Permit me to share this true-life story with you.
In 2013, the woeful Matric results of high-school students in Maths and Physical Science caught the attention of the Eastern Cape government and they came up with measures to improve students’ performances across the province. It was at a time the department of education introduced the new National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement generally known as the CAPS curriculum.
One of such numerous measures was an education intervention project through which the government awarded contracts to private educational agencies to come to their aid.
One of the private companies that got the contract, Bokam Turning Point, came up with plans to supplement teachers’ efforts. They hired Maths and Physical Science experts from different parts of the country to help out. I was one of those hired that year.
They gathered us in East London to prepare us for the three-month task of teaching students, leading to their Matric exams. The experts were from different parts of Africa. Our first meeting looked like an African Union poverty-alleviation conference. But the only subject matter discussed was improving Maths and Physical Science in the EC.
The job itself wasn’t a highly-rewarding one. Bokam was a profit-driven entity which saw the project as an opportunity to get a huge cut from government largess, despite the humanitarian nature of the project. The need to balance profit-making with achieving the desired goals led to a squabble between Bokam and the hired hands. Some of the so-called experts saw the project as a full-time teaching job and sought to be paid accordingly. Company officials insisted on offering meagre rewards. Eventually, many of the good hands walked away and the few who stayed did so for want of something better to do.
In my case, I joined the project out of curiosity to see what the hinterlands of the Eastern Cape looked like, having been living in Gauteng for long. Monetary inducement wasn’t high on my priority then. More important was the adventurous opportunity it offered.
Apart from that, I loved teaching Maths. I was eager to see how much of an effort I would put into the project to bring about a change in the school – a kind of opportunity to contribute to society.
After the ruckus over wages had settled, the organisers did a three-day induction programme before dispatching us tutors to schools in different parts of the Eastern Cape. I was paired with a Physical Science expert; me being a Maths expert – so they branded me.
One morning early September 2013, myself and my partner arranged for a vehicle to take us to the school allotted to us. As the driver got closer to the school, one thing that came to my attention was the drop in temperature. It got so cold I began to doubt if I could open my mouth to talk. The further we drove, the more the chilly winds drilled into my bones. My lips cracked and I had to rehearse before talking to my colleague, else blood would spill from my lips.
Not only did the temperature drop, most people in the vehicle also discarded English. Being non-Isixhosa speaking, it was a bit of a challenge for me to follow their drift. I ended up getting summarized versions of discussions from my Physical Science expert colleague, who was fluent in the language.
We soon found ourselves in a village school called Buntu High* close to a locality called Centane. The school was located in a wide expanse of land that looked like a desert, and, since it was winter season, the wind blew cold – really ice cold.
The house allocated to us was by no means convenient. I was given a room to share with my colleague in a two-bedroom flat that had pigs sharing the other room with us. The sitting room was open to all, human and animal. I had to walk about three kilometres before getting to the school the next morning. And the Isixhosa-speaking winds didn’t make it an enjoyable experience, despite my status as a talented trekker.
Even when I got into the class to teach the learners, the shock of the new environment made the setting awkward. Everything around me looked strange and it wasn’t just the door-less and windows-free classrooms. For the first time, I met learners who read English well, wrote it well, but couldn’t speak it at all. They all spoke Isixhosa. Since I was expected to teach them in English, I had to adapt, even resorting to sign language which I couldn’t communicate in. However, they were keen to learn from their new Maths teacher. They welcomed me with open arms and I had a good time interacting with them.
After a two-hour session which I thoroughly enjoyed, I left for the staffroom to meet the teachers and we interacted for a while. Back in my university days, I used to enjoy teaching and stuff. But this two-hour session proved a difficult task that sapped not only my energy, but my throat was so dry it felt like the middle of Sahara desert.
“Drink water. You will be fine. I can see you are not used to this.” A Zimbabwean lady offered a glass cup and I quickly gulped it and demanded seven more times.
After seeking permission from the school principal, I returned home before closing time. I got there after an Egypt-to-Israel walk on a road with lots of detours. I was famished on stepping into the flat. I resorted to eating the same bread I had for breakfast. The woman whose responsibility it was to provide us groceries didn’t do so on time, leaving us to feed on bread and Coca-Cola – an unfamiliar combination for me.
