Thursday, February 28, 2008

Roles and respon[sible]ilities?

Today I was given another class to pick up some of the void that is being left by a departing teacher. It is a year 10 Life Orientation class, which is basically the South African equivalent to Social Studies/Citizenship/Civics/etc. Having taught this subject in both Canada and the UK, I was more than happy to take it on. Rocked up to second period and to meet my new class of, oh you know, 54 students. 54. holy moly.

After an introduction and some ground rules, we were underway. Picking up where the other teacher had left off, we were on a unit that looked at changing roles and responsibilities throughout life. According to the textbook (which I have been instructed to teach from), life is divided into the following sections (have summarized hectically):

0-4: birth, complete dependence on others for basic needs
5-12: beginning of independence, friends, able to do some things for self but otherwise still dependant on others for basic needs
13-18: when identity is developed, peers become more important influence, awareness of self as sexual being, high school
19-25: tertiary education, moving out of house, making place in world
26-40: adulthood, birth of own kids, influx of new responsibilities, own family becomes most important factor in life
41-65: late adulthood, likely will have to cope with death of a (or both) parents, own children grow up
65: old age.

Okay fine, right? As a guideline, I suppose these are more or less the ages at which the life changes mentioned above take place. Except that we are in a township. Where traditional (Western? First world?) expectations and realities are far different.

Case in point. When I asked for a show of hands of how many students in the class were 15 (the average age at home for a tenth grader), only one hand went up. For 16, a few more, 17 even more, 18, a whole bunch, 19, a fair amount, and the list went on. I have students as old as 23 in my year ten class. Which to me is amazing because at least they are in school. Whatever their age may be, they are recognizing the importance of education and doing what they can, despite what hand life may have dealt them before coming to Fezeka.

While the textbook theorizes that it is after the age of 26 that people start to have their own children, some of my students have kids as old as 6. Coping with the death of a parent after the age of 41? Again, such has already been a reality for many of my students.

It causes me to wonder about the choosing of textbooks for the established curriculum. Who makes this decision? Where are these books published and when? And are they aware of the entire scope of the demographic that will be using them?

After realising the range of the age of the students, (which I am ashamed to say I had not anticipated) I assessed and regrouped my thoughts and made sure to let them know that the ages and according responsibilities that were staring back at them from their textbooks were only guidelines, and not rigid. As best as I could, I reassured them that if they had already experienced any of the life changes and/or roles and responsibilities that the textbook anticipated would not occur until later life that it was okay. Somehow I get the feeling that this won’t be the last time that I will do this sort of damage control.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

And the learning continues...

Yesterday evening was Grade Eleven Parents night. As I teach a year eleven English class with a handful of particularly disruptive students whose parents I was interested in meeting, was definitely looking forward to it. While my personal and professional experiences with parent/teacher interviews go something along the lines of: parents come in and sit down with the individual teachers and receive feedback on how their children are performing, the layout of this evening's event was remarkably different.

For starters, it took place in a classroom. I had asked another teacher what the turnout for this event usually was, she told me that if everyone came we should have around 200 parents, (am unsure if this meant one or two parents per student, though I am inclined to think one, as we surely have at least 200 grade eleven students), but a good turnout would be somewhere around 70.

My guess would be that 70 was about the number of parents that were squished into the humid classroom, with the year eleven teachers seated at the front of the class and introduced one by one. My introduction was met with applause, waves and smiling faces, which was lovely and caused me to redden like a beet.

Following the introduction of the teachers, the principal spoke, followed by the acting VP, and then back and forth between the two for about 45 minutes, while they discussed what is going in year 11 up until now, and pertinent issues of which parents should be aware. Then, there was a Q&A period, where parents were able to ask questions of the teacher contingent. Following the Q&A, everyone stood up, sang the national anthem, and ended with a prayer. After the last 'Amen', the parents quickly filed out and left the room.

I kept waiting for the one-on-ones, but they never came. Also, aside from when I was introduced, the entire event was conducted in Xhosa. This is understandable given that this was the mother tongue of most of the parents, but goodness me I was lost. I could only interpret the general tone of what someone was saying based on their facial expressions and actions, but other than that, not a clue. An interpreter would have been nice, but I suppose there is always next time for that. Regardless, it was definitely a learning experience, particularly the concluding of the evening with a prayer.

Imagine such a thing taking place in a public school in Toronto? Interesting how something that is part of culture of this school…township…in this democratic country, would likely provoke public outcry in a city like my hometown.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love.

The forecast for Sunday called for rain. When I awoke however, clear skies and bright sun greeted me through my window. Though it was still somewhat early I found myself home alone, and calls to Mer and Sarah’s mobiles both went unanswered. With no car and my only friend in Cape Town busy with her parents for the weekend, I was somewhat limited with my out-of-house options. Undeterred, I took advantage of the gorgeous day to work on my tan and catch up on some reading.

