Learners at work studying geometry in Makapanstad, North West Province.
Peace Corps Volunteers seem to spend the entirety of their service in varying degrees of training, marked by a miscellanea of acronyms: PST, PCT, IST, MST, COS. During the second phase of training, from September through December, my travels were constrained to a narrow radius around my village. Peace Corps, in its bureaucratic eloquence, calls this period Community Integration; Peace Corps Volunteers, in their youthful optimism, call it Lockdown.
Lockdown prescribes a schedule of weekly assignments, an appreciative inquiry into the resources and needs of the community and its schools. Like all South African schedules, however, this schedule is written specifically to be ignored. For three months I arrived to work every day without knowing what the day might hold. Most days I rifled through outdated textbooks, learning as much about South Africa’s evolving curriculum as I did about natural science and history (the content of the apartheid-era social studies books alone merits a separate entry). Other days I looked for anything to keep me busy: computer lessons for the faculty; fixing the scanner; observing lessons; playing games with the kids; sitting through hours of meetings conducted entirely in Setswana. While attempting to organize the primary school’s office one week, I had many conversations like this one:
“Principal, do we really need this receipt book from 1981?
“Yes, Thabo! We must keep careful records.”
“But I found it under the HIV workbooks from 1997 that never got used….”
“Thabo! The Department will ask for it.”
“….do you mean the Department of Education for the Republic of Bophutatswana*?”
Now and then I also taught lessons. Occasionally my colleagues would give me a day or two to prepare. More often, however, a colleague inform me I would be teaching grade 11 biology or grade 6 natural science that day, leading to conversations like this one:
“Thabo. Can you teach plants?”
“You know what, Thabo. We start in 10 minutes.”
While teaching, I observed that students lacked critical abilities in literacy and critical thinking: they typically answer questions by copying a tangentially-related sentence from the textbook or by responding in rote phraseology. After school, students frequently dropped by my house for tutoring, sessions that revealed further shortcomings in numeracy. I worked with several grade 6 students who failed to understand the concept of place value, believing 876 to be smaller than 1432. Another, a grade 11 calculus student, could not find the formula for a straight line. (Note: dirt yards make excellent over-sized graph paper.)
Lockdown is over. A new school year begins tomorrow. Over a year after I was nominated for service in sub-Saharan Africa, the time has come to be a real Peace Corps Volunteer. Though Peace Corps nominated me to teach secondary science, I will be teaching grade 7 maths at the secondary school and piloting a literacy enrichment program for grades 5 and 6 at the primary school. While the foundation of my own teaching experience is in science education, pervasive shortcomings in literacy and numeracy – abilities which form the basis for scientific thought – simply demand more immediate redress.
Additionally I will be pursuing a couple of secondary projects working with the youth of Reedview, in particular its Orphaned and Vulnerable Children (OVCs). OVCs form a critical demographic in my village: according the School Governing Body, 92 of the primary school’s approximately 275 students have been orphaned or live in otherwise unstable homes, many social casualties of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The projects I am pursuing are still in their infancy and will require careful coordination of efforts by the village schools, the community health organization, and the community counsellor. At the moment, these projects are in their infancy, merely ideas I share with local leaders. Therefore I will refrain from elaborating on these projects until they develop (or perhaps, if they develop). If all goes well, I should be roasting marshmallows over a campfire in about six months.
*The Republic of Bophutatswana was one of the “independent homelands” or bantustans with nominal self-government, set up for the Batswana and administered by the apartheid government and dissolved with the newly-elected democratic government in 1994.