Volunteering in Cape TownCape Town, Spring 2012

The opportunity to volunteer abroad was one of the major reasons why I chose to study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa this semester. After working several jobs during the semester and doing internships during the summer, I wanted to try something new and different. I have always been interested in the issues surrounding development in developing countries. Since the IES program offered uncomplicated class credit transfer back to my home university, the chance to take politics courses at the University of Cape Town, and the opportunity to participate in community service throughout the semester, my choice to study there was made easy.

Throughout the semester, in addition to our 3-4 UCT classes, all of us IES students were required to take a course through IES. There were two classes offered this semester; one was called Health and Community Development in South Africa, the other was called Social and Economic Development in South Africa. These classes were unique and offered us an opportunity to do more hands-on work through community service and field research projects. We were required to both volunteer and participate in our service learning project.

My next two blogs will be a little bit different from my past blogs in that they will consist mostly of excerpts from the journal I kept throughout the semester. I will be talking about SHAWCO in this post and the service learning project in my next one.



SHAWCO is the volunteering program we were required to participate in as IES students. We had a choice of either doing SHAWCO Health or SHAWCO Education. The Health students volunteered at mobile clinics in some of the poorest parts of Cape Town. The Education students volunteered in township schools throughout Cape Town. I chose to do SHAWCO Education; here are some of my thoughts from the semester:


Entry #1: Training Day (February, 2012)

Today in the training session we met our project leaders, went over the basics of how to run a classroom, picked grade levels we wanted to teach, and signed up for our designated days of the week. I will be teaching Mathematics on Mondays and English/Literacy on Tuesdays. They also throw in lessons on “Life Orientation,” which is essentially a random smattering of lessons on everything from HIV/AIDS to the human body to wild animals. The idea is that it will prepare them with lessons they might not learn in a classroom on a regular basis. I am very excited for this experience. I signed up to teach the 4th graders in the KenSTEP Program… this should be interesting! KenSTEP is a program run in Kensington, which is a township of Cape Town. It is an after school program, where kids come from several different elementary schools in the surrounding area to participate in SHAWCO.


Entry #2: And so it begins… (February 2012)

On Monday we made nametags and did a couple of fun activities to get to know each other. They all seem like really sweet kids, though the do get excited easily, so I can tell they might be a little wild at times. I was surprised to learn that most of them speak English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa. Jade even speaks French in addition to these three languages. Between speaking to their families, friends, and teachers they use all of these every day, which I found very impressive. I can only say that I have a very rudimentary knowledge of Spanish and Mandarin Chinese after taking several courses in both high school and college. (Shame on me I guess!) When they asked to learn how to say something in Chinese, I taught them how to say “I love you,” as I figured it would be something nice and easy to say to their parents when they got home.

When I came back on Tuesday I had seven little 8-year-olds waiting at the door for me jumping up and down yelling, “Wo hai ni!” It was pretty darn cute. They were very surprised to see me the next day, as most volunteers only do one day per week. But I am excited that I will be getting to know them a little bit more. On Tuesday we did very similar exercises in getting to know each other and breaking the ice, as the new volunteers had not met the kids yet. After this, we started into a math lesson. I was also surprised to learn that many of them enjoy math; I had never seen so many kids identify math as their favorite subject.


Entry #3: Updates! (March 2012)

The kids are becoming more comfortable with me and I am really having a lot of fun with the class. However, I have noticed that discipline is an issue with them sometimes. I find that they are either really well behaved or really poorly behaved. When I asked my project leader why this might be she explained to me that these kids from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some come from really poor areas of the Cape Flats and some come from fairly nice townships closer to the city. She told me that while some might attend low-income, poorly supplied schools others attend fairly nice ones…

We are making a lot of progress in terms of academics. We have already gotten through several chapters of math, literacy, and life orientation. I am really happy with this. These past few weeks we have actually had three tutors in just our class. This is really nice in terms of the classroom dynamics. This allows us to split up the kids that get rowdy when they are together and work on a very intimate level with either two or three of them. This has been most enjoyable, not to mention it allows us to get further in the lessons when there is less energy spent quelling the mayhem that sometimes ensues.

And though I know this is not about me, I couldn’t help but feel so proud when Cameron finally got down fractions. It had taken her several classes to grasp the concept, but on one Tuesday it just clicked for her; it was like a light bulb had been turned on. Seeing the big smile on her face as I checked her answers and reported back that they were all correct made my heart melt a bit. It was a really great moment in the classroom for both of us.

I also enjoy reading with the kids a great deal. They love to read out loud and share the stories with me. It is so interesting for me to read some of these children’s books, as they are very different from the types of stories that I grew up with. I can’t help but be intrigued by some of the story lines that are clearly a result of our cultural differences. For instance, one of the books we read was called “The Bride That Had Nothing.” It is a story about how a bride’s father would not let her marry a man until she had the right amount of beads, baskets, cattle, etc. to present to her husband’s family. When she finally had enough, her father let her go and sent her with a couple of men to be her guides. The men wind up stealing everything from her and leaving her midway through her journey. When she arrives at her new husband’s house with nothing she is ashamed, but her new family still welcomes her with open arms regardless of the fact that she did not have any gifts to present to them. While the “those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind” overall moral of the story might be the same across our cultures, Dr. Seuss would have told the story in a very different way. This was all extremely fascinating to me.