Before she left Cape Town, Auntie Anne left me with her copy of Eat, Pray, Love, (, a non-fiction book by Elizabeth Gilbert that spent a number of weeks at the top of the New York Times best seller list), that had been passed on to her by her lovely friend Nicole. My plan had been to read it and get it back to her via ST when she returned to Canada but clearly that didn’t work out.

Balanced on two patio chairs under the blazing late morning South African sun, with daft punk playing on my laptop, a glass of cold chardonnay in one hand (well it was almost noon), and my book in the other I started to read. And read and read and oh my gosh read. For those who have not yet read this book, I suggest you do so immediately. As in, stop reading this and go and buy it. Right now.

The basic premise of the book is that New York-based novelist Gilbert goes through a messy divorce, suffers a near complete breakdown, and is saved from the depths of despair with great help from her publisher who offers to pay her salary for a year while she travels the world and writes a book about her experiences (I am paraphrasing the plot quite liberally here, but you get the idea). The book is divided into three sections, with each one dedicated to a region of the world that she visits. The first is Italy, where she goes to learn Italian and enjoy the food, the second is India where she seeks spiritual enlightenment, and the third Indonesia where based on the title I assume she finds love, though I haven’t gotten that far yet.

In Italy no detail is spared in her discussion and description of the endless culinary delights she enjoys. For those who do not know me, food and the pleasure that it brings me, plays a significant role in my life. Alone there in the courtyard, reading a brilliantly-written book by a woman who clearly shares this passion, while enjoying a cheeky bottle of chardonnay and some of my favourite music on a blazing hot day…suffice to say that it was sublime. Gilbert’s words grabbed me and pulled me in. Transported me to Rome while I enjoyed the sights…sounds…smells…tastes…right alongside her. Her book fed me inspiration and I devoured it hungrily.

My favourite part so far has to be from chapter 27, where Gilbert is discussing a pizza lunch that she and her friend share at a small but famous little pizzeria in Naples.

“…before I left Rome he gave me the name of a pizzeria in Naples that I had to try, because, Giovanni informed me, it sold the best pizza in Naples. I found this a wildly exciting prospect, given that the best pizza in Italy is from Naples, and the best pizza in the world is from Italy, which means that this pizzeria must offer…I’m almost too superstitious to say it…the best pizza in the world? Giovanni passed along the name of the place with such seriousness and intensity, I almost felt I was being inducted into a secret society. He pressed the address into the palm of my hand and said, in gravest confidence, “Please go to this pizzeria. Order the margherita pizza with double mozzarella. If you do not eat this pizza when you are in Naples, please lie to me later and tell me that you did.”

So Sofie and I have come to Pizzeria da Michele, and these pies we have just ordered – one for each of us – are making us lose our minds. I love my pizza so much, in fact, that I have come to believe in my delirium that my pizza might actually love me, in return. I am having a relationship with this pizza, almost an affair. Meanwhile, Sofie is practically in tears over hers, she’s having a metaphysical crisis about it, she’s begging me, “Why do the even bother trying to make pizza in Stockholm? Why do they even bother eating food at all in Stockholm?”

See what I mean?

So stimulated by what I read, I not only made a delicious lunch with food from the garden and local produce, but soon found myself in a writing mood of my own, pounding heartfelt self reflection into my ThinkPad as fast as my fingers would allow.

Of course, Gilbert’s book is about far more than food, all of it equally delicious and stimulating, but I leave the discovery of that to you.

By the time my housemates came home hours later, I was halfway done the book, busting at the seams from the amount of food I had devoured, well into the aforementioned bottle of cheeky chardonnay, with pages of writing saved.

I also, it should be noted, had a sunburn.

Ndiuyakwazi Ukwenza

On Saturday night I attended my first South African house party. Hosted by the same friend of Mer’s who was involved in the days’ event, it was a going away celebration for her upcoming move to Pretoria. Upon our arrival, the festive mood was apparent as soon as we stepped through the doorway. The mouth-watering smell of pan fried fish filled the air, complemented ever-so-nicely by the sounds of loud Xhosa music and raucous laughter. It didn’t take long before the singing and dancing started, which I couldn’t wait to join in on (the dancing not the singing, obv.)

Soon we had a full on dance party going, with one particular song on repeat. The beautiful voices of the women I was dancing with sang the lyrics, with extra emphasis on the chorus.

Phonetically to me, it sounded something like: Nagwazugweeeeenza (I later came to find out that it is spelt: Uyakwazi Ukwenza), which the women explained to me means ‘you can do it’. To personalize things in the Xhosa language you add an ‘Ndi’ in front of it, so ‘ndiuyakwazi ukwenza’ becomes ‘I can do it’.

