My Heart is Breaking

Today I went to the school, and stayed for most of the workday. The other volunteers had booked a trip to the sangoma (diviner), but I felt anxious to get something started at the school and was also feeling that other than the dress, the sangoma probably wouldn’t be much new.

Well, I started taking each of the children to evaluate their level of competence in spoken English. I actually found some workbooks that the teacher had maybe used and given up on. They have lots of pictures and very small sentences where you get to say whether what is written about the picture is correct, or else you have a choice of sentences below all the pictures to choose the correct one for each picture.

Unfortunately there are a lot of pictures of highrises, tractors, boats, balloons, and other things that these children haven’t even heard of, let alone seen.

So I thought I’d have a little conversation with them ( and I had already planned this, so don’t you feel bad, MEE) asking them their name, their father’s name, their mother’s name and so on. One of the teachers came running over and told me that a large percentage of their students were orphans, many had never known either parent and were living with extended family – generally grandparents – but also that many, even at the grade 3 level, were completely on their own.

I was horrified to come face-to-face with a problem I had only read about, and hadn’t prepared myself for emotionally or mentally. Now I could understand why so many of the children were so dirty and ragged. It would be most unusual for an African mother to send her children anywhere, but especially to school without them being scrubbed to a shine and their clothes clean and tidy.

I found out that many of the orphans have no one to even sign them up for the orphans’ pension that exists here, which is R200/mo – that’s less than $30.00 Cdn. The school does it for those it can, and the teachers dole out the pension money on a weekly basis. But the children cannot cook, or haul home 20kg sacks of rice, or go to the village to do shopping so – the money gets spent in one day on nothing useful for the long term.

Today was pension day, and the small traders bring their trucks with BBQs for chicken, clothing, fruit, candy and unfortunately palm wine, and park them outside the school grounds and sell their wares to the children and parents. The majority of the men have no jobs, and the teachers tell me that most of the pension money is spent on palm wine each pension day so I guess the wives and children are left scrabbling for sustenance.

The government also pays for some rice which is cooked each day in the school kitchen, with whatever vegetable can be scrounged to fill it out. The teachers kindly shared their lunch with me today, but between my own new education and the fact that lunch is at 10 a.m. (school starts at 7 a.m., lets out at 2 p.m.) I really didn’t have much of an appetite.

One of the things we were reading about today in our lesson was ‘balloons’, so I’m determined to get some for a bit of a party before I leave.

I did have good success at showing the most educated of the teachers how to use the encyclopaedia though. He had previously asked me about the difference between turtles and tortoises, so I showed him how I could look it up, then got him to look up ‘Canada’ as he had also been asking questions about that. He’s hooked – Ya-a-a-ay!!! They had to drag him out of there when class went in again.

It’s warmer today, so I actually had a proper shower this morning. I’ve been having long lovely dreams about my bathtub . . . .

And I did get a picture of those red flowers, but only on a fading short bush outside the boma (traditional round Zulu house) at the front gate.

Market lady that sold the plastic bags.

Old school grounds

New school with principal’s office in foreground

Miss Tembe’s Grade 3 class



  1. Alice Lee said

    This is sad. I can’t imagine what’s like. Kids here are so priviledge. Well, good luck and stay safe.

  2. mary said

    Hi: Somehow my earlier comment did not register. Loosely, it was, I showed your “My Heart is Breaking” section to my International Business class. Reading it was a sobering experience for them.

    I’m very happy that you are having this experience, Marilyn. It makes me smile each time I go to your site.

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