Cristina Bennett reports on a trip to Moriteng Wa Thuto School, Greendown Community School’s partner in the Clarens District in March 2010.
“Everything we have done, everything we have seen and everyone we have met this week has been amazing!” declares 16-year-old Amy Prictor looking back on a week in February that has begun to change the way she views the world.
“I learnt a lot during my time in Clarens. I learnt about our partners’ culture and found it extremely fascinating; I learnt a traditional South African Gumboots Dance and I learnt how to speak some Afrikaans and Sesotho,” announces a thoughtful Rhys Spackman, also sixteen, as he sifts through his memory of experiences from the same week.
These two young people were amongst the group of seven Year 11 students who secured themselves a place on this year’s student Global Exchange from Greendown School to Moriting Wa Thuto School, in South Africa. For this second student Global Exchange visit, students were accompanied by three of their teachers. It was our February mid-term break, but we planned to work hard for the whole week and that’s exactly what we did! We had relatively little time for preparation before we went – just 4 months – but in that time the students had been raising the money to get themselves to South Africa. Some of them may have helped you pack your bags in ASDA just before Christmas, or perhaps you supported us by purchasing a raffle ticket for the Fairtrade Christmas Hamper? In whatever ways you may already have supported us, we are truly grateful. In the months ahead, Greendown students will continue their efforts to raise even more money to enable some of their partners to visit us at Greendown in July.
Visiting our partner school in South Africa has become a regular feature on Greendown School’s calendar, but that’s not to suggest it has taken on any of the routines you’d expect from a timetable. Yes, the lengthy flight and the seemingly endless road journey to our destination are always the same, but the groups of people who go are different and the experiences we have are simply unique.
Compared to the journey experienced by the first student Global Exchange group, in October 2007, this journey was remarkably uneventful: no breakdowns on the motorway out of Johannesburg; no dash to a garage minutes before closing time to buy and fit a replacement tyre; and definitely no bumps, scratches or scrapes before we’d even left the airport car park! We took this as a good omen for the week ahead, but, just to be on the safe-side, at certain moments on the 200-mile-road-journey, each one of us did keep a close watch on the dutifully loyal trailer that kept a steady distance behind us and which contained all our luggage.
When not watching the trailer, we were all preoccupied by the changing landscape as we passed from massive prairies of tall, strong maize and gently bowing sunflowers, to distant majestic mountains and lush savannah. But, more realistic for any one of us, whether on a first visit to South Africa or a return visit – which was the case for two of the staff – was our growing awareness of the settlements . We have seen similar settlements so many times on films, but seeing them for ourselves for the first time is always a time for reflection. This time was no exception; the emotional journey followed the same uncertain path taken by the first Global Exchange group in 2007.
As the questions flew around inside our heads (“ What do we want to learn?” “What do we want to share?” And, more significantly, “Why are we here?”) we began to reflect on our awareness that now that we had taken a step into another world of other people who have the same hopes, desires and dreams as us, but not the same access to them, we should work together in partnership to change this unequal world to a world of equal access to all the things that everyone should have.
At the Wilgenhof Environmental Education Centre where we began our week in South Africa, we walked together with our partners in the hills of the beautiful Golden Gate National Park, we played games together, we shared food together, wrote poems together (under the guidance and expertise of the fabulous South African performance artist and poet, Ndoni Khanile) and we performed together around the campfire sharing stories, songs and poems about who we are and how we see ourselves in our world today.
In the week that followed, our Greendown students went to classes together with their partners and they learned together. “We’ve got homework to do for tomorrow ,” said 16 year old Carney Bonner after a first day in Grade 12 at Moriting Wa Thuto. “I had to read a whole chapter of the novel out loud in English today!” declared 16 year old Zoe Smith, after a second day at Moriting Wa Thuto.
The school day at Moriting Wa Thuto is very long – in school by 7:00am and finishing at 3:30pm. The learning is very concentrated – simple resources of teacher, chalkboard, some textbooks and each other. The expectations are very high – if the learners don’t ‘make the grade’ at the end of the year, they have to re-take that whole year. “The guys here are all amazing – so strong and so ready to face all the things the world seems to throw at them,” reflected Amy at the end of a long day at school.
