Last summer I received a small innocent e-mail from a friend of a friend asking for help spreading the word about the great NGO she worked for, Dramatic Need. That e-mail happened to reach me when I felt that I needed to experience something new, to stretch, to explore, and to expand my ideas. A year has gone by, and now I am in Viljoenskroon, South Africa Windows 10 Key co-teaching for three weeks with Colin Palombi.
This experience cannot easily be shared. It must be experienced first hand. Nonetheless, I am compelled to share. To begin, the area we are living in has an interesting socio-economic history. To the east is Viljoenskroon, a small rural town comprised of primarily white Afrikaners. To the west is Rammulotsi, a town that Wikipedia refers to as an informal settlement, or a shanty town. This shanty town houses 30,000 people, has primarily dirt roads, unheated houses, and no running water. It is a 10-minute drive to town, but a 45 minute walk. Few residents have vehicles. There are many desire lines through fields that head to town. To the best of my knowledge, 100% of the residents are black. The racial divide is clear. One gets a similar feeling crossing R76 here in South Africa, as when crossing from Chicago’s west side to Oak Park. We are staying on a farm compound about 5km North. There are 18 buildings, one of them the Piet Patsa Art Center, where we have a small room off the art studio.
The newness of our environment left us feeling anxious for the first day of class. We weren’t sure how much English students would know, and we didn’t know at all what to expect. However, students greeted us warmly, shaking our hands and introducing themselves. We soon learned that they begin studying English in 3rd grade. One student explained that English is easy for them to learn compared to their own language, which she described as “a riddle”. However, I am not 100% sure what language she was referring to, because residents may speak Sotho, Zulu, or Xhosa!
We have been working in two locations. In the mornings, we teach at the Art Center. Our students are selected by their school teachers and are dealing with difficulties ranging from poor grades, to loss of one or both parents, domestic violence, HIV-infection in their home, to systemic poverty. The environment at the art center reminds me of Marwen; there is a culture of open sharing, respect, exploration, and play.
In the afternoon, we travel into Rammulotsi and work with youth at St. Paul’s. The children here have lost both parents or, for one reason or another, are in a foster home. The church offers support to these youth.
We originally planned the same activities for both sets of students. However, we were very quickly reminded that we must respond to what unfolds within each individual class. The youth at the church needed more time to gain our trust and to share their ideas. We took activities as a leisurely pace, and focused on working alongside the students and guiding their own interests.
By the end of the week, both sets of students had completed many animation projects. The students were productive, and we were impressed by their support of one another. We offered breaks in our 3-hour morning class, and they refused to step away from their art. The last day was representative of the passion and the kindness that we continually see here: The taxi that brings students to the Art Center didn’t show up, and each and every student decided to walk here. They arrived an hour late, but full of enthusiasm. When lunchtime rolled around, a few students even offered to wash Bheki’s truck – the vehicle that takes us to and from Rammulotsi each day! To get the students home, Bheki took two trips back and forth, each time with about 7 students in the bed of his small pickup.
Week two brought new students. This time, we worked with young students in the afternoon: 8-12 year olds. However, in the end, our group ranged in ages 3 to about 14. Two students needed to bring along their incredibly cute little brothers that were in their charge. Plus, one of our original students returned for another week. The younger students began a bit shy around their new teachers, but after playing a few games (how we opened and closed each art session), they became quite warm. We would introduce a lesson, perhaps only 5 minutes in length. Then, an older student, Thabang or Mathelalupe, would translate to the little ones, and we would all make art alongside each other. As we told our students, we wanted to learn as much from them as they learned from us. It was a calm way to spend the afternoon.
One day we were drawing “self-portraits” based on what we liked to do, what we’re good at, what are ideas are, favorite places, etc. A student next to me was good at Math, and was adding math calculations to her drawing. She taught me a new way to do multiplication. Another student gave me a short list of South African musicians to look into. And we learned many games we’ll bring back to the states as well. Mission accomplished!
Our Week 2 morning group was more challenging. On Wednesday, Colin and I noticed that a few students were dominating the room, preventing the quieter students from concentrating, or participating in conversation. For the first time since we arrived, I needed to intervene, bring down the noise level, and spent more energy redirecting than I liked. We talked to Bheki, and he advised playing more games. The next morning, he taught three games, all requiring trust, cooperation, and listening. Bheki led a conversation on these topics, and students were able to share their feelings and their ideas. When we went inside and began our lesson, the students had a different attitude. Again, we were impressed by the power of play.
While there are many differences between students here and students in Chicago, I have had more realizations about their similarities. The students here look identical to my students in Chicago. They carry cellphones, wear stylish clothes, and share cultural references (Sponge Bob Square Pants, Riana, etc). I would not guess they eat mealie pap seven days a week. I would not guess their homes lack running water or heat. I have learned that poverty and difficult domestic situations aren’t always worn on the sleeves of our students. I have always followed the mantra “meet students where they are”, but I have underestimated the difficulty of knowing where my students are, or what they are dealing with above and beyond their school work or art work.
People we meet here learn about the US through TV shows and the Internet – the same way we learn about Africa. They have the impression that all Americans are wealthy and that we all have great education. Because of TV shows like “American Idol”, they believe young people everywhere are encouraged to pursue art. However, my experience working with youth throughout Chicago tells me otherwise. In fact, passing through the rougher parts of Rammolutsi, I have reflected that I don’t have to travel to far to work with students in equal need of art as a creative outlet and a tool for social-emotional learning.
It is with this attitude, that I look forward to returning to Chicago and continuing to teach in my own city, bringing back with me all my experiences here, as well as an abundant assortment of games to open and close class with.
Please check out Angee and Colin’s students’ work here: http://vimeo.com/dramaticneed
Angee Lennard is best known as the founder and director of Spudnik Press Cooperative, a community printshop inclusive of art making, writing, and book classes, youth programming, exhibitions, residencies, private studios, publishing, and so much more. Her teaching at Marwen focuses on printmaking, design, and community-based art practices. Her own artistic practices include printmaking, illustration, and drawing, with past clients including Green Lantern Press, WBEZ, and many local musicians.