Three Countries-Four Local Partners -5 weeks – One Volunteer

Three Countries-Four Local Partners -5 weeks – One Volunteer

Our education advisor Dianne has just returned from visiting many of our projects in Africa.

Here is her breathtaking report!


Three countries, four local partners, five weeks.

Four primary schools, six neighbourhood care points, one community project to support vulnerable children, seven visits to the homes of the elderly, one special school for physically handicapped children and one conservation project.

Ten flights, ranging from international flights to a flight over the Masai Mara in the co-pilot’s seat of a tiny, 12-seater plane.

Learning to say ‘Good morning’, ‘How are you?’ and ‘Thank you’ in four African languages – Xhosa, siSwati, Zulu and Swahili, with possibly a bit of Soweto street-slang thrown in as well.

And most importantly meeting many, many new people, all working hard in difficult circumstances to improve the lives of others in their community.

This was my latest trip for people and places

The first place I visited was Port Elizabeth in South Africa.  My brief here was slightly different to my usual brief as education advisor for people and places.  This is because our volunteer programme is well established here, being the place where people and places first started work.  Our partner here, Paul, has a really in-depth knowledge of the 10 schools he works with and of what their needs are, so he is able to work with the schools to place each individual volunteer very effectively.  I didn’t have time to go to all the schools where we send volunteers so three were identified for me to visit, observing lessons, talking to teachers about their experiences with volunteers, collecting as much information as possible which future volunteers might find useful and most importantly establishing with the heads and with Paul the schools’ needs and priorities for the use of volunteers in future years.  I also went with Paul to a fourth school where volunteers were just about to arrive to establish with the school exactly what the programme for their placement would be, and then later to attend a very productive weekly meeting where volunteers and teachers assessed what had been achieved in the first week of the placement and how they would progress in future weeks.

My impression was that all the school buildings in Port Elizabeth were in

Jo Slovo school

reasonably good condition with better facilities than I have seen in many other countries, although nothing like a British primary school of course.  The government provide the books which are of a much better standard, both in content and appearance, than those in schools in Asia, but they don’t always send enough and the teachers don’t feel they explain the work very well.  I felt that the teachers were trying hard, often with very large classes, to make sure children understand the work (unlike what I have seen in some other countries) and they ask a lot of comprehension questions, but most of them don’t have strategies to include all children in the lesson and they set very little individual work other than answering the questions in the workbooks.

Teacher training has improved greatly since the ending of apartheid so younger teachers are more aware of a variety of teaching strategies they can use than older ones.  However there is a lot of discontent among the South African teachers at the moment, partly because a prescriptive new curriculum is being imposed on them which some teachers fear will put them under a lot of pressure.  The authorities don’t really know how many teachers are employed at a particular school and there are a lot of ‘ghost’ teachers on the books – teachers who are on some list as working at a school but who don’t really exist.  This means that if there are, say, two classes in a particular year group but only one teacher, and the school requests that another teacher be employed, they will probably be told no, you already have two teachers for that year group.  They don’t, but the records show they do, so another teacher can’t be employed.  It was sad to see hard-working teachers having to struggle with this and it seems that concerns about education may reach some sort of crisis point soon.

One thing I enjoyed about my visit to South Africa was the opportunity to learn more about life in the townships.  While I was in Port Elizabeth I spent one night

staying at Mickie’s, the homestay many of our volunteers have used in the township of New Brighton.  The townships were the only places where the black community was allowed to live during the time of apartheid and they are well-established, vibrant communities.  The only South African townships I had seen before were very rough corrugated-iron shacks along the roadside near Cape Town, rather like the slums in India.  There are some areas of the townships which are like that, but they are the unofficial areas where migrant workers have put up temporary dwellings, having just arrived in the city looking for work and a better quality of life.  Most of the township houses are brick-built, and all now have electricity, water and inside toilets – apparently there has been a huge amount of progress made in the last 15 or so years in modernising them.  Many houses are given to poor families by the government, but some houses are privately owned – mortgages are available to those who earn enough.  Mickie’s house is lovely, and she showed me that she has extended it to about 3 times the size of an original township house, adding a dining room, another bedroom and a lovely kitchen.  When houses are first acquired they are apparently just an empty shell, though with electricity and running water, and people have to divide them into four rooms themselves, making two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room.  When I did my township tour I saw that many of the brick houses also have a corrugated iron shelter next to them, and Mickie said this is because families are large and extended families, so the older people sleep in the brick house and the younger members in the zinc house.

Later in my trip I visited homes in Soweto, the enormous township to the south-west of Johannesburg and then centre for resistance against the apartheid government during the 1970s and 80s.  This was also a vibrant, friendly, multi-cultural community and I enjoyed my time there very much.  As in Port Elizabeth, since home-ownership became possible after ending of apartheid many people have improved and extended their homes and are proud of their community.  It is sad though to hear that many people feel that little progress has been made in their lives since the ending of apartheid.  Youth unemployment now stands at over 50% and there seems to be growing discontent with the current government – a dilemma as few black people who lived through apartheid can really imagine voting for any party other than the ANC.

