Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Better Place - part 2

In South Africa there is great, great discrepancy in quality among the schools.  As far as I could tell, there are 3 schools that the students attend - one in their township of Simile, one in the coloured township of Harmony Hill across the valley, and one in the town of Sabie (referred to by one student as the 'white school'). As the students start to arrive, the older ones immediately begin setting up the tables and chairs outside, despite this being only the 2nd day of the new school year. They are provided with an after school snack of soup with bread which they energetically gobble up. Vicky takes the time to introduce each student to me as they arrive and they all politely greet me with a "How do you do Ma'am".

The students range mostly from Grade R (for reception like our K) to 7 and they're divided into 2 groups.  There is a large group of grade 7s so they head off to the room inside, while the younger ones sit at the tables outside. I sit down with them and we begin with a short "Where is Canada" lesson.  A map is pulled out and since it's a Mercator projection Canada looks much larger than it is in comparison so it's super easy to find. We start with the continents and proceed from there.  One student asks me what the line down the side of the map is (the international date line-I avoid actually explaining it since I'm not sure I fully understand it myself!) which  leads to a discussion of time zones and yes, it's night time in Canada and stranger yet it's winter.

After "Canada time" the students who have work start on it and I gather a few younger ones and those that don't have work, to read a story to them.  The books they have are limited to a few very easy readers. As I read I pose questions: "What do think will happen next?", "How does it look like he's feeling now?", "Have you ever done that?"  Language difficulties aside, only a few feel comfortable enough to answer at first.  Speaking of language, the dominant language here is siSwati, which I believe is a variant of Zulu although many of the older people also speak Afrikaans.  Their teachers are siSwati but all the books as well as government exams are in English.

The work the students are doing seems familiar enough - writing numbers in expanded form and as words (e.g. 213 = 200 + 10 + 3 = two hundred thirteen), list 10 living and non-living things, etc. and the students are well behaved but typical - teasing each other, annoying their little brother, disputing what each other says in response to my questions. ("No you don't have a dog.")

I then spend some time with the grade 7s - again beginning with "Canada" although their questions are a bit more sophisticated.  What kinds of sports? (What no cricket!) When do you have Christmas? (In the winter!) Do you eat lobster? (We would put it in the trash!) When you go to the toilet on the airplane does it fall from the sky? (Kids are kids everywhere!)

I distributed some sparkly stickers and Canadian flag temporary tattoos for the students. 
The grade 7s wanted their picture taken separately.

Some invisible signal causes them to start packing up their books and heading for home around 5:00.  Some have extremely heavy packs with several texts, workbooks and notebooks.  I'm surprised to learn that in SA students must purchase their texts, buy uniforms AND pay school fees.  School fees at one school that Miriam and Vicky are hoping to send the girls to costs about $220/month CDN. Yes there are provisions for those with limited funds but it is generally expected that parents will pay.  Uniforms are expected to be kept clean and orderly.  Vicky asked me later that evening if I'd noticed that the one little boy's shirt had some ragged edges - the shack they live in is rat infested (I hadn't noticed).

Rethea is a psychologist (one of the few in the whole province) who has opened up her home to Vicky and Miriam (and the 3 girls). Despite recently undergoing an operation and being in a back/neck brace she was kind enough to invite us to her beautiful home overlooking the Sabie valley for dinner. So after Vicky and Miriam took a bakkie load of kids home, distributed soup themselves, then took a potful to Harmony Hill where a gogo has offered to distribute it from her home, we eventually sat down to a wonderful meal.  The girls were tended to and eventually headed off to bed.

After expressing our gratitude we returned to the lovely Graskop Hotel (each room is decorated by an artist) but I'm sure that Vicky and Miriam had various duties to complete before their day was done. Even though their faith is strong, it's hard to know how they keep going when faced with roadblocks from so many directions. But then you see little Omphemetse, Onthatile and Tshepiso and you know that what they are doing will eventually pay off great dividends in the lives of both the gogos and the children that come within their circle and beyond.
This is the 'ripple' effect (thanks Shirley) that also starts with the Vernon Grannies who work hard to provide support to the Sabie Gogos.  We're making a difference!
And thanks to my family (Ross, Scott, Sam) who accompanied me and supported me on this journey.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Making the World a Better Place - part 1

Two years ago I blogged about my visit to Sabie, where I met my letter writing partner from the group I belong to, Grannies a Gogo. Reading about my visit here will give you some background to this post.