‘I can do it’. I like. Immediately learnt the saying by heart, and began singing along while dancing (to the great amusement of my dance partners). Soon, it was a chorus of ‘Uyakwazi Ukwenza’ and ‘yea girl! You can do it!’ directed at me. Amazing/awesome. A stellar evening all around.

On Monday morning while I was getting into the car for the ride to school with other teachers, performing my usual balancing act of my school bag, lunch bag, mug of tea and keys (usually in the mouth), N. reached out to offer her assistance. Despite needing it, I jumped at the opportunity. “Ndiuyakwazi Ukwenza,” I told her.

The surprised laughter that erupted from the car was priceless. “What??” they asked, “Where did you learn that?!” I told them that at a party on Saturday then proceeded to sing the chorus while breaking into a mini seated dance. They loved it. Again with me being a big dork and double again with me not caring.

Two Xhosa sayings that have stuck with me from the first time I heard them – Ndisafunda and Ndiuyakwazi Ukwenza. I am still learning and I can do it.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

It's a dance off!

On Saturday my housemates and I spent the day on the beach in Muitzenberg, volunteering at an event for kids with epilepsy. My roommate Mer is friends with one of the organizers of this event that brings kids in from Khayelitsha, ( – one of the newest and largest townships in the region), some of whom live in group homes, and is designed as day for youth (ranging in age from 6 to 16), who might otherwise not get the chance, to enjoy a day on the beach filled with sports, swimming and other activities.

Despite overcast and windy skies, the day was a great success. We ran volleyball with them, or at least a variation on volleyball, complete with 10-12 a side and as many bumps as it took to get the ball over the net.

Upon realizing that there was no adult in the water with the 40+ kids that were playing in the ocean, I went down to supervise. Watching from the beach soon turned into a full on swim as next thing I knew I had children hanging from my every limb. So freaking cute. They would run towards the waves, and then as the waves came rolling in, they would shriek and dash towards me, calling ‘Auntie!’, while clinging to my arms, legs, hips and hands..anything they could grab hold of, and of course taking me down into the warm shallow water in the process.

Before lunch a group of us were gathered together chatting, listening to music and having a lil dance. The lil dance soon turned into a hectic dance party with kids and adults of all ages participating, and a group of the girls at one point turning to me and saying: ‘I never know Canadian people could dance!’ Brraapps.

Capping off the day was a dance competition; organized last minute after the event coordinators saw the overwhelming interest in our spontaneous failteather shake, where participants showcased their skills while the crowd voted. Such talent! As always, it is interesting to observe first hand the international reach of hip hop culture, evidenced in the moves that these young men and women killed as they danced their lil hearts out.


Friday, February 22, 2008

“Not just letters on a page...”


the face of my mother takes the shape

the face of my mother takes the shape of
a frightened mouse
at the sound of a policeman’s step
the fear-filled-flutter of her heart
a bird ensnared
my father freezes his feelings at the demand
for a pass
and i watch the fire in his
eyes slowly die
as his hands grope for the right to survive

- James Matthews

Just had probably one of, if not the, best lesson that I’ve had with my grade tens since my arrival at Fezeka. The above poem, written by famed South African poet James David Matthews* during the Apartheid era, is a part of our poetry unit, and aside from being a powerful piece of writing, is a wonderful practical example of many of the literary terms we have learnt over the past month.

Today being a Friday, periods are shorter than normal, and to top it off, this class was first period after lunch, which is notoriously late-starting as students straggle in from the break at their leisure.

Despite these hindrances, we were underway and on point within the first ten minutes. Prior to delving into its deconstruction, I spent about ten minutes talking about the power of poetry…about the power of words…the power they can have over people…the power people can have over them…and most importantly, the power that people who understand and use them, can have. To incite, to inspire, to challenge and question. To ponder, to inform, to equip and enable.

Talked of Nelson Mandela’s early ANC speeches. How at one point, those were just letters on a page. Letters forming words that when spoken by him, started a revolution. A revo-freaking-lution.

Reminded them how the world they are going to face is tough, and the more knowledge they take in during their time here, the better able they will be to confront and tackle the challenges head on. I promised to help them in whatever way I can while we share our time together, as they nodded their heads and thanked me in advance. It was all very intense and touching. And we hadn’t even started the actual lesson.

As this poem is so relevant to my students in so many ways, it didn’t take long to reel them in. Since I connect – albeit on a different level - with the poem as well, it didn’t take much for me to inject passion, ample gesticulation and emotion into my explanation of and our discussion on it. Am definitely a dork up there. But I love it.

Pounding on the blackboard to emulate the sound of a policeman at the door…cowering in fear to convey what a frightened mouse might do…twisting my face into a grotesque grimace and balling my fists in frustrated fury to express the stifled rage that the father would feel…raising my hands in the air…placing them behind my head…extending them palms-out in a show of surrender…as the narrators father may have done as a means of survival...

