Today, Thursday January 23rd, our class visited the Ekukhanyisweni primary school in Alexandra, the oldest township in Johannesburg. We arrived in the morning around 10 am and received a briefing from the school’s principle. She gave us instructions on the tasks we were assigned for the day and advised us on how to properly deal with the children. She told us that the kids would be very excited to see us and would want to play with us all day. After unpacking the supplies from the bus, we got to work. We put a fresh coat of paint on the pillars in the courtyard of the school. The bright paint gave a splash of color to the otherwise plain stone buildings. A group of about 22 of us worked as a team to get the painting done as fast as possible so we could have more time to play with the children. We got all of the pillars painted in less than 2 hours, which was impressive considering that they were twice the height of us. While we painted the kids were in their respective classrooms. We overheard the lessons being taught, some in other languages and some in English. They sang out the English vowels, “A, E, I, O, U!” Many of the lessons we heard involved the teacher reading a line and the students repeating it, very loudly and sometimes to the tune of a song. Encouraging the kids to repeat the lines as loud as they could helped all the kids participate in the lesson and probably helped them remember the lines. This was a teaching technique that I observed in South Africa that I have not observed in the US when I worked at a preschool camp. Towards the end of our painting, the kids were let into the courtyard for lunchtime. It became quite chaotic, with hundreds of kids running in different directions. I witnessed a fistfight break out among a group of boys as girls watched on the sidelines, some even threw in a few smacks. While this alarmed us to see, the teacher standing nearby seemed not to notice. Although it has been a long time since I’ve been in elementary school, from what I remember as a child, it was a serious offense to start a fight in school and would not go unnoticed by an observing teacher. Perhaps fighting in schools is too commonplace these days to bother using punishment. Or perhaps the teacher figured the boys would sort it out on their own, as they eventually did, with one kid fleeing the scene as the others followed. Many kids would come up to us and start conversations. The younger kids would wave and smile. Overall our presence seemed to make them happy in the moment, which was nice to see. One poor boy got paint on his uniform. I spotted him looking devastated with a bright blue stain on the collar of his white shirt, possibly the only uniform he owns. I felt terrible for him.
After we cleaned up, we took a break to have lunch and relax. When the kids were let out of their classrooms for the day, hundreds of them stayed behind to play with us before going home. They loved to run around and to be chased, proving to be quite a workout for us. The older kids taught us different games and we taught them games. They followed us wherever we went and constantly wanted attention. There was one boy who kept poking me and then running away. He was a sneaky little one and I eventually tracked him down and learned his name is John. I held a small girl for a long time. She didn’t want to be put down and was content just walking around with me watching the other children play. They surprisingly knew a lot about American pop culture. A group of boys were dancing like Michael Jackson and a group of girls were singing Beyoncé and other top hits from America. I didn’t expect this because I didn’t know that they would have exposure to the internet and television but that just proves that internet and TV are now becoming universal, even for children living in less privileged areas.
Overall, my unanswered question would have to be: how will these kids succeed in the future? We’ve studied the many reasons why education in South Africa is failing including a lack of resources, unmotivated students, and a lack of support. Luckily the rate of children attending school in South Africa has risen dramatically over the years but it is still not on par with other countries globally. A lot of work needs to be done in order to put these kids in the competition with other kids internationally. They need the proper care, encouragement, and funding to succeed in receiving a higher level of education. My hope is that the children we visited at Ekukhanyisweni primary school will come to find these resources and will use them to make a better living for themselves.