There is a nerd on this plane. He is not reading his book or chatting to the traveller next to him. He isn’t even watching the in-flight move, but is still staring fixedly at the screen above him watching the real time map. OK, I admit it; that nerd was me. I couldn’t help it. I clocked that we were over the Sahara somewhere between Tunis and Algiers and that the temperature was -49 degrees Celsius and this struck me as curious when in a desert – I was hooked. I have always been sent on flights of fantasy when faced with a map and the romance and lyrical qualities of place names. This flight was a good one for that. I was en route from London to Johannesburg for a teachers’ exchange programme with our partner school in Warrenton, near Kimberley, South Africa. So, there I was enjoying the poetry of Bakwang, Lubumbashi, Kitwe and Luanda, rolling the names of Kinshasha, Lobito, Menongue and Bujumbura around the tongue in my silent thoughts, sent into paroxysms of pure joy when above Lilongwe and Cabinda. Yes, I was that nerd. My line manager, whom we liked to call “Grandad” (he may have been called Derek, or Duncan, but we’ll go with Grandad for now), was to join the exchange a few days later so this was a solo travel for the moment. Because of this I felt OK – maybe even good – about my nerdish behaviour; there was no-one to point out my short-comings.
To get to Kimberley I had to change planes in Johannesburg to get a flight there before an hour’s drive to Warrenton, named after Sir Charles Warren who came here in search of diamonds in the late nineteenth century. Boarding the internal flight, the lady at the gate told me I could not take the gun into the cabin on the plane. I opened the case and showed her my guitar, realising that I had returned to the frontier world of sub-Saharan Africa. At Kimberley I am met by the Principal, Mr. Moleme, and Lois, who was to be my host for the visit. Mr Moleme is very round and has no hairs on his arms; Lois is small and smiley. After a few chores in town and lunch we drive the 70km to Warrenton through dry, flat veld, pock-marked by tired-looking, thorny trees.
As my hosts lead me into the staffroom the whole place erupts in high-pitched, tongue-waggling whoops which subside into a harmonised A capella welcome song to a clapped accompaniment and belted-out melody. I am then introduced to each teacher in turn and asked to make a speech. It is a cold night, but the nerd lies awake in bed listening to the night-insects rather than his I-pod. This is a place of sounds.
After powdered instant-coffee-flavoured-drink and a cold shower, I leave for school with Lois at 7a.m. It is an hour’s walk. I am introduced in the assembly. When I had arrived, the courtyard had been a cacophonous rabble of rag-tag students. Then one young teacher, very pretty with long braided hair, suddenly boomed out the first line of a call-and-answer song and instantly the whole school was singing. So they were quiet for the introductions. Then I was to have a meeting with the Senior Management team, which was delayed by a couple of hours while they sorted out a problem: one of the students has been caught breaking into a house and stealing firearms and a DVD player. Finally, they return from the police station and my timetable is arranged. On the agenda for today is an “orientation visit” around the school.
There are thirty classes in the school. Not all of them have their teacher in today, but they are either working quietly or just sitting doing nothing. The playground for the four-year-olds is surrounded in barbed wire. Some windows are half-missing, leaving a lethally-sharp half-pane of broken glass. Some of the classes I visited had friendly welcoming teachers, others were more reserved in their welcome. The school officially has students from 9 to 14 years-old, although many are much older. They do not have birth certificates and often do not actually know their age, but some are clearly way too old for the school. Some of the older ones are practising for a debate. The subject under discussion: Crime does Pay. The student currently behind bars at the police station comes to my mind.
Mr. Moleme has asked me to run some staff training sessions on computer skills. No-one turned up for the first session, so I chat to a student who shows me how to use her spinning-top. Then I find the school secretary to ask if I should go somewhere else now. She lives in Kimberley and commutes for two hours each way. But, she tells me thankfully, she has only been robbed once in the past twenty years.
Lois likes to watch TV. It is all in Zulu or Africaans. One the second night she declares, “I am going out” and disappears for the evening with a friend. The TV is still on and for once it is a programme in English. Lois must have switched it to an English channel before going out. It is a gameshow called “You’re Hired!” – The show that brings down South Africa’s unemployment… Saturday by Saturday. Two contestants battle it out to win this week’s job on offer and you at home get the chance to choose one of these lucky hopefuls… It takes an hour to do this.
