My senior year International Studies course never could have prepared me for what I have experienced so far in South Africa.
After missing orientation day, I was placed into this new city about which I knew hardly anything. I am living in a volunteer house in Muizenberg where we are five minutes away from the ocean and five minutes away from the mountains. I quickly realized that my days would be entirely dominated by my new environment. I was used to the secure surroundings in the Philippines that allow me to explore by myself at any hour and feel safe. In Muizenberg our days are planned around sunset, as once it is dark it is strongly advised against using public transport and especially walking around by oneself. I have been extremely lucky so far that I haven't had any incidents, but other volunteers have been harassed, mugged, and even stabbed.
A simple drive from our gated-in house lands us in Capricorn, a township that is home to thousands of people. During the apartheid era the townships were where non-whites were forced to live, and although there is no longer legal segregation, they are still highly populated and largely under-serviced.
I am placed as a teacher at Christian David Moravian Primary School and I feel as though I am learning just as much as I am teaching. Most of the kids come from local townships, and Christian David has a reputation around here of being the most in-need school. With the prevalence of drugs, alcohol, abuse, violence, gangs, etc, many of the kids live extremely difficult lives starting from as young as even birth. With the highest population of people with HIV/AIDS in the world, the classrooms note that they are "AIDS friendly classrooms." And the school grounds are fenced and locked in, just as all private places are, due to the high rate of crime. Although our primary role is to educate the children, we are also serving as motivation for them to attend school each day. Christian David provides children with the ability to get off the streets and into a safe place.
I am faced with new challenges each day and I am also introduced to new aspects of South African culture and life. Unfortunately the education system here has resulted in many of the kids falling behind where they should be. Children in grades as high as 3 don't even know the alphabet and can't recognize a letter with it's name; some kids in grade 3 are at the same level as those in grade 1. With only around 10 teachers at a school of over 300 kids, the classes are overpopulated and teachers can't provide necessary individual attention--so that's where we come in.
Two other volunteers and I are in charge of personalized tutoring sessions throughout the school day. We tailor each class to the needs of those struggling, and work on those areas that need improvement. If we point to the letter A and ask what letter it is, they will likely respond with "Ahh," making the sound an A makes. Although it is tedious and repetitive, we spend a lot of time going over letters of the alphabet so we can make sure that they at least can recognize those as a starting point. If we ask them to do simple math such as 4+3, they count with their hands and tap each finger against their lips. This creates a greater challenge when we get to numbers such as 6+7, as the kids will need my hands to help them count. It is such a humbling experience to help the kids learn. Last week I helped one girl who was struggling with addition because the numbers were too high, and I told her that in the example of 6+7 she could just start at the number 6 and add 7 more to that. And she caught on quite quickly..saying, "6...7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13!!!"
They kids are eager to do arts and crafts to express themselves and show off their skills to us. At interval time I often just stand and wait for kids to come up to me and hug me. Children who I've never even met before will grab my hands, hug me, and just stay there. Whenever I see a child that I recognize I give them the biggest hug and ask them how they are doing. After spending time with some of the kids they will even end up calling me Mom. Today a girl who I met for the first time played with me for an hour and then drew me a card that says "I love you mom." They have taught me some local games, and one of my favorites involves drawing a circle in the sand and separating it into four parts. The kids sing a song and all four of us move our feet in the same pattern and then rotate counterclockwise. Often the boys will make music by tapping rocks against a medal wall, and the other volunteers and I will dance together with the kids.
Every day I spend here I witness something beautiful--whether it be the views from Muizenberg Mountain or the eagerness of the kids to learn. It is challenging and unpredictable and nothing ever goes quite as planned and I love it. I am halfway through my time here and I am already wishing that I could stay so much longer.