In Soweto I stayed at the backpackers run by Lebo and Maria, who are

The wall at Lebos entrance

becoming our local partners in Johannesburg.  Lebo has created a friendly and welcoming place to stay out of what was once his family home, with fantastic food, good music and a lovely tropical garden complete with parrots.  He has also made great efforts to improve his neighbourhood, so with the help of local youngsters he has cleared the waste land opposite the house and made it into a park, with brightly painted walls, a children’s playground, football goals and plenty of places to sit.

He also organises bicycle tours of the local area – I did the two-hour tour one morning and it was an excellent way to see the real Soweto.  The guides all come from the local community and although they take you to some of the historic landmarks of this area where other tour groups go, such as the house where Nelson Mandela was living before his arrest and the house where Desmond Tutu still lives, you also cycle to parts of the community where tour buses couldn’t possibly go.  The poorest community on the tour was once a hostel for itinerant male workers brought to Johannesburg to work in the mines.  Although the houses are now permanent family homes they are mostly still small overcrowded corrugated structures with electricity but no running water.

Food programme at Sinzane

Our project in Soweto is based on the edge of this community.  The name of the project is Sizanani which means ‘Help one another’ in Zulu.  They describe themselves as a grassroots project to provide help to the poorest people in this community in whatever way it is needed.  They are funded by Social Services but only to a minimal extent, so the people who work at Sizanani are paid just a small stipend, not a living wage, and they are always short of resources.  Their main methods of helping fall into two categories.  One is to work with orphans and vulnerable children – there are many of them in this area as in Swaziland, mainly because of the high incidence of HIV/Aids and TB.  They feed them three times a day, so the children come for breakfast before school, for a meal when school finishes at 2pm and bring a container to take food home for an evening meal as well.  As they are getting a free lunch at school this means they are well-fed, although I wouldn’t like to judge how nutritious the food is.  They also provide a couple of hours’ activities for the children in the afternoons, reading to them, playing games, organising dancing competitions etc.  I worked one day on this project.

The second group they support is people who are elderly or ill and need help to continue living in their own homes.  I spent two days going round with these carers.  The carers gave me a list of the usual medical problems they need to deal with – it includes strokes, diabetes, TB, HIV/Aids, hypertension and heart problems.  They have had some training in dealing with these conditions but little training in areas such as speech therapy and physiotherapy.  The carers did things like giving bed baths, giving massages, checking on medication, a bit of cleaning and generally making sure their patients were alright.  They were all elderly except one – a 10 year old boy whose parents have both died of Aids and who has the illness himself.  He was at school but the carer talked to the lady who looks after him and checked all the paperwork about his weight and general health, giving suggestions about what food he should be eating.

I admired the carers’ dedication to their patients and their determination to help them.

The next country I visited was Swaziland, a country about the size of Wales, completely surrounded by South Africa, and one of the poorest countries in Africa.  It is the last country in Africa to be ruled by an absolute monarch, King Mswati III.  There is a parliament but only for consultative purposes.  The prime minister is chosen by the king and must have the same surname as him, which is an interesting concept!  He rules in conjunction with the queen mother who also holds absolute power.  I arrived on the day of the reed-dancing festival, one of Swaziland’s most important cultural ceremonies, when young girls dance before the king in the hope of being chosen as his new wife.  The present king has 13 wives (the last one had over 100) but they all have more than one child, which is a problem as the heir must be his mother’s only child.  So the king needs to find a new wife – he didn’t choose one this year though.  Although it is always interesting to see these cultural events, it was a shame that my visit coincided with the reed-dancing festival as this meant a week’s holiday had been declared and it is always much less satisfactory to visit projects when they are not fully operational.

Our project here is to send volunteers to work at neighbourhood care points,six

Volunteer Jean at one of the care points

centres set up to provide food and basic education for mostly pre-school age orphans and vulnerable children.  In this country 70% of people live below the poverty line, the average life expectancy is 32 and 20% of the population are children who have either lost a parent or have both parents too ill to support them.  The country has the highest rate of deaths from TB and HIV/Aids in Africa which mostly affects people in the 20-40 age group meaning many children are orphaned and left with grandparents who are often too old to work.  It is a rural, mostly subsistence, economy.  The people running the care points are all volunteers from the Swazi community – most of them have had no training and they are not usually paid.  At the care points the children are given two meals a day, very basic education in English, Maths and life skills, and are taught to swim (because so many children drown when the rivers swell during the rainy season) and to play other games and sports.

The education system in this country is very limited.  There is no compulsory education at all, and only free education from grade 1 to grade 4, although the government has made a commitment to provide free primary education to all by 2015 so they are trying to extend this one year at a time up to grade 7.  Pre-schools for younger children and High schools for older children are available but fees are high so few children can afford to go.  Most of the children who go to the care points are aged between 2 and 5, with a few older children who haven’t managed to get to school mainly because they have some sort of special need, but I heard of one 14 year old who turns up every day because he loves to learn but is now too old for free education – his school has told him to go away until he can find some money.  Although every child should be able to start school free when they are 6, the child must have a certificate to say they have been to pre-school and pass an interview showing they have the right basic skills such as being able to write their own name.  As so many people cannot afford to send their children to paid pre-schools, this effectively excludes most of the population from the education system altogether.  The care points are trying to provide the children they care for with a good enough education to enable them to pass the interview, and they count as pre-schools so they are able to give the children the required certificate, giving these children at least a chance to start school.  Although there were no children there I was able to visit all six of the care points and I met teachers at four of them, so I was able to get a good idea of how they work.

