Friday, June 5, 2009
Thursday, June 4, 2009
I was really, really nervous going into my internship on the first day, both because I had very little idea what I would actually be doing and because I had no experience with social work. As the first week went on (the days before we started our internships), I just kept feeling more and more anxious. The day before we started working, we went to tour the internships, and that helped to change my feelings a lot—I still didn’t really know what I’d be doing, but I knew more about Christel House and the short presentation re-piqued my excitement and my readiness to get started.
Once we got started, I felt a lot better, even though we didn’t end up where we thought we would be: there wasn’t room for us (Megan and me) with the social workers, so we basically got stuck in the remedial room with a teacher called Miss Fran helping to teach students (some of whom can barely speak English) how to read and do math. That, however, definitely turned out to be a blessing-- it was a wonderful experience and it definitely showed me how much even a little bit of help (or a 3-week intern) can give. I learned way more than I ever expected.
Even though, since I’m only working in one room, my role in the organization is really quite small, I can definitely see how big of an effect it has and how important my role is within the organization. Without people like us, without remedial room teachers, the students we work with would continue to struggle and fall further behind, and Christel House’s mission, to educate and break the cycle of poverty, could not be achieved—and the children deserve better than that. They deserve the chance to make a better life for themselves. I’ve seen them work and they try so hard just to read a simple word or solve a math problem. For the most part, they want to be there and want to learn, and they deserve that chance. And that is where Christel House fits within the larger pursuit of human rights in
At first, while really enjoying my internship, I was a little jealous I wasn’t doing something like Adam, or Abby, or especially Cameron, who were working with very powerful organizations where they worked directly with important people in the organization (that’s not to say the children at Christel House are not important) and adults who are already making a direct difference to South Africa and even the world. I mean, they made amazing connections and learned so much about the human rights movement. I was working at a school that, while they definitely appreciated the help (Miss Fran really needs people like Megan and I to come help her, and the school seemed understaffed in general), they didn’t necessarily really seem to care so much that we were there, for the most part. However, after a few days, I realized that I was helping and making a difference. While not making the same connections as some of the other students in my group, I was helping children who could grow up to be the next generation of human rights activists, children who adored us and appreciated our help. And that, in itself, counts for quite a bit.
As I sat there, I tried my best to compare and contrast these same issues to how things are in America and I realized that the only difference is that instead of people being judged solely based on their skin color, individuals highlight certain attributes of people and treat them negatively based on their appearance, their goals and ambitions, and through envious behavior. I found myself saying “ at least things are slightly better in the USA,” not realizing that just because it is seen as being better does not make it acceptable or equivalent to being alright.
I now know through this experience that a sense of community is an important attribute that should be implemented into society as a whole, but especially within the African-American community/culture. This experience has highlighted so many negatives within the black community that I felt that in order to change the behavior of people within society, one must first deal with the issues of overcoming common problems like low self-esteem, self- absorbency, and the individualistic take on life (thinking that everything is about “you.”)
It is important to note that we, as American citizens, take a lot of things for granted and live in a world of individualism. It has been imbedded in our culture to believe that it is great to think only of oneself, but if everyone thought about themselves all the time, then when will we reach a point to where we are able to assist those individuals who can not assist themselves? Who can not read, walk, eat, or even live? These are major questions that came to mind when I looked through these townships and I saw the looks on these people faces as they struggle to eat, sleep, and feel comfortable with their living situations and their inner being. The question that I pose now, is what have you done for your community?
The next two weeks were an adventure of another kind, that of bureaucracy. For the first few days, I analyzed data from an excel spreadsheet that detailed the problem of vote spoilage at a regional level. Overall, vote spoilage wasn’t catastrophic, with about 1% of ballots needing to be thrown out because voters didn’t follow proper voting procedures, but in a few outlier precincts that ratio jumped substantially, with the worst having 21% of ballots being thrown out. I was also supposed to analyze data involving the Section 24A law that allows voters to vote at any voting station, instead of where they’re registered. Unfortunately, this data didn’t arrive. The upside to this is that I got to talk with some of the people at the office, and I’m getting pretty good at FreeCell.
Another part of my experience was the commute. In order to get 12 miles away to the IEC office in Bellville, I would walk 5 blocks to Kloof Street, take a minibus taxi to the hub on top of the train station downtown, and take a Bellville minibus all the way to my office on Voortrekker St. in Bellville. All told, it would usually take me between an hour and a half to two hours to get twelve miles down the road, but it was certainly an experience being in a 12 passenger van with 20 other people, weaving in and out of traffic as the driver cut off every other car and van in Perow, often using curbs or sidewalks as a means to an end. All that and I haven’t gotten mugged or pickpocketed! Neat! I’ve also really enjoyed the other things we’ve done, especially our outings to Robben Island, Cape Point and Kirstenbosch.
What did I get myself into?
