South Africa Learning Reflections, Pt. 2: A Study in Contrasts

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“Once we entered the first preschool my assumptions were disproven and I continued to be proven wrong as we entered other sites.”


This summer, professors Lenette Azzi-Lessing and Bobbi Rosenquest led a group of students on a service-learning trip to South Africa. Prof. Azzi-Lessing agreed to chronicle their travels for us, and we’ll be sharing her writing with you in this three-part series. Thanks so much for the opportunity to see South Africa through your words and pictures!

Read Part One | Read Part Three

After bidding farewell to Linky, Toby, and Charlie in Lilydale, we flew to East London on the eastern shore of South Africa. In contrast to the bush country we had just left, East London is a densely populated city ringed by manufacturing plants and other industries. Like so much of South Africa, it is a study in contrasts, with elegant restaurants and guest houses lining its magnificent beaches on the Indian Ocean, and inside its center, Duncan Village, a large township where thousands of people live in tiny houses and shacks.

Bobbi and I had been to East London a number of times, as it is the site of a second, much larger partnership in which Wheelock is engaged.  Along with Boston-based South Africa Partners, we are working with community-based organizations and the University Fort Hare (UFH) to help build the region’s capacity for supporting high quality services for vulnerable children from newborn to age six and their families.  For the past three years, Bobbi and I, along with Dean Linda Davis and her staff at Wheelock’s Center for International Programs and Partnerships (CIPP), have been working with our partners towards this important goal. In the process, we have developed productive, enjoyable relationships with members of the UFH faculty, leaders of community-based organizations, and the principals and teachers at a number of early childhood centres in Duncan Village Township. We always look forward to bringing students on the Wheelock trip to East London and introducing them to our many friends and colleagues there.

We visited the university on our first full day in East London.  After exchanging hugs and introducing our students to our colleagues on the university’s Faculty of Education, we were introduced to members of their student council – an engaging group of young leaders. After enjoying a delicious South African lunch together, Bobbi and I headed to a meeting with our faculty colleagues, while the UFH student council members took our Wheelock students on a tour of the university and its surrounding community. Both groups of students connected easily, with the Wheelock contingent christened “the visitors from Obamaland” and enduring questions regarding Donald Trump’s presidential bid from their UFH counterparts. As the tour ended, the students exchanged emails and social media information and discussed possibly reuniting for a trip to the beach on the upcoming Sunday.

In our conversations that evening, it was clear that the time spent with the UFH students would be among the most memorable highlights of the trip. Our students admired the pride in their university – a historically black institution that counts Nelson Mandela among its alumni – that their new friends demonstrated. They were impressed with UFH’s beautifully equipped mock courtroom and other amenities, especially given the neglect that black universities suffered under decades of apartheid.  The Wheelock students were also struck by how much their UFH counterparts appreciated the privilege of participating in higher education – a sharp contrast to how they and many of their American peers often take attending college for granted.

Much of the remainder of our five days in East London were spent in eight early care and education centres in Duncan Village Township. These centres are part of our partnership for building capacity for high quality early childhood services. They were selected by South Africa Partners and its sister agency in East London, Masibumbane Development Organization (MDO), as demonstration sites for making improvements in the center’s physical structures, learning materials, and most important of all, the expertise of their teachers and principals. Bobbi and I have spent a significant amount of time in the eight centres, getting to know the staff members and each center’s resources and needs, as well as bringing in new learning materials and demonstrating their use with young children.

Bobbi prepares each group of students on the South Africa trip to work with the teachers and principals in a collaborative and respectful way as they engage the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in learning activities. However, nothing can fully prepare students for the sharp contrasts between the challenges faced by centres in the township and even the most disadvantaged early childhood centers in the U.S.  As one Wheelock student reflected after the trip:

Driving through Duncan Village on our first day was a shock. The poverty does not compare to anything that I have seen before.  As we drove to the first preschool site, I was very apprehensive about what the experience would be like. My previous experience in working with preschools that are considered to be in lower income communities shaped my expectations for the preschools we would be working with in South Africa. I thought that the centers would have very few materials for the kids, resulting in few ways for children to get their energy out. I also expected the teachers to be burnt out due to a lack of support and having to find ways to keep the children occupied. I was also nervous that entering into and working in the preschool classrooms would offend the teachers.

She was not alone in her concerns. The busted streets and ubiquitous razor wire that surround the shacks and buildings-many made of sheets of corrugated metal and random pieces of wood- easily lead to such assumptions. Many centres have to make do without running water or plumbing and buildings that are often uncomfortably hot in the summer and too cold even in the relatively mild South African winter. A few of them have little in the way of books, toys and other materials for helping young children develop optimally. However, the principals and teachers are extremely resourceful and take full advantage of the support and resources available from their participation in the partnership. As that same student discovered:

Once we entered the first preschool my assumptions were disproven and I continued to be proven wrong as we entered other sites. My biggest misconception was what the teachers would be like. All of the teachers we worked with were amazing with their students and it was inspiring to see. They were constantly engaging and encouraging the children. The teachers were very supportive in helping us present our materials to the children. They seemed very appreciative and excited to have us in their classroom. It was clear to see that the teachers and principals were proud of their schools and did not let their lack of resources prevent them from striving to provide high quality care.

Our work with the centres is facilitated by staff members from MDO. Alletta Ngangani and Nomfundiso Rafuza introduce each group of Wheelock students to the teachers and principals of the eight centres, sometimes translating from the local tribal language of Xhosa. The level of trust and respect between Alletta and Nomfundiso and the teachers and principals has been central to the welcome we receive when visiting the centres. Although our students enter each centre as strangers, learning, singing, and laughter comprise a universal language. Our time there was filled with all of these elements as our students, the teachers, and principals engaged in sharing of expertise and mutual learning. Besides observing these interactions, Bobbi and I enjoyed reconnecting with our friends and colleagues who welcomed us back to their centres and catching up with Alletta and Nomfundiso.

Although our stay included visiting stunning Nahoon Beach and getting up close with ostriches, zebras, giraffes, rhinos, and more at Inkenkwezi Game Reserve, Bobbi and I have no doubt that the time spent at the eight centers is the aspect of our East London stop that will remain with our students throughout their careers. These were days full of singing, rhyming, counting and storytelling –in Xhosa as well as in English-and dancing and laughing with young children and their teachers.  And just as it was up in Lilydale with the high schoolers, the learning here was mutual, respectful, and for the most part, filled with joy.

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