All of the above of course – aside from the pounding on the blackboard – was done with the full participation of the students, with the actions themselves drawn out of them with questions of how do you think this would feel…what would you do…how would you react….

It was amazing. Their level of attention, participation, even the answers they were volunteering. One of my quietest, shyest and admittedly weakest students (and as such, a secret favourite of mine), raised the sole hand in the class when I asked what the author meant by: ‘my father freezes his feelings’, and answered with: ‘his father hides his feelings because he knows what will happen if he shows them,’ to which the class responded with spontaneous applause and I had to struggle to not tear up.


Of course next class they will surely be back to their naughty 15 year old ways, but I don’t care.

Today, for those 35 minutes, they were mine. They were engaged, they were on fire, and I’m pretty sure almost every one of them learnt something.

Be still my flutter-filled heart.


* James David Matthews was born in Athlone in the Cape in 1929. He has been a writer on the ‘Cape Muslim News’ and Director of the Blac Publishing House. His volume of poetry ‘Cry Rage!’, stridently declared the Black man to be the challenger rather than the challenged, and was the first book of South African English poems to be banned.

As editor of the banned anthology ‘Black Voices Shout!’ published in 1974, he was in political detention for four months at the time of the 1976 Soweto riots.

Since then he has continued to write poetry of direct political statement, as well as short stories, the most famous of which is possibly ‘The Park’. In this he illustrates how the apartheid laws affected the children as well as the adults when a small child is forbidden to use the playground equipment reserved for the White children.



Read the following passage and answer the questions that follow.

8 year-olds for sale!
By Melinda Ferguson

1. “I was eight years when I started working on the streets. My mother had cancer. I knew if I sold sex, I’d get money and maybe I could save her. My father knew what I was doing, but he didn’t complain – in fact, I think he was happy when I brought the money home,” recalls S'thandiwe*, now 17, who’s been off the streets since she was rescued at the age of 12 from the degradation of whoring in the alleys of Diepsloot.

2. “My friends at school gave me the idea, and I’d watched my older sisters doing it. I went one night with my friend, who was older than I. She flagged down a car at the petrol station. There was a White man. I knew nothing yet of what was to happen that night. So we went to his house in Fourways…he gave us cigarettes and dagga, and he took my friend into a room…”

3. In November 2004, headlines blazed across the country: “School girls rescued from sex dungeon”; “Girls freed from SA prostitution”; “Child sex ring crack-down”. Police infiltrated several child prostitution syndicates, rescuing girls as young as 10 from lives of captivity and abuse. The lid was off the seething, sordid pot of prostitution in our country.

4. S’thandiwe’s life was to change forever. While other girls her age giggled together about pop stars, boyfriends and clothes, she entered a spiral of destruction, hawking her body to strangers to support her father and ailing mother. “He had sex with me,” she recalls of the first night with a client. “It was very sore and I bled. He gave me R50, which was a lot of money to me. I went home and brought my mother Panado…” And so S’thandiwe’s life as a prostitute began. She found herself more and more on the streets. She hardly went to school…she was lost. She was trying to make more money because they were poor and they always needed things.

5. S’thandiwe seemed to have fallen between the cracks of a society that cares little for desperate youngsters. Luckily though, there was at least one pair of eyes that had noticed her. Nurse Baloyi, who is now retired, but worked for years with destitute children in crisis, had become aware of S’thandiwe’s activities, watching helplessly as the girl sold her body – and soul. She used to take food parcels to the poor in that area, so they started taking food to S’thandiwe’s family too, hoping it would make their lives better.

6. Then Social Welfare interceded: they placed the girls in temporary care to get them off the streets. But the family objected and said they’d starve if their daughters didn’t earn money. Nurse Baloyi sat down with S’thandiwe one day, told her how she was ruining her life and asked her if she could take her to a safe place. She agreed, and that’s how she ended up staying at Thabisile's home. Sister Thabisile e Msezani runs a Sithabile, a home for orphaned, abandoned and abused children on a small holding in Benoni, Gauteng, where she cares for over 150 youngsters.

7. Child prostitution has become a very big problem in this country. Other young girls may get involved in prostitution for various reasons: they may be orphaned, or perhaps their parents have sent them onto the streets because they are so desperate and have no other source of income. Another reason it’s so difficult to stop is because the child receives rewards for the act and the parents benefit financially, so the girls are often reluctant to speak out. For child prostitution, the dangers of infection are immense. Children are vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases because it’s hard for them to tell men to wear condoms. They have no skills of assertion and are dismissed as kids with no voice or rights.

