School Daze: Part 1

I’d like to share some of the teaching experiences that I’ve had so far.  I’ll preface this by saying that the last time I was in a primary school class was during a week of community care way back during transition year.

The first time we were put in charge of a class was a day last week when one of the teachers called in sick on short notice.  That day, the headmaster put Helen and myself in charge of Grade 3, a class of about 35 kids aged between 10 – 12, and for that grade, class runs from 08.00 to 14.00 with two 20 minute intervals.

I will never complain about teachers again.  It was one of the most tiring experiences of my life.  The teacher had left some maths to do with the kids, so we picked up on that.  I stood at the top of the class, explained the exercise and tried to keep general order.  Helen  helped those kids who were having some trouble.  Things went well for the first 15 minutes or so, and descended with increasing rapidity into chaos after that.  Some of the kids finished the assigned work quickly, and got bored – when we asked these kids why they didn’t want to go on and do some more work, they said they didn’t want to end up more bored later on.  Some of the kids couldn’t do the exercise and got bored – these kids got up and danced around the room, or started picking fights or just generally messing.  Some of the kids genuinely wanted to figure stuff out, but couldn’t concentrate on it because of the messing that was going on around them.  Some of the kids didn’t have sufficient English to understand the exercise, and just stared blankly at us.

We called a halt and managed to get a grip on the classroom temporarily, as I worked out an example on the board.  This seemed to bolster some of the kids, and they worked some more.  However, when these kids came up to have their work marked, they had just copied down what I had written on the board over and over again.  This one exercise dragged on for most of the morning period – that’s 08:00 – 10:30 – because we weren’t sure what else to do, and the kids took advantage of our cluelessness to run a bit wild.

After break, we decided that we’d bring out the big guns – I went home and got my guitar, and we promised them that we’d have some music if they were good.  This worked, but not nearly as well as we had hoped.  We tried to do some language lessons with the kids, trying to engage them so that if they did insist on talking, at least they would be talking to us.  We went around the room and asked what languages people spoke.  There was English, Afrikaans, IsiXhosa, Chichewa, Suthu, Bangladeshi and Irish.  We then went around the room trying to learn to say “Hello” in each of these languages.  This worked surprisingly well!  Then we tried to learn to say “My name is X” in each of these languages.  To stop people shouting, I asked for volunteers to write on the board.  I hadn’t counted on the fact that many of the kids have only learned to read and write in English and/or Afrikaans, if at all.  Once again, frustration of those who couldn’t read or write led to messing, and we took the guitar away to try and reign the kids in.

When they settled down, it was show-time.  There are very few songs that I know that are appropriate for kids, and they weren’t about to be impressed by me throwing down some heavy metal on an acoustic guitar.  I managed to get through a mangled rendition of Molly Malone before I sensed that I was losing them.  I was trying to pick songs with good sing-along bits, but most of the ones that were coming to mind were dull and dreary.  Eventually, I fell to my busking back-pocket number: Twist and Shout.  I got Helen to lead the class in the response part of the call and response, and for the first time all day, we had proper control of the class.  It lasted for all of the three minutes that the song did.  The kids begged me, and so I played the song again.  Two weeks later, they’re still asking me to play it.

After that, the boys went out to play football, and the girls stayed in the classroom.  We gave each of them a piece of chalk and they took turns being teachers. This was fantastic fun, and they took turns testing Helen and I on our maths and spelling.  Even the kids who had been previously disruptive, got into it as they had a chance to be heard.  Most of the kids expressed affection for their teacher and some even said that they would like to be teachers themselves.

This day gave us a tiny window into some of the problems that teachers face here. I think that some of these problems are not unique to South Africa – the mayhem certainly felt familiar – but the teachers lack the resources to deal with any of the problems, and their options are limited.

There are more classroom stories to come, but this post is far too long as it is.  More later in the week.

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Chaos in the classroom

Our second week of school is nearly over, and I have a whole new level of sympathy for teachers. These teachers, certainly.

I’ve got the library almost sorted – there’s not a huge amount more I can do without some help with the Afrikaans books – I’ve been helping out in Grade 2.

School is compulsory from ages 7-15, or grades 1-9. The kids in Grade 2 should be around 8 years old, but some of them are as old as 11. The student-teacher ratio is max 39:1 – but in Grade 2, there are 48 kids (there were 49 at the start of the year).

