Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Train stories: Part 1

My first trip to Cape Town was in 2009. A friend and I needed to get visas from the American Embassy. We made it to Westlake with the help of a friend and when we were granted permission to enter USA we decided to find our way around Cape Town by using public transport. We took a taxi from Westlake and got off in Retreat. From Retreat train station we headed for the southern suburbs where we would get off in Rondebosch to meet a friend at the University of Cape Town.

This was my first encounter with Cape Town’s public transport system. When we used the taxi in Retreat people weren’t shocked that a white person (the friend I was travelling with) used public transport. Neither of us knew where we were going but fortunately I speak isiXhosa and Afrikaans and we managed to get where we were going with ease. The train trip was the most interesting.

It was quiet. It was a mid-morning train after the hustle and bustle of rush hour with people getting to work. I was confused by the silence. My encounters with public transport had also been peppered with the mirth of taxi conversations where anyone could spark a conversation or all the passengers would gang up on “udriver oqhuba ikaka” (a taxi driver who was driving recklessly) with the women screaming “Asincancisi driver!” (there’s no rush, we haven’t got babies at home waiting to be breastfed, there’s no rush. Drive carefully!). It was strange that people could sit next to each other as they did on the train, but there could be no conversation.

While trying to make sense of the silence it was suddenly broken by what sounded like a funeral dirge. The voice emerged from one of the adjoining carriages. When I found the source of the voice, it was a blind woman singing “We bless your name, oh mighty God...”. She was being led by a younger woman, possibly her daughter, who wasn’t blind. She held a cup in her hands, asking for alms as she walked down the aisle of the train. I was dumbstruck. There was something very disturbing about the image of the helplessness and almost futile attempt at doing something about their desperate situation. The woman and the girl walked slowly, singing their song, a plea to God to respond to their pitiful state. When they walked passed me with their cup I tried not to make eye contact with the daughter. I had glanced at her when she walked in our carriage and noticed the dishevelled nature of her clothes and when she walked passed the waft of bodies who hadn’t washed in days couldn’t be ignored. The daughter’s face was blank. She was expressionless and didn’t make an effort at looking at any of the commuters in the face. She kept her eyes straight ahead, walking slowly, so she wouldn’t rush past the person kind enough to respond to their song. Theirs had to be a heartbreaking story. The song they sang and their faces were enough to infer this.

When I moved to Cape Town last year I was caught off guard when the mother and daughter I had encountered in 2009 walked into my carriage again. I had forgotten about the 2009 encounter and when I saw them again I was angry. My life had changed since the last time I saw them: I had recently graduated, I had found my dream job and I had moved to a new city. Their life obviously hadn’t changed. I later discovered that there is another father and son pair who sing on the trains begging for money. The father is blind and sings a duet with his son who leads him down the aisle hoping that someone will drop a coin in their cup. I don’t know these people’s story. I haven’t spoken to them and I wouldn’t dare to as I wouldn’t know what to say without giving them false hope. So I’ve made up a story in my mind that these are people who remind me about how complex and pitiful the world is. I don’t know how they ended up in Cape Town begging on the train. But I can’t help but notice that since I’ve moved to Cape Town they’ve become a part of my train rides between town, home, school and shopping.


I still haven’t dropped a coin into their cup and I always avert my eyes when they walk past. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Surviving term three and school camps

Third term is almost over. It’s been a crazy term with school camps, debating competitions, hosting the Open Book Festival at our school, disciplinary hearings (I wasn’t involved), interpersonal challenges with staff members, failed tests and assignments, performances of Macbeth with bursting flames in the school hall and endless shouting monologues addressed to teenagers (who don’t listen to crazy teachers anyway) and good doses of laughter some of the time.

Third term is a trying term. It’s the most exhausting for everyone, teachers and pupils alike. It’s my least favourite term. The kids struggle with understanding why they should care about learning when there are no exams. The momentum and interest in work lags and teaching is like sucking blood out of a stone. And not to mention all the marking that still needs to happen.

In the efforts of infusing some excitement in the kids, school camps have been the remedy. The Grade 10s had a leadership camp and the Grade 9 girls had a three day camp as well. Earlier in the year the Grade 9 boys were whisked away for a weekend of adventure to address some of the teenage strife amongst them. Fortunately I did not attend this camp and those who did wish they hadn’t been there. A story for another day.

When I realised that I had signed up for a three day camp with 60 girls I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to my school days and the school camps we had. In primary school we have “outdoor education” for each grade every single year. Trips to the beach, the forest and small historical towns were central to my primary school education. I didn’t know it then, but now I’ve come to realise that school camps are an essential part of middle class education (the financial expenses involved, the idea that “going away” could remedy conflict, the idea that a planned and structured programme of events will ensure different sets of behaviour and thus learning will take place). Camps also make me think of the American dream and the famous summer camp that teenagers attend every year. Camps become a symbol of coming of age ceremonies. Military boot camps about turning men into soldiers and of course, even in our own African setting when boys leave home to return as men after a few weeks out in the bush.

In spite of the good intentions, my adult self wonders who decided that the one way of getting kids to interact in high school is to take them out of their natural habitat (the school or away from home)and place them in dorm rooms, use sleeping bags and make them play games for most of the weekend? Don’t get me wrong, as a teacher, I have enjoyed each camp I’ve been to thus far (there was a Grade 8 camp earlier this year), but I’ve also been wondering if there aren’t other ways of extending children’s learning without the forced environment of a camp? What if we didn’t have the resources we have at my school? Would we simply accept the challenges we have and go without a camp or would we think of other forms of dialogue to get the kids to think about themselves and their friendships?

The Grade 9 camps had an overarching agenda which the kids referred to as “forced integration”. There’s been a great deal of conflict amongst the Grade 9s mostly related to race and class tensions. So in whisking them away to a secluded area where they have three days of sleeping in the same rooms with communal showers and a communal bathroom, we, their teachers, hoped that a camp would unite them. This has had different implications for the boys and girls. Some of the conflicts still remain after the camp, but some friendships have developed. At the girls camp, the girls had a motto that turned into a jingle which they sang in front of the whole school after reporting to the school about the great camp they had.

The gendered nature of the camp was also very interesting. The girls didn’t go on an arduous hike. The boys did. The girls left the camp venue clean at the end of the camp. The boys destroyed some of the tents they slept in and ended up sleeping outside (or getting no sleep at all). The girls were treated to hot chocolate and feel-good conversations from their teachers, a nurse and a life coach. Every morning we had a morning devotion where we spoke about beauty the one morning and the last morning of the camp the girls got involved in a letter writing activity: writing a letter to their future selves.


I’m still recovering from the camp that happened almost two weeks ago. I developed a flu which I’m still battling with. And I get to observe the Grade 9s I teach everyday wondering if the camp was worth it. There’s no doubt I had moments of fun laughing at some of the kids during their activities. There’s no doubt I learned some things about the kids I teach that my English lessons would never unravel (that shy girls are also the best dancers and forget that the teacher is watching when the jump on a table and dance like Beyonce). But something’s got to give. Perhaps I’m over-thinking a tradition that seems to be established in my three year old school. That camps bring people together whether I like it or not.