I had always considered myself a strong man capable of weathering the storm in any part of South Africa. But this village made me have a rethink of what being strong meant. My colleague, who schooled at Fort Hare University, found the place okay, but for me, the whole thing was a torture.
When it became obvious the village wouldn’t be suitable, I thought of taking a walk from the project. Needless to say, I left Buntu High after just two days of staying there. I returned to our East London head office to lodge complaints.
“I can’t survive that place,” I announced the moment I got to the office.
“What happened?” My supervisor queried.
“It was too cold; I had pigs as neighbours at home; the school is very far; no food to eat; everything looked like punishment. Did I offend you guys in any way?”
“No man.” He laughed. “Don’t make it personal. The project covers rural areas across the province and what you experienced is the same with other tutors.”
I explained that I wanted to help students, but the project mustn’t be presented as a tough job. Despite his explanations, I believed the conditions could be better.
“I couldn’t even laugh for two days that I was there.”
He laughed again and took a second look at me. “So, are you dropping off? You don’t want to be a part of this project anymore?”
“Give me a different school, please.”
He searched for a school whose conditions looked better and signed me on. Actually, he sent me to a school that another Maths tutor rejected, just the way I ran away from Buntu High.
In no time, the Chief Operating Officer of the company took interest in my case. He drove me to Shoprite to pick up groceries, after which we drove all the way to Butterworth from East London. On getting there, the principal of my new school was waiting to receive me.
After pleasantries exchange, the COO, the principal and I enjoyed dinner together at KFC. We had a good time chatting. I guessed the COO was trying to prepare my mind for the oddities of the new school where I would be posted.
“Are you sure this man would stay with us?” the principal asked the COO, after he sized me up, observing my huge frame and chubby looks.
“I will,” I answered to assure him. I knew I couldn’t change schools at will. Moreover, in my imagination, no other school could be worse than Buntu High.
“Please stay with our school. We need your service,” he pleaded as we drove us to his school. “Just yesterday, Joseph ran away.”
I was worried to hear that the previous tutor absconded. But I kept my concerns to myself.
“Have you lived in the villages before? Or are you more of the city type?” he asked to know more about me.
“I grew up in the city, but I’ve been to the village before.” Well, had I not? Buntu High was located in a proper village, I recalled.
We drove for hours as he tried to assuage my fears. His fatherly talks prepared me for any eventuality in the new school. Also, the long road we journeyed through wouldn’t allow for one to think of running away, perhaps. I would have to think twice before getting back to Butterworth, let alone East London. The journey was made to feel like I was on my way to Morocco after the next turning!
“I will stay,” I said to the principal again, assuring myself. But should the conditions be inhumane, I made my mind up to skip returning to East London, but to head straight to Johannesburg. Luckily, buses operated everywhere.
We got to the school, Ngwelane High and I observed the village wasn’t too different from the last one. The weather was equally very cold and the setting was rural. They gave me a rondavel, a hut, where cattle were my neighbours and local hens greeted me with Molo every morning.
Let me say the encounters I had for the two months I stayed there changed my perception of life in South Africa. Life in the glitz and glamour of Jo’burg contrasted with the slow pace of things here. The problems I encountered from the students, teachers, environment, school authorities and even my neighbours were so daunting I might not be able to write them all here.
But the effort I put in was worth it after all. One morning, early January 2014, the principal called to congratulate me. “You made our school proud. For the first time in our history, we had 78 percent pass rate in Maths. The students are happy. Everyone is pleased. You did a wonderful job,” he stated on the phone with glee.
That piece of news brought tears to my eyes. Tears of joy. Tears of reminders of the sacrifices I made in the locality where I struggled to adapt; a locality where I learnt lessons about life in a way I never did before; a locality that altered my worldview once and for all.
Instead of boring you with the details, I’ve published a novel highlighting the sweet, sour, painful, tortuous and regrettable things that happened to me in the Ngwelane High.
Dear readers, grab a copy of the novel titled “The Valentine Frenzy.” It’s a fictionalized version of my stay there. What an entertaining and nerve-racking story it is. I will give you a teaser chapter soon. Do enjoy lovely days ahead.