Sunday, September 23, 2012

What is the opposite of a lion?

The title of this post is silly and doesn't make sense, right? Right, except it was a question on a standardized test here in South Africa. The correct answer was apparently a lioness, but we suggested answers like wildebeest, springbok, baboon, the list goes on. There are a number of things that confuse me about the education system here that I will hopefully try to personally avoid or explain more explicitly to my learners over the course of my next two years here.

First, students are called learners. That doesn't confuse me, but is just some new terminology (added to a long list of other new words) that has become part of my daily speak. When I was first nominated for English Teaching way back in November of 2011, I was hesitant about accepting it. I have taught English to people in the United States who need it to work and survive, but I have some reservations about going abroad and teaching it to people in other countries. I feel like it's a form of U.S. imperialism, and a way for us as Americans to assert our international dominance or something. Long story short, I'm not that into it. And then I get an invitation from Peace Corps to teach English in South Africa. "But English is one of the country's eleven official languages," I say to myself. "Why would they send me there?"

These are my questions asked in ignorance, before I know much of anything about South Africa and its not so distant past. Backtrack to the period 1948-1994. Apartheid South Africa was (in my opinion) arguably white supremacy at one of its ugliest moments. It was made up of many of the same features as in the United States prior to the Civil Rights Movement with some new twists: separation (but totally not equal, and not even pretending to be) of blacks and whites, forced resettlement, and the tearing apart of families based on how black they were determined to be. During this era, people were classified based on the color of their skin, but more than just black and white. You still have Black and White at the two extremes, but you've also got Chinese, Indian, and the elusive Colored. The "Pencil Test" was one method used to determine race during the Apartheid years. Quoting Wikipedia (which actually explains it pretty well): "The pencil test is a way of assessing whether a person has Afro-textured hair. In the pencil test, a pencil is pushed through the person's hair. How easily it comes out determines whether the person has 'passed' or 'failed' the test." So basically, if the pencil falls out but you're not quite White, you're called Coloured (get ready for British spellings. My computer is telling me I spelled Colored wrong). If it stays in your hair when you lean forward, you're undoubtedly Black. But Blacks and Coloureds can't live together, even if they're actually related by blood. So families are split up because the Afrikaners in power can't bear the thought of people that are not the exact same race living and working and being educated together. (This is turning into kind of a history section, but it will tie back into education, I promise.)

So then we've got crazy statistics of the small percentage of White Afrikaners controlling like ninety percent of the total land and economy, while the overwhelming majority of Black South Africans are forced into settlements in provinces selected by the minority. Last week at my school, a Black female teacher asked me if I knew any Afrikaans. I said no, and that Afrikaans was the hardest of all the greetings we learned for most of the group. "Oh," she responds. "Our generation was taught Afrikaans in school. It was mandatory that everyone knew how to speak it." During this era, Blacks were expected to work in jobs of service to Afrikaners, as housekeepers, drivers, etc. They were kept in subservient roles for decades.

Here's where Peace Corps' objective comes in. These forced subservient roles were a result of the lesser quality education provided to Blacks, otherwise known as Bantu Education. Even though Apartheid was abolished many years ago, there is still a gap in the education provided to those rural, Black South Africans. We are here to fill that gap. The teachers that are teaching now were educated under Bantu Education. Many of them still utilize corporal punishment, despite the fact that it is illegal in South Africa, and may not have all the necessary schooling or qualifications to teach the areas that they are teaching. Our job is to help the learners learn and to help the teachers teach.

Finally, how does English teaching factor into this job? All standardized tests in this country are given in English. But students don't start learning English until around Grade 3… If your reaction right now is "What?! That's ridiculous!" then we're on the same page. They learn bits and pieces and some words here and there in earlier grades, but nothing that prepares them take a full exam in the language, especially one that asks them what the opposite of a lion is. The more I learned about this job at the beginning of our time in country, the more I felt that I couldn't have been invited to serve in a more perfect place. Everyone that knows me knows that Latin America is my thing; that I wanted nothing more than to spend 27 months of my life working there with Peace Corps. But following my mom's favorite phrase "everything happens for a reason," I think I ended up right where I should be.

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