Sunday, February 15, 2009

Three Schools

Posted from Gabarone, Botswana

In the town of Bultfontein, as in so many others, we were welcomed into the home of strangers. A group of three families came together to put us up for the night and give us a braai (barbecue).

"This is not a guest house, but if the community needs rooms they are always welcome to stay over," said our host Elize.

In return for staying with the generous people of Bultfontein, we gave presentations at two different schools the next morning. But really, it was more of a reward than a payment. The first, Bultfontein High School, was in their morning assembly when we arrived.

BHS is an Afrikaaner school, and the principal introduced us in Afrikaans. Either he's a very funny man or we made quite a spectacle, because there was great merriment (at our expense?).
Orian gave a short talk about our trip.

"How many think this trip would be hard?" he asked. Yes, most of them nodded, they wouldn't want to do it.

"Is it difficult to ride one kilometer?" he said next. Most shook their heads. "Well, we just ride one kilometer, then we ride one kilometer again. It's not so hard to do that. And we do it again until we've ridden 80 kilometers. The next day we do it again, and in seven months we'll be in Cairo."

Then, quite unexpectedly, he called me out to play the piano. Thinking fast, I tried to evaluate my options.

"Do you know Mozart?" I asked. They did, so I played the only Mozart I know. This gave me time to think, and when I finished I had a plan.

"Does anybody play a musical instrument?" There were a few. "It's a bit like bike touring. It seems very hard when you think of the whole thing. But you just learn a little bit at first, then a little more, and soon....Mozart!"

The principal caught on to our theme and wrapped up by relating it to school: first one grade, then the next, like the baby steps of Dr. Leo Marvin. It went unsaid, but the larger message is you can do anything if you break it up into smaller accomplishments, and this is especially true of bike touring. There are always problems, and there are always solutions to those problems. And the hardest step is always the first.

We left the bobbing blond heads of the BHS students behind and pedaled 10 km into the country to visit our next school, the Sekgweng Combined School. Sekgweng is made up of two small, low buildings, avast difference from the stone, church like parochial school in Bultfontein. They wear uniforms too, not polos and jackets like BHS but blue work shirts and slacks of skirts. I'm not sure what they meant by "combined school," but there were no white kids. Perhaps "combined" referred to mixed economic status, for Carin, one of the teachers, informed us that there are rich and poor kids there. I couldn't tell which was which.

Orian repeated his speech, minus piano and principal. Afterward, the five-year-olds gather in front of us and belt out South Africa's national anthem at the top of their lungs. They speak Sotho until grade three, and English thereafter.

Later in the day we cross the Vaal river and enter the Northwestern Cape. We'd been promised a place to stay in Bloemhof, so we waited at the police station to meet Jeanne Boshoff.

While we waited we were corralled by Anlee, a communications officer. Anlee is a spectacle as well. She wanted to roll out the red carpet for us, but ended up arranging for us a morning visit to a school with Inspector Mathe, as part of an adopt-a-cop program. All the while, she insisted Jeanne - who had never met us until that moment - was in charge.

Jeanne was flustered at first, but turned out to be very laid back and a great host. To our surprise, her guest house was a registered B&B, the Vrolikheid Gastehuis.

"It's not that nice," she insisted. "South Africans are used to more luxury." The second statement may be true, but I take exception to the first. The guest house was formal while remaining homey, and the yard was exquisite with a fountain and gazebo.

The next morning we rode to Thuto-Lore, a high school on the outskirts of Bloemhof, in an informal "township." Larger than Sekgweng, it was also a series of low, long buildings reminiscent of a barracks. Like Skegweng, there was little hope of seeing a piano, but nobody seemed to suffer for the lack of it. From the parking lot I could hear many students singing in Southern Sotho in the courtyard.

As we entered the courtyard, their voices rose in unison to an almost deafening level and I realized: they were singing for us! Then they quieted, and began singing the Lord's Prayer in a call and response style.

Inspector Mathe introduced us. He spoke ponderously and formally with long pauses. After he said what everyone presumably knew already, he turned it over to Teboho Ledibane, chairperson of the Community Policing Forum. He gave us the ninth degree in front of the students and his motive was clear: public relations.

What has been your experience in South Africa? Crime? Safety? Why is it important for the community to interact with the police? If this is their usual demeanor, I can see why the police have trouble relating to students. Still, Anlee, Mathe and Ledibane are working very hard to make a positive change in their community. Edgewise throughout the visit we were able to disseminate some information about our trip and answer questions from the learners.

"Next time, come and sleep in the township so that you must get the vibe of our culture," Ledibane invited us at the end. This statement was a marked contrast to the advice of most of our white hosts. "Please don't sleep near black townships. Stay between white people. It's not safe," we had been told. It's no wonder race relations are strained. But the welcome we've received and the generosity has been unbeatable, independent of race.

Do we have a couple of minutes to see a dance routine, Ledibane asked as we finished. A group of learners stepped onto the platform with us and began an unscripted, humorous playacting dance routine to a clapped beat. The rest of the students cracked up and crowded around.

Finally, they sang again. Two girls, maybe 15 years old, took turns leading, soloing and after each phrase the whole school would repeat the hook. The two girls had beautiful voices and held their own to the rest of the school, everyone belting it out at full volume. There was no thought of self-consciousness here.

The sound of that school, and the welcome they gave us rang in my head throughout the day and ever since.

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