Friday, August 24, 2007

Once upon a time in Africa...

I would like to relate a true story. Bear with me, the relevance of the story to current conversations will be explained.

When school segregation was abolished in South Africa, there was an inevitable influx into the previously white-only schools with their many resources. There was no answering flow in the opposite direction. This meant that the rural schools built for the disenfranchised sectors of society were servicing an ever poorer, ever more disadvantaged communities.

In the area where we lived, the head teachers’ association introduced a scheme whereby schools with an affluent intake each adopted one or more struggling schools in the region.

The school where my son had just started adopted one such school in the wine-farming area nearby. As a member of the Mothers’ Prayer Circle, kept abreast of the pastoral needs of the extended community, I was involved in this programme almost from the outset. The week after its introduction, we went to visit the school for a day. I assure you that every detail of what I am about to share is true.

We arrived at the school on a cold, clear winter’s morning. The school consisted of a row of three rooms which opened out onto a covered walkway. The children were just arriving at school. As they arrived, they formed a queue. Many were barefoot. Very few carried a school bag or books of any description. Two teachers stood beside the walkway, handing out a peanut butter sandwich to each child. Most of the children had not eaten since lunch the previous day (more about that later).

Once they had eaten, the children set about cleaning the school. There was a lot of sweeping to be done: the school grounds were eroded dirt, the classroom doors ill fitting and some of the windows were broken.

All this done, teaching could finally begin. We followed the head teacher to his class. We asked him where his office was. Where the staffroom was. Neither of these existed. Besides, he told us, there would never be time to use them – teachers were classroom facing at every moment, including lunch breaks. He kept student records in his wardrobe at home.

The classrooms were cold and draughty. There were 45-60 children per class. Many were sitting two-to-a-desk. The teaching followed strictly behaviourist principles, with lots of call-and-response. With no text books and precious few learning materials, it was hard to think of alternative approaches.

At lunch time, a large plastic drum (like a garbage bin) full of a curious liquid was produced and the children were each given a cup full of this, with a slice of bread. The explanation for this stretched my credulity almost to breaking point. The government had identified that few of the children in the poorer schools could afford lunch and had introduced a feeding scheme. Schools were provided with soup and a budget for bread and peanut butter. The soup was provided in powder form by the farm-feed-sized sackful. What the government in its wisdom had neglected to consider was that the schools did not have kitchens. The only running water they had was a tap outside the little outhouses that served as toilet facilities. Heating up water for soup for 200 children took a long time, a large vessel, and a source of heat. The school had none of these things, nor did it have the staff to oversee the heating process, even it had. So the children were given a concoction of soup powder and cold water. Because the soup powder tended to float on the top of the water, the children in the front of the queue got better nutrition than those at the back. There was a strict rota for queue positions. Sadly, most children would get no evening meal at home.

The intention behind our involvement was for us to source stationery supplies for the school, since pens and paper were in short supply. We secured suppliers for these items, but, as you can imagine, we had identified a whole host of other things that were needed. We moved heaven and earth to provide as many of them as we could. This post is already far too long, so I won’t detail them.

What I will say, however, is that, while we are debating whether or not to continue using printed text books in our comfortable first world, there are teachers in schools where there is no alternative to text books – and I think they may well be in the majority. Many of them have never seen a computer and there is no electricity to run one, even if they had. The text books they do have are in short supply, outdated and in poor repair. We took some of our surplus text books to that school and the teachers wept, while the children sang, danced and clapped their thanks to us. “Die tannies het boeke gebring, julle!” (the aunties have brought books, you lot!). That moment changed me.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will have noticed that I regularly try to speak up for the third world teachers. They have no voice in this space, and I am a poor excuse of an ambassador for their cause. But before we declare a moratorium on books, let’s just think about what the consequent increase in production costs will do to schools already struggling for a resource we have come to regard as passé.

If you've stuck with me up to this point, thanks for your patience - I apologise for the long post and for what may seem to be a bleeding heart moment, but it is an issue that is dear to me.


Harold Jarche said...

Thanks for sharing this, Karyn. I remember stories told by Red Cross doctors when I was with the military medical services. We were concerned about the number of x-ray units per field hospital, while these real field doctors were using car batteries and rubber bands for surgery.

Here at home we were discussing what to do with all of our excess books in the house. I'm wondering if there would an "open source" and non-profit way of shipping text books to other parts of the world in need. Of course, the publishers may not like it, but many schools update their editions while the older ones are still quite useful. Books are thrown out because no one can afford to ship them overseas. Wonder if there's a way of organising some grassroots movement to get them where they're needed.

