Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

My first day at a school without Alan and Donna! I’m excited, they’re excited. Working with the kids, things have a tendancy towards chaos (in this country they obey the laws of thermodynamics). I am anxious to see how it goes. Alan drops by at 7:15 and gives me a couple of replacement computers and two more stools to complete the room.

I make some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Zenzo and myself, and I head over to pick him up. I’m about five minutes late, and he is, as always, waiting by the garage. He hops in and asks if I can got pick up some papers that his sister needs on the other side of Sibongile. I decline, pointing out that we’re running late. He says it’s no problem.

We head over to Ncome school through the always beautiful countryside. Zenzo has brought along his journal, which he has written in most nights for the past year. He says he will show me some of his poems later. We don’t talk much on the 30 minute drive, but I do ask him where he learned all he knows about computers. Did he ever have a computer at home?

He says he learned everything at Thalani high school, on the first computers that Alan and Donna brought over. Those are the only computers he’s ever used. So right here next to me is a young man from the third world who has a first world familiarity with computers solely because of this project.

30 minutes later we are pulling up, over the bumpy dirt road that leads to the school gate. A lady from the front office is outside in a matter of seconds opening up for us. We head into the classroom and plop in the replacements and the new stools. We breifly meet the three teachers who we will focus on teaching. They are:

Mr. Mbatha, a tall thin man probably 40, with a firm countenance. He has the hint of a scarring on his cheeks. He wears black jeans with a belt and a white collared shirt with some stylish stitching.

Mrs. Nyembe (NYEM-bay), an plump gypsylike older lady in a light sweater and full length skirt. Her hair is in a kerchief, and what little that sticks out has touches of gray (color 51 weave, for those in the know). She is missing her two front teeth. Still, she has an infectious smile.

Mrs. Khubheka, a solid and sharp looking middle aged lady, dressed in a charcoal suit.

Zenzo makes the wise call to have only 22 students in the room, so everyone gets their own computer. I had considered this, but wasn’t sure of what they would do with the other kids so I hesitated suggesting it. But the teachers seem okay with that plan, so Mr. Mbatha heads off and pulls 22 sixth graders from their normal class.

Once they’re in and seated, Zenzo takes the lead. He guides them through turning the machines on, sitting properly, selecting the right program (KidPix) and starting to draw. Then we let them go at it, and the five of us, me, Zenzo, and the three teachers, go around the class giving help to the kids who are too timid or confused. Things are going remarkably well, the kids jump into discovery mode. After a bit Zenzo explains that there are different tools and encourages them to try erasing or whatever they like. The kids mostly draw houses, cars, and people. We continue around, encouraging and showing them little tricks, which they often reward with big smiles.

As the class nears its close, I suggest to Zenzo that we have the kids go around the room and look at what others have created. The kids get up and walk around, grinning and chatting quietly. Then they return to their computers and Zenzo walks them through closing the program and shutting down.

The kids file out, and I look around with a sense of satisfaction — it went remarkably well! I express my happiness to the teachers, and they agree it was a good class. It was only 30 minutes, and the plan is to bring in another group of 22.

I am really just functioning on the sidelines, giving small suggestions and assisting kids that get stuck. Zenzo is running the classes at the moment, and I have a sense that is right: Alan and Donna’s work brought him up to a level where he can be a leader, and I think that it is best to let him shine in that regard. My guess is that the Zulu children need to have Zulu leaders ushering them into the future. I take efforts not to inject myself too much.

Zenzo runs two more classes, just like the first one. We refine the steps a bit each time. The three teachers do a great job of coaching and helping. When the sixth graders are all used up, Mr. Mbatha brings in fourth graders too. And on the fourth class, I suggest that we let one of the teachers take the lead. Zenzo agrees. I suggest Mrs. Nyembe, because I like her laid back style, but she laughs and points to Mr. Mbatha instead. So he runs the next class.

He has a powerful voice that echos off the concrete walls. He has the imposing manner of a strict school teacher and the kids pay him mind. He is a bit gruff in my opinion, but I can’t argue with success: the kids are attentive and they follow through the steps well. Zenzo and I both do one-on-one assisting as needed, as do Mrs. Khubheka and Mrs. Nyembe. All goes well, but Mr. Mbatha doesn’t leave them much time to experiment, so the class is done with the computers off before we know it; in only 15 minutes.