8. S’thandiwe's life has changed a lot since those days in Diepsloot. When she met Thanbisile, she became free. She went back to school and began to study. Today, she works with other young women on a campaign called YECSEC (Youth Ending Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children) to spread the message in communities through dramatizing child prostitution. They try to teach them skills to prevent them from entering this way of life. “We tell them: ‘Never listen to your friends or people who try to make you do things you don’t want to do, or that will hurt you. Study hard, stay focused, and you can have a wonderful future – like I have today.”

*Not her real name
Adapted from True Love, February 2005


1.1 What influences did S'thandiwe get from her schoolmates? (2)

1.2 Explain in your OWN WORDS what the phrase “flagged down a car” (paragraph 2) means in the context of the passage (2)

1.3 State whether the following statement is TRUE or FALSE and quote FIVE CONSECUTIVE WORDS to prove your answer:

The public was informed of child prostitution through the media (2)

1.4 Quote ONE word from paragraph 3 which underlines that child prostitution is a filthy, mean practice. (1)

1.5 Explain in your OWN WORDS what made S'thandiwe join prostitution. (3)

1.6 Why did she bleed after having sex with the White man? (2)

1.7 What would other girls of S'thandiwe’s age talk about when they meet? (2)

1.8 How did S'thandiwe spend the money she got from the White man? (2)

1.9 Indicate whether the following statement is TRUE or FALSE and quote FOUR CONSECUTIVE WORDS to prove your answer:

S'thandiwe’s performance at school dropped (3)

1.10 In your OWN WORDS, explain how nurse Baloyi became aware of S'thandiwe’s filthy way of life. (2)

1.11 What did she try to do and stop S'thandiwe from her way of life? (2)

1.12 Give ONE word from paragraph 6 which proves that S'thandiwe’s family opposed the social worker’s offer (1)

1.13 List THREE reasons why young girls may get involved with prostitution (3)

1.14 Why are young prostitutes exposed to sexually transmitted diseases? (2)

1.15 How do S'thandiwe and her group deliver other children from prostitution and its dangers? (1)

1.16 Suggest a reason why the name was changed in this article. (2)



The above test was handed to me today by one of the Senior English teachers to be given to my year elevens next week. We are less than one month from half term, by which point we are supposed to have 100 marks for them. This comprehension test she said, would be a good way to see where they were at, and get us some marks. O-kay. Glanced over it and based on its sheer length, said that I would have to wait until next week so they could have a double period to complete it. She said that one hour would suffice and more than that was too much. Another look over the test raised some serious red flags to that, but decided to figure it out for myself.

As it was on three pages and very shoddily photocopied, I decided to retype it so that it could fit on two pages and be clearer. In doing so, I was floored. In paragraph one and three alone, there were at least 9 words that I knew the majority of my students would not understand. Reading through the entire piece gave me a number of 24.


24 words that I was pretty sure they wouldn’t understand, let alone be able to interpret in the context of the text, nevermind answer questions about them. 20 questions? (what you see above is the copy that I retyped where I have deleted 4 of them in the copy I am to use because I find them to be unquestionably too difficult). And this is all supposed to happen in what was it – one hour? It’s preposterous.

Forget about the content, which given the context in which we find ourselves, is indeed relevant, but the volume of information, the analytical and critical reasoning skills required to answer the questions posed definitely requires – at very least – a solid grasp of the language used, no?

And this is not a criticism of the teacher who gave me the test – am sure she was given it by someone, or most likely it comes from set curricula – but rather a testament to what has and continues to be my main frustration during my time here. The severe and heartbreaking disadvantage that my students find themselves at with English. Math and to a similar although lesser degree Science, these speak a Universal language, with concepts and absolute truths that students do not learn until they come to school, and so they learn them for the first time in English. But the language itself. Which they learn as a second language and hear little of in their communities but are expected to master at a level comparable to their native English-speaking privileged counterparts. And it wouldn’t be so maddening if I felt like they were at least given a fighting chance. But this test is just another example. And so the question then lies to me - What does one do? Carry on teaching and those (few) that can keep up while the rest (most) fall by the wayside?

I don’t know. Seriously don’t have the answer at this point. We have a departmental meeting today after work. Maybe one of my colleagues might have some insight.


The meeting has been postponed until Monday. Argh.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

butter on my bread.

A couple of weeks ago in my grade ten class, we were working on grammar and reading comprehension. One of the chosen pieces has to do with making career choices and the importance of choosing well. There are several figures of speech used in the passage that proved challenging. Among them: ‘your career is your passport to life’, ‘it [your career] will provide you with your bread and butter’, and ‘[university studies] is not the alpha and the omega’.

In the comprehension part, students were asked to explain what these sayings meant in the context of the passage. (On an aside, am unsure what it is an indicator of that I was not aware what alpha and omega meant. Thankfully another teacher was kind enough to explain that it meant the beginning and the end, and that it was from the bible. Gotcha.)

