Thursday, 31 July 2014


Today we visited with Professor Suellen Shay, Dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town. She shared with us specific information about the nation's (and UCT's) work to improve access to higher education. She estimated that only 16 percent of the university age cohort in South Africa are actually in institutions of higher education and that the drop out rate is 30%. Bachelor's degrees are three year degrees but UCT is moving some students towards a four year degree program. When one of our students asked why so many students do not finish, Dr. Shay said that she believed it was mostly due to financial and academic difficulties but that some of them do not finish because they experience  a sense of disorientation on campus--they do not feel as if they belong. Dr. Shay also said that their higher education system is largely not articulated. This means that if a student takes classes at another institution, those credits do not transfer to another institution. The student would have to start over.She recognized that Eastern Cape schools (where Emafini is located) are largely under-resourced. They now have a set of minimum standards for schools, but it may take 15 years to reach those basic standards (i.e. that every school has running water and enough functioning bathrooms). She also made an important note that explained part of our experience at Emafini. She said that quite often in the township schools, students and teachers left early to catch their transports. So, if a school is supposed to close at 3:00, students might leave at 1:30 to catch the transport and get home before dark. 

When we arrived at Robben Island, we did the tour, half of which was on the bus pictured above. As I watched the tour buses rolling around the island, I thought back to Dr. Shay's comment regarding transport. Transportation symbolizes the old and the new South Africa. Because Black South Africans were relocated to specific lands, they often lived in an area separate from their place of employment. To get to and from work, they had to carry an official pass. Official passes were difficult to obtain, but they came to symbolize one's total identity under apartheid. Because the movement of Black South Africans was so regulated, transportation/movement represents a certain freedom. Today, Black South Africans still struggle with transportation. On the side of the bus pictured above, it says "Driven by freedom." So even though Robben Island was a place of imprisonment for Mandela and others, it also represents, what our tour guide referred to as "the triumph of the human spirit."

I titled this post Rolihlahla--Madiba--46664 so that we do not forget all of who Mandela was. He was not just his prisoner number. He was "Rolihlahla" (pulling the branch of a tree or troublemaker) and he was Madiba (his clan name). Just as he is the symbol of the anti-apartheid movement, so is he just one of many. We heard about Stephen Biko who founded the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa and Walter Sisulu, a member of the ANC (and others). Robben Island is incredibly desolate. This was my third visit and I am still left with a feeling of the loss that it represents. But at the same time, I was struck by how the prison became an educational exchange so much so that our guide says the mantra was "Each one, teach one." The island is also home to two Christian churches, a reminder that religion was ever-present, both liberating and oppressive.

As South Africa continues to struggle with undoing the legacy of apartheid, it is clear that political and economic transformation must be considered simultaneously. The nation is particularly struggling with what have been labeled affirmative action policies. We have watched a short video clip entitled "Are poor white South Africans being left behind" ( and another number of video clips that discuss the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the role of youth in the new South Africa, and leadership in education. Each of these sources touches on the incredibly diverse South African experience. I heard at least six different languages being spoken today and many of the teachers at Emafini speak at least four languages. When South Africans refer to themselves as the rainbow nation, they are quite serious. They are a country marked and connected by their differences.


Nelson Mandela Foundation (n.d.) Retrieved from 

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Farewell PE and Hello Cape Town

We arrived safely in Cape Town this morning! When we arrived at the airport in Port Elizabeth, Mr. January came to see us. He was the former principal of Emafini. During my last visit, he had us over to his house for a barbecue on one day and a traditional Xhosa meal on another day. Although he is retired now, he is still quite interested in the U.S. educational system and wants to visit some of our schools in the U.S. He stressed the importance of finding dedicated teachers who are determined to improve the lives of children. This afternoon, we had a visit at the embassy in Cape Town. Officials there talked with us about the political and economic situation in South Africa. They stressed that South Africa is well developed when compared with other African nations but the country is still working to build its capacity. They also estimated that the country needs about 2 million more houses to move people out of the informal settlements. This could take another 20 years and the government is discussing the need to shift its thinking. Rather than trying to build new houses, they are considering offering people housing subsidies so that they could rent housing. Cape Town is a lively city with people from all over the world. Just today, we had a taxi driver from the Congo and another from Russia. We also met people at the embassy from Texas, Maryland, and Richmond. And, perhaps the shock of the day...we met a staff member at the embassy who recognized Stephanie from high school. They ran track together. What are the odds? In the photo above we are standing beside the soccer stadium and Table Mountain is in the background. Cape Town captures the essence of contradiction in South Africa. The landscapes are stunning, the people are vibrant, yet, according to our embassy officials, South Africa is the nation with the greatest wealth disparity in the world. It has a series of white papers that articulate its commitment to democracy and justice yet everywhere we have been people have discussed the difficulty of translating those ideals into practice. Today at dinner we also talked about the change in leadership at Emafini. Mr. January, the former principal, is Xhosa. The new principal is not. He is, by South African terms, Coloured. This is a new leadership context for the teachers at Emafini who were accustomed to speaking with Mr. January in iseXhosa. I wonder what shall be lost in translation? How will the very nature of teacher-principal interaction shift?

