2014 reflections: Kelly Smith

I flew to Johannesburg by way of LAX, JFK, and Amsterdam.  At JFK I stood behind a woman who was insisting she shouldn’t have to pay for her beverage because the barista put whipped cream on her iced mocha when she clearly stated she didn’t want the stuff.  Yet, at the Amsterdam airport our departure gate was changed THREE times without complaint.  At each gate, we had to go through a TSA check prior to entering.  The lines were long and the walks across the airport were tiring yet not one person griped about the inconvenience or four hour delay.   The international (primarily African) vibe was a refreshingly unentitled bunch.

After clearing customs in Johannesburg I was approached by several young men offering to help me find my hotel shuttle bus.  I had forgotten that they expect a tip for their services and I didn’t have any small bills with me.  I needed cash to tip the helper as well as the shuttle driver, porter, and maid service.  Drat.  I hadn’t anticipated this.

At breakfast I was seated to my table by a beautiful South African black woman that had just given instructions to a young white woman to sweep the floor and wipe down the tables.  Wow.  Such an interaction would never have happened when I was here last, 30 years ago.

It was easy to spot my fellow TAB-SA volunteers at the Durban airport.  They were the eclectic mix of eager white adults in search of wifi.

Our hotel near Port Shepstone was an old colonial golf resort which seen better days.  I was disappointed to find out I had brought the wrong adapter so I was not able to charge my computer or cellphone.  Note to self; carefully research electrical adapters prior to landing in a foreign country.  On my after dinner walk, I encountered several antelope and monkeys.  Exciting!

We packed, checked out and waited a few hours for the administrators to arrive in a very bright heavily logoed van generously donated by First Car Rental.  We were on the road back to the Durban airport to secure an additional car before starting our journey up the Elephant Coast.  First stop – Baobab hotel.  The Baobab hotel lies across from a petrol station.  Upon entering the property we were greeted by several Nyala wandering the property.  This modest hotel, popular for its bar, reminded me for the Highway Motel where I lived for 3 months during my Peace Corps training in Swaziland, 30 years ago.

The next morning we drove to Mkuze to get our materials from the Dept. of Education offices.  Mkuze is a small town about halfway to Pongola where we’ll do our first workshop.  The town is ringed by shacks in which locals provide services such as haircut, braiding, driver instruction, cell phone repairs etc.  There was a colorful market/bus stop in the center of town.  We were the only whites.  Of course, the color of our skin stood out, as well as the bright purple van in which we were being driven.

The office of education was modest but the employees were helpful.  We spent the day organizing the supplies and making plans.  The science team had a huge job,  but were well- prepared, up for the task, and highly competent.  We in the math group had an easier time because of the nature of the content but I was feeling a bit nervous.  How am I going to engage the teachers, provide interesting lessons for them, and impart math to those who need it?

Workshop 1:  Grades 7-9.  Originally we were going to have grades 9-12 in week one but things were changed at the last minute. Carl and I were a good team together.  He concentrated on geometry while I was to do algebra.  He did a fun activity with pipe cleaners in which he had the teachers make tetrahedrons.  Nice, but the teachers were disappointed that pipe cleaners aren’t available to then, nor is construction of 3-D objects part of their curriculum.  My lesson was dry and probably not challenging enough for several of the young the teachers, but I didn’t feel right moving ahead when so many didn’t know the basics.  That night I made a puzzle to use after a review of simplification of radical expressions.  They all wanted to take it home with them.  I will put a copy on the TAB-SA website when possible.  Our hours were too long, not just for us, but for the teachers attending.  I was exhausted by the last lesson and few teachers were able to concentrate. We didn’t get back to the hotel until close to 8 at which time we sat down to dinner which took several hours.  I worked late into the night revamping my original lesson plans, only to wake up early the next day to start again.

Workshop #2: Grades 6-8.  It was an adventure finding a hotel in Mtubatuba, a trash/smoke infused town.  Brad and I worked well together.  Our teachers were older than those last week but very engaged and eager.  Many had traveled over 20km to get to us, only to discover there was no lunch provided.  Luckily, TAB-SA stepped in with sandwiches.  I had a request for lessons to show how to present the math concepts in their classes of over 100 pupils.  I presented several lessons involving group activities.  The lessons were well received but as one teacher pointed out, he is unable to do group work because there aren’t enough desks and chairs and he cannot physically make it to the back part of the room.  In fact, he is forced to just concentrate on the few seated in the front.

The second half of the week was spent at Okhayeni Primary School.  I loved working at both of these venues.  It was appropriate to be in a classroom rather than a hotel conference room, even if the tables were designed for small children.  It wasn’t uncommon for goats to roam in the room.  The pit latrines were clean and relatively modern.  On the drive to the school in the morning we passed the modest houses/huts similar to those of our teachers and students – most with no indoor plumbing or electricity.  We saw women carrying loads of laundry on their heads, freshly washed in the nearby watering hole shared with cattle.  In the nearby town of Jozini, I came across one of the teachers from week #1 on Saturday.  He was on his way to a school where he would be teaching over 50 students in preparation for the national exams.  He does this every Saturday and Sunday!  I was humbled by his dedication.

Workshop #3:  Grades 9-12.  It was refreshing to finally be able to use the trigonometry lesson plans which I originally prepared.  This group of teachers seemed much younger; several texted during presentations.  These more street-wise teachers were familiar with technology even though few had access to it at school. Those recently out of college had impressive math knowledge.  However, not all were so inclined.  I could tell there were several needing to be taught the material.  In the future, it would be good to offer two strands of workshops – those for content and those for teaching tips.

Workshop #4:  Swaziland.  Having taught high school math in Swaziland 1984-1987 I am biased, but I found the Swazis much friendlier and open-minded.  Having been added at the last minute, this workshop was not as well prepared.  We had no access to curriculum standards and expectations.  In the future it would be best to see these items as well as a sample of their national exams.  However, we were used to adapting and adjusting our plans so the teachers were pleased with us for the most part.

After the workshops were over, I toured Swaziland on my own – rediscovering old haunts.  I visited my old school, St. Marks High School in Mbabane, where I met the Principal, Deputy Principal, and math department chair.  I was given a tour of the school and chatted with students.  All pleaded for me to bring TAB to Swaziland in the future.  I drove to the Kaphunga region in search of the homestead where I lived for a few weeks during training.  Just when I was about to give up, I came across a young man (Donkey from the Kalamdladla area who could show me the way.  Donkey was thrilled to ride in a car for the hour long trek up the mountain on a very bumpy dirt road.  I delivered Donkey to his home at the top, then picked up an older women on her way home from church.  She was familiar with my host family and gave me directions to my homestead.  Once there I was greeted by two of my “brothers” who were just 12 and 13 years old when I last saw them.  I was happy to have brought with me a photo of the two, taken 30 years ago.  They had never seen a photo of themselves as kids.   Although my Siswati was quite rusty, I got the gist of the information regarding the rest of the family.  My host mother and father died of natural causes but three of my sisters died of AIDS.

My TAB-SA experience was invigorating.  I love Southern Africa, Swaziland in particular and would be thrilled to go back to work there one day.  The work was exhausting and demanding but very rewarding.  Of course I wondered whether my efforts were effective, but they seemed to be appreciated.  Regardless of whether my lessons were enlightening to the teachers, I know we spread goodwill to those we encountered.