Friendships make a big difference

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
During the spring holidays, S6 students and teachers from Edinburgh visited a township school in South Africa, bearing gifts. Raymond Ross reports on their citizenship project.

On arrival, the Scottish visitors were met by 1,200 pupils singing in gospel harmony. This was not something specially laid on, but a normal morning assembly where a teacher suggests a hymn, a key singer starts and everyone joins in, dancing to the rhythm.

The party from Edinburgh - nine S6 students from James Gillespie's High, seven teachers and a parent - were visiting their global neighbourhood school, Zwelibanzi High in Umlazi township, south Durban.

Conditions in the school were poor; the rooms were bare and overcrowded.

The average class size is 90, with three pupils often sharing an old-fashioned double desk. Chalk and talk was about as high tech as the teaching got. Perhaps it was not so surprising.

"When you go into Umlazi there's horizon after horizon of houses, poor houses often made of wood and mud, with refuse tips among them. The population is 1.6 million," says Chris McCorquordale, one of the visiting pupils.

"It seems impossible to change something so big. But I believe we are making a difference."

James Gillespie's High began its South Africa Project in August 2003 to develop the pupils' sense of global citizenship and direct support for educational provision at Zwelibanzi High, with reciprocal learning opportunities, scholarship provision, student and staff exchanges and curricular and cultural cross-fertilisation.

The project is also linked to the school's enterprise culture and its core values of equality and diversity, the idea that all actions have consequences and that political actions can be personal. To date they have raised about pound;17,000.

For this trip, as well as taking donations of books, pencils, football strips, boots and track suits, the school raised pound;7,000. This paid for resources for teaching sports (basketball hoop and balls), music (instruments), drama and home economics (a sewing machine and blenders), plus CD players, fans and stationery. It bought a fax machine and a photocopier for school administration, refrigerators and a microwave oven for the staff, a bed and linen for a sick room and tools for repairs.

The visitors also helped to set up a school library, paying for shelving, books, a television set, video and DVD players, a music centre and security equipment.

All these items were sourced locally, with the details of the budget decided by the pupils and staff at Zwelibanzi High.

"It is a principle that they decide their priorities," says Alex Wallace, the headteacher of James Gillespie's High. "This is not a paternalistic project and the money is spent in the local economy."

Part of the money was set aside to help a young man associated with the school receive medical attention for Aids. Some was also used to set up a fund to enable 20 students from the informal settlements (similar to a shanty town) to attend nearby Ogwini comprehensive school for a year. And a similar fund was established to allow 10 children to attend Hillview primary school.

The visiting pupils were clearly struck by the poverty of Umlazi but also inspired by friendships.

"It's a responsibility to protect those less fortunate and I've learned about the power of relationships," says Sam Dunne, one of the sixth formers. "I'm still in contact by text, letter and sometimes email with pupils I met and I'd love to go back next year, even though I'll have left Gillespie's."

The other students were equally adamant on this point. They are committed to passing the project on to the next generation of sixth years but say it will be difficult to let go when they leave school. They all want to remain involved, such has been the impact.

"It opens your eyes to other things you could do," says Adam Herbertson.

"You really feel you're making a difference."

"We met up with four leavers from last year on their gap year," says Jaqueline Wilson. "They were travelling but made sure they were in Durban at Easter so they could join us in our visit to the township, which they got to know last year."

James Gillespie's High stresses that the project is pupil driven. The South Africa Project committee of 20 S6 students (Zwelibanzi High has a similar committee) meets twice weekly and has the job of not only driving things forward but also proselytising among younger pupils, giving talks and leading workshops on topics ranging from Aids to South African jewellery.

"The project needs more input than you could get from the staff alone," says pupil Niall Walker. "You also need the emotional impact of meeting with the South African pupils. They are students like us. You learn that everyone is quite similar, even though our histories may be different."

So, what's next? "Just a few wee things," says Mr Wallace.

"We'd like to bring over one of the youth choirs from Durban. That's about 40 people, so it'll take some fundraising. That'll be good for enterprise education, I'd think.

"We also want to link one of our associated primaries with Hillview primary in Umlazi to develop the project more widely, so that it becomes embedded at primary level as well.

"And, come August, I'd like every one of our parents to donate pound;30, which would pay for the education of an Umlazi pupil for a year: pound;30 isn't really that much.

"We hope, thus, to grow in other issues and other schools."

Every year James Gillespie's High holds a Diversecity celebration of all the cultures represented in the school and local community. It is usually a sell-out concert and the proceeds go towards bringing over pupils and teachers from Zwelibanzi High.

In March two staff and two pupils came over from Durban for the celebration, which had a South African theme and featured a rendition of "Nkosi sikelel' iAfrica" (God bless Africa), the national anthem. It also featured a pipe band, sword dancing, hip-hop, Bollywood dancing, breakdance and martial arts, as well as a pupil-produced video about the tsunami coupled with pupils' poetry, clarsach and cello compositions and a Thai dance performed after someone has died to celebrate their life.

Following its success, the pupils have been asked to perform at a conference on Africa in the lead-up to the G8 summit in July and at a concert at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for a congress on disasters.

"At last year's Diversecity, our pupils did a township dance," says Mr Wallace, "and the students from Zwelibanzi High could not believe that our students wanted to celebrate their culture.

"It's important our visitors go back knowing these things are important to us."

"Diversecity is a statement of the importance of the principles of diversity, tolerance and justice in our school and in global society," says Marie Chetty, the depute head and staff representative on the South Africa Project committee.

"Coupling that with the human contact made in our reciprocal visits, which promote cross-curricular staff development as well as pupil contacts, is what brings passion, immediacy, emotion and commitment. Through the S6 students this cascades down the school and is now firmly embedded in our school culture."

"The South Africa Project so far has impacted on our curriculum in social subjects and both pupils and staff are gaining in terms of emotional intelligence," says Mr Wallace.

"This is a major global citizenship project for us and it dovetails perfectly our friends of the school and friends of the planet strategies.

"I want our young people to have a sense of social responsibility to their local and global communities. We begin with things like picking up litter in the local streets and spread outwards."


Extracts of letters sent from the staff and pupils at Zwelibanzi High: Staff: "To Everyone at Gillespie's,

"You have made a huge difference in our lives. You brought joy to everyone at Zwelibanzi. We will be eternally grateful to each and everyone attached with James Gillespie's for every item you bought us.

Today we are going to have a high-class library because of your love, kindness and generosity. Thank you for taking Zwelibanzi into your hearts.

We will miss every one of you who thought it was noble for him or her to leave hisher family, hisher beautiful country and choose to visit our school. Thank you!!

"From all of us at Zwelibanzi"

Pupils: "I never thought that a white person would sacrifice their money, time, for just people like us. Thank you. You are a gift from God all what I believe and what you believe is great. I learnt that in life you not only have to give but love and cheer all the time. From every thing you gave us, it's our duty to take care. Thank you.


"You are the giver and we are the receiver and the giving hand is more blessed than the receiving hand, so you are more blessed than us.


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