Students had difficulty with these definitions, and we spent a great deal of time discussing them and their meanings. Following this, they were given 10 questions based on the passage to answer in class, and I then collected their books and marked them.

In doing so, am not sure what struck me more – the poor level of grammar, or the fact that more often than not, the question about ‘it is your bread and butter’ was answered literally. As in: ‘it means that you will have bread and butter on the table’, ‘that you have to work hard so your family can eat bread and butter’, or ‘without a career there will be nothing to eat’.

I have always known that social location plays a prominent role in a person’s education, perception, and interpretation in and of the world around them. Seeing this exemplified through the eyes of my students however, has allowed me an even clearer understanding of this reality.

where the beautiful people play..

Weekend before last was the beginning of a 10-day excursion to the Cape Town that I had not yet experienced. On the Friday, my new Swedish friend F took me out with a bunch of her friends. This was the same night that Cape Town was hit with a city-wide blackout. Just as I stepped out of the shower, the entire house went dark. As I had been listening to music off of my laptop it didn’t change the sound in the air, and I had to laugh as Lauryn Hill told me to turn the lights down low while I stumbled about in the darkness trying to find candles.

Soon after the lights went out F called me to let me know that a friend of hers (S) would be picking me up because it was safer than taking a cab and not to worry because there was still power in Camps Bay.

Camps Bay. The prime real estate strip of beach-front property that is home to some of the most expensive houses and businesses in the city. Where the rich and fabulous go to play. Of course they still had electricity.

S picks me up in his 700 series BMW, and we’re off. Cruising along the darkened streets was quite eerie. Even in the downtown core – no lights. A city that normally at 10pm on a Friday night in the summer would be alive with energy was asleep.

On the car ride, S was asking me how I knew F, so I told him the story of how we had met on a winery tour. I returned the question and he told me that they had met a few years ago, and that within a couple hours of knowing her he had invited her to a Pavarotti concert that happened to be in Joburg but no worries about the fact that they were in Cape Town because they could take his private jet. Um hm. F. had declined his offer, by the way.

The darkness followed us until we rounded the mountain and reached Camps Bay where the main drag was lit up and party revelers lined the streets. Swept up the stairs to the new ‘it’ spot Karma (, and the party was on. S had reserved a private room and all that it entailed for F and her crew, although once I met up with them we opted to stay on the balcony with the rest of the party rather than shut ourselves off from the vibe of this club that was going off.

Great times were had by all, until 2:30 when the lights at the club went out as well. ½ an hour later we were on our way to F and D’s condo on Long street for sleep with a detour for Boerewors, the Capetonian Sausage roll equivalent of street meat. De-lish.

Their condo is amazing, with a sweeping view of the mountain. Have no idea how much they paid for it, although I can imagine it wasn’t cheap. Like I said, a side of Cape Town I had yet to see. Tea and chats and bed and sleep. A stellar night all around.

The next night was one of my housemates’ last nights in Cape Town as he was moving back to Germany, so the lot of us went out for dinner at Greek and dancing at The Waiting Room (, this amazing and one of my new favorite spots in town. Split-level with rooftop patio, lots of couches and tapestries and lamps with red lights everywhere, the vibe starts out chill but ups significantly as the night goes on. Obviously we slash I was the first one on the dance floor but before long it was a serious dance party. The mix of djs played an eclectic mashup of some of the best of the best and we danced until our feet cried out no more.

Bright and early-ish the next day, my friends ST and JDV from Toronto who were in town for a conference picked me up from home and we began our day of fun. First stop on our journey was the villa that STs company had rented for her and her colleagues for the week. Uh, yea. A villa in Camps Bay. On the mountain. It was about as amazing and luxurious as one would imagine it to be. Amazing with a massive view of the ocean and mountains. Crazy.

Lounging by the pool gave way to meeting up with some others who were in town for the conference which later gave way to dinner at Parangas ( in Camps Bay which is a delicious seafood spot overlooking the beach. Suffice to say that good times were had by all and getting up for work the next day was somewhat of a struggle. Moving on.

The rest of the week passed quickly as ST and the rest of the crew spent the evenings taking in the beauty of Cape Town, with me being the fortunate tagalong that got to enjoy it all with them.

On Thursday we had dinner at the Codfather (, another amazing seafood restaurant in Camps Bay, followed by drinks and dancing at Ignite. Friday Alexandra slept 13 much-needed hours. Saturday found JDV and Alexandra cruising around Stellenbosch and Franschoek taking in a few winery tours, followed by the MOST amazing dinner at Beluga ( in Green Point, and later meeting up with some of JDVs clients for drinks at Karma.

Sunday it rained for the first time since I’ve been here which turned the city into a muggy sauna, while my whirlwind week of luxury and good times in the other side of Cape Town came to a steamy and humid end.

