A mutual friendship empowering change

8th July 2005 at 01:00
A teacher's summer in South Africa has spread confidence that there is a great deal we all can do to make a difference, writes Miranda Fettes

Five weeks spent with teachers and pupils in a partially built South African school without any electricity may not be everyone's idea of a holiday, but for Judith Parker it was life-changing.

"I know that sounds terribly cliched, but it has changed my life," says the Inverkeithing High history teacher. "Going to South Africa was the best and most different thing I've ever done. It's changed the way I teach. I've learnt and taken as much from them as they have from me."

Judith worked at Ben Mali Senior Secondary in the Lusikisiki district of Eastern Cape last July and August, through Link Community Development's global teacher programme. "It works in partnership with national and district education departments on projects to improve schools and increase access to education," she explains.

Her role was predominantly in guidance on school management and leadership, teacher training and development, the formation of effective, sustainable systems and the creation of a positive ethos conducive to learning.

Ben Mali Secondary had a roll of 700 pupils aged 15 to 24 or 25 and only seven teachers. There were up to 60 in a class and, with inadequate buildings, it was common for classes to meet outside.

Although construction began in 2002, "the building was happening very slowly because of horrific infrastructural problems," Judith explains. "The builders hadn't been paid (by the authority) for months.

"The school was suffering from a lack of leadership and general cohesiveness," she says. "The principal wasn't very confident at motivating staff. The teachers weren't very confident.

"Teaching was much more difficult because the teachers didn't have access to half the resources we have. There was no electricity, therefore materials can't be photocopied; they had blackboards but often not sufficient chalk. They tended to use more traditional methods of teaching, focused around content and imparting information rather than thinking skills and encouraging pupils to direct their own learning.

"The South African teachers are not used to interactive teaching; they're not used to giving praise.

"The school had high rates of absenteeism and lateness. I suggested that maybe we needed to make coming to school on time more positive and that it might be useful to reward those who did."

She demonstrated rather than instructed. "The teachers would come and watch and then try incorporating some things in their classes. It was really about positive discipline and positive classroom management combined with interactive teaching."

Judith stayed with a school governor, Mr Nosenga, and his wife, daughter and three grandchildren aged 4 to 10 - their late son's children - in the small rural community of Luqoqweni, near Lusikisiki. "There was a grave of their son in the garden," she says. She suspects he died of Aids.

"They were incredibly hospitable and really looked after me," she says.

"When I went to school, he would walk me to the roadside (a 15-minute walk) and wait until I was collected by the principal."

Judith was the first white guest to stay in the Nosenga household. "Mr Nosenga was very esteemed in his community," she says.

"The day before I left, he made a speech and said that he'd known I was coming to stay with his family and was very nervous about what I'd be like, whether I'd eat the food and so on. He thanked me for being what I was. It was humbling that somebody has to thank somebody else for being civil.

"Life was very segregated," she adds. "I'm sure a lot of the pupils in the school would never have met a white person before and certainly never have communicated with them on an equal footing."

The Nosengas, who lived in a fairly large house, had a television - a sign of relative affluence - but no electricity or running water. The television was bought in expectation of electricity, which many in the community had believed for years was coming.

In the hottest months of the year, the water in their butt dries up and they have to collect water from local streams. "There had been a cholera outbreak a few months before I arrived, because not everyone had access to clean water," Judith says.

A focal point of her trip was an HIV conference in Umtata, which she attended with 12 senior students from Ben Mali Secondary.

"It's a huge issue," she says. "There are more teachers dying of Aids than there are in training."

The statistics make grim reading: one-fifth of the South African population has HIVAids; an estimated half of all 16- to 24-year-olds will be infected by 2010; and the average age at death is 36.

"At the conference was a white priest who announced he was HIV positive.

This was a shock to the audience," says Judith. "There is still enormous stigma."

She was shocked by the level of ignorance about the virus, with people asking whether it could be caught by kissing.

Judith set up an HIVAids committee at Ben Mali Secondary to educate the young people about how to avoid infection, prevent it spreading and care for somebody with HIV or Aids and, ultimately, break down the wall of taboo.

"A large proportion of the pupils will have been heading families because both parents will have died through Aids. People don't have access to anti-retrovirals.

"There were numerous funerals. At those funerals, it's usual to pronounce the cause of death as pneumonia or bronchitis or tuberculosis but never Aids."

A recent letter from Ben Mali Secondary's HIVAids co-ordinator, Mrs Silwana, detailed the progress made by the committee, with plans to invite parents and non-governmental organisations to the school for workshops on coping with the disease and caring for infected family members.

"My priority was to set up systems and to do things that were sustainable," says Judith, who also established a reading club at the school. Its membership has since swelled to 40. In March, she received a letter from the club, thanking her and saying: "This club means a lot to us."

"It's about empowering people to have the confidence to know that they can take steps, they can have an impact," Judith says.

She spreads that message to her pupils at Inverkeithing. "It's part of their informal curriculum in terms of citizenship and values."

Last month Judith, with a geography teacher and some sixth year pupils, co-organised a conference on the theme of "Together We Can Make a Difference". Twelve neighbouring schools attended and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, the MP for Fife, made a keynote speech.

"The point was to raise awareness of global issues and identify positive actions that we can take," says Judith. "It sounds cliched but everyone can make a difference.

"Some of the media coverage of Africa has tended to be very negative: poor, starving African people.

"A lot of the reasons why people are disadvantaged and suffer from lack of resources and lack of access to education are to do with the way trade rules discriminate against developing countries, and debt repayments are crippling governments. These global issues are vital to understanding the situation in which people find themselves in South Africa.

"The whole message that I'm giving to my school is that there's lots we can do. It's not just about money; it's about communication and working with people."

Judith is being funded by Fife Council to return to the Eastern Cape in September for a conference on how the link between the two schools can be built upon.

Meanwhile, Ben Mali Secondary is planning to set up an annual Scotland Day in August. "I taught them some ceilidh dances and taught some pupils to sing 'Loch Lomond'," Judith says.

She hopes to reciprocate the honour by holding an Africa Day at Inverkeithing High in December. "The aim is that the whole school will be able to facilitate and support the link, and to fund two teachers and 10 pupils from Ben Mali Secondary to fly here in March. Pupils have suggested lots of fund-raising initiatives."

Judith is optimistic that the link between the schools will develop into a strong and permanent one.

"The idea of mutual partnership is very real," she says. "It's enabled me to empower pupils in the school to do things."


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