As I mentioned in my last post, the school is in a largely ‘coloured’ area, where the first language of the kids is often Afrikaans, or a mixture of Afrikaans and English. However the school nearly closed down a few years ago due to low enrollment – in order to keep the school open, they expanded their catchment area and accepted students from many different areas of Cape Town. As a result, they now have more students from the impoverished areas of the city. In these (usually black) communities, isiXhosa is a more common first language – which is not and cannot be taught in the school as none of the teachers speak it. There is also a significant number of students from outside South Africa, who speak another first language altogether. This means not only can these children not be taught in their first language, but many of them will leave school unable to read or write in their first language either.

South Africa is a country with a diverse linguistic base – 11 national languages was always going to be problematic in school settings. Each school teaches in a ‘Home Language’ – English, in this case – and teaches a ‘First Additional Language’ – Afrikaans – and sometimes a ‘Second Additional Language’ in the later years. A relatively small proportion of the children speak English as their ‘Home Language’, but it is seen as more desirable than Afrikaans as a primary language in modern South Africa. Although understandable, this makes studying even more difficult for students whose home language is neither English nor Afrikaans – the day can be very confusing.

So in Grade 2, over half the class does not have English or Afrikaans as a first language. There are children with physical difficulties – one child has evident speech and hearing difficulties (yet to be formally diagnosed).  There are children from foster homes, from group care homes, those with serious behavioural problems and some clear learning disabilities. On a day to day basis, these children have no support. There is a support teacher, the lovely Jill, who comes in two days a week and takes five or so kids at a time and does small group work with them. But she has to support the entire school, and her time and resources are limited. There are some local volunteers who will come in and help some children with their reading – again, time and resource limited. Also the children are taken out of class to receive this help, so are again at risk of falling behind.

Goal 2 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to achieve universal primary education by 2015. It’s actually the goal that’s closest to being achieved – globally, primary school enrollment had reached 90% in 2008. But this week I have understood how access to schooling does not lead to an education. The children come to the system at a disadvantage, and there is neither the time nor the resources to help them. Teachers are doing what they can, but with so many pupils with so many diverse issues, they cannot help but focus on those who are able and willing to learn, leaving many of the rest to flounder.

Still, tomorrow is Friday, which means a half day. Robben Island at the weekend 🙂

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This is Cape Town, izzit?

It’s a week since we arrived in Cape Town.  Athlone to be precise… We’ve spent this past week getting to know our project and our host family and learning how to say baie lekker, a phrase we’ve had to make ample use of.

We’re working at Thornton Road primary school, under the auspices of Mr Momberg, who himself went to the school many, many years ago.  There are about 250 learners at the school (not students), and 10 staff.  That sounds like it would make for some pretty decent learner-teacher ratios, but in practice  while the older classes are quite small, there are 49 kids in Grade 1 (5-6 year olds).

Most of the time, I’m tending to a computer lab that is in great need of some TLC.  Or some TCP/IP, whichever.  The computers were donated to the school last year by an NGO that went out of business before the handover of the lab had been completed.  The snag list left 6 out of 20 computers unusable.  As a result, the computer room has sat idle for nearly a year.  I’ve been able to help with some of the issues – I remember how to add a machine to AD from my days in IT Tallaght – but if I look at the hardware issues, I risk voiding the warranty.  This means that much of my value at the minute has been that I can talk the IT language to the people at the helpdesk, and sit on hold until I get an answer.

In the evenings, I’ve been catching up on my Astronomy study, and it’s making me very excited about our trip to SALT later in the year.  Our host family have made us very welcome, and I can’t remember the last time I ate so many home-cooked meals in one week.  Also, maybe they’re just trying to make us feel at home, but cups of tea flow freely and often, and the kitchen is warm and welcoming.

There’s more to write, but that’s enough for now…

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We’ve been in Cape Town for just over a week now – just about starting to get the hang of things. We’re staying with a lovely family, Mr & Mrs Gool, in Crawford, Athlone, and working Monday to Friday in a local primary school.

To give you an idea of our daily routine – we’re up early to get breakfasted and out the door for our short walk to the school. School starts at 8am and runs until 2.30pm, with two half-hour breaks or intervals. At the moment, we’re working on getting some resource rooms up and running. Niall is working to set up the computer room, which I’m sure he is blogging about.