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The journey continues...

On Friday we also visited Lungisa Secondary School. They serve learners in grades 8-12. We met with the principal, two deputy (assistant) principals, and the heads of departments. We discussed the similarities and differences in teaching between our two countries. In particular, we had an interesting discussion about discipline. They indicated their primary form of discipline is talking with the parents. Suspension does exist, but it can only be carried out after discussions with a number of different people. It would be unheard of for a principal to suspend a student without having several extensive conversations with various constituencies. They do not have anything similar to in-school suspension. And, in our conversation, we hesitated to even mention it for fear it would sound like a viable alternative.The school has been vandalized several times and they are still trying to repair several rooms. There is a newly implemented feeding program in the schools and it is helping to keep young people in school. 

In this short video, Katie Snyder reads to a group of 1st graders. At this school, they officially start English instruction in 4th grade. Each school picks its language of instruction. This decision is made with the parents, teachers, and school's governing board. Since South Africa has 11 national languages, students can receive instruction in their home language. But, once a school picks a language of instruction, that is the language the teachers use when teaching. In practice, teachers at our school switch between isiXhosa and English when the students seem to have difficulty understanding the concept in English.

On Saturday we visited Addo Elephant park. It was created in 1931 because there were only 11 elephants left in the region. The park is home to the Big 5 (Elephant, Lions, Rhino, Buffalo, and Leopard). The park now has approximately 600 elephants and sees about 120,000 visitors each year. As we drove to the park (which is about 45 minutes from Port Elizabeth), our guide, Mark, noted the cemeteries and townships along the way. He told us that we would never see multistory accommodations in the townships because many Xhosa believe their homes need to be directly on the ground. He also noted that traditional Xhosa burials are quite elaborate because the Xhosa believe that one must honor one's ancestors. I have not had a chance to verify these statements with our Xhosa teachers and plan to do so when we return to school tomorrow. 
Today we visited with Paul Webb, a professor at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and his wife Pam. Paul has visited UNCW and the Watson College of Education over the last several years. We talked about the similarities and differences between the U.S. and South Africa educational systems and the challenges of each. When I asked if there were many white teachers who go to teach in township schools, Paul stated that they actually had more to do so prior to the end of apartheid. Now, there are very few who do so. When we have posed this question to others, they have speculated that it may be because white teachers do not speak isiXhosa fluently and now schools are obligated to teach children in their home language. But, there does not seem to be a singular reason. The question of language is a critical one because, as Paul indicated, many schools are choosing English as the language of instruction. But, few mainstream teachers in the township schools are prepared to teach it. Adopting English also has profound implications with regard to history, power, and culture. Xhosa children are often having to learn in English before they have learned the same concepts in their home language.

Friday, 25 July 2014


All of the learners in our school are Xhosa. While here, we have heard about a rite of passage (ulwaluko) that Xhosa young men endure. Dold & Cocks (2012) describe the passage from ubukhwenkwe to ubudoda (from boyhood to manhood), the history of this tradition, and the cultural implications of it today. It is a ritual that represents a critical juncture in the identity development of Xhosa boys and the families who surround them. And while several scholars have written about the practice (including some who have critiqued it), it is a necessary journey in Xhosa tradition. As I have considered this tradition, along with others (including the importance of being in relationship to others) for the Xhosa teachers and students with whom we work, I am learning to just be with them in this time and space, to bear witness to their lives from a very difficult outsider perspective. And I do so each day in a school setting that consistently reminds me of the effects of colonialism....from the prayer that began the faculty meeting, to the singing of the Lord's prayer at the school assembly, to the use of English as the language of instruction in grades 4 and above. Today, as we worked with the members of the book club who will compete in a book competition in October, I listened as a young lady summarized her book--Don Quixote. The irony to me was that, somehow, in this place where so many cultures intersect, when we (she, as Xhosa) and me (as African American), would have in common a text like Don Quixote. The teachers have proudly shared that last year's team won the competition. So, when asked if we could assist this year's team in their preparations, I was daunted. What happens if we help and they do not win? The stakes are high and, if I have learned anything about Xhosa culture thus far, it is that we strive, struggle, win, and lose together. 


