It doesn't rain on their parade

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Unemployment, poverty, AIDS - but the children of Alexandra are rich in the desire for an education

The grinning boy raps on our van window. Around his neck hangs a sign which reads: "Please help, dog arrested for stealing neighbour's chicken. Need money for bail."

Nothing seems quite right as I drive along the highway in June, the middle of the South African winter, following the signs for London Road, Alexandra. The Glaswegian in me wants to scribble "Parade" at the end of the sentence. Further north, the Scottish influence is apparent: Dunkeld, Birnam, Glen Affric. Our friends in Alexandra are delighted to see us, calling us "numpties," "blethers," telling us they were "steaming" on Saturday and demanding that we "courie-in" for the group photo.

For the last seven years, Shawlands Academy has enjoyed a fruitful exchange with Realogile High. It began when Ian O'Neil, a chemistry teacher, was invited to a video-conference with Jack McConnell and Thabo Mbeki in 2001 and it was suggested that an exchange between South Africa and Scotland would be an excellent idea.

Last year alone, 20 second-year pupils went out at Easter and 15 fourth-year pupils were visiting for a couple of weeks at the end of the summer term. This followed a year of constant fund-raising by pupils and their committed parents.

Every day we are awakened with blue skies and 20-degree heat, with the sun going down at 5.30pm, and are amazed by the advice given to us to "beat the mid-winter blues" by wrapping up and taking brisk walks. It reminds me of John Smeaton's line, "We're from Glasgow".

Before we left, a grumpy teacher asked me what school trips like this had to do with learning and teaching. The short answer is: everything. The day before our departure, judges from the UK teaching awards put the same question to a group of second-year pupils, whose unanimous answer was: "It's life-changing."

Constantly challenging preconceptions and stereotypes are surely part of the learning and teaching mystique. Our pupils returned home realising that poverty is also relative.

And Alex is, by all accounts, a poor place. Established in 1912 by a farmer, Mr Papenfus, who tried unsuccessfully to establish a white residential township, named it after his wife. The Alexandra of today is a mass of people and shacks, its problems apparently insurmountable. No one can give an accurate population count (180,000 to 750,000), but whatever it is, the extremely high density has overloaded the frail infrastructure, leading to low water pressure, dangerous electrical connections and poor services.

I was curious to find an absence of flowers and plants and dismayed to see heaps of garbage in the street, as well as the sinister abortionist signs on telegraph poles. Compounded with the severe social problems - drugs, alcohol and crime - it has an unemployment rate of 90 per cent.

Realogile High has a student population of 1,326, similar to Shawlands but with 45 teachers, half its number. There are no cleaners and pupils are expected to clean up at the end of the day. Education is highly regarded, a passport to a better life. There are 11 periods crammed into a school-day from 8am to 2.30pm.

Adjoining the school is an orphanage called NOAH (nurturing of AIDS and HIV), housing 410 of Realogile's pupils. Most live there continually, some older pupils live nearby and care for the younger pupils. It is the all-consuming spectre of AIDS that has had the most profound effect on our pupils. How could these smiling, curious children be smitten by this inexorable blight?

Surprisingly, the inhabitants live in this fragmented, ephemeral world with an air of optimism. Connie, our congenial hostess, suggested we be taken on a tour of Alexandra. As she put it: "We want you to see how we live, how we sleep on the floor, how we re-use everything."

White visitors are a rarity here, and our presence attracted an increasing number of spectators as we were proudly shown one shack after the other and introduced to all the families. Their English names had a faint Victorian ring to them: "I'd like to introduce you to Prudence, Freddie, Charles ...".

Even the adverts on the billboards seemed out of a different era: "Enjoy Cremola Foam," "Chesterfield, a really good smoke." I particularly liked the hairdresser advertising funky hairstyles alongside the funeral parlour sign.

Undeniably, there is poverty, but we could see no signs of squalor. The pupils all owned mobile phones, the latest gadgets, ate a healthy diet and wore clean clothes. Our pupils remarked upon the vibrant community life. Perhaps this is to do with the warm, balmy climate where you can live outside four walls most of the year, where street barbecues are the norm, where the neighbours look out for each other and - in the absence of a welfare state - it is expected that the family member who works will provide for those who are unemployed, where elders are respected and cared for.

This is not to put too rosy a picture on the stark realities of life in Alex, but what it did was challenge our preconceptions: the notions of where the line of want and deprivation can be drawn. After all, to have cohesion in society with fewer material possessions can be more enriching.

I asked Connie, who had visited Shawlands a couple of years ago, if Scotland was as she imagined it, and was intrigued by her reply. "Here, the black woman still works for the white woman. In Scotland, you have to do everything for yourselves!"

We took the pupils to church on two consecutive Sundays. The heady atmosphere was more like a carnival and we were all taken aback by the sheer celebration of singing and dancing in the aisles and the swinging incense and the vibrant colours, although I was a bit indignant to be slapped on the back and the devil cajoled to come out of me. "Excuse me", I protested, "he's fine where he is, let him be!"

As we turned to go back to Johannesburg, an old lady, bent double, stopped Ian and asked him what we were all doing here. He explained that we were on an educational trip to Alexandra. "An educational trip in Alexandra!" she wheezed. She could hardly contain herself, and tears of mirth rolled down her cheeks.

We all looked at her in astonishment. As they say in Glasgow, I thought she'd peed herself laughing.

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