Humbled. Exhausted. Replenished. Gratified.

“How was it?”

I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked this question since I returned from Cape Town, South Africa just over two weeks ago. It’s a perfectly valid question, as I was doing something quite unique. In February, I spent two weeks with 12 others from around the world, working with small children in the township of Vrygrond, as part of the 2015 Pearson Global Assist Fellowship. In the mornings, we worked in pairs and threes in one of the many crèches in and around Vrygrond, that are supported by the organisation, True North. In the afternoons, we gathered at True North’s community centre, where we partnered with Pearson South Africa to deliver a 2-week literacy program for 5 and 6 year-olds.

The 2015 Fellows (Courtesy of Romeo Ramirez)

For the first few days after I returned, I was fighting horrid jetlag and trying to catch up on the hundreds of emails that had filled my work inbox in my absence. The question was wasted on me then. “How was it?” ‘It was exhausting,’ I wanted to say. It’s been over two weeks since I landed in back in Melbourne and I feel like I am still catching up on sleep. However, ‘exhausting’ is not a satisfying answer for someone who wants to hear that it was amazing and life-changing. Initially I trotted out the usual clichés, just to hold everyone at bay until I could wrap my head around exactly what it was. At that point, I just didn’t know. I remember saying to my room-mate sometime in the middle of the fellowship, “I know there is a lesson to be learned here, but right now, I just don’t know what it is. I hope it will reveal itself when I’m home.”

And it has. Now that I have stepped back from it and have had time to reflect, I feel I can answer the question with greater depth: Exhausting, humbling, replenishing, amazing… Still, listing adjectives just doesn’t do the experience justice, so I will attempt a better response to the question here.

“How was it?”

Humbling

Most of the people I met had so much to give – their time, their experience, their laughter, their wisdom. I sat down with people from True North and Pearson South Africa who are literally saving the world, one school, one crèche, one child at a time. Their work matters. Their work can mean the difference between a child being protected and educated and fed, and being left out in the world to fend for themself. I worked side-by-side with teachers who are acutely aware that just beyond the lilac-painted fence of the crèche, there are knife fights, drug deals, prostitution and domestic violence – all on a regular basis. These women are educated, intrepid, and respected, because their work is noble and their work is hard.

The crèches in Vrygrond – and the extension of Vrygrond called Overcome, where I worked with fellows, Romeo and Esther – cater for babies through to 6 year-olds. The children are under the care of the teachers for up to 10 hours a day. They eat breakfast there – a tasteless rice gruel – and lunch – a protein-enriched rice. The children nap, play, draw, read stories, sing songs, and learn basics like shapes, colours, letters and numbers. In many ways, these crèches are just like any other childcare centre, except that they do all this with few resources, no sewerage, no electricity, and in a place that can be extremely dangerous.

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Lunch: rice with protein

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The play area for 45 children

Exhausting

The creche where I worked is called Little Lambs and in Overcome, there are no paved roads like in Vrygrond. The crèche has no electricity, a corrugated iron roof and walls to match. On the days when it is hot outside, it is even hotter inside. 45 children are packed into three small classrooms, and the children share the same toileting facility – a handful of non-flushable ‘potties’. The teachers use a port-a-potty, which takes up a large portion of the cemented play area.  Water trickles from two taps – one on the front wall of the crèche and one in the ‘kitchen’ where the children’s meals are prepared. When children are given water to drink, they share the same four or five cups, each taking turns and waiting for their classmates to finish. The cups aren’t washed in between children. The children are told to wash their hands after toileting and playing outside and before they eat – yet for washing, they all use the same bucket of water which is replenished only once a day – and there is no soap.

When I arrived each morning, I would set up an activity at one of the small tables, and the children would rotate to me in groups. Others worked on puzzles or crafts. There was a constant chorus of, “teacher, teacher, teacher,” as each child vied for a moment of my attention. After the table activities, they had a 1/4 of a piece of fruit and played outside on the rectangle of concrete. Then I’d usually read a story and sing songs with them – ones that had actions, so we could work on coordination and memory. ‘Incy-wincy Spider’ became an instant favourite. And there is nothing sweeter than hearing a group of children sing, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are…” Then it was usually time for lunch. Before the meal, the children put their hands together, bowed their heads and sang, “Thank you, Father, for our food, many, many blessings, Amen,” to the tune of ‘Frère Jaques’. I suppose that they are blessed – or a least, fortunate – because although they often came to school in the same clothes several days in a row, and they may not have had an evening meal the night before, there are about 1500 children in Vrygrond and Overcome who aren’t in crèches at all.

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Play time for the babies’ class

The classroom I worked in was for three and four year-olds. Admittedly, they were a challenging group in the first few days, but they grew to learn that I didn’t put up with naughtiness and only paid attention to well-behaved children. ‘Time Out’ was my closest ally in the first few days, and I channelled the Super Nanny every time I said, “No. That’s unacceptable.” The naughtiest child in the class on day one – Daniel – was one of the oldest and biggest children in the class. He was loud, aggressive, and a bully. After the third Time Out in about 20 minutes, his teacher removed him from the room and took him in with the babies. He hated that and begged to come back to the class. For some reason and from then on, he worked very hard for my approval, and thrived when he was given important tasks, like handing out rice to the other children.

