Under South African Skies

Doe, a Deer, a Female Deer | August 2, 2009

I’ve really got to get out of the habit of naming blog posts after songs from The Sound of Music. But fear not faithful readers. It all ties in.

 Yesterday was the kind of day one has to write a blog about. Meeting Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu calls for some kind of recognition. 

We had been anticipating a service with Mr. Tutu for weeks. The plan was that we would get up early on a Friday morning, attend an Anglican service that he would preside over at St. George’s church and then go on to breakfast with him. The past few times we were to do this, however, the service was cancelled due to the archbishop having other scheduling commitments. So when we found out that we would actually get to attend the service this time, we knew how special it was.

Mr. Tutu, diminutive in stature but a historical giant for his role in bringing peace and reconciliation to South Africa after the fall of apartheid, entered a small section of the chapel and lead us through the service. Apart from the lack of music and a few word changes in some of the prayers, the service was not unlike the Catholic masses that much of our group is familiar with. When it came to the portion where a priest would typically give a homily, Mr. Tutu went around the small congregation of about 40 people and asked where everyone was from—Germany, Holland, the U.S. He warmly welcomed us and when the moment came for us to grant peace to those around us, he walked around the chapel, smiling and shaking our hands.

After the service, most of the congregation lined up to shake hands with Mr. Tutu and have him sign a book or postcard. I have been reading a copy of his book that I found in our house, so I brought along a piece of paper for Mr. Tutu to sign. As my turn came, however, I began to feel self-conscious about asking him for his autograph. At 77 years old, he was clearly becoming tired. I also felt a little presumptuous expecting someone I really don’t know to put his name on a piece of paper for me. Though we were all very glad to get his signature—because he is someone who we admire very much, through his work for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in his strong stances against many injustices around the world—I felt almost as though I was treating him like a product or a historical statue rather than a man. Mr. Tutu did not seem to mind signing for us and is also probably quite used to signing autographs for people, but I found myself thinking about how important it is for me to value the people I meet in South Africa as humans rather than some caricatures I have in my mind.


Hanging with the Arch

Hanging with the Arch



This is a particularly important lesson at my work site. I feel like I may have come to South Africa with some preconceived notions about what it would mean for me to work with students in African schools. Like the plot of that generic Hallmark movie that seems to be remade every few years, I would arrive, struggle to connect with the students who so badly want to learn but have not had sufficient opportunities, reach some sort of a breakthrough, push them to success and then leave a better man all in time for the credits to roll to the tune of an inspirational Michael Bolton song. But like my naive initial impressions of Desmond Tutu, I realized that the students I’ll be working with are not flat characters in a movie. They’re kids: they like to run around during recess, sneak food into their mouths during class and talk while the teacher is.

At least that’s what I encountered when I began teaching reading lessons at St. Mary’s school in the township Nyanga last Monday. Though I had had initial meetings with employees of the Amy Biehl Foundation through which I’m working, as well as e-mail exchanges with Allison Schommer, the Marquette student who did a fantastic job at St. Mary’s last semester, I felt like a fish out of water as I prepared for my first lesson.

The roughly 10 students, all about 12 or 13 years old, trooped into a small room that also serves as a teacher’s lounge. They chattered in Xhosa as I prepared to address them. How do I organize class so they have fun yet improve their reading skills and learn? How do I maintain some sense of order and authority in the class while also being someone that they like and see as a friend? How do I, someone who has never taught before, even prepare a lesson? The students’ homeroom teacher had answered all of these questions with the same response: it was up to me. Empowering or terrifying?

We began the class with introductions—name, age, favorite school subject and favorite book. Apart from a girl named Cindy, I heard Xhosa names that are as foreign to me as the rules of rugby: Asihpe, Siyamptende, Thembisile. Learning the students names might be as challenging as learning how to teach.

Then we moved on to talk about what the class would entail. This was their course, I told them. What do they want to read? How can I help them? What would they like to learn about? I was surprised and impressed by some of their answers:

-“Long Walk To Freedom,” Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. This is an excellent book, but it is very large and dense. I’ve heard people my age regal it as “too long” and “never-ending.”

-Steve Biko. I attended an exhibit Friday about this young revolutionary who was murdered at the hands of South Africa’s repressive police force in 1977. Immortalized in the memories of those who believed in what he stood for (and by Peter Gabriel’s song Biko) I was thrilled that the students wanted to learn more about him, because I do, as well.

Twilight.  I’ll have to swallow my pride on that one, but it might provide a nice opportunity for the students to come to our Kimberley House to watch the movie based on the book. The students told me that my predecessor Allison had them over to watch The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and eat her homemade dinner. They expect nothing less from me. Thanks for setting that bar, Allison.

After I teach reading classes, I go on to another township school to teach guitar lessons in an after-school program. This, in a way, was even more daunting than giving reading lessons. I had already witnessed the excellent marimba class offered at the program, and though I consider myself a proficient guitarist, I have never taught the instrument and am poor at reading music. I decided to teach the 10 or so students to tune the guitars so they could get their hands on the instruments while learning a very necessary aspect of playing them.

Bad idea. Tuning guitars is as boring as Driving Miss Daisy, and I soon lost the students’ attention. I returned the second day determined and intent on teaching them some chords and a song, hopefully empowering them in their new knowledge of how to play something on the guitar. I had decided on Pete Seeger’s If I Had A Hammer when the students asked me to show them the Do-Re-Mi scale. Taking the opportunity, I showed them how to play the scale on the low E string and then explained how this scale could be used on the guitar’s five other strings. While an invisible orchestra didn’t kick in to back me the way one did for Julie Andrews when she taught those adorable little Germans the Do-Re-Mi scale, I still feel like I learned an important lesson in teaching: come with a plan but be flexible.

Flexibility is probably one of the biggest lessons I’ve taken from this experience so far (which is ironic because I learned last week that I’m double jointed). I have had many plans about what this trip will mean for me and what I will learn from classes, my work site and Cape Town’s culture. Sometimes my plans have panned out. Sometimes they haven’t. I certainly didn’t expect to walk away from Desmond Tutu’s service thinking about how I value people, and I certainly didn’t expect that I would be reading Twilight with a group of South African 12-year-olds. Sometimes all you can do is go along with what comes your way, using your plans when you can, changing course when necessary, and trusting that in all of the crazy things that happen, there is a lesson to be learned.

Begin Michael Bolton song…now.


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1 Comment »

  1. Brian,
    I’ve always enjoyed your writing, so am very pleased to be reading your blog. What experiences you are having!
    Nancy formerly known to you as Ms. Pagel

    Comment by Nancy Pagel — August 5, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

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About author

I'm a 20-year-old Marquette student currently studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. I like to play the guitar and piano, watch the Mighty Ducks trilogy, read, travel and write. My favorite Judd sister is Winona, and I share a birthday with Dan Quayle.







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