The Colgate Scene
September 2004

No simple answers

At the Ngxongwane Primary School in the rural South African community of Nongoma, few families can afford transportation to school, so most schoolchildren -- many without proper shoes -- walk between seven to 10 kilometers to and from school. [Photos by Aubrey Graham]
Aubrey Graham '06 is a combined anthropology and sociology major from Chester, Conn., who works part-time in the Office of Communications and Public Relations. What follows is her account of her research trip to South Africa this past summer.

From my vantage point in the rear corner of the classroom, I watched as second graders sang, "If You're Happy and You Know It" in broken English. It was something the students did every day of the week, but there was extra enthusiasm today because they were aware of my presence as an English-speaking foreigner. Perhaps I could have been more amused with their games, but I was hungry. My contact person and friend, Luke, had accidentally locked his door in the morning, leaving me without anything to eat for breakfast. I was not alone in my hunger. The room I was observing was full of children anxious for lunch.

When the energetic young teach-er finally allowed the `learners' (as they prefer to be called) to break for lunch, I watched a scene that unfolds every day of the school year: A number of learners scampered happily to their plastic bags, which serv-ed as backpacks, and removed their lunches. The rest of the class sat patiently, waiting for handouts. If they received none, then they simply did not eat and would have to walk home at the end of the day with nothing in their stomachs, not having eaten since the previous night.

One small boy sat still. He did not beg or plead for food like many of the others, but quietly rested his head in his hands and stared blankly in front of him. I began to take photographs -- the scene in front of me was a blatant example of my research, the entire reason I ended up spending almost seven weeks in South Africa earlier this summer.

In the sprawling informal settlement of Mandela Village, just outside the township of Mamelodi, adults and children gather to draw water from one of the only available taps. For able-bodied students, the demands of helping to support their families often cut into time that might otherwise be spent studying. Tau Magubane, a grade seven teacher at Ngxongwane Primary School, reprimands a student for not following directions. Despite being given two class periods to cut words from newspapers and create new sentences, this student has been unable to accomplish anything. Magubane claims to encounter similar problems with students on a regular basis.

In the summer of 2003, I had traveled to South Africa with an extended study group led by Anne Pitcher, associate professor of political science. I fell in love on that trip; the politically and racially turbulent country had gotten its claws into me and was not going to let go. Through the viewfinder of my camera, I became intensely interested in how the country, just ten years after the end of apartheid, could begin to raise itself up from its racially segregated reality. The answer was on everyone's lips: "education" was the solution to the country's problems. But could students, faced with all of the residual challenges of apartheid and the poverty left in its wake, work their way up through the newly reformed education system and eventually find success?

In order to try to answer this question, I proposed a research project through which I would return to South Africa for six weeks. The Division of University Studies accepted my proposal in March and provided a travel stipend to cover the costs of travel and research with the stipulation that, since I would be traveling alone, I also would research further how South Africans handle conflict situations from an anthropological point of view. On May 12, less than a week after the end of finals, I boarded my flight to Johannesburg.

My research began immediately upon landing in Johannesburg, but I concentrated my photography and fieldwork on Mamelodi Township, just outside of Pretoria, and the rural community of Nongoma, in KwaZulu-Natal Province. In each of these settings, in which I was a foreigner not only for my nationality, but also for my color, I lived with various local students and teachers from all walks of life.

From the informal settlements (shack housing), devoid of electricity and running water, to well-equipped homes, I studied how social influences, such as where one lives, the amount of crime in the surrounding community, and the presence or absence of parents, impact a student's education.

After a few weeks in Mamelodi Township, where minibus taxi drivers preside at the top of the food chain, and street crime is considered usual, coupled with a few weeks in the semi-isolated, rural community of Nongoma, I found that there are no simple answers. For reasons easily attributable to the legacy of apartheid, students living in these poor areas in South Africa are fighting a losing battle.

Social influences, for instance, the death of parents due to HIV/AIDS, the fact that crime scores money for food more quickly than education does, the general lack of adequate food and nutrition, the disparities caused by the nearly 50 percent unemployment rate, the under-resourced nature of the schools, as well as cultural roles, all intertwine to work against the ability of a student to gain a solid education. Of course, that abridged list is just the tip of the iceberg; each South African student is fighting his or her own unique battle. By living with students, I was fortunate to witness some of these lives and see ways in which I may be able to help.

Returning home has not been easy. On this side of the world, I have new work cut out for me. I am attempting to set up the American side of Soup for School, a nonprofit program that will bring free, nutritious food into seven township schools in and around Mamelodi. Those involved, myself included, believe that the first step toward allowing students a better chance at a positive future is to ensure that they are not hungry or suffering from malnutrition during the

school day. While there are no simple answers to the problems facing students and their ability to get a good education in the poor areas of South Africa, there is at least a clear place to begin. And now, from my comfortable home in suburban America, where I don't have to unlock a gate to enter my yard, or scavenge for the next meal, I hope to be able to use my research to help those who do.

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