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Culture, Reality

The Bard in Baleni

by Rob Scher / Images by Jason Hartford / 18.02.2013

“Sweets! Sweeeets!” It’s an echoing chorus that accompanies us as we bump along the dirt roads in our condition-inappropriate rental car. Traversing endless foothills, narrowly avoiding potholes whilst passing sparsely clustered mud huts, there’s no mistaking the Transkei landscape. Excitable children gather like zombies at the sight of our car, demanding their candied brains. The Transkei truly is another country.

Rain has left the roads a muddy torment and with every knock the car’s chassis takes, Chris Harrison gets more on edge. Apart from driver, Chris is the reason we find ourselves partially lost in the middle of the Amapisa area of the Transkei with night rapidly approaching. He’s brought us here to teach local Matric students maths, science and whatever else we can fit into a week’s revision workshop. “Everyone, get out the car!” Chris yells as we find ourselves mounted on another mud bank. Chris likes things done right. It’s this intense passion that makes it possible for him to bring university students and graduates to the middle of the Transkei three times a year to teach Matric students.

The first trip took place in 2009, while Chris was still at WITS. The ‘Igqangi Project’, Xhosa for ‘evening star’ is what emerged. The project was conceived following his first visit to the Wild Coast region, where he immediately fell in love with the area and its people. Through a connection made with local NGO, Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC), he came to better understand the serious issues facing the community and its learners. The Mbizana district in particular being one of the worst performing Matric result regions in the country. This knowledge, combined with years worth of tutoring experience and a strong motivation, led Chris to begin his initiative.

We’re running late as we approach Baleni Secondary School, our home for the next week. Mr Msabane, the school principal, greets us with a big smile as we enter the grounds. “You’re late,” he chides. It seems headmasters are the same everywhere. There’s a general level of excitement cued by our arrival. It’s hard not to feel intimidated as a class packed with around 60 learners jump up from their seats in unison as you enter a classroom. It’s my first impression of the incredible discipline and commitment of these students. 8am on a Monday morning, during their winter holidays, and this is an optional workshop.

Chris begins with calculus. Theoretically maths is a code that can be understood beyond the language barriers, but the lack of a common tongue only makes it more difficult. The learners sit two to a desk as they soak in the knowledge imparted by “Teacher Chris” during the introductory lesson. “Any questions?” He asks hopefully at the end of his lesson, knowing most of the students will be too shy on the first day. The lesson is a small facet of the workshop and we spend the rest of the day individually helping students as they work through past exam questions. Even still, more often than not, there’s difficulty in communication. Unfortunately, this time around, none of the tutors speak Xhosa, Chris aims to change this in the future.

“There are enough education problems in the Western Cape, why don’t you run workshops there?” It’s a question Igqangi faces often. Chris points out that if everyone only helped in the area they lived in, who would assist students in a place like Baleni? Still without electricity or tarred roads, this area has had more than its share of being ‘overlooked’.

I step out of the class during a dull trigonometry lesson. Mr Msabane walks by and calls me over for a chat – I’m still, forever, being caught skipping class.
“So you’re the politician?” He asks.
“I studied politics at university, if it taught me anything it’s that I’m far from a politician.” I respond.
Laughing, Mr Msabane explains to me what he sees as the major challenges facing his school. Curriculum issues, lack of resources and teachers – no surprises there. Apart from the obvious issues present in Baleni, he tells me how he believes the greatest need is for more adequate skills development. He tells me his dream is to build a skills training center next to the school. From his mouth, to government’s ear, I pray.

Later in the week I’m lying dead on a desk in front of a hysterical class – the overwhelming task of conveying the gist of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet leading me to such drastic measures as re-enacting the final scene. It’s been a surreal experience teaching the Bard in Baleni. Whilst there’s a certain level of universality to the play, it does raise some serious questions regarding standardised curriculum choice. Later, we discuss a short story involving a date at a restaurant. There’s no electricity in the Baleni area, let alone restaurants. Having to learn and understand content so far removed from daily experience really hits home.

Leaving is always hard. There’s still so much to do, but promises of ‘see you soon’ are made – they’re not empty. Chris will return, no matter the difficulties he encounters organising each trip. Often asked why he started Igqangi, his answer is simple. “I just found it strange that University students, who had such a valuable set of skills were not already giving of their time to such an initiative.”

It’s easy to get disheartened. The challenges facing the learners of Baleni represent a mere drop in the ocean of problems facing education countrywide. But it’s important to be hopeful. Baleni’s 2012 matric pass rate went up from 56,4% to 88,4%. Whilst this doesn’t represent a massive change in the country’s education crisis, it’s a small step in the right direction and it will certainly work to improving the lives of those matrics who passed.

The driving motivation behind Igqangi is to simply get involved. The challenge of educating and empowering the youth of South Africa is too big, too complex, and too important to be left to government alone. Instead of rocking back, blaming the minister and lamenting ‘the system’ on social media, Igqani offers an important example: everybody has a part to play.

The next Igqangi Workshop takes place 1-5 April. For more info, or to get involved contact Chris.

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*All images © Jason Hartford and Igqani Project.

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