On Sunday morning Lois tells me that we are going to church. “What are you going to wear?” she asks me. I am a bit flummoxed. What is required, I wonder? Something smart…. I think… hmm. The conversation went something like this:
“Well… white trousers, black tee-shirt and jacket?” I venture.
“Do they need ironing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let me see.” I go and fetch them for the inspection.
“I think they’re OK.”
With a tut, they are whisked away to be ironed. It is a forty-minute-walk to the church. We pass other churches on the way; some looked just like any other house, others were made of corrugated iron. One was even a marquee. At Lois’ (brick-built) church, people sing as they file in. The singing is fabulous. Hymn-books are used to drum out the rhythm on. There are two lay-preachers. There is a priest, but he has lots of churches to oversee, so this is the norm. Five teenage assistants, in scarlet robes, flank the preachers. After twenty minutes or so of singing and manic handshaking with everybody you could reach, we can finally sit down on the wooden benches. I don’t understand any of the service because it is all in Tswana. Mr. Moleme is here. Lois tells me he hardly ever comes. He offers us a lift home after the service and we stop at a prayer meeting at the house of a recently-deceased church-member. After that we visit a teacher whose youngest son has just lost a leg, drunkenly falling off a moving train. Mr. Moleme says he will call this afternoon and take us game-viewing. He is in a jovial mood and in the car sings along to his favourite country and Western artist, Kenny Rogers. We get to the game park at about three o’clock, only to learn that the game bus only leaves at nine or two, so we can’t get in. But we do detour on the way back, to a private game-ranch. But when the farmer hears Mr. Moleme’s voice on the intercom, he tells him that there is no-one here so he cannot come in. Oh well, at least Grandad was supposed to be arriving the following day.
In the evening, Lois tells me that she never wanted to host this visit. All the teachers at school are gossiping about it and demanding that she share out the presents I must have brought for her.
Walking to school the next day, I nearly bumped into a man. “Sorry, Master” was his reaction. Mr. Moleme asks a teacher to accompany me on this morning’s lesson visits to translate; she complains bitterly. He insists that because of the language barrier, I should be accompanied at all times. As we go to the class room I apologise to the teacher and ask if this is a problem for her. “I must meet with the other teachers,” she tells me and walks out of the class room, leaving me alone with the forty or so children with whom I shared no common language. Time to open the gun case and teach them a few songs. The teacher returns. “I am teaching a numeracy lesson now,” she announces. I don’t understand it, because it is in Tswana. At the end she comes over to me. “Tomorrow you can come and teach them this song about food.” She then sings me a song. “Because I can’t teach them singing.” Next door the numeracy lesson is a call and response style chanting: very “School of Rock”. The teacher translates the lesson on cultural differences I had prepared and was the epitome of helpfulness. And so the visits to classes continued. I notice that when children, even as young as five, finish their work they sit and wait in silence until the teacher calls them over to have their work marked. Then they go back and sit in silence while the rest of the class go through the same process. It crosses my mind that I could get their own back for them by asking the teachers at tonight’s training to sit in silence doing nothing for half an hour…
Mr. Moleme has called the school. He is in Kimberley and can’t find Grandad. He had even waved the sign saying “Grandad” in the faces of all arrivals (that was my idea). It turns out that Mr. Moleme is one day early so had driven one hundred and forty km for nothing. He will have to go back tomorrow.
In the computer suite the machines are brand new and unused. Most staff have never touched a computer before, neither do they want to. Mr. Moleme has insisted that they come and they are grumpy about being kept at school after 2:30. But amazingly, they very quickly became engaged in learning how to use Microsoft Word and Paint, or mostly did. One very short, older teacher, they told me, liked to use his diminutive stature to hide amongst the students in order to avoid work. He sits with his arms and legs splayed outward and appears to be entirely floppy. He will not move the mouse unless I take his hand and move it for him. “I just want to rest,” he complains.
Mr. Moleme called a staff meeting to welcome Grandad the next day. “Please, let us all be here to give him a warm welcome. Please!” he implores the staff. “And I must inform you that attendance at training sessions is part of your contracts. You must attend. Please!”
