September 22, 2014

Giving Back in South Africa

U.S. university students make a connection with schoolchildren
in KwaZulu-Natal Province

By McKenna Begin

Vacations Magazine: Giving Back in South Africa
Kelly Neubeiser

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

As our vehicle made its way to Bongimfundo Primary School for our first day of work, the song "Africa" by Toto filled the air. Listening to the lyrics -- "Gonna take some time to do the things we never have" -- I knew that this would be an experience unlike any other. Thus began my two-week stay in South Africa.

My group of 14, which included students and a faculty adviser from Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, NC, had arrived in Durban on May 9 after 52 hours of traveling. We had long layovers and a day's delay, but the headaches were worth it once we walked out of the airport and into the South African sun. Four months of weekly meetings back home had prepared us for this adventure, yet at that moment, I was simply happy to be on the ground.

An hour later, we were welcomed by Linda Russell, who would become our South African pseudo-mother at the Zinkwazi Lagoon Lodge. The property is nestled in a lush, subtropical setting in KwaZulu-Natal Province, and we settled in to live among the monkeys, snakes and frogs.

At dinner, we devoured sweet curry shepherd's pie, maize and mdumba (a dish of creamy white yams) while Russell told us about Bongimfundo. The school has five educators to teach 137 students ages 5 to 16, making individualized attention for the kids nearly impossible. Additionally, some of the children speak only Zulu, while the principal -- a native of India named Ram -- and most of the teachers speak only English. Despite this, the school is one of the success stories, we were told.

I hardly slept that night and hopped out of bed at 7 a.m. I felt like it was my own first day of school, as I had all the usual signs: butterflies in my stomach, uneasiness about how the kids would react to me and apprehension about interacting with the teachers. As we drove to Bongimfundo, supported by our African-themed CD, my nervousness melted away. The kids ran out of their classrooms to greet us, but we were whisked away to meet the staff.

The teachers and Ram joined us in the school's small resource room. One of six concrete-floored rooms at the school, it housed a collection of donated books and four old PCs that went unused. Instead, the teachers opted for notebooks and activities. With a budget of 70,000 South African rand, about $10,000, for the year, the teachers make do with what they have. The lack of resources is compounded by the combination of multiple grades and ability levels under one educator.

We were in South Africa for a very specific purpose: to provide hope. "The selected students act as role models to the kids in primary school to show them the importance of staying in school," said Ashley Millhouse, our student leader and the only person on the trip to have visited the country before. Groups like ours aim to "empower the children to realize their potential," she said.

Schools in America are defined by curriculums and goals, but Bongimfundo was less formal. While we attempted to make educational posters for the classrooms, the kids lured us into playing; they chased us until we ran out of stamina and tackled us to the ground.

After our first day, my friend Jen Koniuk said, "I loved playing with the kids, but it was stressful and hectic. I expected things to be more organized, but it's going to be so fun to know the kids and hang out with them over the next few days."

We took our desire for productivity back to the lodge with us, where we sanded and painted wooden blocks. Emblazoned with letters, numbers and shapes, these would be instructional tools for the kids we planned to visit at the nearby township. As we worked, a local couple stopped by and told us that our being there was a miracle. After our long day, nothing could have been more reassuring.

The next day, we followed a pastor named Nelson to Zamane Township, a community of tiny huts made of concrete and corrugated tin. In one of the most sparsely furnished homes lived a foster mom and 10 orphans. Mama Stone welcomed us as we set bags of maize and the box of painted blocks in front of her, and the children hugged us.

One of the girls, 9-year-old Mimi, ruminated over the blocks carefully and tested her foster sisters' arithmetic skills. She then turned to my friend and asked where she was from. When Mimi -- who preferred to be called Princess and liked the color purple -- heard "America," she gasped and said, "Oh, I want to (go to) America so badly." Optimism is a quintessential part of life here.

At the school, I helped the students with their English skills and taught the younger ones numbers, shapes and colors. We made learning aids like charts, posters and more blocks, and we helped build and stock a wire-mesh greenhouse on the grounds.

