Students in Grahamstown township. (Photos by Matt Kellen)
Elizabeth O’Killea Haney, a Boston College junior, is living in Grahamstown, South Africa, where she is studying history at Rhodes University.
By Elizabeth O'Killea Haney
GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa -- The education system in South Africa doesn’t give me much hope most of the time.
A group of mothers in the Grahamstown township had to start their own school for their special-needs children because they had no appropriate care. The women are still waiting to receive accreditation from the government, which as usual is incredibly slow. When my dormitory hall dropped off a jungle gym that we had donated to their school, I tried to do a puzzle with one of the children but found that many of the pieces were missing. I looked around until someone told me to stop because the school had been broken into the night before and the pieces were probably gone. Luckily, although the thieves made off with some toys, they couldn’t figure out how to unlock and remove the school’s wheelchairs.
Immense challenges face students in Grahamstown and throughout South Africa. I hear bits and pieces of these challenges everywhere. A little boy I tutor after school is being raised by his 18-year-old brother because his parents are both alcoholics. During a meeting that my friend had with a community center’s principal, a 13-year-old girl knocked on the door and interrupted to discuss her rape prosecution. After the economics teacher at one of the township high schools died, my adviser here at Rhodes University had to send his economics undergraduates to teach economics so that the students could pass their matriculation examination -- even though they’d been without a teacher for seven months. Multiple people who have volunteered and worked in the township tell how much teacher attendance is an issue. Schools are lucky to have half the teachers actually show up on a given day, let alone teach the children; they’re so uncommitted to teaching that they’d rather read trashy magazines and drink coffee in the break room.
At the end of last term, the Xhosa students I tutor had no homework because their teachers were no longer teaching, just writing the reports they have to submit to the government. But for those of us who tutor at the after-school program, it was a welcome break from tedious homework assignments with almost no educational value. The assignments don’t seem that ridiculous at first -- I’ve helped the students to interview an artist, research a South African theater performer, and look up the ecological significance of different animals. The context of these assignments makes them ridiculous. How are children from the township -- without the help of someone like me -- supposed to locate and interview an artist, and then get a photo of their work when they don’t even have running water, let alone printers or access to the Internet? How are my students supposed to explain why a lion is a danger to the ecosystem when they haven’t even been taught what an ecosystem is?
I get frustrated seeing the kids struggle with grammar. When they look bashful or embarrassed, I want to scream at the system. How can the white English speakers demand that these students learn a second language to be able to succeed? I find that the students I tutor are embarrassed for not knowing perfect English, when the vast majority of white English speakers in the Eastern Cape Province don’t take the time to learn any Xhosa, the language of the black majority in this part of South Africa. In the small classroom of a schoolhouse in the middle of African hills, I want to shout: “You are incredible! At age 14, you can speak in two languages!”
Most people here find the outlook for the average poor young South African in Grahamstown pretty bleak. The education system is overburdened with students and lacking in qualified teachers. The kids whom I tutor are in classrooms of 50 students. Outside school, the students face immense challenges and are hard pressed to find good role models. That’s what makes tutoring at the monastery outside town so inspirational.
Every Wednesday afternoon, I catch a ride in a beat-up old white car, up out of Grahamstown to the hills surrounding town, where I have the privilege of tutoring a group of Xhosa students. In a little three-room schoolhouse, I do algebra and projects with five incredible teenagers in the high school classroom. Every day after school the Brothers of the uMama weThemba monastery pay for a minibus to bring 17 students who live on local farms to the school for a snack, vitamins, medicine, and homework help. These children used to go to rural schools, but these became so inept that the Department of Education closed them, inspiring the brothers' scholarship fund to send the farm children to schools in town. The brothers have also given four local students scholarships to various universities across South Africa, including one who goes to Rhodes University with me. A wide array of people help tutor -- the monks, former teachers, and a few American volunteers, like myself. I often find we end up shaking our heads in discussions about the bureaucracy and inefficiency that make these children’s futures seem so hopeless. Then we actually look at the kids who we teach. Despite all of their disadvantages, these children want to learn, they want to do a good job, they want to be able to get a job or go to university. They are funny, sassy, and the most resilient people I’ve ever met.
Realizing this drive, the brothers of the Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery have decided that they’re going to build their own school for these rural children. Starting with a preschool, they’ll then add a grade every year, building a school under their management, to give the very deserving children from the farms a proper education. Much to our astonishment, the Department of Education, a usually nightmarishly bureaucratic and difficult entity, currently supports the project. The brothers will break ground in January.
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