I was impressed with the care our local partner takes to place volunteers where they are most needed and that the volunteers’ work is being driven by the needs of the project rather than the other way round.  Some volunteers have helped with building work, and most of the care points now have classrooms brightly painted with educational murals showing the alphabet, number charts, days of the week, etc.

They are also well on the way to making sure each care point has a play area with swings, a see-saw and painted tyres for climbing on.  Other than that there are no resources at all.  Each care point has some sort of cooking area where women prepare the meals over an open fire.  They all have some sort of water supply though this is often water piped down from the mountains and collected in a tank – only one of them has running water.  Swaziland has an acute water shortage (though you wouldn’t think it from the amount of rain that fell the week I was there) so in some places water is rationed and the taps in the streets only work at night.   None of the care points has electricity, and only one has a toilet with a water supply, the rest are pit latrines.  Most of the houses I saw were made of mud-bricks with corrugated roofs.  No houses in the rural areas have a water supply and only a few have electricity.  Having said all that, the people here are all so friendly and happy, and everyone is willing to work for nothing to help each other out.  Possibly a message for us about ‘The Big Society’?

The final country I visited was Kenya.  Kenya is a new country for people and places,( watch the blog for an announcement of the new projects in Kenya .ED) and I was here to look at two projects identified by Turtle Bay Beach Club, our local partners.  One is a special school, the other a conservation project.


I expected to spend most time at the school as I know a bit more about working with children than with turtles!  However unfortunately all the teachers, along with other professional groups such as doctors, were on a pre-election strike in the hope of acquiring a living wage which they are not paid at the moment.   Still, I was able to visit the school, look round the premises and meet the Head and Deputy who live on the site.  It’s a school for 130 children aged from 5 to 19.  They are all at this special school because they are physically handicapped, either deaf (totally or with severe hearing loss) or with cerebral palsy, which usually encompasses a range of physical and sometimes mental disabilities.  Society here is not sympathetic to the disabled, and some of these children have been shunned or hidden away by their own families who are ashamed of them so I was pleased to see that the school is on the same site as the local primary school and very pleased to hear that the children from both schools often play together at break time.  There is little government money for education in general and certainly not much for the disabled, so the facilities I saw were very poor indeed.  There are not enough teachers to provide the specialist teaching these children need – certainly no one-to-one teaching as they have no teaching assistants.  Classrooms were small with basic classroom furniture only and no books or resources that I could see, though it was hard to judge when there were no lessons going on.  Their living accommodation was horrible – overcrowded dormitories with tatty bunk beds (deaf children on the top, cerebral palsy children on the bottom)and no room for them to keep any personal belongings – though again maybe it would look better if there had been children there.  However the staff are well-trained, having a university degree, two years’ teaching experience in a mainstream school and another two years’ training in special needs education before they can be employed in a special school.  The Deputy Head in particular was really dedicated to the children – he lives on the site to provide care for the children out of school hours, and doesn’t even have his own room – he sleeps in a dormitory with the children.   I really admired this level of dedication, especially in a society normally so dismissive of people with disabilities.

The second project in Kenya is a marine conservation project, specifically to do

Rescuing trapped turtle

with sea turtles.  I visited the Turtle Watch Rehabilitation Centre where they take in sick and injured turtles and learned all about the threats to them caused by poaching, getting caught in fishing nets, ingesting plastic, pollution and other man-made problems.  There were two turtles in the rehabilitation tanks – one had a hole in her head caused by a fisherman’s harpoon; he’d either been trying to kill her for her shell or her meat, or just to get rid of her because turtles damage the fishermen’s nets.  I also did a beach patrol to look for nesting turtles and helped to put a turtle caught in a fisherman’s net back into the sea which was quite a satisfying thing to do.  I also spent some time talking to the people who run the project about whether and how they could use the skilled volunteers we send.

I was pleased to find they don’t just want man-power to help with the day-to-day jobs at the centre but want help in areas such as developing their fundraising and marketing strategies including improving their website, using people with managerial skills to streamline their office systems, developing the skills of their staff in how to do presentations to the local community including how to run workshops, developing the educational side of their work, etc.  I was pleased they were so positive about the idea of having skilled volunteers.

This was the longest and most varied trip I have done for people and places.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing so many different places and taking part in so many new experiences.

However the highlight of these trips is always the people I meet – dedicated people in economically poor countries doing their best in difficult circumstances to support others and to improve their local communities.  In South Africa, Swaziland and Kenya, as in the other countries where I have visited our volunteer projects, it was a privilege to meet them.


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