August 2, 2008


It’s our second week in Nomathamsanqa township and we’ve hit our stride. We love the strong sense of community in this village. Neighbors look after each other although most have little themselves. There is a large feeding program for children who come to school hungry, which amounts to mothers preparing 2 pieces of bread with butter and jam and a “nutrient drink.” I asked the principal what happens to these children when school is not in session and he told me that neighbors make sure everyone has something to eat. “That is part of our culture.”

Here's a typical day -- We rise before the sun when the house is still about 45 ◦. It’s hard to get out from under our thick blankets but Mama has a bucket of hot water waiting for us to wash up. We all sit down to a large hot breakfast. (“Fat cakes” – fried dough dipped in a tomato & onion mixture – are Sara’s favorite).

Then we head off to school with Yanga, who has to be the cutest and happiest 7-year old you ever met. We’re joined by his friends and we walk a few blocks along the sandy rocky streets to school. We teach each other English and Xhosa and the kids giggle at our awkward pronunciation of the different clicks in their beautiful language. We exchange greetings with everyone we see along the way – and the neighborhood is bustling in the morning. Then there are the animals: the donkeys carrying loads of twigs, the goats who clean up the orange peels (it’s harvest time in the nearby groves), the cattle moving we’re not sure where, and our favorite, the hen and her brood of chicks. Yesterday we saw an ostrich at the fence to Addo Elephant Park which borders the township. We hear that in summer (it’s winter here), elephants come right up to the fence.

As we get closer to the school, we’re joined by other children who smile widely as they join us. The school siren (we can’t call it a bell), sounds at 8:00 a.m. and all 950 students gather in the central courtyard for morning devotional, lively harmonious singing of hymns and prayers, mostly in Xhosa, to start the day. We love it and join in when we can. This is a country where EVERYONE sings with great spirit and always in that particular harmony that you hear in African music. The idea that a child might be told they can’t sing is beyond comprehension. Kids and adults just plain sing all the time.

Larry and Sara have been working with the teachers in grades 2-4, both in class and in afternoon staff development, on strategies for teaching English, particularly using oral language beyond the parroting the students now do. None of us could imagine the lack of resources here – pencils of a ¼ inch shared between students, little or no paper, absolutely no books other than poor texts and workbooks that are largely beyond the student’s comprehension. Classes are overcrowded with furniture that is falling apart except for the new furniture provided as donations through Callabash Trust, the same group that organized our visit. At the same time, the teachers are bright, intelligent and caring and are eager to learn ways to reach their students. Most of the teachers have been very willing to try the new strategies and they have been excited about the results. Sara has been modeling lessons and Larry has been coaching the teachers.

Eileen has become the computer guru. When she showed the principal how to get his email working, he sincerely said, “you are a gift from God.” She spends most of her time trying to get their computer lab in decent shape. The donated computers are old and slow, connected to the Internet on a very slow land line. One of her first jobs was to try to get antivirus software installed and it took 10 days just to get someone out to this remote village. Then it took nearly 2 hours to install the software on each of the 8 aging and dusty computers. She’s been offering computer classes after school and the teachers are so excited to get to actually touch these machines. Only a handful have ever touched a keyboard, let alone a computer. Yet within a few ½ hour classes, they learned the basics of Word and are thrilled to be able to see their text in different styles. Nomthle, one of the most enthusiastic teachers, was absolutely elated when she learned how to change the font color, “I’m typing in ORANGE!!!” she exclaimed with enormous excitement, knowing she could now create fun things for her students. The next day class was cancelled because of some unforeseen teachers’ meeting and the teachers in Eileen’s class were not happy about that. She told them she would keep the lab open after the meeting. Nomthle came in after the meeting, saying, “I must peck away at this and learn something new every day.” Eileen showed her how to insert a table and the next day Nomthle was in the lab every free minute typing a chart for a class she is taking.

These teachers are the most extraordinary group of people, and we've grown to adore them. They have the best sense of humor, always joking with us and each other. They are always striving to improve themselves with course work or independent study. It is mostly women, who are outgoing and sometimes outrageous. The two men are warm, but reserved. At a community concert put on for our benefit, the teachers all bought school T-shirts and went on stage to perform although they had little time to rehearse. They were singing (in harmony of course) and dancing and just plain raucous, pulling us up on the stage with them. It will be very hard to leave them.

The students are eager to learn but have few opportunities for creative thought. They take pride in their school are they sweep the room and dust the office each day. On Fridays school ends an hour early and the students clean every inch of the school including washing the floors

After school, we’ve either got classes or some activity the school or our host family has planned for us. The sun is often hot in the afternoon, rising 20 or more degrees throughout the day. But when the sun drops low at around 6:00 p.m., the temperature drops with it. We start layering on the sweaters and fleece because there is no heat in the house. A large warm supper is served at about 7:00 p.m. and then the family starts preparing for bed. The first night we laughed at the thought of bed by 8:00, but suddenly we find we can’t keep our eye open much beyond that. We snuggle back in under the covers and listen for the night sounds of the animals, and the neighbors’ music, as we fall asleep.

We can't imagine leaving after just one more week.