Saturday, May 31, 2008

"We have hope."

A few weeks into my time at Fezeka, after my students had overcome their initial shyness towards this new white teacher with the funny accent, they began asking me what my Xhosa name was. I told them that I didn’t have one, and that they must choose one for me. They agreed.

On the last day of classes before exams last week, when I walked into my grade 10 English class, they triumphantly announced that they had a name for me.

“Sinethemba,” they told me. “Your Xhosa name is Sinethemba.”

“Beautiful! What does it mean?” I asked.

“We have hope,” they replied.

My heart skipped a beat and I asked them why they chose this name.

“Because we have hope with you Miss. You give us hope.”

If I could have squished them all into a group and wrapped my arms around they ever-so-tightly at that moment I would have. Instead, I blinked back tears and thanked them. Told them that I too had hope with them and excused myself to step outside.

And then my heart exploded.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

He got a leg!

My student who was missing one! He got one!

In the schoolyard a few weeks back, I noticed he was no longer walking with crutches under each arm, and now had only one – a new one – that his arm linked through and he held with his hand.

Later that day in class I called him over to ask what had prompted the change. It was then I noticed his shoe. More accurately, his shoes. He was wearing two.

“Nice shoes,” I commented as he approached.

A wide smile spread over his entire face. “Thank you Miss,” he replied softly.

Not wanting to pry too much into how he had gotten it, I asked him how he felt. He told me he felt good, but that the fitting was sore. His doctor, he said, had told him that this was common and that once his leg adjusted to the prosthetic he would be fine.

Two weeks later he tapped me on the shoulder.

“All good Miss. I feel great.”

And he hasn’t stopped smiling since.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Teen Sex

. . .

It may seem as if everyone you know has had sex or is involved in a sexual relationship. A lot of teenagers are sexually active, but many are not. When you make the decision to have sex, you have to think about the risks and consequences involved.

Sex can bring pleasure and closeness. But it can also cause an unwanted pregnancy, HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.

- From Unit 5 (Teen Sex), in the National Curriculum-Mandated Gr. 10 Life Orientation Textbook

. . .

South Africa is a country with one of the highest rates of HIV incidence in the world. Based on a 2006 study, rates of infection vary from 15.2% of the population in certain provinces to 39.1% in others, levelling out to a national average of 29.1%. While some studies suggest that on the whole these numbers are declining, it is still impossible to deny the severity of the epidemic in this country. Education has and continues to be one of the best tools in preventing its spread, particularly among youth. As such, one would imagine that a substantial HIV/AIDS education and awareness unit would play a part in high school Life Orientation curriculum, right?


When preparing for the Unit on Teen Sex, I was looking through the textbook to get an idea of what was covered. When I read the above first few lines of the unit chapter, I assumed it was a brief introduction (the bolded words are the publisher's own) to a more in depth unit to come. It wasn't. I flipped through page after page searching for the part of the textbook that covered HIV/AIDS and STIs, and soon found myself at the end of the book.

Soon the realization hit me. The second part of the italicized bit above is the extent – the ENTIRE extent – of the education students receive as part of their Grade 10 Life Orientation (LO) course.

There was.
Not one.
Dedicated to this excruciatingly important topic.

I was floored. Convinced there had been some error, and I was missing some supplemental information that would comprise a unit on this subject, I approached the head of the LO department. She confirmed for me what I had discovered. But not to worry I was told, "They get a lot of information on HIV and AIDS in grades 8 and 9."

I won't bother getting all riled up about how ludicrous and inexcusable I found this, as there is no point in reliving that experience for you, dear reader. I decided then that at least for my students, learning about changing roles and responsibilities and traditions in the life cycles were going to take a backseat for a few classes, as we would together embark on a crash course in Teen Sex, Pregnancy, Condom use and yes, STIs and HIV/AIDS.

