It is almost three years since my first meeting with the Advisory Board of Education Without Borders. At that time my knowledge of the organization and ideas on the Fezeka Project was limited to a brief conversation with Bonny Norton, and information gathered on EwB’s Website. Filled with an overflowing zeal at the thought of what this opportunity might offer, I was determined to fly to BC to meet the rest of the team.
I clearly remember that beautiful sunny day which was my first time in Vancouver in over 25 years. I recall being awestruck by the impressive presence the mountains cast over the sparkling city. Little did I know I would soon be living in the shadow of another extraordinary mountain, in a completely different world-class city.
Meeting with the Board I was asked about my expectations for the experience. My answer came easily: I ‘expected’ nothing. I only hoped for an experience that would allow me to grow as an individual, and put my diverse skill set and enthusiasm to use.
Suffice to say that this experience has been all that, and then some.
From my arrival at Fezeka – meeting the staff and learners, finding my way around the school, travelling to and from Gugulethu with my colleagues, them blaring Xhosa gospel music on the car stereo – to becoming acquainted with the city that I would love immediately and soon grow to call my second home, it has been a non-stop rollercoaster ride. And like all great rollercoaster rides, I don’t want to get off.
But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. Or, as I have been saying, we must finish one exciting chapter before moving on to the next. And while once we have lived a chapter we cannot live it again for the first time, we can go on to the next chapter, and the next chapter, and the next.
My experience at Fezeka has been life changing in many ways. Not least of which is the way I have struggled to learn to accept that there may be things I cannot change.
It was difficult, coming to this reconciliation. Having been raised by a woman who instilled in me a belief and conviction that I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to, the seemingly insurmountable challenges at Fezeka were of a completely different sort.
Surprisingly, (or perhaps unsurprisingly), some of the biggest challenges I faced came not from the students, but from my colleagues. I could write (and have written) volumes about the non-existent work ethic of some of my fellow educators. Infuriatingly, there seems to be little that I as an individual could have done to change this. Leading by example was the best I could manage, and even this seemed to at times garner me more detractors than friends. Undeterred, I continued doing what I knew best, eventually investing all my time in the learners, my true reward and joy.
The endless hours I have spent in my classroom with my students will remain some of the happiest and most inspiring moments of my entire life. These young people, to whom life has dealt the harshest and most difficult of hands, have an unimaginable hunger for learning and seemingly never-ending patience with educators that continue to neglect them. Having never been taught their own worth, or made cognizant of their right to an education, they remain silent – made voiceless by a system that passively condones this negligence by standing idly by while it continues, or makes accountability for such behavior all but impossible to enforce.
Along with the poor quality of education the learners receive at the primary level right up on through to secondary school, this institutionalized discrimination is in my opinion, the greatest tragedy this country currently faces. A whole generation – if not two or three – of young people are growing up with an inadequate education, ill-prepared for the competitive workforce that comes part and parcel with living in a country with an emerging economy.
Even typing those words – thereby acknowledging them – is difficult for me. But I have learned to accept that the way in which this will play out was written long before I came along. One cannot expect to change in a year or two or three or even ten, what is the result of more than a half-century of oppression.
But we must not give up hope. The light that burns inside so many of these young people will not allow us to. We must continue in whatever way, by whatever means, to try and enable these young people to grow, learn, feel free to ask, stand up for themselves, have their voices heard, and thrive. Simply surviving is nowhere near enough.
To employ the age-old adage: Rome was not built in a day. This clichéd but timeless lesson can surely be applied in reference to EwB’s involvement at Fezeka. I share the organization’s determination that things can and will change at Fezeka for the kids, one volunteer at a time, student by student. Change on a large scale can be very challenging to bring about. By working with students on a micro level we can hope to plant a seed that will grow into something great, somewhere down the line.
We must not allow ourselves to be discouraged by the setbacks, and focus solely on the achievements. We are in unchartered territory, governed only by our wits and initiative. In my opinion, we must focus on the students – on working with them, sharing of ourselves with them, in whatever way we can. Teach them, encourage them, offer guidance and above all, listen to them. For many, we as educators are the only ones in their lives who do.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone at Education without Borders who played a part in helping me live the experience that I have lived at Fezeka. I am forever changed, forever grateful, forever learning.