I’m primarily working in the library or “media centre”. After much fundraising, haggling and harrassing local authorities, the school has finally acquired paint, desks, shelves, cupboards and books – it only remains to be assembled. A local volunteer has cleared an old classroom, retiled and repainted it and set up the furniture. My task at the moment is to organise the books into some semblance of order and have the room reasonably set up. I am hampered somewhat by the fact that roughly half the books are written in Afrikaans, as well a small number in isiXhosa – neither of which are languages I’m familiar with.

Our evenings are spent at home getting to know our family and the community – we attended their two-year-old grandson’s birthday party on Friday – as well as taking it easy and enjoying Mrs. Gool’s DELICIOUS home cooking. This weekend we went into Cape Town and orientated ourselves a little – it’s still quite cool here, so the beach exploring will have to wait a few weeks.

To give you and idea of the situation – we’re in a coloured township, meaning that this area used to be designated just for ‘coloured’ or mixed race people. It’s still largely populated by mixed race groups, many of whom speak Afrikaans (or a mixture of Afrikaans and English) as their first language. The school is an English medium school, with Afrikaans as the ‘additional language’ taught. As you can no doubt imagine, in a country with 11 national languages, finding a language that all learners can understand is difficult. This is compounded by the fact that the school has children from a wide variety of areas across Cape Town, including the shacks or ‘informal settlements’ of the most impoverished. Many of these children may speak isiXhosa or Zulu as a first language – still more come from neighbouring Malawi, Zimbabwe etc and so speak another language altogether. It is a crazy linguistic melting pot, and the teachers really struggle to communicate at times.

More to say but the internet time is up!

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Why go back?

In one month’s time, I will be in South Africa. This is my fifth trip to the continent. It’s been nearly five years sine I’ve been in Africa – that trip, in Autumn 2007, was also to Cape Town and South Africa, also to volunteer for eight weeks and travel around afterwards.

So why go back? Surely this is just a deja-vu of my last trip, except with my husband in tow – the old hand meandering down memory lane while guiding him through the loss of his Africa virginity.

Not quite – although many have assumed I’m returning to the same project, or looked askance when I point out this isn’t my first time at the rodeo. Others visibly balk at the idea of going to Africa at all – especially South Africa – “don’t you know how dangerous it is?”, “don’t South Africans hate white people?”, “what about AIDS?”, “Isn’t there a lot of guns and crime?”

There’s no denying that South Africa has some daunting statistics to it’s name. South Africa is widely reported to have the highest rape incidence in the world. South Africa has more people living with HIV than anywhere in the world – 5.6million of the estimated 34million worldwide. There are gangs in Johannesburg who literally hijack buildings. There’s even been a recent spate of hair theft.

So it goes without saying that “safety first” will be at the forefront of my mind. But I think there’s more value to a country than its crime statistics and horror stories. My experience of South Africa is one of a beautiful, thrilling and contradictory country, with mind-boggling natural beauty, and a warm and generous people – yet a nation still scarred by its past and struggling to find its palce in the modern world.

Grand so, I hear you say. But there’s a whole world out there – why go back where you’ve already been?

I won’t lie – it’s partly selfish. I love Africa, and South Africa in particular. I want to go there with my husband – I want to be the person who takes him there, and show it off, as though this nation of 53million people is a funky new coffee shop I’ve found. I want him to love it as much as I do. I also want to revisit the most fabulous high tea I have ever discovered. Once is never enough.

But there’s more to it than that.

The last time I went to South Africa, I had been struggling with a depression that came to a head about two years later – and from which I only now consider myself truly recovered. After the ups and downs of my volunteering placement at Baphumele Children’s Home, I came home mentally and emotionally refreshed – and galvanised for change – amazed, appalled, challenged and joyful from all I had seen and done.

But rather than reflecting on my experience and using it to inform my choices, I threw myself into another long term volunteering project in the UK (and a somewhat ill-advised romance with a surfer/artist, just for good measure). I then decided to head back to Dublin and threw myself into full-time drudgery to pay the bills (and a more salient romance with an old friend, which worked out much better than expected). I didn’t really come up for air until my depression pulled me up short and forced some serious self-reflection.

I wanted to engage with what I’d seen and experienced after leaving South Africa, but I never did. It became this awesome thing that I did once, that the rest of my life could never compare to. I felt as though anything useful I’d ever done was done there, and that nothing I did back home would ever be “worthy” in quite the same way. I wanted my experience to be more than something to rant about when I got tipsy, but I never could.

