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An African adventure

By 4 May 2012No Comments

Earlier this year, with a colleague and two S4 students, Alex Wood, a headteacher from Edinburgh, visited Barkly West, his link school in South Africa’s Northern Cape.  Here’s his diary.
After three gruelling flights we arrived in Kimberley and drove to our guest house.  First impressions were of a country obsessed with security, with electrically controlled gates, high walls, barbed-wire fences and locked windows the order of the day in suburban Kimberley.
We spent the evening at a brai, a South African barbeque, hosted by the sister of the Principal of Barkly West and attended by school staff and friends.  It was immediately clear that apartheid was over.  Mixed race relationships and an openness which we had perhaps not expected were apparent.
There is also however a very clear authority and status hierarchy.  Even socially, teachers refer to each other by title and surname rather than forename.  The Principal of Barkly West, who had visited Wester Hailes, informed his colleagues that even quite affluent people in Scotland, including teachers, did not have housemaids.  I was asked by genuinely astonished teachers if this meant that my wife did all the housework herself!
We visited the Big Hole diamond mine.  A film portraying the early diamond industry showed nineteenth century Afrikaaner and native children playing together.  Was this an accurate picture of a pre-apartheid idyll or a re-writing of yesterday to influence tomorrow?  The Kimberley shopping mall is a modern, multi-racial consumers’ paradise where we saw an affluent black middle class and social groups of blacks and whites as well as mixed race couples.
We arrived at Barkly West to be welcomed by a South African flag and a saltire but also by a host of curious young people who all obviously knew who we were.  At assembly in the school’s courtyard we walked forward to a platform area behind the lectern to the applause and cheers of staff and students.  It was humbling (and quite emotional) to be welcomed so warmly and enthusiastically.
A sermon, by a local Pentecostal pastor, with copious biblical references and a dramatic emphasis on sin and redemption, followed.  I then addressed the assembly, even raising a few smiles from the students.  There seemed a genuine pleasure at our being there.  Some announcements followed.  (“No caps on school premises in the summer term.”)  Assembly ended with a superb rendering of the national anthem, led by a student.
We spent most of the day in classes.  I was based in the English department.  The curriculum is similar to ours but more tightly prescribed and with a fairly heavy emphasis on formal language skills, including grammar.  The English teacher was inspiring and enormously popular.  Classes are large.  I saw one of 42 despite nine being absent.  Behaviour is good but with the low-level mischief in which children the world over indulge.  With limited resources and large classes, differentiation is difficult.
The school was built in 1968 and in many ways (metal window frames, tiled floors) it is similar to Scottish schools of the 1950s.  In other ways it resembles Scottish schools of 100 years ago: a stove in each class to which the students bring wood in winter; double wooden desks (some still with ink-pots) often accommodating three crowded children. All students pay a fee.
Outside Barkly West we have seen harsh poverty: two-room brick houses with corrugated roofs but also ad hoc buildings of wood, tin and hardboard, and men and women walking five or six miles to work.
We toured the school.  The computer room has 12 PCs for teachers, the Principal having the only internet –connected PC.  The library stock is minimal.  The football pitch is brick strewn earth.  The outdoor basketball court is tarmacadamed.  Again, we were aware of greater formality.  The Principal is addressed as Meinhier (Sir) by staff as well as students.  Classes stand on the entry of a teacher.
Young people from across the races do mix, socially and at inter-school events.  There is however very little for young people to do outside school except for church related activities.  Drugs, alcohol , sex and racing clapped-out cars are the great escapes.
The Northern Cape Provincial Legislature in Kimberley, is a modern parliament strangely reminiscent of our own.  Our next visit, Isago Primary, in Kimberley’s impoverished Galashewe township, which is twinned with Juniper Green Primary in Edinburgh, was inspiring.  With 1,080 pupils in classes of up to 40 happy, bright children, we saw Primary 4s who had mastered fractions, whose hand-writing was superb and who were learning English.  The school, led by an energetic, enthusiastic, inspiring headteacher, runs a garden to help feed its learners but specifically focused on supporting the 28 HIV+ pupils and their families.