Play ball?

Sitting in the computer lab, a rogue cricket who has somehow found his or her way in here chirps ever-so-loudly in the background. While admittedly annoying, it’s almost endearing in a TIA sort of way, since such a thing would be rare in the climate-controlled school environments of the Western world.

Have been doing a lot of thinking about my students lately, and the severe disadvantage at which they find themselves in so many ways. While their social location poses obvious challenges, most obvious to me are the ways in which it handicaps them in their educational processes.

In 2002, the Western Cape Ministry of Education passed legislation that regulated all school curricula and standardized all exams, meaning that every student in every school – be they Black, White, Coloured and everything in between, be they from Townships, wealthy White suburbs or the rest – would follow the same curriculum, be at an equal level of comprehension of the taught subject matter (in my case English, and the subject to which I will be referring), and given the same Matriculation exams at the end of the year.

Now, let me preface what I am about to say by recognizing that I understand the notion of wanting to create a South Africa where everyone is on an equal playing field, and prepared in a like manner to face the world that they will share.

That said.

It blows my mind that there can be an expectation that a Township-born, native Xhosa-speaking, English-as-a-second language poor Black kid will be able to learn and perform at the same level as a city-suburb born, raised in a home where English is the first spoken language, privileged White kid. It’s almost obscene.

The main novel under the Grade 11 curriculum is George Orwell’s classic satirical allegory, Animal Farm. An “accessible”, insightful and interesting book, it was one of my favourites growing up. I also happened to be a privileged kid who grew up in a first world city. I spoke English at home, and came from a family where great emphasis was placed on education and the importance of learning. Even then, I remember finding the novel somewhat challenging.

Now imagine that English is your second language. That you have never heard of communism, Karl Marx, the Russian revolution, or even the words ‘Rebellion’, ‘Dictator’ or ‘Enthusiasm’.

In my opinion, it makes absolutely no sense to move forward with a Chapter in the text if the Students do not understand some of the key themes and terminology. So, we spend a good portion of the class (keeping in mind that these are 40 minute periods, of which one is lucky to get 25 minutes of full classroom attention and attendance), going over these things. As you can imagine, we move sl-oooow-ly.

After animated (on my behalf) and relevant explanations of the terms they struggle with, students often have a good grasp of them. Because of the time spent doing this however, more often than not the bell rings before we can even crack the first few pages of a chapter. In a setting where these words would be part of the students’ existing vocabularies, blowing through a whole chapter in the same time would likely not be a problem.

And yet, at the end of year, when my Grade 11s write their English Matriculation exam, they will be tested at a level that is designed to challenge the aforementioned first-language English-speaking White students.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

And the novel is but one example. The grammar, the level of reading…it goes on.

The other day I was speaking with a colleague, M, who teaches Business. I was asking her about how things were going with her classes and what they were working on. She sighed. She started to tell me about Market Day, for which students have to create a product, which they then have to promote and sell. Standard issue, right? Only these students face problems that those at home never would. Lack of available resources from which to create a product. Little to no market. No start-up money. Not even a little.

I think back to High School Business classes at home. How more often than not the challenge for students lay in creating a product that is new and revolutionary and then creating a need for it in the marketplace. As saturated as our Western markets are, this can be difficult. Here however, it’s not a question of creating a market. Everyone needs everything. You name it, someone will need it. Only, there is no money to create it. And even if there was, there would be no money to market it. And even if they had all that, in the community, there no money to buy it.

The WC Ministry of Education wants to create a system that prepares all its students for life on an equal playing field. In acknowledgement of all the challenges faced by those coming from the Townships however, one cannot help but wonder:

how can this begin to be feasible if they are not even close to the same level of practice when they come to bat?


One of the students in my grade 11 class is missing half of his leg.

From the knee down on the left side, his pant leg hangs loosely. Am not sure exactly how old he is, although I would guess it to be somewhere around 17 or 18. I asked Mrs. M., an absolute gem of a teacher, and she said that a couple of years ago he was diagnosed with bone cancer and they were forced to amputate his leg. Following this he took a year off because he was so depressed at what had been taken from him and was very reluctant to return to school for fear of what the students would think of him. Absolutely heartbreaking. He is a gorgeous young man, tall with kind eyes, and always sits quietly at the back of the classroom. Am pretty sure this is his second time doing Grade 11, although this doesn’t necessarily correspond to his leg. There are several students in my Grade 11 class who are repeating the year..

Because of this challenge, he is forever on crutches. While very mobile on them, it is obviously very limiting. Apparently before his surgery he was a star soccer player. Now he watches from the sidelines. Quietly.

I asked P about the option of prosthesis, about whether this was something that he could perhaps think about, or if because of his financial situation if it was something that would be completely unfeasible. The short answer was that no, this was not an option for him. The state of public health care in the townships is such that just to see a doctor can sometimes take the whole day, let alone something as high level as a prosthetic leg.