Dold, T. & Cocks, M. (2012). Voices from the forest: Celebrating nature and culture in Xhosaland. Jacana media (Pty) Ltd.: Auckland Park, South Africa.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

After our time at Emafini today, we visited the loveLife Center ( Funded by Volkswagon, the center houses a number of programs for youth development. Our thanks to Vernon Naidoo for leading the tour. The center does HIV/AIDS education, entrepreneurship education, reading/literacy circles, and sports programs. The center's director, Thembi Kani, was stunning. His passion and commitment to youth development reminded me of the incredible possibilities now open to all of South Africa's youth. Despite the persistent racism that exists, Thembi and others at the center were clearly focused on identifying the possibilities, strategizing, and working towards those possibilities. Literacy was central. They taught choice. Unlike the U.S., where choice has become a widely touted "principle" of democracy in an individualistic sense, choice, at loveLife was about making choices for the collective good and for one's self-protection (specifically tied to HIV/AIDS education). How do we define choice and what is the relationship between choice and democracy? Inherently, choice is about the individual and the collective. But, we do not always perceive it to be such.
Our undergraduate student, Sydney, is pictured here teaching a combined class of a little more than 70 students. The school is missing a teacher and is in the process of trying to hire one. In the meantime, Sydney is teaching them all. We have talked about the challenges of teaching English Language Learners. Much of what the students do in class is recite and copy information off of the board. They typically do not have access to the internet or other resources. This absence of resources has taught us much about creativity and teaching. How, for example, does a teacher differentiate instruction with a chalk board and a set of note cards? It can be done. But we are challenged daily with re-imagining teaching, not making judgments, and squashing our assumptions (particularly about how teachers should be evaluated).

Tuesday, 22 July 2014


Definition: An entrepreneur is somebody with a dream who is willing to take risks...what separates the entrepreneur from the dreamer is that he/she never gives up.

One of our teachers at Emafini Primary school had this definition on the board. It included a list of specific characteristics that define an entrepreneur including motivation, organization, self-disciplined, and reliable. Entrepreneurs are risk takers. Katie Snyder, a social studies teacher, and I had a conversation about what this really means. How does one get defined as entrepreneur? How often does one have to demonstrate entrepreneurial characteristics before people perceive one to be an entrepreneur? Perhaps this happens when a person exhibits these "characteristics" as part of a pattern, a part of the way the person lives and approaches life. Taking one risk does not make me an entrepreneur. Nor does having one dream. But, the definition did remind us that people, of all backgrounds and occupations, can have an entrepreneurial spirit and that the tangible results of this spirit do not necessarily have to be a business product.

At the end of our first day at Emafini, we had a discussion about teaching and learning in South Africa. How do teachers teach creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship? Particularly, how do they teach these characteristics when, during their lived experience, their creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirits have been stifled by an educational system designed to do so for non-white South Africans? So now, at least, children of color are being taught what entrepreneurship is? But, how do they live with this spirit? How do they see this spirit in their loved ones? The contradictions we have read about and are beginning to witness are striking. How does the very educational system that was originally designed to perpetuate inferiority for non-white South Africans and superiority for whites, now become the very system that can liberate? Coombes (2003), in her discussion of public monuments like Robben Island (which we are going to visit next week in Cape Town) talks about the contradictions in South Africa when she says, that public memorials have to "incorporate within it the signs of both the history of total destruction and dehumanization and the triumph of the human spirit over all adversity" (pp.69-70). These contradictions represent the daily tensions in South African society. The teachers and principal who have so graciously welcomed us into their school talk about these tensions/contradictions openly and honestly.


Coombes, A. (2003). Visual culture and public memory in a democratic South Africa: History after Apartheid. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Beginning the Journey

We left Raleigh-Durham International Airport this Sunday morning at 7:05 AM, arrived at JFK (where this picture was taken), and then flew from JFK to Johannesburg. Prior to leaving, we started reading several texts, including Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, The Making of Modern South Africa by Nigel Worden, and History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa by Annie Coombes. Kaffir Boy, perhaps because it is an autobiography, has generated the most intense discussions in class. Mathabane's vivid detail of the vicious racism and discrimination his family endured, his fierce protection of his humanity, and his mother's unwavering faith in education are almost beyond belief. As we embark on this journey, I have asked the students to consider the spirit of the Xhosa people. How have they emerged from apartheid South Africa still hopeful?