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Kavitha Dispatch

Back to School with Kavitha and Monica

The highlight of our visit to the schools was definitely our warm welcome from the singing choir of Sinethemba High School. And this wasn't just some ordinary high school chorus... these were the next Aretha Franklins, the next Boys II Men. About 10-15 guys lined up with about 20-30 girls in front of them, and when they opened their mouths to sing, I was blown away.

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They sang traditional songs in the traditional language, Xhosa, with such power, such ease, and such heartfelt emotion that it brought tears to my eyes. While singing they swayed with slight dance movements, providing the rhythm for the songs. Penny, from WCSN, was so impressed by their voices that she invited them to perform at an international conference on linking schools, taking place in South Africa in September.

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We've got the beat!
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When they finished singing the songs they had planned, Monica asked them if they could sing their national anthem for us. The teachers and the students all giggled a bit, and then launched into a powerful rendition of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (God Bless Africa), the new anthem of the new South Africa. During the apartheid years, people were often jailed for singing this harmless, beautiful hymn. After Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, they continued right into Die Stem (the old national anthem), first in Afrikaans and then in English. Some of the students did not know the words in these other languages, but they continued singing for their English-speaking guests from the States! Monica and I were kicking ourselves that we didn't bring a tape recorder with us.

Click here to see the words to the new national anthem, in both English and Xhosa. Kavitha

Last Friday, Monica and I had one of our best days yet here in Cape Town, South Africa... and what did we do? We went to school!!!

Our friends from the Western Cape Town School Network (WCSN), Penny Busetto and Sibongile Mafilika, took us to visit a couple of schools in town. Not only did we get to meet some really great students and teachers, but we got a firsthand glimpse of the enormous differences that exist in this South African city.

As we drove out of the center of Cape Town, the sharp distinctions quickly became evident. "The racial and economic lines are very clear here in Cape Town," explained Penny. "Near Table Mountain are the richer white neighborhoods. The further you go from the mountain you start going through the colored neighborhoods, and then even further are the still poorer black neighborhoods."

As soon as we exited the modern, clean center of the city, with its manicured lawns and new houses and buildings, everything began to look more rundown. When we finally arrived at our destination, the Phillipi Township, the houses were no longer freestanding: they were just clusters of one room shacks, built from old planks of wood and metal sheets ... most with no electricity or bathrooms. Amidst these conditions of poverty, the Sinethemba High School stands as an oasis with clean, sunny courtyards and classrooms, and well-kept lawns and flowers. "The parents here cannot afford to pay high school fees, but they help in other ways, like taking turns gardening and maintaining the school grounds," explained Penny.

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A computer classroom at Sinethemba High School
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We were given an extremely warm welcome by the principal, Bonakele Busika, and the other teachers, who immediately called together an assembly when we arrived. We walked through the courtyard to the computer room, where every student has time each week to learn computer basics. I must admit we were surprised to find such a well-equipped computer lab. There were about 20 computers, and one Intel in the front of the room was connected to the Internet. Later, we found out that all of the computers are actually very old and out-of-date, and were reclaimed when offices and businesses threw them away. The computer teacher, Mr. Theodore, single-handedly fixed the computers, making them usable again. With the help of WCSN, he is trying to get all of the computers connected to the Internet, but it will take some time and money.

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Students at Grove - How many of you want to travel around the world?
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Do you really think that we live with a lot of lions and giraffes running around?

Click here for more questions the students from Grove Primary School asked us.

After we were introduced to the students and teachers, Monica and I started to tell them about the Odyssey, and why we were visiting their school. I asked them questions about Latin America, just to see how much they already knew. Most of the students did not know about the ancient Mayan or Inca cultures, or where El Salvador is located. (I remembered visiting schools in California, before we left, where students didn't know much about Latin America either.) The students and teachers of Sinethemba were shocked to hear there were students in the U.S. who had never learned about the San, Khoikhoi, or Bantu cultures, or students in Latin America who didn't even know who Nelson Mandela was. The students seemed eager to learn more about the rest of the world, and to learn how to use the Internet too.

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Students at Grove listen to Monica and Kavitha
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NOXOLO: I'd like to ask the students who are not here to come and visit us in South Africa so we can improve our English and we'd like to meet them. I'd like to know if in the high schools you wear uniforms like us? Also what kind of music do you sing? Is there someone who wants to exchange songs?