Which got me thinking…

At home, it is not uncommon to see someone with a prosthetic limb, and not once have I thought about what was involved in getting that limb to them. For all its faults, we are indeed fortunate in Ontario to have the Health Care system that we do. If you lose a limb, it will be replaced for you, by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.. Follow up care and maintenance is also covered. We do not think about this because we pay taxes and it is part of the package.

But what does it actually cost? And what is the cost here in South Africa?

I have decided that I will look into this. Find out what the actual cost of such a thing would be. And obviously not just the limb itself, but the physio, the maintenance, even the social and emotional support that I would imagine comes with such a change in ones life. The dollar amount. How much?

If the amount is not exorbitant (and at this stage I have no idea how much it might be…it could be $5000, $50,000, or even $500,000), I would like to find out how feasible it would be to get that amount raised. Either by individuals, corporations…perhaps there is even a hospital here in Cape Town that would like to donate it. Who knows. Of course it is all very preliminary and pie in the sky but you don’t know unless you try, right?

If this is able to happen, I would have to speak with P and Mrs. M to find out their thoughts on it. One must tread a fine balance in such an area since this student is one of hundreds, and while they are not all missing legs, most can use financial assistance in one way or the other.

There is also of course the possibility that he has decided that he doesn’t want a prosthesis. This could very well be the case for any number of reasons.

But what if it isin’t? And what if the money can be raised? And what if P and Mrs. M agree that it’s a good move? Imagine? We’re talking big here. Big big as in change someone’s life forever big.

I wonder.

Monday, February 11, 2008

and oh....the fruit!

Aside from its obvious natural beauty, gorgeous climate and the warmth of its people, Cape Town has some of the most incredible fruit I have ever tasted.

The sweetest tomatoes, the juiciest grapes, tangiest pears, firmest bananas and the sweetest nectarines. Amazing. And oh so cheap.

There is a woman who sells fruit at school during the lunch hour – nectarines, peaches, bananas, pears and grapes. A huge – HUGE – bag of the most amazing grapes you have ever tasted goes for R3. Which is about 40 cents.

Hello? Hi there.

Friday, February 8, 2008

riding in cars with teachers.

its been a minute since my last post but that sure hasn't stopped my mind from constantly churning and thinking of things that i want to transcribe...


my transport to and from school is still being worked out, so for the past two weeks i have been getting a ride with three other teachers, two of whom live close by in obs. while this is indeed great in the morning, the end of day not so much because of being reliant on the drivers' schedule, and therefore at times i have been at school for hours after i need to be because the car isin't here to take us back. am working on getting this issue resolved asap. and by 'getting this issue resoloved', i mean 'learning how to drive stick on the left and buy a car'.

that said,

riding with these teachers over the past couple of weeks has afforded me a true cultural experience. whether its in the morning, when for the most part we ride in silence aside from the xhosa gospel music blasting from the speakers, which at times the teacher who sits next to me sings along to while waving her hands in the air praising jesus (for serious), or the detours we take on the way home to drop off one or two of the additional people we have crammed into the small little hatchback, one of whom is often the brother who tells me over and over again that his parents want him to marry a white girl and he has noticed that im not wearing a wedding ring :), while we laugh and joke and they make fun (in the nicest possible way) of my attempts at speaking their language and we drive through parts of townships that offer me a glimpse into a side of cape town that i would not otherwise been privy to.

Friday, February 1, 2008


so its a new month. hard to believe that January is already over. am sure February will fly by just as fast. crazy crazy.

when we arrived at school this morning there were very few cars in the parking lot. as we were a bit later than usual, i found this kindof strange. when i asked my colleague she told me that there was a memorial service today at 11am for a teacher who passed away last year. as it was in the city, teachers had been told to report to school in the morning and that busses would take them to the venue.

'oh',' i asked, 'but what about the students?'

'they were informed of this yesterday,' she tells me, 'classes for the day have been cancelled.'


there is a saying here - TIA (this is Africa) - that is used when there is something or someone or a particular experience, etc., that reminds us that we are in Africa. when i was freaking out about my lack of transportation at 10pm the night before i was to begin teaching despite having been reassured time and time again that it would be taken care of (it wasn't), i remember hearing catherine saying to meritt - 'alex is having a TIA' moment.

there are varying degrees of TIA moments, from hectic to serious to medium and minor. when i was told that classes had been cancelled - every class for the whole school for the whole day - because teachers were attending a memorial service, i guess you could say i had a minor TIA moment. just another example of the many differences in school culture between here and what i have been accustomed to.

in other news, the final element of my application to the MEd program at UBC was submitted late last night after a few technical difficulties.

so now we wait.