After two days at Moriting Wa Thuto, we spent a morning at Bethlehem Comprehensive School. It was more like Greendown in size – over a thousand learners – but with less than 50 educators to our 100 plus; that means class sizes are pretty big. For a complete contrast, later that morning we went to a local playgroup in Bethlehem. Because there is no formal nursery school building in that region, playgroups and nurseries are set up in whatever buildings are available. Our visit led us to someone’s garage. From inside, as we arrived, we could hear young voices singing their national anthem, “Nkosi Sikeli Africa” to welcome us all. Here, at this playgroup, the children learn the same things as young children in playgroups in the UK – drawing and colouring, singing, reading, creating imaginative things out of throw-away materials and making friends. We left feeling humbled by the way so much is gained from so little.
Later that same day, Greendown students and their Moriting Wa Thuto partners became educators at a primary school in Bethlehem. Doing outdoor activities and games with over one hundred small children was a massive challenge – every single one of our students rose to meet that challenge and feeling an enormous sense of pride and achievement at the end of a very hot and hectic two hours of intensive activity. We all deserved a complete rest that evening!
Next day, saw another morning of teaching for some Greendown students; this time at the intermediate school in Clarens. Rhys led an art session, helped by Alana and Carney, whilst Daniel headed outside to work on soccer skills with some keen footballers. By the end of that day too, all were exhausted again – not just physically, but emotionally too. Seeing the impact of their presence in the schools they had visited was quite overwhelming for our Greendown students.
When Friday arrived and goodbyes had to be made, this was another occasion for reflection. Our students reflected on what they had learned, who they had met and what impact their experiences had had on them as people. After their speeches in assembly, they joined in with the fun and celebrations of the “V Ball” (the Valentine’s Ball, which had been postponed from the previous week so that our students could be involved).
For one week in February, we celebrated our cultural diversity together – but for us from Greendown, just as last time in 2007, we felt more embarrassed than proud. Embarrassed that we had so little of our own traditional culture to share. It seems as if, over just a few generations, we have lost contact with our cultural traditions in our flurry of excitement to be modern: buying ready packaged food made in anonymous factories, rather than using recipes passed through families; singing songs specially manufactured by those interested in making money, rather than words which tell stories of past struggles and triumphs. Our partnership with our friends in South Africa has given us the strength to go and find some of our lost history and at the same time, our partnership has helped us encourage our friends not to forget their history as they stride with us through the modern world.
Significantly, our weekend of activities at Wilgenhof Environmental Education Centre, our days at school in the week that followed and the visits we made to other schools with our friends, forged friendships that strengthened Greendown School’s five-year bond with Moriting Wa Thuto School, but also began new friendships with educators and learners at Bethlehem Comprehensive School. All these friendships, for all of us, have already begun to change our attitudes to life and have begun to help us shape new ideas of how we see ourselves in a world together.
The future of the student Global Exchanges– which we hope will continue for several years to come – is in our hands; it is important to keep an open mind about the value of these experiences. Recently, school global partnerships have been criticised for not doing enough to change the way young people see the world. There is no better way than to end with the voice of a young person, 16-year-old Rhys Spackman, from Greendown Community School, who made the recent journey to South Africa, “I absolutely did not expect the exchange to go as well as it did; my perspectives and views of South Africa were so dramatically altered from what they were previously. I had expected this to happen, so I was prepared, however the extent to which my outlook has changed is unbelievable. A key sign as to showing the success of the exchange is that Clarens now feels like a home to me, not in the sense of a material building but as a community in which I and the other exchange students now feel well and truly a part of. Also the people there and especially our partners felt and still feel as if they are my family. We all took part in so many activities that caused us to bond and develop in our partnership, and I believe that by experiencing school which is a major part of all of our lives I have come to understand something of the true nature of South African people.”