By Brielle Powers
The first time I volunteered as a tutor with TeachOut, it was my first time going to a South African township. I should mention that the night before my first tutoring session, I had also just spent the night in Camps Bay, one of the nicest (and wealthiest) beachside neighborhoods in Cape Town. A girl on my program was celebrating her birthday so we all decided to rent an Airbnb for the occasion. Since the exchange rate is about 14 South African Rand to 1 U.S. Dollar, it seemed like a steal for us to be able to stay in a beachside mansion for a night.
I mention this because it was the first time I was confronted with the gross inequality in South Africa. Despite having just spent the night in a beautiful extravagantly furnished home (did I mention it had a full pool?...amid the water crisis...AND heat?...a true rarity in cool Cape Town winters), the next morning I was on a minibus to Khayelitsha, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
From what I had read before coming to Cape Town (and imagined from Trevor Noah’s accounts) I thought I had known what to expect entering a township. However, per usual, my expectations were off.
I pictured the townships as fenced-off, secluded communities away from the city. But as soon as I flew into Cape Town International and drove away from the airport, I realized this wasn’t true. In Cape Town, you can literally happen upon a township by taking a few wrong turns. There are fences (twenty year old remnants of apartheid) but they’re broken down, panels missing, giving the inquisitive passenger driving by a peek into a mini city.
There aren’t many of what an average American would call “homes” in the townships. They’re more like shacks, rectangular buildings held together by pieces of scrap metal and wood. Some with additional rooms added on, some stacked on top of others, some closed off with barbed wire fences. As we drive further in toward the school, we pass barber shops, food stands, braai (which is barbeque in Afrikaans) grills, and preschools. Goats and stray dogs mill around, digging through the trash on the side of the road.
Our tutoring sessions start early, around 9:00 am and despite it being Saturday, the streets in Khayelitsha are always busy with people milling around, kids running and chasing after each other, shop owners attending to their customers or rearranging their products. Once we get to the high school, we can usually see all the students in their uniforms hanging out before classes. My favorite thing about Khayelitsha is the strong sense of community you feel even just driving through it.
On the first day, I decided to tutor the English classes (as I haven’t taken a single math class since junior year of high school) and we split the students up into Grade 8 and Grade 9 sessions. Myself, along with another new tutor, took Grade 8 students first. When I walked into the classroom, I was first shocked by how many students were there. Though there were maybe only 10 or 15, it was crazy to me that high schoolers would willingly come to school on Saturday mornings just for extra math and English practice.
I remember once in high school when we had had too many snowdays and the superintendent was considering making us go to class on Saturdays to make up for the lost time. Everyone rebelled. Looking back, education is just another thing I’ve taken for granted my entire life, something I’ve seen as more of a chore or obligation rather than as an opportunity. Yet these students welcomed an extra chance to learn.
Our lesson plan for the day focused around sentence structure and identifying things like the subject, predicate, direct object, etc. Some of the kids seemed familiar with this already, so we took the opportunity to quiz them as a review. They were a little hesitant to participate at first, but I attributed that to typical high schoolers being “too cool” to be a teacher’s pet. However, it could also have been that they couldn’t really understand my accent when I asked a question.
One thing I’ve learned is that there is no one “South African accent.” In a country with over eleven official languages, a defined accent just doesn’t exist. However, most South Africans are taught British English and thus have very different pronunciations than Americans. To these students, who mainly speak isiXhosa at home and only learn English in school, my American accent was funny, something some of them only hear watching shows on TV. Although I enjoyed making them giggle and smirk, I instantly became aware of my foreignness, my whiteness, my alienation.
At this point, my biggest challenge as a tutor is making connections with the students. I think this stems primarily from language. It’s hard to feel like you are making a difference when you are not entirely sure the dozens of eyes looking up at you understand what you are saying. There are some tutors with TeachOut who live in Khayelitsha, who know isiXhosa, and who can show them that, yes, one day you too can go to one of the top universities in Africa. But for someone like me, who’s had a vastly different background, it’s difficult to find things in common.
In the next few tutoring sessions, I hope to work on this challenge a little bit more. By just putting in more effort to get to know the students better, to learn their names (and how to pronounce them correctly), and to learn where I can best help them academically I think I will have a much greater impact.