Trustee Emily Hogge spent 16 months on the ground in South Africa. She provided monthly despatches exploring the impact our work was having on local communities in KwaZulu Natal and Cape Town. Her previous reports can be found here. This report is a reflection on her time in South Africa.
My 16 months in Ingwavuma, teaching at Khethani and looking after our Zoe Trust kids, was the most enriching time of my life so far. It is a tough place to live and every day I was continually amazed by the challenges that the local people face whether with water, food, illness or safety. When you live in a community where so many people die, where there is a constant stream of hospital trips and funerals you appreciate how incredibly lucky you are to be alive. During my time in Ingwavuma people were gunned down, died of diabetes, children went missing, teenagers stabbed with glass bottles on the road, and young children killed by taxis. Every day that all our children and staff arrived at school we were thankful not just that they had come to school but that they were alive. I also realised how lucky we are in the western world to have access to clean running water and electricity. How easy it is to work when you have high tech printers, constant light, heating and air conditioning and how hard it is to work when you don’t.
During my time in Ingwavuma I learnt a lot about teaching, especially cross-cultural teaching. When I started on the
journey I believed I had the answer: child-led learning was the way forward. I thought that if I put in place everything I had learnt in England everything would be perfect and Khethani would be transformed. I very quickly realised there is no best fit, no correct way to do it. I came to realise that it was no good creating inquisitive, questioning and explorative children if they were going to get into trouble with other teachers and at home for their new found confidence. Instead I had to adapt my teaching so that I was encouraging them to lead their learning within their cultural boundaries. For example I taught my children that within my classroom they had the freedom to equip themselves for learning whether that was going to the toilet, getting a drink, finding a piece of stationary or asking someone for help. However it was key they understood that when another teacher was in the room or when they were in a different classroom they must follow the normal Zulu practices, and ask permission to leave their seat. I still believe that child-led learning is the way forward, but I now understand that it must be adapted to meet the cultural and societal needs of the children.
In addition I struggled to empower older learners to lead their own learning with a number of failed ‘Big Question’ attempts. Following the guidance of the School in the Cloud movement I set the Grade 7 class two big questions which they had to answer as a group using the internet, books and their own knowledge. I waited patiently for the children to excitingly engage, but it never happened. Instead the children were confused, despondent and disinterested. I quickly realised that they did not have the skills needed to lead their own learning. The natural leaders, questioners and organisers seen in a typical UK classroom had been squashed and instead the class consisted of six children who were waiting for instructions and guidance. This was an important learning curve for me as I realised the importance of teaching children the skills they need to access the world around them. Children in the UK are taught from an early age skills such as questioning, analysing, evaluating, summarizing and arguing. These skills are embedded within their characters so that throughout their lives they can access any learning that they face. This is critical in creating an active and progressive learner for life. Over time the Khethani children’s ability to lead their learning did improve. However, as with anything, it is much harder to teach these skills later in life. This experience cemented in my mind the need to focus on teaching children the skills they need to direct their own learning rather than focus on teaching knowledge with skills as a side note.
I also learned that there are significant cultural differences in the way that people communicate. When you are in a meeting with a Zulu person they leave long pauses for thought and they repeat the main points over and over meaning that a short teacher parent meeting can take more than an hour. I had to work hard to be patient, calm and understanding. Although I have never really got used to the slow pace I did enjoy the peace, calm and thoughtfulness of these meetings.
Of course I miss Ingwavuma already. There are admittedly aspects I don’t miss: the dust, being proposed to in the local supermarket, lack of personal space, the abuse of women and children. However there are many more things that I do miss: the community atmosphere, the singing, the food, people greeting me in the street, Zulu hugs, the outdoors, the slow pace of life and above all the unique and beautiful smiles of each of our children. The greatest privilege over the past 16 months has been watching our children grow, holding their hands through the tough days, putting in place firm boundaries when needed and providing a constant supply of hugs. It has been a long journey, gaining their trust, becoming a third parent and then slowly stepping away so that they can continue developing now I am gone. I have learnt a lot about attachment, parenting and relationships. I have made mistakes and learnt hard lessons but I am extremely proud of the relationships I now have with all 11 of our children in Ingwavuma. Our children are thriving, they are exceeding our expectations and pushing themselves beyond their limits.
Throughout my time in Ingwavuma I felt privileged to represent the Zoe Trust, to develop the work the trust has done over the past ten years, to pass on messages of love and support and to instill our values of perseverance and love in our children. Each child knows they are loved by the Zoe Trust family, they understand that they are accountable and they work hard to make their sponsors proud. Personally I am looking forward to putting the teaching practices and lessons I have learnt into practice in a UK classroom as I continue to adapt and develop my knowledge of education to help children and teachers wherever they are learning.