Singing Competition and Education Concerns

Zulu events go on and on. In between the long waiting periods, interesting things could happen. On April 29, 2015, I went to the singing competition in Skemelele with over 120 of our learners. They were mostly grades 5, 6 and 7, so my students would not be in class anyway.   I went.  Choirs from about 15 different schools sang required songs and songs of choice.  They came with their choir directors and were all dressed neatly in their clean and ironed uniforms.

We all left Okhayeni after 8:00 sometime in six very full taxis.  In my taxi, there were 17 kids, the taxi driver and me.  The driver turned on his radio extraordinarily loud and the kids were happily rocking out so much the taxi rocked from side to side. I told them to sit down and be safe and save their voices for the singing.  One person on the taxi thought they would lose their mind and hearing forever.  You can probably guess who that was!

The return taxi trip was louder and it was all I could do to keep them seated. They danced and sang and hung out the window in time to the loud loud loud music!  That same one person was never so happy to exit a taxi at 5:00 pm and walk home.

Choir presentations began with the youngest at about 10:00, after a group prayer and then a request for 2 rand per adult and 1 rand per child.  There were 3 judges, an emcee, a pianist, a DJ playing music during lulls, and some clerks.  Some folks were in the courtyard lining up the “next” choir for their turn to sing.  All day long, one after another, choirs filed in, sang, and filed out. They were dressed in turquoise/white, black/yellow, maroon/white, green/black/cream (us), orange gingham, yellow/maroon, plaid/blue, blue/black, green/yellow/chartreuse.  Almost every choir sang fabulously.  I would hate to be a judge of this bunch.  By the time the very talented high schoolers sang, the audience was cheering, raucous, enthusiastic, wild.

Our students won two firsts (a trophy),  two seconds (a smaller trophy), and certificates (third place).

The pictures are blurry because I used the iPad and the lighting was poor.

The Okhayeni Primary School choir led by Mam Khabela

The Okhayeni Primary School choir led by Mam Khabela

The high school choir of my host son, Qhawe

The high school choir of my host son, Qhawe

Traditional Zulu dancers from Okhayeni

Traditional Zulu dancers from Okhayeni

I posted this photo on Facebook.  It is some adorable smiling Grade 5 kids looking through the classroom window

Some adorable smiling Grade 5 kids looking through the classroom window

Dancers practicing at school the day before the competition

Dancers practicing at school the day before the competition

This is now term 2. Because of sports practice (the actual game was postponed with two day notice), music practice, and chess practice, we have been on shorter-day schedule almost the entire time.  There have also been two national holidays (no school).  Yet, we are told to complete the required CAPS curriculum in its planned two-week cycles.  There are no provisions for shorter hours, holidays, review or assessment.  No way will I get the curriculum covered at this rate.  It eats at me because the majority of my 155 learners have poor to middling English skills and I am unable to cover the material, listen to them read individually with any effect, assign meaningful homework, be consistent in my lessons and have effective classroom management.  There is always an interruption with precedence over their learning in class.

I worry.  Then I wonder if I am the only one.  No one else seems to be worrying. Over and over I hear, that is the way it is in South Africa.  Well, damn it, it isn’t working and it has to change if these kids have a ghost of a chance of getting an adequate (forget excellent) education.  The world is moving ahead and these kids are being left behind, neglected, ignored, and someday it will backfire when they realize that their 40% pass rate is “fail” in America and Europe.  We spend weeks not teaching while we give them assessments that they can’t pass because we are spending weeks (8/year) not teaching but assessing! The curriculum is very difficult for them to understand with their limited English skills (it is all in English starting in grade 4; except isiZulu of course), the teaching methods are ineffective (copying words off the board doesn’t mean you know anything and can explain it in your own words), and the time is inadequate.  I worry for the future of South African citizens.

Anyone with extra money sends their children to private/public schools, boarding schools or private day schools.  They know they have to pay for smaller class size, computer availability, science labs and equipment, school buses, field trips, audio/visual resources, physical education with adequate sports equipment and facilities.  We don’t have these things in my deep-rural school and neither do the surrounding schools.  It isn’t fair and it isn’t just. It is just the way it is for poor people everywhere.

But if it was fair, just and adequate, South Africa wouldn’t need Peace Corps English teachers.  I wouldn’t be here.

Being a US citizen, I am “somewhat” protected from the political/social uproar in SA.  We have been given alerts as to what areas to avoid.  Many of you have probably read about the xenophobia in various areas of South Africa.  There were riots and killings in Kwa Zulu Natal, my province, but nothing in my area.  It seems to have abated now and there have been peaceful marches all over the country against xenophobia and the insane violence against foreign business owners.  There have been public statements from President Zuma, artists, sports figures, politicians decrying the xenophobia.  They all have a similar message: all Africans are brothers and sisters and Africans in many countries helped the freedom fighters during the years of the oppressive apartheid government.

I am working hard at school.  I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Ian, Caitlin and Sadie at the end of June. I am attempting to write a grant to get some donations from you to electrify our school.   The days are cooler now, quite comfortable, as we head towards winter.  The daylight is shorter too.  I am hanging in there.  Some days it is hard and I want to pack up and go home.  Other days, I am totally sure I can make it through another interesting 16 months of service.

3 thoughts on “Singing Competition and Education Concerns

  1. Oh God, Karen, even in Palo Alto as spoiled as we are, I feel some on this too. Where will my poor, learning challenged, illegal probably, students end up??? Now there is dance and PE in first grade as well as assemblies, science, music, art etc. and no time for the specialized reading instruction they need!! I can’t even imagine multiplying that by 155 students. Worry is the name of the game.

  2. Hi Karen, Always great to get your perspective. I send your postings to one of Jenny’s old teachers. who runs the library at Trinity School in Menlo Park. Here is her response:
    Thanks Amy. The stories she tells are amazing. Her dedication to making a difference in the education of young people who are economically challenged is really significant. The interesting parallel, although on a different level, can be echoed at American schools; we have the technology, we have the books, but time spent testing is increasing, and the number of hours in the classroom per quarter is reduced by faculty in services, extra holidays, and enrichment assemblies. Our privileged students sometimes lack the drive to work hard and to appreciate their academic opportunities. I worry about the academic stress many students feel in our unusual Bay Area community, and yet at the elementary level I have meant so many parents who protect their children so much that these same young people fail to develop resiliency life skills. Education is so complex. I sometimes wonder if we will ever get it right. Thanks for sharing, Becky

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