Entry #4: More updates (April 2012)

While we seem to be making baby steps of progress in the discipline area, there is still a lot of teasing that goes on between the children. My guess is because they all come from different schools, communities, and backgrounds. Actually, one incident in particular kind of stuck with me; it puzzled me quite a bit. One Monday, when I was all alone (attendance tends to wane among the volunteers as the semester goes on), I turned my back for two minutes to help Matthew with a math problem and the next minute, I turn around to find Cameron crying. When I asked her what was wrong she wouldn’t respond to me. When I saw two of the other girls snickering across the room I asked if they knew why she was crying. Their simple response: “Because we were making fun of her.” When I asked them why they would such a thing they answered plainly, “Because she’s coloured.”

This happened about a week ago and I still can’t fully wrap my head around why they would do this. It makes me question if there are still some built-in tensions between black and coloured communities even today because of the racial designations and segregation that their families must have encountered under the apartheid state. It seems possible that these tensions might be passed along to these kids through parents and family members. I guess I hadn’t really thought about the racial tensions that might exist between groups that were all designated as “non-white” under the NP government. It was very perplexing.

On a lighter note, one thing that made me smile at the end of that Tuesday was when Marisca presented me with a piece of paper folded into some origami-type shape with the message “Read me!” printed on the front. On the inside was a picture of me as a red head with the words “I love you, Miss” neatly printed in her best handwriting. It was really sweet of her to make me something during her time to color. This was a nice reminder that they really are sweet kids, they just might be brought up in very different environments than what I am used to.

Yes, my shirt does say, “I love Rock n’ Roll.”


Entry #5: Final Reflections (May 2012)

I have enjoyed spending time with the kids very much. Though they drive me nuts sometimes, they really are sweet. They all have so much potential. Sometimes, however, I just can’t help but think about how behind they are compared to fourth graders in the U.S. Believe me, I am not one that believes the U.S. education system is perfect model that all nations should attempt to replicate; it, too, has problems that are in need of solving. But I when I was in fourth grade, I was doing long division math and reading the 500-page Harry Potter chapter books without the aid of a teacher. And mind you, I was a very average, middle-of-the-road student; most of the other students were much smarter than me in my elementary school classes.

It just puzzles me that they struggle so much with the very basics. They struggle with fractions, simple multiplication, and identifying polygons. They struggle to read a 15-page storybook with 20-point font and pictures that take up half of the page without asking me what every other word means. While, obviously, this is no fault of their own, it does show that the South African education system seems to be doing a disservice to many of these children. When I find myself becoming frustrated I have to remind myself to take a step back and realize that it is the system at is keeping them behind, not any lack of intellect on their part.

The thing that proves to be most challenging in the classroom is the fact that the children are not all on this level. This is the probably the average in the class. While on the other hand, there are kids that are way more advanced and some that are even further behind the average. It all kind of made me realize that it is largely based on where they are from and what kind of resources their primary schools have access to. While Nadine is often done before everyone else and bored with the simple math we are doing, Cameron becomes so frustrated with not being able to understand the material that she gives up. As I got to know the kids a bit more, I learned that while Nadine is from the fairly nice township of Kensington in Cape Town, Cameron is from a fairly poor area of the Cape Flats, Mitchell’s Plain to be exact. While Nadine’s school is likely to have better teachers and access to more learning materials, Cameron’s school is not.

This all kind of made me come to the realization that many of the contemporary social and educational problems that exist today are a product of the injustices of the past. Access to resources, education, and wealth are all connected back to where you live and where your family is from. For many of these children, their parents were victims of the forced removals and socio-economic injustices that characterized apartheid. These setbacks will continue to affect their families for generations to come. It is a vicious cycle that I often become frustrated with. I can’t even imagine how their families must feel, as I myself find my temperature boiling over these things that I see in society and have no power to change.

But I digress… regardless of sometimes feeling helpless within the institution, I am still glad that I had the opportunity to work with these kids on an individual basis and help them take the baby steps necessary to catch up to their fellow classmates. I never expected to make a drastic change in the children’s learning, as that would take far longer than one single semester, but I am pleased to see even just slight improvements. Just getting to know them on a personal level, helping them better understand simple concepts, and being able to give them the attention that they might not otherwise get at home made me feel like my volunteering with SHAWCO was worthwhile. This has had an enormous positive effect on my study abroad experience.

Last day with my fourth grade SHAWCO class in Kensington.

And I am fairly confident that the kids had a positive experience as well. They all seemed sad to see me go, though they didn’t fully understand why I couldn’t just bring my family to Cape Town and stay for another semester. I couldn’t help but laugh when Anastasia responded with a “BUT WHYYYY?!” when I explained that I must go back to America.

On our last day of class, we decided to give the kids a break. They had worked hard all semester, so we did arts and crafts and played outside. I also brought the kids little gift bags to say goodbye and thank them for a wonderful semester. They also made me several going away cards and notes. Some even drew me pictures to remember them by. I was really happy to see that they will miss me as well. It was really adorable; I have no other word to describe it. But alas, they will have another teacher next semester and, I’m sure, become just as attached to them. I just hope that teacher knows what they are in for!

I will never forget all of their personalities and what I learned from them during my time volunteering with SHAWCO. They will always be special to me and I am glad I will have this journal to look back and remember both the frustrating and exciting moments from the semester.

Bye bye SHAWCO! I will surely miss the Kensington KenSTEP program and my enthusiastic little fourth grade class!

And that concludes my SHAWCO reflections from the semester. My next post will be journal entries from my experience in the Egoli informal settlement, which was part of my service learning project.

- Rachael

Be Sociable, Share!
If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!
Tagged as: , , , ,

You May also like:

Leave a Response

Please note: comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.