For my latest trip for people and places I’ve been in South Africa, partly to make a return visit to Paul, our local partner in Port Elizabeth, but mainly to set up a fantastic new project at Hazyview, which is in the north east of the country, right on the edge of Kruger National Park.
First I paid a quick visit to Port Elizabeth. Many of you have volunteered here so you will know that in PE we support a number of schools plus Emmanuel Advice and Community Centre. On my previous trip to PE I had concentrated on the schools so this time I spent all my time at Emmanuel. I had read a lot in volunteer reports about the work the people here are doing to support their very poor township community, particularly those suffering from or affected by HIV/Aids, and I was keen to see it for myself. Although government funding for this project ended in 2014, meaning that the local people who work here are now unpaid and working as volunteers themselves, I was filled with admiration for the untiring work they do to provide pre-school education and home-based care for their community. For any of you who have volunteered here, and anyone who would like to go in future to volunteer at this organisation, you need to know how much the work you do here is appreciated. Our volunteer contributions are of course invaluable in helping to keep the place running. But more than that, the ladies there told me how much it raises their status in their community that people from over the other side of the world care enough to come and support them. These people are no longer paid a salary, but our volunteers are helping them to raise their skills level through running workshops and working alongside them and believe me, this is highly valued. I saw this in action as I was there at the same time as a couple of other volunteers – the photo shows one of them, Sonia, running a counselling workshop.
However the main purpose of my trip was to visit our new local partners, Good Work Foundation, at their Digital Learning Centre at Hazyview. If this project isn’t up on our website yet it will be very soon – look out for it! It will be a great place to volunteer. Sallie made the initial contact with GWF when she was in South Africa last year. My job was to find out as much as possible about how the project works and establish, in conjunction with our local partners, exactly what expertise and support they would welcome from our volunteers.
So what does the project entail? Good Work Foundation, led by their CEO Kate Groch, have set up Digital Learning Centres in four different rural communities, with a fifth due to open next year. They believe that traditional education methods are failing people in rural communities, largely due to enormous class sizes and overcrowded, poorly resourced schools. Their aim is to set up ‘Centres of Excellence’ for these rural communities, leapfrogging traditional teaching methods and jumping straight into the digital age. Their digital learning centres provide education through computers, laptops, tablets, data projectors and interactive whiteboards, and more importantly teach how to use this technology, with the aim that their learners will be able, like everyone else in more privileged communities across the world, to access the enormous body of knowledge and expertise which is now so easily available to us all online.
They work with two groups of learners. At Hazyview, their main centre and the place where our volunteers are likely to be based, about 1500 grade 4 children (aged about 10) come to the Centre for about an hour every week. They really look forward to coming – it was a pleasure to see children running to get to class. Through the use of carefully selected apps they learn English, Maths and some Science (focused on conservation), as well as learning how to use the computers. All teaching at the centre is in English, and this is also important as up to grade 3 children are taught in their own local language (in this area siSwati or Xitsonga) but in grade 4 teaching of all subjects goes into English, so this is a year where many children struggle and any additional exposure to English really helps them to manage at school.
The Centre has only been open for three years but the first school to send children to them has already recorded a massive 35% improvement in English scores in national tests. Their second group of learners is young adults. Many of them have completed grade 12 at school, but have little idea of what options are available to them next or of how they could go about achieving any ambitions they do have. At the Centre in a bridging year course they teach what they define as the ‘languages of access – digital and English’. Students study for the International Computer Driving Licence, an internationally recognised computer course which covers, among other things, the use of all branches of Microsoft Office. Their English studies follow a recognised South African adult learning course and focus on oral work as well as written. Within this course they learn skills such as how to present yourself at interview and how to write a good CV. They receive Careers guidance, both through formal lessons and on an individual basis, and at the end of the year, if they wish, they can continue to study at the Centre on courses specifically designed to provide employment opportunities in their local area. Tourism is one of the main employers, so there are courses in Hospitality, Media, Music, advanced IT and Conservation. I was privileged to attend one of their graduation ceremonies, as Sallie was last year, where about 60 students received their certificates and celebrated the successful completion of their courses. Their pride in their achievement, and their families’ pride in them, was palpable and the staff at the Centre were rightly proud of what they had achieved, giving these students not only internationally recognised qualifications but a belief in themselves and their ability to achieve whatever targets they set themselves in life.
Before I went I had researched GWF and my fear was that they are so well organised that they would have little need of any skills or expertise that we might offer. This is not the case – there’s lots we can contribute, ranging from people with teaching experience to help the facilitators develop their teaching skills (GWF ‘grow their own’ staff and few of them have formal teaching qualifications), to careers advisors, to people with business skills to help adult learners find possible areas for employment, and lots of other areas too – check out our website for specific details of what is needed here.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to GWF, both for the project itself but also because it was such a comfortable experience and set in such a lovely part of South Africa, the country recently voted the most beautiful in the world. Our local partners could not have been more welcoming and helpful, and they have a lovely house they rent for use of volunteers, so I loved having my own home for the two weeks I was there. Hazyview is within 10 minutes drive of a gateway into Kruger National Park. I went in twice, once with a group of school children as part of their conservation work (and although they live so close none of these children had been into the Park before), and once as a tourist at the weekend. Our local partners were able to get me a cheap seat with an established game drive company, so for just the cost of entry to the Park (about £15) I had a 6 hour game drive with an experienced guide, and we were lucky enough to see 15 different species of animals, including all the Big Five, on the one drive. Those of you who know me well know how much I love cats, so it was wonderful to have a really good view of a leopard sheltering in the shade of a rock and a lion so chilled out it was more or less sleeping in the road.
Do think about offering your skills and expertise to volunteer on this project – they would be delighted to have you and I know the right volunteers could do a lot to help them move forward on this really worthwhile project – and you would have a great time as well.
Dianne Ashman – volunteer programme advisor