I am not very good with little children and I was not looking forward to changing dirty diapers and wiping snotty noses. For the first day I thought I would just observe the teachers and kids, but I was quickly thrown into the role of teacher when both the women working there left to go run errands in the building. I was mortified. The children were running rampant throughout the room, hitting and fighting each other, putting dangerous objects in their mouths, stealing toys from each other and then flipping off others as well as me. I knew these children were victims of abuse and I refused to be forceful with the children, but my soft, quiet ways in dealing with them were not effective. I was so relieved when the teachers came back into the room and regained control.
For several days in the daycare that was all I could see: a bunch of defiant little kids that had no respect for authorities. It wasn't until Steve and Elaine came in to observe and commented about how much the teacher loved the kids that I saw it for myself. I was very critical about how harsh the teachers were on the children. In the U.S., spanking an abused child is taboo, but in South Africa, that is not as frowned upon, but nevertheless, I judged them on that.
Finally I saw the love in it all. The teachers saw behind the mess of fighting, smelly, slobbery kids and saw a child who was deserving of their love. After three weeks of working in the daycare, I am worn out, but my exhaustion is only temporary. Those teachers will continue coming to work every day, putting up with the children's problems, teaching them important life lessons, but most importantly, loving them.
One thing I have learned is that you cannot completely change a person with a one time donation. Change is brought about when you invest in people's lives and show them their worth. This is what the teachers and employees of Place of Hope are doing every single day. With organizations like Place of Hope, South Africa can be transformed into a country that values every human life.
Monday, June 1, 2009
Upon arriving at my internship, I had very little understanding of what I would be doing there or about the South African education system. I was pleased to find out that I would be working in the English department and that I would be teaching literature rather than grammar. While I would have had no problem teaching grammar, and I actually expected to be doing so since English is a foreign language, I was gladly relieved to teach literature, because it is my plan to eventually be a college literature professor. After a few days of basic office work and getting comfortable with the staff and students, I was finally given the opportunity to teach a class last Wednesday. I prepared “Poem for My Mother” by Jennifer Davids, a South African poet, and was confident and ready to lead class on my walk to the mini bus taxi station. I was given a pleasant surprise that put a dent in my confidence on my walk to class that day. Mrs. Bopi, the teacher that I have been working with, was walking to class with me, when all of a sudden at the classroom door turned to me and said, “I’ll be in my office if you need anything.” This took me completely off guard, because I just assumed that she would come with me to help out if needed and maintain order in the classroom. When I turned towards the door my stomach was instantly knotted a million times over, but I took a deep breath and walked into the room. After trying to quiet the class a few times with my normal voice, I soon realized that I would have to speak much louder for a class of forty plus high school students to hear me. Once I got the class settled down, I began to teach the poem. The hardest thing to adjust to, besides talking so loud (I am usually a little soft spoken), was to speak slowly and enunciate very clearly, because, to the students, I have a very strong accent. In the forty-five minute class period, I got through everything that I needed to cover with the class, which was a great relief. At the end of the class, one of the girls sitting in the front row, who I had gotten to know somewhat talking during a few breaks, called me over to ask a question. What she said, I don’t think I will ever forget because it was probably one of the funniest things, given how nervous I was to be alone during my first teaching experience in a room full of students that speak English as a third language to Xhosa and Afrikaans. She said that she felt so bad for me because she could see how nervous I looked throughout the entire class. She did reassure me, though, telling me that I did a good job teaching the poem. The overall experience, nerve-racking as it was, has reaffirmed my already strong desire to continue my education, after the undergraduate level, to teach. It has been not only a great learning experience in how to manage a classroom and make a lesson plan, but also in building a relationship with Mrs. Bopi and the principle, Mr. de Villiers.
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Friday, May 29, 2009
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Monday, May 25, 2009
The struggle for these people lies not in ideology, but rather in economic viability. For example, a bus ride to work costs around R5, then a ride home from work is another R5. If that same worker only earns a meager R8 per day and actually losing money rather than making it, how does that worker survive?
A significant difference that exists between South Africans and Americans is the ideology which they live by. If going to work everyday to an activist organization; such as the T.A.C., means making a difference in one person’s life…working towards a collective goal, and spending more on transportation that day than they make during that same day…it is worth it.
In America, people work towards the so called “American Dream,” the white picket fenced in house in the suburbs, the perfect children, the middle class dream; but how many people do you know in America that work beyond this dream? How many take action to fight for a common cause?
It is easy to criticize political leaders, and even more easy to say that it’s some one else’s problem or someone else’s issue. During my short stay here in South Africa, I have come to realize that nothing will ever change unless you take action. Just like my mother used to say, “You just can’t keep doing the same thing, and expect to see different results…something has to change!”