In class the good-singing teacher from the assembly is using the lateness of children to practise their English. It is a call-and-response conversation.
“Good morning, Learners.”
“Good Morning Miss ____ . How are you today?”
“I am fine and how are you?”
“I am fine. May I join the class?”
She asks me to teach them a song. I am pleased to hear some children singing “No Woman, No Cry” as they are walking off for lunch. I taught other lessons, Literacy and Cultural Studies as well as Music.
Grandad gets a welcome as amazing as the one I had received on arrival. His reaction is to hold his arms aloft, as if he had just scored a goal. He lands on his feet with his host teacher. The house is across the road from a bar and his host, Vince, has arranged a barbeque for all the teachers to welcome him. Grandad has managed to obtain some Bristol City soccer shirts for the school team, which he presents. The teachers all go into a gaggle and are talking frantically. “They are saying that they like the shape of your body!” Lois tells Grandad. They decide to give us African names. Under apartheid, all African children had to have a European Christian name. If you had no idea the authorities simply gave new-borns a European name when they were registered. Now most Africans from those times prefer to use their African names. Grandad tries to get them to call me “the small one”, when he is Christened “Ramoleli” (“the tall one”), but they settle on “Ramino” (“Music Man”). At our official “christening” assembly the next morning a dozen or so staff are sporting their new Bristol City shirts and Lois is immaculately-dressed in a smart suit and wearing a Bristol City scarf as a headscarf, African style. The rest of the staff are complaining that they had not been given any presents. Later in the morning, a plush white BMW pulls into the school yard. It is the Mayor. “Where is my Bristol City shirt? Did you bring me any whisky?” he asks. The Mayor wants to establish a link with our town council. He instructs us to come to the Mayor’s office the next morning to help shoot a promotional video to take back to our town council in support of his bid for linking. In the event he was more interested in the finalising the finer points of detail for the visit he was convinced would now happen in late December. He even phoned our local town hall to get the name of the mayor there and gets me and Grandad to type up a letter which we are charged to deliver upon our return.
Grandad and I were also summoned to a local political meeting where each attendee was to give a speech on what the latest developments were in their organisation concerning the problem of combatting Aids. The school Health Committee, the ANC and a home care organisation were amongst the speakers. Being from a primary school in the rural South West of England we had not really got much to report and tell them that we are here to learn from them. Guest expert speakers are invited into the school to raise awareness and the home care people tell us that people here will not go to clinics to be tested for fear that the lack of confidentiality will mean that the whole community will know if they are HIV positive. Even to be seen going to be tested will be enough to start tongues wagging. The volunteers help with daily tasks such as cooking or cleaning and cold call to ask if anyone in the house is ill or whether the inhabitants are taking their prescribed medication. Teachers are vital in providing information to the workers. If a child vomits at school they will inform the clinic. At school, children known to be HIV positive are given dietary supplements. The last Friday of each month is an Aids awareness day with specialist lessons, speakers, drama groups and the like. At the meeting all agree on sending a stiff joint letter to the hospital complaining about a lack of confidentiality on behalf of the staff. After the meeting Mr. Moleme has rearranged the failed visit to a game park and we were not disappointed this time. He even stood us a takeaway to eat in the car while we all sang along to Kenny Rogers.
There is a printed agenda for the special meeting at school to arrange a send-off for Grandad and I. The items are numbered but they begin the meeting with item number nine, followed by item number five… Tasks are delegated and it is a fantastic send-off. Everybody drank so much that one teacher gashed his head falling out of Lois’ kitchen; another leaves the kitchen for the lounge and then gets lost in the crowd, begging people to help her find her way back to the kitchen; a little old Xhosa woman insists that I should marry her before I leave, while Grandad is under a blanket having a good old grope at the young good-singer teacher who has removed her braided wig for the occasion, but that’s as far as Grandad will go because he is afraid of getting Aids. So, it was a night of no sleep before our return. Grandad is asleep on the plane as we hit the south coast of Britain and the in-flight map has been taken down. No matter, the nerd knows we are now passing over Crapstone, Beer, Staines and Slough. When the two South African teachers pay their return visit to our school, they will think they have landed on the Star Ship Enterprise when they see all the technology and paraphernalia we have in UK establishments. It’s a long way from Warrenton.