It’s one of the reasons I’m going back – and one of the great things about the crowd we’re going with. They actively educate volunteers about global issues and development, and have provided a framework to encourage volunteers to continue to engage with those issues when they return home.

This trip isn’t just about doing something worthwhile when I’m in South Africa – it’s about making that count for the community I live in here in Ireland. I want my knowledge, skills, loud voice and somewhat overbearing personality to be put to good use – raising awareness of global development and encouraging debate.

I’m better placed to do this now than I was five years ago. I’ve learned more about myself, and much of my paid work and volunteering here in Ireland has given me the capacity to deal with this differently from last time.

And hopefully, in my own very small way, I can do some good.

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The non-runners’ perspective on a marathon

It is quite a humbling experience to watch someone run a marathon. Months of training, innumerable blisters and buckets of sweat going into one, long, LONG run.

All kinds were running in Cork. Obvious beginners, holding back; seasoned competitors sporting t-shirts from marathons two and three years ago – even one man proclaiming membership of the “100 marathon club”.


Most seem to be running for a cause – cystic fibrosis, rape crisis, child protection, homelessness, suicide helplines – all angles are covered. Many without affiliation acquire the “green ribbon” badges handed out on the sidelines.

A fair few seem to be running for the sheer joy of it, with genuine grins for the crowd. Many have something more akin to a rictus spread across their face, grimacing through the perhaps unwanted attention.


Several were clearly running for others, with photos emblazoned on their shirts. There is one obvious hero in the group – a man with red cape and pants, one would call him Superman but for the ‘M’ on his chest. He never failed to elicit cheers from the children he passed.


A few others have taken a tongue in cheek approach to couture – a Baywatch style Hasselhoff lookalike (complete with inflatable life-preserver) raised a handful of laughs – and he certainly revelled in them.

One gent seemed wholly inappropriately dressed. A checked flannel shirt, beige chinos and red baseball cap is hardly marathon attire – his truth was only revealed as he passed, with a sign stuck to his back ” Run Forrest, RUN!”


There was even a man I was certain was a hobo who’d wandered into the race and just decided to jog along, until I saw the number on his chest. Appearances are not what they seem.


Friends were made on the sidelines, as we compared our plans to catch the next checkpoint, what time our runners were aiming for, how the weather was shaping up, and so forth.

We may clap them along, cheer and whoop to get them through a tough stretch. But we spectators cannot compare to those who run, and run again, and just keep going. “Boston Strong” shirts are proudly sported – veterans of an infinitely harder course than this one.


No matter how hard we yell, how many run past us, how many stories of all-weather training, injury and nipple chafing we hear, we cannot understand.

There is an element of cruelty in watching the end of such a run. Sunning ourselves and clapping half-heartedly, we relish those who struggle in the final stretch, who limp, who pause to retch and heave before stumbling on. It must be hard for them, it must. Else we would all do it.

But there is a great sense of camaraderie too – we want these runners to stumble so that we can cheer louder, clap harder – we want them boosted by our praise, so we may share vicariously in their victory.


It’s hard not to find it heartwarming. Parents – and grandparents – joined by children determined to “help” with the last stretch; especial praise to those who manage to hoist toddlers onto their shoulders before crossing the line. A father and son – the father a wheelchair competitor who has lost his strength, pushed for the final miles by his son. Those who are inspired to sprint on sight of “100m to go!”. Those who are spurred on by shouts from friends, those who find the energy to raise their hands in proud defiance.


It is an inspiration to see them cross the line, hours later, exultant in their conquest of the course, the weather, their injuries, their chafed nipples, the road, of themselves. Four hours – or three, or five – just you and the road. Despite the thousands running with you, despite the dedicated supporters, despite everything – you run for yourself, for the road, for your few hours of freedom. Just keep running.


It’s almost enough to make you grab a pair of runners and join them.

Maybe next year.

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Take one step. Then another. Repeat.

Ten Toes

All things considered, I could be feeling a lot worse right now.  When I stand up, I hobble a few steps before my legs remember how to walk, but that’s it.  Once I’m moving, I can keep moving, and I’ve even managed to jog across the road.  I won’t be going for a run today, but I might go for a wee jaunt tomorrow.
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