This year, during our visit to South Africa, I was determined to visit Sabie after the Christmas holidays (which extend from early Dec to mid-January) so I could meet the entire group of Gogos as well as the two administrators of the funds we send. Miriam and Vicky are boh retired women who decided several years ago that they needed to be involved in helping disadvantaged people. They did some research, happened upon the Grannies a Gogo website and made contact. Shortly after, they moved to Sabie and began working with the gogos and subsequently took over the administration of the funds after Ginny left. (Read their story here.)

On Thursday, I spent the day with Miriam and Vicky, a day that left me exhausted, exhilarated, amazed, bewildered, saddened, horrified and, not least of all, hopeful. I’m sure there are countless amazing people in the world, but I consider myself fortunate that I was able to spend the day with two who are truly making a difference.

Vicky and Miriam beside the 'bakkie' (pr. bucky) used for everything from transporting soup in the township to taking the sick to the hospital:

We arrived at the centre just as the gogos were starting to arrive. Most Thursdays they have physical activities but today, I was the special attraction (yikes). Some of the gogos began work on the garden which had overgrown during the Christmas holidays, others began work on the lunch and others socialized. I set up the projector to display the video I had brought from Vernon describing some of our fund raising activities, describing our process along with personal greetings from some Vernon Grannies to their letter writing partners. Meanwhile, Martina, my writing partner, kept a log of money collected - each gogo donates R2/month (about $0.20) to go towards funeral costs that might arise.  Funerals in South Africa are very frequent and very costly.  It’s important to put on a lavish spread for all in the community to enjoy lest one gets shunned.  AIDS is extremely prevalent but very much denied, despite extensive education.  Deaths are attributed to ‘TB’ or ‘meningitis’ but 'sickness' is caused by witchcraft.

Martina recently lost her daughter Carol and is now taking care of Carol's children and 7-yr old grandchild (Martina's great grandchild).

Martina, me, her friend:

Meanwhile, prior to coming to the centre, Vicky and Miriam had started the day very early. They are currently caring for 3 young girls, 2 4-yr olds and an 18 month old that have basically been abandoned by their parents. They would have had to get the two older girls off to pre-school, provide rides to school for others and do various other duties related to helping families and getting students ready for the day. School starts shortly after 7 am.  And despite having a very weak start, the 3 girls, under Miriam and Vicky’s care, appear to be happy, healthy, curious and mischievous!

Back at the centre, after I’d done my presentation, responded to questions from the gogos (much of which consisted of thanks and appreciation) they started setting up lunch.  Meanwhile Vicky had gone off to meet with some school officials to try to convince them that 2 young men, who recently passed their matric (graduated) with about 35% (the grade needed to pass), should be allowed to take the course again in order to improve their grades.  These 2 have been coming to the centre to work on their studies and the school won’t allow them to retake the course.  This seems unreasonable but in light of the fact that the schools can hardly deal with the pupils they have one can understand why they don’t want to take on students that have already ‘passed’. With their low grades they won’t have the opportunity for post-secondary. I asked them if they wanted to go to university and yes, one wanted to be a bio-chemist and the other a survey geologist. I wished them luck!

Vicky and Miriam have begun purchasing bulk food supplies at a reduced cost and reselling them to the gogos so Miriam was meeting individually with each gogo. One gogo, in despair explained that she had no money despite the fact that she recently should have received her pension.  She had gone to the bank to withdraw her pension but was told it had already been withdrawn.  The account showed that the automatic deposit was made at 12:00 am and withdrawn at 12:14 am. This made no sense so Miriam made a phone call to the head of the nearby bank, who they had recently met. Other phone calls were made but by the end of the day there was no resolution.  Although Miriam supplied her with a bag of food for the month, her despair was evident. She was facing the whole month, supporting one grandchild, with nothing. (Fraud/theft among bank employees is not unheard of.)

The gogos dishes were washed up, stored, I gave one last hug to Martina as the gogos made their way home.  Martina presented me with some beading she had done, a necklace and bracelet that I put on.  Only later in the afternoon (to my mock horror) did the school children inform me that the necklace was in fact headwear and I was to put it on and wear it “like the Zulus do”.