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Making puppets. Daniel in the centre.

We had two trips to the nearby park over the two weeks. To say that I was nervous about taking 3 dozen children through the dusty streets of the township to the park, was a gross understatement. Firstly, as strangers in the township, we fellows were not allowed to walk around outside the crèche without an escort by someone from the township – or someone from True North. Simply, we were not safe on our own, and we got more than a few sideways glances as we chaperoned the children from one place to another. Then there was the aforementioned violence, drug deals and prostitution. It wasn’t as though those activities rolled to a halt because the local pre-school was on the move. And there was the fact that the children had very little road sense; we spent most of the journey corralling them off the road as though we were herding naughty little sheep. Once at the park, they were fine. They ran and ran and ran – something they couldn’t do within the small confines of the crèche. By the time we got back to the crèche a couple of hours later, they were ready for a nap, and so was I.

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Snack time at the park: Teacher Geraldine hands out 1/4-pieces of fruit

The park

Heading back from the park

Replenishing

As a person who has opted not to have children of my own, I am sometimes asked if it’s because I don’t like children. That’s not why – and the reason why is a whole other blog post, so I won’t go into it here. The thing is, I love being around children. I loved being around these children. My time with them exhausted me physically – and even mentally at times – but it fuelled me emotionally. And what I learned from these little faces, was that it doesn’t matter where you go in this world, kids are kids. When I would sneak into the babies’ room – ’cause they were irresistibly sweet and affectionate – they would smile and reach their chubby little hands up to me. They loved clapping and singing, just like babies and toddlers anywhere, and they giggled with delight when tickled. And they craved cuddles, which I happily obliged them with.

The older children were funny, cheeky, inquisitive, and each saw themselves as the centre of the universe – just like any other group of 3 and 4 year-olds. They love being read to, cuddled, praised, and to sing. They wanted attention, affection, and someone to kiss it better. Over only two weeks, I went from a stern stranger to someone who could make them smile with just a wink or a silly face.

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With the cheeky little cuties – the bigger the smile, the cheekier the child

Gratifying

In the afternoons, we returned to True North’s community centre, where we each worked with two children on a pre-literacy program developed by a team at Pearson South Africa. The aim of the program was two-fold: to determine how much impact the proposed literacy activities could make in just 8 sessions (of 2 hours each), and to introduce a reading resource specifically designed for children who lived in townships. We worked from four newly-developed books, and the illustrations were just incredible. The children instantly engaged with the accurate representations of their world. Vrygrond is a place where most books they read are cast-offs, and are often irrelevant to their lives or inappropriate for their age group. It was incredible to watch their delight as each new page was revealed.

My two were called Trizza and Clever. Trizza was shy at the start of the project, but by the second week was comfortable enough around me to show her bossier side. She was extremely bright and sometime lost patience with Clever, who was slower to master the given tasks and concepts. Clever was a kind and warm child, gregarious and a leader on the playground, but I wondered if his moniker would set unreasonable expectations for him throughout his life. He struggled with some basic literacy tasks, but I admired that he never quit. He was often among the last in the room to complete a task, but he always wanted to finish. By the end of the two weeks, Trizza demonstrated an enhanced ability to recall details and sequences. Clever, who began the fortnight by roughly turning pages, creasing and tearing them, learned to respect books as something precious, and how to turn pages carefully. They were both excited to be given their own take-home copies of each of the four books. “Who are you going to show your book to?” I asked each time they got a new one. “My mummy and my sister,” Trizza would say. “My daddy!” replied Clever. Both of them smiled with pride at having something special to share with their loved ones.

Trizza and Clever

Trizza and Clever

Enjoyable

It was mostly hard work, but it wasn’t all hard work. After preparing lessons for the following day, we gathered to drink wine and talk about our lives back home. We told funny anecdotes about loved ones, and learned the names of each other’s children, best friends and significant others. We exchanged job descriptions, because although we all worked for Pearson, we had a diverse range of roles. We debriefed about the highs and lows of our days, laughing and crying in equal measure. Half of us got sick: colds, food poisoning, and a mystery illness which seemed to combine the two. We shared gifts and goodies we had brought from home, teased each other relentlessly, gave dozens of supportive hugs, danced to Madonna, and drove each other crazy by hogging the bathroom or using up all the internet.

Over the two weeks, we became a sort of mismatched, semi-dysfunctional, supportive, infuriating, and endearing family.

Over the 17 days I spent in Cape Town I also got to catch up with some dear friends who live there – 2 couples I know through previous travels. I managed several early morning workouts and yoga practices, which were particularly memorable because Cape Town sunrises are so breathtaking. Over one weekend, we all went sightseeing (organised by the fellowship) and wine tasting (organised by us). We were taken out to dinner several times to lovely restaurants, and I must say, South Africans do incredible seafood, and have an extensive (super-affordable) repertoire of delicious wine. And, after the fellowship wrapped up, four of us did an overnight safari at a private game park (this must be saved for its own post). And, most happily, I made some dear friends, including my roomie, Jenni, from Texas and my crèche-mates, Romeo and Esther.

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Roomies

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Romeo from Mexico – my crèche-mate

So, how was it?

It was something I will remember my whole life. I know how fortunate I am to have such an incredible opportunity.

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