To the textbook's credit, there is a fair bit dedicated to the importance of not rushing into sex, and understanding that the decision to do so is theirs and theirs alone, as well as some discussion on pregnancy and methods of contraception. That said, I do take somewhat of an issue with the fact that along with Condoms, the Pill, and the IUD, they also list THE RHYTHM METHOD. That's right. 'Natural Family Planning' as they term it.

Natural Family Planning – Rhythm Method

Avoiding sexual intercourse during fertile days of the menstrual cycle.

Chances of becoming pregnant:

  • 1-9% if very careful every month
  • 20% or more if you are not


  • No costs
  • May improve couple's communication
  • No delay when ready to become pregnant


  • Body temperature and vaginal mucus must be tested every day
  • Does not usually work if periods are not regular
  • Sexual partner must be completely cooperative
  • Special teaching required
    (And oh yea, nice of them to mention):
  • Does not protect you against HIV or other sexually transmitted infections


Including one of the most risky methods of 'birth control' in a high school textbook for teenagers? And as the first advantage, listing the fact that it is free? But these kids are poor, right? Wow. Wowowowowowowow.

As with a previous lesson/discussion on Puberty, before delving into the unit on Teen Sex it I gave them the whole ‘we’re going to talk about things that make us giggle, we’re going to use words that make us blush, and that’s okay,’ bit. I indicated that they were encouraged to ask me anything or feel free to discuss a topic that they were curious about. No personal questions though. Had to reiterate this idea the and importance of boundaries and what is and is not appropriate in this context moments later when one of the more cheeky students in the class raised his hand to ask:

“Miss, how does it feel when you are having sex with your boyfriend?”

As of today, we have spoken about issues and questions to consider when making the decision to have sex and the importance of being comfortable with the decision to do so. We’ve talked about pregnancy (and dispelled a number of myths many of them believed about how easy it is to become pregnant), methods of contraception, the emergency contraceptive/morning after pill, adoption and abortion. I have introduced them to the dangers of pre-ejaculatory fluid/pre-cum and the difference between penetrative versus oral sex and the risks that each of them carry.

I feel it necessary to interject here and say that when discussing these topics with my students, while on the outside I am generally calm and collected, at times inside I am blushing terribly and giggling uncontrollably at the words that are flying around in this classroom of 50+ teenagers and me. In no small part I have to thank the sexual education educator’s training I received at Trails Youth Initiatives ( at a very young age, for helping me to feel comfortable doing so.

Next up is Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). When I asked them to tell me the name of an STI other than HIV/AIDS (as they have received ample education on this and are already somewhat familiar with it), not one student could give me an answer. Not one. This is especially frightening given how easy STIs are to pick up and spread, and how devastating many of the consequences can be if left untreated.

As such, when I met the class on Friday, I gave them homework for the weekend that consisted of:

a) finding out the name of one STI (not HIV or AIDS)
b) how it is transmitted
c) what/if there is any treatment/cure
d) bringing one condom to the next class

They have informed me that there are clinics all over the townships where they can get information and condoms for free, so this shouldn’t be too difficult of a task. We shall see. In case they weren’t successful however, thankfully my housemate who works for the Department of Health was able to provide me with a stack of Government-issued condoms.

My plan is to spend the next couple lessons looking at various STIs, HIV and AIDS, and to tie in an exercise practicing how to use condoms correctly using bananas as penises.


I am fully aware that I am deviating significantly from the established curriculum and that perhaps some parents may not be happy with the fact that their child’s teacher is asking them to bring prophylactics to school, but I’m willing to take the chance given what I think can be gained. Even if its only a little bit, and even if only one student decides to use a condom next time s/he has sex that maybe they wouldn’t have before. It’s worth it, right? Besides, as for the parents, didn’t a wise person once say that it’s always easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission? Ehm, maybe not.

In any case, I better run. Class starts in an hour and I’ve got a whole bunch of bananas to buy.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The ties that bind...

