Last Wednesday, I taught in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha. The University of Cape Town has a program called SHAWCO, which pairs college students with the brightest children for extra instruction after school. A bus took us from campus to Khayelitsha, which is Cape Town’s biggest township. With a population of over 400,000, it is essentially a city unto itself. While it is hard to summarize such a large community based off one visit, the township is mostly comprised of poorly constructed shacks and dusty roads.
Obviously it does not resemble the luxurious waterfront area or even the student neighborhood where I currently reside. Moreover, the demographics are drastically different. Townships are primarily black whereas the waterfront and downtown areas are almost all white. While this is obviously a lasting result of apartheid, I came to the depressing realization that the United State is hardly different. When I think of my hometown of Ridgewood, NJ versus the much larger town of Patterson, which is just 15 minutes away, the differences in demographics and socio-economic standing are just as stark as Cape Town.
I chose to work with sixth graders in math. I had preferred to work with younger kids, as opposed to adolescents, but we were told that unless you could speak Afrikaans or Xhosa (a clicking language) you should probably stick to older students. I was glad I listened to their advice. My friend from the US who chose to teach fourth graders was besieged by young kids that climbed all over him while clicking louder and louder until he lost all control. Still, English was hardly spoken at the sixth grade level and I had to basically use two or three of the 14 students I was working with to translate for everyone else.
Nevertheless, I was shocked by all the student’s eagerness to learn, especially considering the circumstances. For instance, there was only one notebook for 14 students, the desks were so scratched and dented it was almost impossible to write on, there were not enough pencils, and the teacher (me) did not speak the primary language of the kids. However, the students were undeterred and constantly wanted more math problems to work on. I was forced to think of problems on the fly.
As I went around the room to correct everyone’s work, I was extremely impressed with the level of math comprehension of each student, even if they are the more accelerated ones at the school. Yet, one of the more peculiar aspects of the day was when I wrote “100%” on their papers, many asked me to sign it as well. I assumed it was to show the veracity of the percentage to their parents, but when the day was over most just threw the papers away. All in all though, the experience was fascinating and I can’t wait to help these amazing students every week.