The gogos had barely gone when the the school kids started arriving (around 1:30).  Vicky and Miriam have started an after school program to help students with their studies.  Most of the schools are ill-equipped to deal with the number of students, lack of resources, poor-training, and social problems that hinder learning. The after school program is vital if any of them are to succeed. As well, many of the parents won't be home from work until late, perhaps as late as 10 pm.

Despite the hardship created for some by requiring the parents to buy uniforms, the children do look fabulous! Of course it is only the 2nd day of school.
They've already accomplished much - but Miriam and Vicky's day has barely begun and they're not slowing. They are strong and determined.  They help where they can but won't be taken advantage of.  (The rest of the day? I'll have to make another post.)

Monday, January 06, 2014

Speaking of South Africa

Although South Africa has 11 official languages (only! 2 in Canada) the predominant language for white South Africans is Afrikaans.  It's rare that we're in a public place that we hear English spoken although it's the most common language as everyone speaks it to some extent. It's surprising to find that some road and retail signs are only in Afrikaans. To my unschooled ear it sounds much like German, although it has its roots in Dutch. Among blacks, Zulu is spoken by most and it would probably be quite uncommon for South Africans to not speak 2 or 3 languages.  This kind of thing always makes me feel a bit inferior.

We're spending a few days in Knysna (nize-nuh) which is built around a very large lagoon separated from the ocean by a small opening.  Our lodge is on a small island in the middle of the lagoon which is obviously a haven for water sports.  From our window we've seen kayaks, catamarans, paddle boarders, boaters, fishermen, sailboats, cruise boats, etc. but unfortunately we've encountered some rainy weather which has dampened our activity slightly. We did manage a short bike ride earlier this morning though :)

Knysna used to be the location of some very large elephant herds which dwindled to about 20 in the 1920s due to hunting. It's believed that 3 still remain although the last sighting was in 2011. Yesterday we visited an elephant sanctuary and had a chance to walk with (meaning you hold their trunk), touch (the hide on their legs is much softer than on their sides), and feed (pieces of butternut deftly sucked up by their trunks and tossed in their giant mouths).

Fun elephant facts:
Did you know that elephants only absorb 40% of what they eat?  That's why they need to go to the toilet every 26 minutes! (And why so much of it is left on the ground afterwards.)
Elephant tusks continue to grow their whole lives. One elephant in the sanctuary had no tusks due to a birth defect.  They eat 21 hours/day. They go in the water when it's cold, and the mud when it's hot.

The sanctuary has only 5 elephants, 4 females and one young male.  They hope to have more as soon as the male gets a bit older.  It takes 21 months of gestation before the baby is born, then it takes 1 minute to deliver, due to gravity and the need for protection against predators. No laying around waiting in labour for this mother!

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Garden Route On Our Own

Happy new year to all!
Although this is our 3rd visit to South Africa, this week marks the first time without our tour guides, Scott and Sam.  On Thursday Ross and I set out in Sam's little Mini with our destination the 'garden route' as this area is called. The garden route winds along the southern coast of Africa and yesterday we dipped our toes in the Indian Ocean for the first time! We stayed the first night in a little town called Swellendam where Sam had arranged a lovely massage for me at the fabulous Rain Spa. The terrain up until then seemed rather bleak and 'ungarden-like'.  The hills were barren, dry fields, that appeared to be cultivated but nothing was growing on them. We eventually determined that perhaps they had just recently been hayed.  This went on for over 100km as we made our way east to another little place called Wilderness. However, we could see the landscape begin to change and eventually we were in an extremely lush, green environment. This is apparently a favourite destination spot as the beaches are full and the roads are busy. So far we haven't done much but we're enjoying the relaxation.

The view of Plettenburg Bay from behind my mojito.

Leaving Cape Town, for many many miles, both sides of the road are lined with townships, the slum areas where the blacks were relocated to during apartheid.  And on the outskirts of each town we drove through were more townships.  It's hard to know what to think as you look at the endless makeshift shanty houses all heaped together - small tin or wood shacks that often house many family members. It's impossible to describe the feeling as you drive by - is it empathy, disgust, sadness, guilt, helplessness?  I guess all of these plus an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what I have been blessed with. 

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