A visit to the Provincial Education office reminded us that development and improvement planning, inspections and local reviews are the universal methods of tick-box bureaucrats.  South Africa’s educational bureaucracy is not quite as developed as ours.  It would like to be.
We visited Magersfontein, the site of Britain’s bloodiest defeat, in 1899, in the Anglo-Boer War, or at least Scotland’s bloodiest defeat for the vast bulk of the British troops were from the Highland Brigade.  The Burgher Memorial, Afrikaanerdom’s monument to its dead, a towering skeletal spire above a set of granite grave stones, is as superb and dignified memorial as any to the victims war.  For the Scots who survived Magersfontein and advanced at Loos or the Somme there must have been an appalling sense of déjà vu for the Boers won by concentrating fire on a closely advancing enemy from well dug, barbed-wired trenches supported by artillery.
We accompanied the Grade 12s (sixth years) to Bloemfontein where we visited the Free State University, the Zoo and the Waterside Mall.  The Free State University, a former bastion of apartheid is, on the surface at least, a model of the new integration.  Every publication and poster shows students in mixed race groups and the reality is close to that.  Bloemfontein Mall is a monument to conspicuous consumption and the consumerist mentality crosses racial barriers.  We saw many groups of black, primary-aged children in highly traditional uniforms of private schools.  The journey was also an opportunity to speak informally with our teaching colleagues from Barkly West who provided two insights on South African politics.  Firstly, South Africa needs a real opposition as the ANC has virtually integrated all its previous opponents.  Secondly, Nigerian immigrants are resented as the “Americans of Africa”.  (“Too much money.  Too much crime.”)
We spent the morning in classes speaking about Scotland.  The questions were wonderful.  “Do Scotsmen wear skirts?”  “How long is your school day?”  “How do teachers make pupils behave?”  There was amusement at the illegality of corporal punishment.  We visited the municipal offices, met the mayor and saw a show of local children dancing.  It is difficult to avoid clichés when they are true.  Music, dance and exuberance are at the heart of South African culture.
In the afternoon an inter-school football game had been arranged with Vaal Rivier School, the local school which had previously served the white population but which was increasingly mixed.  (Similarly, Barkly West, which had previously served the ‘coloured’ population, now has many black students.)  One of our Wester Hailes students guested for Barkly West and played a superb, unselfish game, a real team-player.
In the evening we visited a game farm where we were introduced to traditional Afrikaaner life.  The walls were hung with kudu and springbok and wtih the owner’s army photographs.  He had been a colonel in the old army and remained one in the reserve of the new.  He had established an irrigation system to create an arable maize-yielding oasis.  He bred dogs and donkeys and ran a fleet of mini-buses.  A Christian conservative and an entrepreneur, he believed that the ANC was the best option for stability.  His son, a blond, 21-year old Free State University student, was however a member of the Freedom Front, whose main political commitments were “Afrikaans and Christianity” and who became “very angry” when he saw “a white man with a black lady”.
Last day in Barkly West and it coincided with leaving day for the Grade 12s.  They had dug a hole in the area outside the school gate and filled it with water.  The rite of passage was to be thrown into the mud-bath.  We arrived, myself and one of our students in kilts, and were cheered to the echo as we approached the assembly platform.  A programme of singing, dancing and instrumental music started an emotional filled assembly which lasted one-and-a-quarter hours. (I’d like to try that at home!)  We said our formal farewells, exchanged gifts and heard speeches.  Before we left I was approached by two shy young girls (S2-equivalents, I’d have guessed) wanting to say goodbye to our boys.  The most human things cross all cultural and geographic boundaries.  It had been a huge privilege to share a week in the life of our friends in Barkly West and we could only look forward to repaying their kindnesses when they reciprocate the visit.

The above article was first published in SecEd on 7 February 2008.

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