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South Africa’s Education System and the Siren’s Call of the Township School

Friday 13 March 2015 marked Kariega Project’s first foray into the South African education system. Our approach of not assisting schools directly might seem counter-intuitive to some, given the ample need and scope for improvement but there is logic behind it. South African schools are a hotbed of political activism (and that is just the staff room), in which many a tree-hugging do-gooder has lost their proverbial shirt. One finds that the ubiquitous township school sings an almost irresistible siren's call to any well-meaning, usually white, civil society group. Like Odysseus, Kariega Project has had to lash itself to the mast in order to avoid floundering on the rocks. So why are these waters to treacherous?

It is an intoxicating mix of heartbreaking stories of tragic failures and underdog successes that feeds the addiction. Stories of lost generations of students peppered with isolated achievers, apathetic staff rooms with lone crusading teachers giving their all to make a difference, absent principals and those who valiantly ‘MacGyver’ their schools each day in the face of chronic resource shortages, underperforming education department, mutinous staff, disruptive students and disengaged parents. Enter stage right: the good-intentioned, western interventionist.

Ernesto Sirolli describes this type of person as the imperialist, colonist, and missionary whose interventions are generally either paternalistic or patronising. The former treats those from other cultures as though they were their children. The latter treats those from other cultures as though they were their staff; bwana, boss, baas. They arrive to see the sorry state of affairs and instead of taking the time to understand why this is so, they simply say ‘thank god we’re here to save the staff from incompetence and the pupils from a life of ignorance’. They swoop into action in a swirl of efficiency gains and key performance indicators. Sadly, they disregard the politics. Politics: the steely-eyed guy, silently watching you front up to his trouble-making friend at the bar. Invariably, these good Samaritans are evicted, often without warning or explanation, with a sense of resentment and betrayal on both sides.

The reality is that the average township school is a complex political environment that runs less on binary performance indicators and more on a continuum of ambiguity. There are delinquents and geniuses, teaching horrors and inspirations, and reasons why the grass is uncut or why there are man-sized holes in the ceiling. Reasons that one would most probably also acquiesce to if faced without escape from that reality. Eviction notices can also be petty and self-defeating: Samaritans can be the perfect guests, making a tangible difference in the lives of students but fall foul of an upstaged teacher, unpredictable teachers' union or for simply have the wrong coloured faced. Sadly, the problems of township schools are systemic and cannot be solved (and can even be made worse) by the well-meaning interventionista. Sometimes, what is needed is a good old fashioned South African toi-toi (protest) to raise a little ire and grab the attention of the Education Department.

So why in the world would Kariega Project even contemplate heeding the siren’s call?  Two weeks ago, students from the local high school took the radical decision to toi-toi (protest) against not having a qualified science teacher for three years. It just so happens that a visiting volunteer in our Kenton Cares programme had the skills to give targeted grade 12 biology revision ahead of this week’s national exams. The intervention had a clear mandate, realistic outputs and outcomes, and an enforced exit strategy that militated against dependency or contempt. It is also part of a strategic play to set the conditions for a potential future ‘disrupter’ intervention. Who knows, we may still flounder on the rocks, but for now it’s worth the intoxicating risk.



Reflections of a Volunteer


The Kenton Cares Volunteer Programme prides itself on facilitating volunteer services in the poorer communities around Kenton-on-Sea. But that represents only part of what is great about the programme. Significantly, the volunteers themselves learn a tremendous amount during their volunteer time and get an opportunity to immerse themselves in an experience unlike anything they experience back home. 

The exert below is Paige Orness’ reflections on assisting a social worker from Child Welfare during her ‘home visit’ schedule on Wednesday. 

Sad, interesting and eye-opening are the words that first pop up in my mind when I think of yesterday morning. Together with a social worker I went to a primary school in the township Marselle to meet three siblings. Those three siblings moved to Marselle from Port Elizabeth to live with their dad. When we arrived at the school we could only find the older brother. He told us his two younger sisters do go to the school in Marselle but that they aren’t in the school system yet. This was the interesting part because in the U.S.A. this could never happen. You just can’t show up at a school one day and go there without any transfer record or anything like that.

Anyway, the fifteen year-old boy told us his story about his mom and dad and about that they haven’t been together for 5 years but that they aren’t divorced. The sad part is that his parents really are not getting along and that he wanted to live with his father in Marselle. So he took a cab together with his sisters and they went by themselves.

Altogether this really was an eye-opener for me and I’ve learned so much about the crazy differences between South-Africa and the U.S.A. through the story of this little boy. I mean, you always hear the stories but you never realize how bad it actually is. I’m very glad I can be a part by helping these children.

Kariega Project is so proud to host people like Paige! 



Trees, Adaptive Development and all that jazz


Kariega Project's inaugural Mandela Day 10k Tree Challenge has come and gone. How did it go? What did we learn? Well...a lot. Despite our ambitious goal of 10 000 trees by 2020, we decided to start our first year with a modest 50 trees and 5 partners, spread across 3 disadvantaged communities in the greater Kenton area. That turned out to be a smart choice, even though the day unfolded with controlled chaos. 

The paradigm of “adaptive development” advanced by Kariega Project rests upon the principle that beneficiaries and communities need to be self-organised. This approach is, in part, based upon the premise that when the 'donor' or NGO relinquishes control over an initiative or project to the beneficiaries, it is far more likely to be sustainable, with the beneficiary taking ownership of the project or initiative. With this principle in mind, during the Mandela Day 10k Tree Challenge, we placed the ball in our partners' courts. We allotted 10 trees to each partner organisation; it was then up to them to decide and facilitate the where, the what, and the who. We knew that for best effect, the trees should be planted along streets in the poorest parts of the communities. It was quite interesting to see that most of the groups decided to allot a portion of their trees to their respective community churches. In communities largely devoid of trees, the churches stand out as oasis of green. Our partners also opted to plant trees near libraries, clinics, a foster home, and (much to our relief) a small street segment. 

The success of Mandela Day 10k Tree Challenge was also illustrated by two inconspicuous events. First, on Mandela Day, when residents saw their participating neighbours planting a tree in front of their house, they immediately asked if they too could join in the efforts, causing a rapid reshuffle of planting locations. Second, a couple of weeks later, two random pedestrians were seen fixing a tree support structure that been blown askew. These two events, although unassuming in and of themselves, shows that people (yes, even disadvantaged ones) spontaneously, and perhaps inherently, see the value in greening their community. It also gave them something to be a part of, even for a few hours. Importantly for Kariega Project, it proved that by selectively applying stressors or triggers, one can precipitate a development outcome that cannot be bought or taught. It also means that we have achieved our primary goal for Mandela Day 2014: building a solid foundation for Mandela Day 2015... and beyond.