One day, Ram asked each of us to plant a tree and label it with our name. While we were digging the holes for our saplings, a recent graduate of Bongimfundo stopped by. Khulekan had heard that we were at the school and hoped to see some of his American friends who had volunteered last year. He may have been disappointed to see that only one of the volunteers was back, but he was very excited to talk to us about his future.

Meredith-Leigh Pleasants, a friend of mine who was making a documentary of the trip, asked Khulekan what he remembered about the Americans from last year. "They changed my life, and I will never forget them," he said. He hopes to be an entrepreneur or a mechanic.

We sat with him and the students during lunch, which consisted of rice, curry and vegetables stewed in a huge pot. For some of the kids, this was their only meal; we ate a small bit of our portions and shared the rest. Bonding with the children at lunchtime or singing Justin Beiber's "Baby" in a circle during recess showed us a side of them that perhaps the teachers never saw.

At school, the students occupy a complex position. They are expected to learn and be engaged, but they are not given homework due to the assumption that they won't do it. They are urged to better themselves and their situations through education, but they are constantly pulled out of class to work. They are instructed to rise above the specter of apartheid, yet we were astonished to find that their learning materials still are representative of a segregationist society, containing bias and negative stereotypes.

"I worry about a test, and these people worry about their livelihoods," said my friend and roommate for the trip, Kelly Neubeiser. "I wish I could actually do something."

Yet Bongimfundo was praised by local officials one Sunday. During the launch of the Quality Learning and Teaching Campaign, a panel of about 10 department heads from the provincial government gathered alongside the learners and their parents to discuss the school. They pointed toward a toothbrushing program, developed for the youngest children, as an indication of health improvements, and we were paraded in front of the crowd to bolster the school's reputation. Despite the distinctly promotional nature of the event, it was wonderful to witness the hope that both educators and parents had for their children.

On our last day at the school, we gave pencils and handmade journals to the students, and many of them asked us to sign them or write notes. At the recommendation of our fabulous faculty adviser, Wake Forest African history professor Nate Plageman, we purchased concrete benches for the school, where the kids could eat their lunches.

That day, three students gave me letters. One boy in grade six, Sfiso, wrote, "I love you McKenna and I love your family even (though) I don't know them. You must take a photo and when you come back you must show me the photo. And you will miss me." Nothing could have touched me more.

Our departure from the students at Bongimfundo and our surrogate family at Zinkwazi Lagoon Lodge was cushioned by our arrival at the Rhino River Lodge near the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve. At 6 a.m. we departed for a safari in an Indiana Jones-esque vehicle and drove right out of civilization. The most memorable sighting was of an impala that had been brought down by a jackal. We could hear the snapping of its intestines as the jackal gnawed, and when we returned to the site 12 hours later, all that was left was the skull, encircled by vultures.

The final stop was Johannesburg, where a visit to Soweto -- an urban township of more than 1.6 million people -- provided an interesting contrast to the township we had seen earlier. Soweto has schools, shops and stands selling touristy souvenirs, while Zamane consists of an assortment of small homes, a community center and a garden. Zamane sits in the middle of a sugarcane field, and Soweto is a sprawling suburb that once bore witness to apartheid-era riots and has a high crime rate today.

Our guide that day felt there was a difference between being poor and being hopeless. "Money does not matter as long as you have tidiness and happiness," he said.

In the end, I probably learned more from Africa than Africa learned from me. The people I met, despite hardships, were incredibly welcoming, and they were happy to invite us into their homes. I hope to return someday to see little Tatenda, who understood just enough English to answer with "yes," or Linda Russell, our Zinkwazi hostess with a heart made for giving. Until then, I know the memories I made will suffice.

The Vacations To Go Grant

Vacations To Go established the Vacations To Go Grant in 2008 as a scholarship for Wake Forest students participating in international service trips. Alan Fox, chairman and CEO of Vacations To Go, is an alumnus of the university, located in Winston-Salem, NC.

There are two portions to the grant: a need-based scholarship to help students with travel expenses and a photojournalism assignment that pays a stipend. The student awarded the photojournalism assignment for this service project, McKenna Begin, traveled to South Africa in May 2011.




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