Ray and Wendy Dunnett - Teaching English & Other Subjects in South Africa
We are in our early sixties and recently retired from teaching careers in the UK. We felt that we might be able to use our experience by volunteering to teach children in a very different culture. Wendy had helped many students in the sixth form college where she taught to arrange gap years and had been impressed with the range of projects offered by Projects Abroad.
So it was that in May 2010 we two British grandparents found ourselves in Parkwood, a township in Cape Town, sharing a home with five other volunteers, all in their twenties. We lived in a relatively luxurious house with a lovely couple, Lecia and Les, who built the house on the site of the shack in which Les was born. He ran a car repair business from the yard. Lecia was an excellent cook and fed us very well on a variety of African, Cape Malay and European dishes.
Parkwood is a township that was created by the apartheid government to house “colored” people who were moved forcibly from the areas that were to become “white” only. Most were settled in blocks of council flats that are now very run down and squalid. From the veranda of our house there were wonderful views of Table Mountain in the background but immediately in front of us was an area of wasteland. This was the gathering point for local youths, the training area for horses and the place for dumping rubbish and burning it. The buildings were mainly two storeys with an apartment on each floor, generally in a poor state of repair and virtually all with corrugated iron extensions. Quite a lot of these extensions were actually the home to a family but many were also used as small shops mainly selling a few sweets, some food or fruit - usually oranges.
Although we followed advice and did not go into the estate on our own, (Lecia went with us) we felt we would have been completely safe going into the area during daylight hours, since everyone knew that we were the white teachers from the school and children and their mothers rushed up to greet us all the time. There were about 8 churches and a mosque in the locality. Most of the children in the school came from this estate but some lived in better housing in the wider neighborhood.
Our project was at Hyde Park Primary School just along the road from our home. There were about 900 children, mainly aged 5-13, divided into seven year-groups (grades). There were 3 or 4 classes of about 40 children in each grade, one being taught primarily in Afrikaans and the others in English, although everyone was bilingual and many also speak Xhosa, one of the tribal languages. Wendy had taken a TEFL course and expected to be teaching English as a Foreign Language but this proved to be a waste of time! We soon learnt that school organization was totally unpredictable and that we were on “African time”. Although in a poor area the school was reasonably well-equipped but government funding didn’t run to teachers for IT or PE. The school raised money to employ unqualified teachers to fill the gap.
We were taken to meet the headmaster the day before we started but the school left us to work things out for ourselves. Ray was to help teach IT but the “teacher” was absent for most of the first week and he was left to his own devices. The school was equipped with an IT room with some 45 computers given by a South African bank. There was very limited slow internet access. Most of the class teachers had very limited IT skills and sent messages to the IT staff to send emails and type letters for them. The numbers in each class made teaching difficult so the syllabus was fairly limited, from use of mouse in Grade 1 to very simple word-processing and cut-and paste techniques in Grade 7.
Wendy helped mainly in a Grade 7 class of 11 -15 year olds. The “learners” were squashed into desks that were often too small and there was little space in the classroom. Ability was very varied – some could barely read and write but others learnt fast and were bored. The hardest thing was adapting to a “chalk and talk” method of teaching with much yelling by the teacher and threats of punishment. There was an overhead projector collecting dust in the corner and any other equipment was locked away for security. Group work was a very new concept and there was very little space to move children around. The children were lovely but they were reaching the end of primary school and beginning to rebel. Teaching them was surprisingly challenging for a teacher used to electronic equipment back in the UK.
Our stay was dominated by the Soccer World Cup, a huge event for South Africans. It gave us an ideal focus for lessons as the teachers tried to teach the children what this huge international event would mean to their country. For poor children there was very little chance that they would be able to see a game live but the government had given schools two weeks extra holiday for the tournament. Many of our children had their one meal of the day through a government feeding program that gave them a free meal at school. This would be badly missed during an extended five week holiday.
Most of the children followed British soccer teams and had the mistaken view that England would win the cup because of Wayne Rooney! Grade 7s were keen to know about Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool and our host family’s first granddaughter was named Chelsea because of Lecia’s support for them! Wendy’s main teaching aid was the official guide to the World Cup. Another volunteer, Jo, who’d been born in Africa but brought up in Switzerland, was helping run PE lessons and he ran an informal soccer tournament between the classes. Each class represented a country and as a geography teacher Wendy was able to teach about several world cup countries as well as England.
The school had a field that doubled up as playground and soccer pitch. There was as much bare ground as grass and there were no markings for matches and no proper goals. Classrooms were decorated and there was a dance competition with the World Cup “Diski” and “Waka Waka” dances.
Alongside all this the children had to sit end of term assessments. Ray spent much of his time designing and printing banners for classes for their teams as well as inputting huge numbers of assessment results. Wendy also helped with several classes of younger children from reception (5-6 year olds) upwards. She became an expert story teller, could explain the colors of the S. African flag, the Union Jack and the England flag and could control (?) 40 –60 children coloring in flags and pictures.
On our last day Wendy’s class arranged a farewell party with huge chocolate cakes and other goodies. We took over Lecia’s kitchen to make cup cakes and flapjacks, assisted by Marlene, a Danish Human Rights volunteer. The children were thrilled that we joined in their impromptu dancing. It was sad to see so many of them filling plates of food to take home to mothers and even grandmothers. Since our return we have been able to raise money towards new turf for the field and we look forward to hearing that football can be played on a proper pitch.
One advantage of a teaching project was that the school finished in the early afternoon giving us time to catch the train or local combi taxi bus to the shops or to go sight seeing. We used our time to the full, rushing off at weekends to tour the Cape with other volunteers, to go up Table Mountain, visit the world famous Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, the Waterfront shops, the beaches, the penguin colony, endless museums and, of course, the new soccer stadium. A highlight was the boat trip to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned.
Having bid a sad farewell to everyone in Cape Town we set off to travel and see more of this wonderful country. We went whale watching, visited the winelands and then went inland to the Karoo where Ray rode on an ostrich. We took the Garden Route along the coast and flew to Johannesburg to stay with Ray’s cousin and her family. It was quite a contrast to stay in a middle class white suburb after our time in a township.
Throughout our travels we were embarrassed by England’s performance in the World Cup! Having seen penguins, elands, dassies and ostriches in Cape Town we rounded off our stay with a safari in Greater Kruger where we managed to see the big five. We flew home with a plane load of disappointed football supporters and arrived at Heathrow amidst trumpeting vuvuzelas.
It was the end of an amazing experience!