Click here for more questions the students from Sinethembe High School.

Principal Busika thanked us for coming to visit the school and sharing the Odyssey with his classes. "It helps our students think big, bigger than this poor township that surrounds them," he said. "It is quite expensive for these students to make even the half-hour bus trip into downtown Cape Town. They should know that South Africa, the rest of the world, does not begin or end here. Knowing more about the world is essential to gain a better perspective. Not just is this important for us here, but for your students over there in the United States too."

After visiting Sinethembe High School, in the township of Phillipi, Kavitha and I traveled to Grove Primary School, in an upper-middle class suburb of Cape Town, near Table Mountain. Here, Principal Greg Brown introduced us to Ms. Hayley Alford's class and the other 6th graders at this very special school.

In response to a curriculum change nationwide, classrooms are slowly moving towards an "Integrated Studies," or IS model, where students learn about history, geography, science, and other subjects in a holistic fashion. This curriculum is supposed to take effect by the year 2005, but Grove is a pilot public school testing out the new method on a group of mixed students. Teachers are paid by the government the same wages as teachers at Sinethembe, but parents pay school fees of 5000R per year to help, for instance, with the computer labs and equipment (School fees at Sinethembe are 60R/year).

"Here," says Penny, our Western Cape School Network contact, "the kids are sassy--they're not afraid to ask questions." Indeed, when Kavitha asked how many children had their own e-mail accounts, practically all the hands in the room shot up.

Kavitha explained the three facets of The Odyssey: travel, service, and education, and the students became more and more interested. They couldn't access our web page before our visit, but knew that their school was only one of four that The Odyssey was visiting in South Africa. (See Abeja and Shawn's dispatches on schools in Durban, on the east coast). Kavitha asked if anyone knew about our last stop, Latin America, and most of the students seemed quite knowledgeable about Central and South American cultures and countries. They knew Spanish was the main language, and explained to us that here, in the Cape, "There are mostly three languages: English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa." I asked for a show of hands on how many languages the kids could speak, and most of the group spoke English and Afrikaans: some children could speak a third or even a fourth language.

The Odyssey's service aspect also interested some of the students because, as one young man explained, community service is a very important value. For example, he spent time as a volunteer with an animal association: "We took care of lost and injured dogs," he said.

As for education, the 6th graders were very excited to learn about cultures besides their own, and asked Kavitha and I dozens of questions. They also were eager to communicate with students in other countries: please write your comments or questions for them on the Trek Connect board! One young lady explained, "It seems like people in other countries think we run around with lions and giraffes, and we don't have schools and shops and buildings." The students want you to know that Cape Town, in particular, is just like any other big city in the world: well-developed, and without large animals just wandering through the streets.

The students are hoping you'll contact them, and many of them would like to have pen pals or e-mail correspondence with children in other English-speaking countries.

Monica

Principal Busika then recounted a story from a trip he once took to the United States, in which he was constantly confronted with misconceptions Americans had about South Africa. In a small town in Pennsylvania, some Americans he met were quite surprised that Bonakele and his friend were able to travel all the way to the United States. "They asked us 'Did you fly or did you swim?'" he remembers, laughing. "My friend decided to play a joke. 'We flew from South Africa. We do have airplanes there, but there are houses all around the landing strips in the airports,' he told them. 'Why are there people living right next to the landing strips?' the Americans asked. 'Well, whenever an airplane is about to land, all the people living in the houses have to come out to chase away all the lions and tigers and elephants, so they don't get hit!'" We all got a good laugh from the silly misconceptions people have all over the world. (By the way, there aren't even any tigers in Africa!)

"People in other parts of the world should know," continued Principal Busika, "that no, we don't sleep in trees and wander about wearing loincloths. We are going to schools, learning about computers, speaking different languages, making music. Thank you for coming and seeing our school and giving us this opportunity to share with other schools."

Both the students and the teachers were excited about making connections with schools in other parts of the world. They were all filled with questions about how youth in other areas of the world spend their time, and about how they live. The students at Sinethemba don't all have their own individual email accounts yet, but anyone who wants to start a correspondence with them or ask them questions can write to them at sinethembass@intekom.co.za. The students will get to read the messages in their computer classes.

Kavitha
 

Shawn - A Tale of Two Schools
Abeja - White Woman in the Rainbow Nation
Monica - Window into a South African Home

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