Month two: Surprise, it’s an intombazane!
The primary school that I am volunteering at these next two years requested a girl (or as my principal would say, “Oh! It’s an intombazane!” (girl in isiZulu) and surprise, they got one! Well, just one without any hair.
Last Monday, my Kwa-Zulu Natal Battlefield Region PCV group met our principals. All five of us walked to the meeting, stood in a line and took guesses at which principal was ours. I remember thinking that I really wanted the older woman who had a long skirt and light pink-ruffled jacket on with a pin on her shirt that said, “I am an extraordinary woman.” She just seemed awesome and powerful. And I was right! That extraordinary woman is the principal I will be working with for the next two years. She named me “Mpho Mathebula”, which means “a gift from god” and Mathebula is my host family’s last name. Ya, no pressure or anything.
We had a meeting with our principals to go over what exactly we, as PCVs, are responsible for at school. My program director, Lydia, who is now my boss, went over two brochures with the principals to ensure that they were clear about why we are here and that we are not supposed to start teaching until the start of the next school year in January.
Now that I’m at my permanent site these next three months are my “phase 2″/community integration period of my Peace Corps service. Basically, I’ll be observing and interviewing teachers and my principal about their work, map my village for directions and where I can find community assets, talk to youth, identify a teacher-counterpart who I will work closely with, talk with community members and last but not least: try teaching a couple English classes with my counterpart and on my own. All of these tasks sound like a lot, but I have 13 weeks to complete them. That’s… a lot of time.
I attended school for the first time last week. I introduced myself in isiZulu to the learners (students are called learners here) during their morning assembly — every morning learners gather to sing religious songs, the national anthem and hear announcements the teachers may have.
As soon as I stepped out of the car with my principal a few teachers ran over to me, hugged me and started saying things in isiZulu. When I responded in isiZulu they couldn’t stop laughing (people here love that an American can speak some isiZulu — they’re laughing with you, not at you). Right then I had a feeling that I was in the right place at the right time.
The teachers at my school act like one big family, which is similar to my environment at Markham Middle School with my City Year team last year. They joke, laugh, playfully hit each other, call each other out and are always talking up a storm in isiZulu. From first impression, I can say that my school is definitely my kind of place!
South African schools — from what we’ve learned and observed during pre-service training — struggle a lot because many teachers don’t have the qualifications to teach and thus the learners are receiving an inadequate education. Many South African teachers were trained under Bantu education — during Apartheid when Africans were purposefully ill-trained as teachers so rural and township children would not be educated as white children were. Also, because English is the teachers’ second language, they have a hard time speaking it and revert to translating a lot from isiZulu, SiSwati, Xhosa, etc. for the learners, which is not conducive for learners to learn English.
Learners are taught in their home language during the Foundation Phase — in my village learners learn in isiZulu — from grade R (kindergarten) to grade 3. During grade 4, learners take on seven subjects all in English in the Intermediate Phase. They learn some English during their Foundation Phase, but only a little. Likewise, learners speak isiZulu at home and outside of school.
Ironically, the South African education standards are very similar to California education standards from what I’ve analyzed. Think about that: school is challenging in elementary and middle school for American students who speak English as their first language or learned English when they were in kindergarten. Now picture learning the same stuff suddenly after being taught in your home language. I seriously admire any South African who is fluent in English — it’s impressive considering how hard it must have been to learn it!
After observing a few teachings, including the two English teachers, I can say that I got lucky. All of the teachers at my school are good teachers and encourage learner participation, unlike other classrooms I have seen where a teacher will write notes on the board (that are often spelled wrong) and make the students copy them into their exercise books with little explanation. Many of the teachers live outside of my village and get paid more to come teach in a rural community with their qualifications. I ain’t complain’!
Yet, the best thing about my school that is something to rejoice about is that there is absolutely NO corporal punishment! Although it is outlawed in South Africa, some schools still use it (including some schools PCVs serve at). The teachers at my school would never lay their hands on a learner unless it was to hug or give them positive reinforcement. I can really tell that these teachers care about the students. And the best part about this is that the learners are still really well-behaved and respectful.
The learners say “good morning educator” whenever they walk by you, ask you in unison how you are when you walk into class and do as they are told. I am in HEAVEN coming from Markham Middle School!
Behavior and classroom management was such an issue last year at Markham that I still cannot grasp the idea that these learners will listen to me. I’m still self-conscious about interacting with them because I’m so used to students talking back and not listening.
The atmosphere at my school, as detailed, is awesome, but there are also some reservations. The principal has a lot of faith in me and my teaching abilities, as do the other teachers. I’m worried that I won’t live up to their expectations. However, I can start some secondary projects like organizing the unused library, implementing a school newspaper, a girls club, HIV education, etc. I still have a lot of time to figure out what exactly I’ll be doing with my secondary projects.
It was raining and unbearably cold my first week at site, so I didn’t get a chance to meet many people besides those at school. This week, the sun is out and shining and I’m on the move! I attended a community meeting today with the Head of Department (HOD) of my school and introduced myself in isiZulu (ngiyafunda isiZulu, kodwa ngikhuluma ncane. Ngifuna ukufunda isiZulu — I am learning isiZulu, but I can only speak a little. I want to learn isiZulu). Although I thought I was the first Volunteer at my site, I am not. There was a health Volunteer who lived very close to where I am staying; she closed service last March. Many people ask if I know “Ngelady” (her African name) and are familiar with why I am in the village. Because the community members have seen and interacted with a PCV before, they know that I am a resident and will be living in my village for a long time. Everybody is welcoming and I feel very safe here.
My village is very, very religious; everybody attends the Anglican church every Sunday. I attended with my host brothers and the pastor (or reverend? I really don’t know my religions) introduced me to the congregation, which was nice because now pretty much the whole community knows I am here. I am not religious, but I plan to go to church every once-in-a-while because it is a good community asset for integration. South Africans value relationships over work or anything, so I must make strong relationships with people to be successful here.
With that said, there have been some clashes of cultures since I’ve been here. I am a very independent-type of person — I l-o-v-e doing things alone and being alone. I usually just want to go to my room after a long day at school without any disturbances.
Zulu people are always together enjoying each other’s company. It’s amazing how much they value each other, but it’s not my culture. Thus, I think my host family will realize soon enough that it’s in my culture to need some “me” time. It’s been hard to get that “me” time, though, because I always feel pressured to socialize (or I get eight missed calls and some texts from my host brother in the span of an hour. You best believe I told him that in my culture you do not call that many times and I will not pick up if he does so). It’s all hard, frustrating and a little too new for me, but I know it will just take some time to integrate. I’m aware that my hardest time here will (likely) be my first month at site.
Hamba kahle, ngilala manje (go well, I sleep now),