By Jenna Hall
Stepping off the plane after a near 24-hour travel day I was immediately struck with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. While descending from the airport elevator and being greeted by the South African wind, I couldn’t help but feel so incredibly fortunate. I texted my parents letting them know I had arrived and thanked them for allowing me to embark on my second abroad experience through Elon. The fact that I was feeling emotional on my very first day in Cape Town proved how unprepared I was for the emotions I would be feeling the days to follow.
On day 9 we traveled to an elementary school in Zwelihle to distribute lunches and interact with the children. We walked into the main room of the school with around 35-45 children of multiple ages waiting for us. It wasn’t even an official school day, but they all walked over from their homes in the township to meet us. All the children appeared eager and excited to have visitors. It was clear by their expressions that this type of service work doesn’t happen very often. The teachers had them stand up to sing us a welcome song, which we responded to by singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. There was an overwhelming sense comradely within the first 10 minutes of us being there. We then began to distribute lunches and snacks in brown paper bags to each of the students. I wish I could better explain their reactions… but the children seemed hesitant to rip into their food. Almost like they were not sure what to do with it. Should they eat it now? Should they save it for tomorrow? Or even ration it out throughout the week? Should they bring it home to share with their families? This struck me because for some reason I was expecting that they would devour every last bite in only a few minutes. I assumed they were hungry and that they would be grateful for the temporary relief, but to me they seemed a little confused. Not knowing what to do or say, I approached several children a few minutes after they received their lunches and asked if it was good. They held their unopened bags and looked up at me with wide eyes and large smiles. Interestingly, I got the sense that most of them were more excited about the company than the food. This made me think about the definition of service and the contrast between giving tangible things versus making personal connections. I know in my life, relationships with people have a far greater impact. But I guess I always assumed that was the case because I never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from. A lot of the children scurried home soon after they received their lunches. I spent some time walking around the school building, noticing there were only three classrooms. My research group looked into the South African elementary school education system prior to arriving in Cape Town. We discovered that overcrowded classrooms were pretty much inevitable among black elementary schools. One can imagine the negative effects that accompany. Overcrowded classrooms means less resources for each student and far less individualized attention, which results in higher drop out rates. While we were at the school we only met four faculty members. Assuming those are the only teachers at the school, there would be about six times as many students.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I remember feeling surprised when I walked in and saw how many young girls were in school. I guess I had ignorantly formed previous ideas about the education system in Africa and did not presume that young girls would have equal opportunities. However, the day I went to the library to research I noticed that there were no women in the library. Not one single woman. This led me to believe that while girls may begin schooling, they may be less likely to finish their education. Gender inequality is a major issue in South Africa and it has a giant link to health, economic development, social roles and education. In doing some research, I discovered through Unicef website that the proportion of girls enrolled at the sixth grade in South Africa is 50 percent of the total enrolment. Interestingly, in 2007 girls performed reasonably better than boys on reading exams. South African schools struggle with many challenges including poor quality of education, low teacher morale and poor infrastructure and sanitation. Many students consistently go to school hungry. These issues are devastating, but also widely known and understood. Problems for girls in the education system is not as openly researched or talked about. Unicef also noted that young women still report high levels of sexual abuse, harassment and murder in their schools. With South Africa being a largely patriarchal society, 65% of black women are living in poverty. Girls and women are accorded a lower social status and their roles are often limited to domestic services. Girls often drop out of school to help their mothers, and this sets the tone for the rest of their lives. Girls in South Africa are socialized to become mothers, therefor placing less value on their education. Additionally, teenage pregnancies are on the rise, which makes it difficult for young mothers to go to school despite legislation that protects their right to education.
After walking around the schoolhouse I went out the front door where I saw more children lining up outside the front gate asking for bagged lunches. We took what we had left and handed the lunches into the swarm of children. We soon discovered that children who already received lunches were hiding them and then rejoining the line to collect more. It was complete madness. When we finally ran out of lunches and boarded the bus I felt overwhelmed and depressed. I couldn’t grasp the notion that those children needed to try to collect as much food as they could in one hour because they might not know what they’d be eating next. I’ve done service work all of my life, but I have never witnessed need like this before. So much so that doing this service didn’t even make me feel good.
We waved to the children through the window as we pulled away on our air-conditioned bus. My emotions became even more conflicted while I saw the smiles on their faces. Some holding paper bags and some not, these looked like genuinely happy children. Even further proving that material possessions do not determine someone’s level of happiness. A few days later Dr. Layne said something that made my heart feel a little lighter. She reminded us that we know we cannot help everyone or completely fix the poverty and corruption in South Africa. But we have to allow ourselves to feel good about helping even in small ways.