Anonymous said...

Harold: you might find that some of the churches in your area have a scheme that does this sort of thing. Our church supports a school in Uganda, and a charity in the Pihippines and we send over shipments every so often. Alternatively, Red Cross, World Vision or Oxfam might have some guidance for you.

When I was apologising for the state of something I was donating some years ago, someone told me: the worst thing you have ever thrown out is better than the best thing they have ever owned.

Harold Jarche said...

Yes, our church supports several projects each year, but it just seems like so little, when we could be sending all of our used textbooks to those who need them. I think I'll start a conversation with the Department of Education.

Anonymous said...

That would be fantastic, Harold! If we could set the wheels in motion for a project like this, it could change people's lives.

Anonymous said...

The situation you describe is very real. I appreciate your comments about the situation in schools in Africa, and your good will.

Over the past eight years, the Khanya project of the Western Cape Province in South Africa has been working tirelessly to provide technology to schools - more than 1 000 schools were helped to obtain computer equipment, over 36 000 PCs were installed, more than 22 000 teachers trained and the outcome is that technology is now available to over 700 000 learners. (see website:

After providing basic computer technology training to teachers, a remaining challenge is to help them to come to grips with the use of technology as a teaching and learning tool.

It is for this purpose that I have started my blog two years ago - to initiate topics of relevance to our teachers and then to invite comments from around the world so that, even if people cannot contribute materially to alleviate the needs in Africa, they can still make a contribution: share their experience and skills. (

The upsycho said...

@Kobus Thanks so much for your comment... and for the wodnerful work you do. There must be days when the task before you seems insurmountable!

I have been living in the UK for over 9 years, now, so my African tale predates Khanya's existence. However, we have been back to visit friends and family and the areas we get to see still seem to be being left so hopelessly far behind. Technology is understandably low on the list of priorities when there are issues of AIDS, child abuse and unemployment. Nevertheless, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a step, and it seems to me that you are taking that step (and a few more!). Hopefully there will be other organisations inspired to do the same.

Bless you.

don said...

Hi Karyn. It's a long time since the last entry and I hope that this blog is still open. My wife, Pat, and I are retired teachers who now spend three months of the year working with schools in rural Kenya and Uganda. We work through Rotary International on all phases of community development, but Schools are the Key to both acceptance in the community and sustainabilty of projects. We've started eight libraries in schools that have no books and have targeted 16 more for this year. This ties in with your comment about a grass roots movement to get books where they are needed. We have a shipping company that helps us collect books and ships them at the lowest possible price. There is a Rotary Club in Nairobi that takes care of clearing customs and transporting the container from the port city of Mombasa to Nairobi. Ths schools a responsible for collecting the  books (fiction and non-fiction childrens books - no textbooks or out of date encyclopedias). Each school receives one or two pallets of books, about 5 per student. The selected schools have agreed to have their teachers read to their children daily, allow students to check out books, and to have classes visit the library on a regular schedule. We take a team of volunteers to help the the parents and teachers to renovate a room, build furniture, decorate the library so the environment is inviting, and develop a system to support all of the above. Thus far, according to the headteachers, academic achievement has improved as well as test scores in all of the libraries we have created thus far. In addition to books, we provide sanitary towels to help keep girls in school, handwashing stations and soap to reduce illness, high yield garden plots so the children can learn agriculture and entrepreneurial skills and the school can feed their orphans, and the list go on. Our book drive starts in March. We are enlisting Rotary Clubs, churches, hospitals, schools and businesses to help. Groups are being asked to participate on one of three levels: collect books, sponsor a specific school library, or make a three year commitment to sponsor the school and it's community. We provide guidance on the types of books sought, ideas for conducting a book drive, guidance on how to box the books and identify the contents, and when and how the books will be taken to the warehouse where they will be packed in a 40 foot container. That's our grassroots plan. I don't think we qualify as a movement, but we're working on it. Any help you might give in terms of joining the book collection effort or funding a portion of the shipment, would be appreciated.

The upsycho said...

@Don How wonderful to have your comments! And what an excellent thing you're doing. May it go from strength to strength.

You're mistaken about the 'long time', though - I post almost every day. Sometimes twice a day! Perhaps your feedreader is missing me out :o(

Laura Hooks said...

Reading this makes me feel so greedy for thinking that we have it hard here in the United States because of increased class sizes and 'bare-bones' budgets. Whoa. What a wake up call! Thank you.

The upsycho said...

@Laura When we look at statistics like global internet access and realise that what we demand as a basic right for our kids in school is still beyond science fiction for the majority of the world's population, it certainly gives pause.