Sunday, January 25, 2009

Due South

We’ve been in South Africa since the end of December now, and there is plenty to write about, but let’s first start with where we are.


Our school is in the outskirts of Johannesburg (Jo’burg for short).  It was started about 9 years ago by teachers from Edenvale Baptist Church (Edenvale is the suburb of Joburg).  We have six teachers teaching grades “naught” (or zero - kindergarden) to seven.  Class sizes are about 30 children, and about half of them are boarding here during the week, returning home only during weekends.  During the week, we stay at the school.  Our kitchen is the staff kitchen, our washroom the staff washroom, and our bedroom is adjacent to the boys’ dorm where a set of bars and a thin curtain provides a modicum of privacy. Periodically, kids will ask if they can fetch their ball back from the cow’s field (which also belongs to the school).


What we’re doing here:


Dora: School commenced last Wednesday.  It wasn’t until Monday that most of the students arrived. As we are in a boarding school, many students extend their holiday by skipping the first week of school. She has been teaching the grade 4/5 and grade 6/7 math classes. This week, she’ll start applying all the theory of helping kids with special needs back from university and start assessing students in different classrooms.


Tim: There are a few projects that I will be doing here:

- computer resurrection.  I tested and networked together dust covered Windows 98 machines to enable students to be able to do some computer based learning.

- teacher training on Word and Excel.  There is an amazing amount of unnecessary paperwork and photocopying here. 

- there is a “tuck” shop (“tuck” is an a South African word for odds and ends) we have for students to buy odds and ends (pencils, snacks) but we are tracking it manually.  I am evaluating POS software to help automate this.


Differences between our experience in Ghana and South Africa:



South Africa


A wave

Thumbs up


dry season



Computer school and kindergarden

Grade 0 – 7

Power outages


Monthly (though we had only an hour of power on the second day of school)


Weekly, then needs to be delivered by truck to school

A pump and well


Public markets with individual vendors selling their wares

Shopping malls/grocery stores similar to North America


Goats, chickens, sheep roaming regularly through our school

Bats that come out at dusk

Insect bites

Invisible mites and fleas biting our legs and feet

Mosquitoes keeping us awake with their high pitched buzzing

Living with

Home of Pastor and his wife

At the school during the week, in the city during the weekends.


Beat up left wheel taxis are the most abundant vehicles.  1/30 of vehicles are newer than 5 years old.  Most cars are actually imported from overseas and sold on the second hand market.  I saw a car driving with Colorado plates once.

Right wheel BMWs and Mercs are more popular than Hondas.  About a quarter of the cars appear to be newer than 5 years old


Black church, the only “whites” were the Korean missionaries, our Chinese Pastor and his wife, and us.

White church in the city.  No blacks.





35 degrees

25 degrees


10 minute walk to internet cafe served by a combination of ADSL and a satellite receiver

In the SIM office in the city, and also through a 3G modem elsewhere.






Don’t have pics of school yet, but here’s a picture of a township in Durban.  On the other side of the street was a regular white neighbourhood. Probably the most obvious reminder of apartheid.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Leaving Ghana

On Dec 20, we completed our term in Ghana. The computer school enjoyed a fun/sports day, part of which was a gift giving ceremony where one of the classes gave each of us a Ghanaian smock. The kindergarten also put on a Christmas program complete with a skit of the nativity. This would be the last time we would see most of our students.

Before sunrise the next morning, we left Tamale, the town we called home for the last three months. During this short time, we discovered the generosity of the Ghanaian spirit. Ghanaians make friends quickly and easily. Through a brief encounter, they would exchange phone numbers or email addresses, and a friendship would develop from there. Most will never set foot outside their country so they take the opportunity to discover a cultural exchange. On "Salah" (literally, a Muslim festival) while observing a mass outdoor prayer, we were approached by a mother and her child. After mere minutes of meeting her, she invited us to her home to chat and to share a meal. Although it is common for the locals to ask us for the clothes off our backs, our laptop, and our phones, we realized that this was a way they complement us, and that the request is usually not a serious one. And we do get the occasional awkward request for cash from strangers. There is a certain "no shame in asking" attitude that we needed to get used to.

There is a strong spirit of community that we observed many times in the classroom. In the computer school, our students would help each other in their schoolwork. Sometimes, their assistance would cross the border of cheating, and we had to be quick to correct it. The younger ones in the primary school would share food and water without a minute's hesitation, even if it was their only bottle of water (and this is in a town where there were constant water shortages). Even from a young age, they have embodied the spirit of sharing we are reminded of in the Bible of Elijah being fed by a widow in 1 Kings 17. Their mentality contrasts with the individualism and competitiveness of western culture.

Faith and religion is a strong component of their lives. Evidence of religion is everywhere, from slogans painted on taxi windows to the names of stores. In Tamale, Muslims make up a larger part of the population mainly because children are by default Muslim if their parents are Muslim, while Christians require the more lengthy process of a conversion of the soul.

Ghanaians love music. In school, the students begin the day by singing their local Christian songs. In the primary school, they have a song for everything from marching to their classrooms, to going to the toilet. In church, music would be accompanied by dancing. On cell phones, R&B songs would alert of an incoming call. Many of the dilapidated taxis we sat in were basically a metal hull with an engine, but there'd always be room for an after market deck and some kickin' speakers.

Even though English is the official European language of Ghana, it is still the second language for most. We needed to speak more slowly, using shorter sentences. The vocabulary was different as well: we referred to plastic as rubber, called papayas pawpaw, said "go and come" instead of "return shortly", greeted people properly with "Good morning, how is it?" and responded with "I am fine" instead of "hey, how's it goin'?", "good".

We will miss all these subtleties of African culture, and thank the Ghanaians for their welcoming spirit. We must also thank the staff at CIM (Pastor Philip, Donald, Cassandra, Flora, Teresa) in Vancouver for supporting us, from calling us regularly to make sure we are adjusting well, to bringing back some excess from our travels (particularly cold weather gear which serves no useful purpose in most of Africa), to taking us to see the other CIM projects in Kpandai, a town a day's drive away. And of course Pastor Joshua and Auntie Caterina for their 24hour advice and care for our entire duration in Tamale.

After a few weeks of travel to wait out the Christmas break (photos with captions are here: ), we arrived in the outskirts of Johannesburg at a school for children from nearby squatters' camps and townships. We'll send a separate email update to talk about our experiences in South Africa.
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