“How is Africa? How is work going?” When people ask me these questions I find it impossible to know how to answer because I can’t choose just one story. Any story I share can’t possibly represent my experiences here because I have had such a wide range of reactions and emotions. I have felt shock, despair, pride, guilt, and admiration; all of it surmounting to an unforgettable experience with intense learnings and challenges. I have been working here in South Africa at a township elementary school for just over a month. Time has flown by, and I am just starting to relax into my role and understand how things work here. The days are exhausting but incredibly rewarding, and I spend a lot of time reflecting on things I observe throughout the day and things I am struggling with. There are many differences to how things function here compared to back home, some more obvious than others.
When many people think of African children, or township schools, they often think of the stereotypical African child that we have all seen on those heartbreaking Red Cross commercials. The starving orphan, with no access to education or health care, raising their younger siblings and without any of the freedoms that usually come with childhood. Sadly, that story is true for some children in South Africa, but it’s not the only story to be told.
In our pre-departure orientation at UVic, we talked about the dangers of a single story: how summing up an entire country or culture into one story that is easily told, shared, and understood can be damaging as it does not account for any diversity, or capture the true essence of a culture. Yes, some of these children are orphans, are abused at home, have experienced rape and starvation, and face challenges that no child should ever have to encounter. However, they also exhibit so many qualities and strengths that we could all learn from.
Seeing how these South African kids learn and grow, and how they are able to overcome such hardships with shining smiles and huge hearts has got me questioning the way we do things back home. Why is it that those who have the least, are often the ones who are willing to give the most? I find myself asking how is it that the kids of the township are so selfless, generous, and giving? A couple weeks ago, a little girl had a Tupperware filled with spaghetti for lunch. I watched as she walked around the schoolyard, giving bites of her food to kids who didn’t even ask for it. She would hand them the fork and wait until they had had enough before offering it to another child. She never said “that’s enough” or took the fork out of their hands. I asked her why she was giving away so much of her food. She said, “Some of these kids have no money to buy any food, and I have food today so I can share.” She’s in grade 5. I couldn’t help but think of some of the times back in Canada when I couldn’t get kids to share crayons, never mind their food! These kids often offer me their one bag of chips, or ask if they can buy me candy when they are given one coin to spend on food for the day. Selfishness is not a trait I have seen in the township.
In addition to their generosity and selflessness, they are independent, smart and capable. On my way to work in the mornings I see tiny children whose backpacks are bigger than they are, walking themselves to school. Not only is it often a long walk but it’s also a walk through the township. Townships can be dangerous places, yet these tiny 4-year-olds walk themselves to school safely and on time. These kids are not smothered; there is no “helicopter parenting” here. People are too busy working to survive. Children are given responsibilities at a young age and treated as capable and competent human beings. Kids can think for themselves; they will make mistakes and learn from them, but they are capable of accomplishing great things when given the opportunity and trust to do so. I can’t help but reflect on how paranoid some parents are back home about perceived “stranger danger,” when in reality Canada is one of the safest places in the world to live.
I see the devastating impacts that apartheid has had on South Africa, and the continuing repercussions of a corrupt government. I see the hungry kids, the poverty, the challenging learning conditions, the lack of resources and health care, but I also see an immense amount of capacity, resiliency, positivity, strength and brilliance. I am so moved and impressed by these wonderful children. I am learning so much – and I look forward to learning more!