I have experienced before. The colours, sounds and smells are quite incredible. Spices, beans, cloth, fruit and more.
Everything is sold here from oven-baked rats and bats to toothbrushes, underwear and alarm clocks. I gawped at it all in sheer amazement as the vendors gawped back at my fluorescent white skin.' Trips to the market became my favourite weekly activity in Ghana with Gina, a Ghanaian girl the host family I stayed with introduced me to. The hospitality of the Ghanaians I met was quite overwhelming. Within 24 hours of my stay at the Wulffs' house they were calling me their daughter while Mrs Wulff's mother and aunt became my grandmothers.
Life in Accra was never dull. When I wasn't buying pineapples off the heads of street vendors, I was on Labadi beach learning how to play the bongo drums. At night we were taught how to dance like Ghanaians in one of the many 'spot bars' that blared out 'High Life' music.
I had no more previous experience as a journalist than I had done as a teacher, but I loved every moment of working for 'The Statesman' newspaper. The job was so exciting. I would turn up at the office every morning awaiting my new daily challenge and be sent to interviews, press conferences and investigations. The range of material I covered was huge - from investigations of the national poverty question in the city slums, to celebrations of Bob Marley day (the anniversary of Marley's death) in Accra's enormous stadium. I glowed with smugness seeing my name in print and returned to England keener than ever to be a journalist.
I could talk about my time in Africa for hours, days possibly weeks. I bore people rigid talking about it everyday. But I can't help it. It was the best experience I have ever had and I would leap at the chance of going again and recommend it to anyone and everyone.