Activism is a challenge, but it is one of the most effective tools a community can possess. Nelson Mandela explains it best when he says:
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter: I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill one only finds there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” (Mandela, 1994)
The issues that so many South Africans face on a day to day basis are countless. These people fight every day for human rights that are so often taken for granted in our American culture. Here in South Africa, people are denied so many human rights everyday. The fight to gain these rights has begun and South Africa has made large strides towards a true democracy; but there is still a long way to go.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Friday, May 22, 2009
Thursday, May 21, 2009
This school was different than your average school in a couple ways. For starters, it is stricter. The children wear uniforms, call teachers “miss” or “mister”, and are quiet and well behaved. Also, they clearly really want to be in school, and have worked very hard to get to where they are. They have the full support of their parents (who are required to volunteer to cook and clean at the school), and the school offers many programs that benefit them and their families on many levels (providing substance abuse, child abuse, and HIV-AIDS education, dental and eye care, etc). Those were the differences I noticed in the first five minutes just looking over the kids sitting in the assembly and glancing around at the posters on the walls, which explained the social services the school had to offer.
The real differences slowly came to the surface throughout the day. Two teachers (and I) were in charge of 40-50 kindergarten-aged kids, many of whom were DESPERATE for attention. When I first sat in class, they smiled shyly at me, and some came over to ask me questions. After the first hour, they were hanging all over me. If I stood up, they crowded me, hugging me, grabbing my hand, and fighting over me. They wanted to me to tie their shoes even if they knew how to, they wanted to me to mix their food up at lunch, and they wanted me to give them my undivided attention, even if only for a minute.
In class, we covered ordinary stuff (like the number nine), but also stuff that isn’t ordinarily covered in American schools (HIV-AIDS prevention, or, how one must “never ever touch another person’s blood). Several classroom posters featured HIV-AIDS (including one that said AIDS Is Deadly Serious and another with a giant red ribbon). It was clear that AIDS had affected many of the children in some way, from losing a loved one to living in fear of being infected.
While the kids were very wild and tiring, I enjoyed my first day. The other teachers seemed exhausted, and I understand why. Instead of teaching, I will mostly be assisting them in simply taking care of the children. My job is to be an extra set of eyes, someone to check the students’ work and make sure they are paying attention. I’m supposed to remind them to keep their hands behind their backs and to go to the bathroom in a single file line. All those things seem easy, if not trivial. However, I know that what I am doing is important.
As I was helping the kids get on the busses to take them home, one little boy hugged me and said, “Miss Bre, are you coming back Monday?” Even though that interaction seems a little cheesy, it really made me feel better working at Christel House. Even though I’m not in a leadership position or working at a political organization, I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. Just by spending time with these kids and giving them a little attention, I am doing my part to help them towards a better life.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
“So you’re going to South Africa.”
Why? An absurd question. No one else had required that answer. They knew it was an amazing opportunity, that it’s focus was human rights (a passion of mine that I flaunt too proudly), and that it would be in a damn pretty country. That suited most just fine. Neil, however, was never satisfied with a resume. He wanted the answers I was not even telling myself.
I rambled. I made excuses. I cited statistics from my research project. He was not convinced. Instead, he spoke of his own plans to study abroad in Russia and shared with me his realization- “I’m running away from the certain; I’m running to the new and terrifying.”
And I nodded. So was I. So were all of us. Yes, this particular program has its own appeal- an internship AND tourism. Beautiful. Affordable. History. Human Rights. Other Truman students. Short enough, if things proved too terrifying. It was like finding a meal on the menu consisting of all your favorite foods- just too perfect to pass up. But why go abroad in the first place? Because I am tired of the security, comfort, and monotony of Kirksville, of Missouri. I’ve found my life stagnant and my growth nonexistent as I become too familiar with the people, the customs, the realities of my little life. And in Cape Town, I am an alien, a stranger, trying to learn how to function and who to be. It is in the “new” and “terrifying” that I will not only encounter the eye-opening, fascinating, humbling, and expanding, but I will hopefully return with a little more clarity on where I am to go and who I am to be.
Babies only grow so much in the womb, eventually, it’s time to get born. But I didn’t leave kicking and screaming, crying and terrified, or smiling and thrilled. I’ve seen in all of my new friends a vacancy. We have not yet realized that there is life beyond the birth canal as we creep, sedated and zombie like through the airport, through the plane. I don’t know whether to cower or cheer because until I arrive, South Africa might as well be Oz, Narnia, or some other fantastic impossibility.
But I hope when I get there I will act with the curiosity, humility, sense of humor, and grace I’ve seen in the international students who have come to study at Truman. After working with them for two years now, I’ve got a vague idea of what it takes to learn, to teach, and to grow in a new world; here’s hoping I’ve got the stuff to execute the lessons they keep sharing. I hope I listen more than judge, that I share without evangelizing, that I learn more about what I’m capable of and about what I value, and that I send a few postcards a long the way.
And I hope that some time in the next few weeks I fully realize why it is I came here and who I can become.