Over the past few months, during which the weather has been absolutely stunning, when Capetonians would ask me what I thought of their city and I exuberantly replied how gorgeous and breathtaking everything was, my enthusiasm was inevitably met with: ‘Have you spent a winter here yet?’

Well, as of last week, autumn has officially arrived here in Cape Town. And if the weather we have been getting is any indication of the shape of things to come (it is), I think I understand what they meant.

Rain, wind, damp grey skies. The sun did not come out once all weekend. And to make matters worse, most houses (ours included), for some reason are not insulated. Which amazes me to no end, as it’s not like it hasn’t always been this cold in the winter months. Moreover, most houses (again, ours included), do not have central heating. Single-paned windows too. So, the cold gets in the house and doesn’t leave. Ugh.

As I was commenting on the cold to my housemate yesterday she laughed (in a not-unkind way) and told me that this wasn’t even cold. That when I could see my breath in the air IN THE HOUSE, then I could talk to her about the cold. Ughhhhhhhhh.

The point of this entry however is not to complain about the weather (well not much), but more about something it has led me to think about lately.

As the weather is getting poorer and today my ride told me that she is moving to Kuils River at the end of the month, I am realizing that I may have to purchase a car. Aside from transport to work, the mobility it will provide during the cold winter months, (particularly when it gets dark before 5pm) is important I think.

I have not missed not having a car this past little while. In fact, I am very grateful for the experiences it has allowed me out of serendipitous necessity. I have learnt and continue to learn a great deal about the cultures and context within which I am working from my shared-commute colleagues, and feel so fortunate to be privy to their worlds and part of the daily banter (well the parts I understand anyway).

A few weeks ago, S. one of the women who I ride with every day, told me that she had learnt something that morning. Roads all throughout Guguletu are named and numbered some variation on NY#. We have NY4, NY16, NY8, and so on. She told me that she had always wondered what the NY meant for but never knew. That day, she said, she had found out that NY stood for Native Yard, and that the streets had been named as such during the Apartheid era by a regime who didn’t think it important to give actual names to the township roads.

Last week, when the weather turned cool, we were riding to work in the morning and commenting on how the temperature had dropped. On our way before 7:30AM, the sun had not yet fully risen and the mist was so dense that we could not even see the mountain which normally poses as an impending backdrop to the skyline on our way out of the city. An impossible-to-ignore dampness filled the air.

“You know Alex,” she began, “when we were kids, we used to walk to school in this sort of weather barefoot.” I shivered at thought and asked her how far of a walk it was. “About 45 minutes,” she replied. She went on to tell me how they didn’t have shoes. And if they were lucky enough to get a pair of Bata shoes,

(side note – I find it so interesting to note the various threads that in some way connect us all. Bata is the Canada-headquartered shoe company started in Czechoslovakia in the late 1800s that by the early 1930s was the world’s leading footwear exporter. A revolutionary company in not only how it industrialized rapidly and expanded internationally, but in its commitment to community-amelioration, customers-first motto and the ways in which it offered employees profit-sharing at a time when such a thing was unheard of. Bata stores can be found in many developing-world nations, and I even noticed a retail outlet on a recent visit to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The tie-in here comes from the fact that at one point, the sporting goods chain Athlete’s World was owned by Bata. I worked at Athlete’s World for 3 years when I was in high school, can vividly remember learning about the Bata Empire at training seminars at the Bata head office in Toronto, and remember being surprised to learn of its far reaches.)

But back to the car ride.

If they were lucky enough to get a pair of Bata shoes, S. told me, they saved and took great care of them. The only time they would wear them would be to church. And they knew, because if they didn’t their mothers would be quick to remind them, that the minute they left church, the shoes came off. When the shoes got holes in them, they would cut out some cardboard and fit the bottom of them with a piece. And if their feet outgrew the shoes, they wore them anyway.

The commentary on the culture and context that S. grew up in that was offered by this memory was most enlightening, and obviously thought-provoking as I write about it and make the linkages between the forces of international capitalism and its effects on our lived experiences across the planet.