As the next group of kids are coming, I overcome my natural tendancy to be intimidated like a schoolboy and tell him that I think he went too quickly. I suggest giving the kids more time to work before he directs them on to the next thing. He nods, and the next class he leads is just about perfect. The kids have the time to make great little drawings. One of the kids discovers the stamp tool, which allows you to pick from a variety of miniture images and stamp them all around your picture. We hadn’t done any of that, but Zenzo sees it as a fun addition to the freestyle drawing tools, and gives a quick instruction on that. Within a moment the whole room is stamping away.

At 11, we break for lunch. I complement the teachers on a great job. Zenzo and I have our sandwiches, and then we poke around with some of the programs we’ve never played before. There’s a lot of stuff on the machines that we don’t know about.

An hour later, much of the faculty comes in to try the computers, probably 12 teachers. At first we’re planning to walk them through KidPix like we did with the adults, but they don’t come in all at once and they have their own ideas. Pretty soon they’re all excitedly chatting amongst themselves, experimenting, and whatnot. Managing adults is harder than managing kids, I think. Zenzo and I spend one-on-one time with any of the teachers who seem to be unsure. Many of them have not really used computers much before, if at all. Even basic mouse skills take some explaining. This goes on for an hour, but by the time we’re done I feel that a lot of the teachers think the computers are pretty neat.

The alarm goes off — it’s basically an air raid siren, not a bell, signifying the end of the school day: they get out at 1PM on Fridays. We wrap up, and the teachers go out to do the closing with the students. I ask Zenzo to snap a picture of me, which he does. Note the beard. Don’t see it? Here’s a closeup. That’s 23 days of growth. This becomes important later.

Ncome serves grades R through 9. “R” is their kindergarten. There are 614 kids at Ncome. I manage to snap a picture of the kids as they break to run home. Whenever a camera comes out, the kids notice. Note the children in the bottom left, who knew what I was doing in less than three seconds and started mugging and waving at me.

Also in that picture, note the large greenish water gathering tank that is hooked up to the rain gutters. Just about all the schools have this. Some lack running water, but even if they have running water, they use this for tasks like cleaning to keep costs down.

Zenzo and I drive home. We are pleased, we agree it was a good time, and that we’ll come back next week. He puts on the radio and it’s Bryan Adams’s “Can’t Stop Loving You”. What is it with Bryan Adams in South Africa?

Some notes on driving in South Africa: There are a lot of two lane roads that wind out a long ways, where the speed limit is posted at 100km/h, but people tend to drive 120. That’s just over 70mph, which doesn’t sound like much, but these are much more like back country roads than highways. There are kids and others walking along the side of the roads. I give them a wide berth as I pass, but many cars don’t and I instinctively tense up when I see a truck graze by the elbows of children at these tremendous speeds.

Passing is fun. For some reason the larger commercial vehicles drive half the posted speed or less. Perhaps they do this in the states as well, but with a passing lane you don’t notice. No passing lanes here, not really on any of the roads I’ve been on save for the huge N3. No, you have to do the old trick where you drive into the oncoming lane to pass. This is something that I think many Americans are out of practice with. I can barely remember the last time I had to do it. Here, I do it several times on each trip. Pay attention to the dashed or solid lines as they let you know when you’re likely to be able to see far enough for a safe pass. Visibility is key.

So is accelleration, which my car has only in modest supply. I’m fairly conservative, and won’t pass if I can’t see a good kilometer down the road. Others are not so much. Twice on the way home today, I saw a car coming straight at me, in my lane. There’s a real nervousness when you realize that you are approaching another car head on at a combined speed of over 140 mph and if your opponent doesn’t make the pass or fall back, there’s really no place to go except off the road. And your opponent sees that they may not make the pass and they speed up. Both times this happened today, Zenzo and I gasped a bit and I slowed down dramatically until the oncoming car had completed the pass and got back in his lane.

And though we laughed it’s no laughing matter actually, with the rates of car accidents here being through the roof. Did I mention that two school principals were killed in a head on collision last year? That was one accident. Another principal was killed in a different accident for a total of three in one year, if my memory serves.

I have some things I want to take care of, so I just drop Zenzo off at home and tell him I’ll call to make plans for next week. He says he’s just cleaning his place and going to church this weekend. No special plans. I ask about his girlfriend. He says he only wants to see her a couple times a week so that he always misses her. He says he worries it will get boring if he sees her too much. A practical man, he is.

I head over to Pick & Pay to stock up on foods and to get… a razor! I haven’t shaved since February 28th, my last day at work. I missed shaving on March first just because I was so busy; but then I decided I was going to let my beard grow until I felt something change. Until I felt different. I’ve done this once before and it was kind of fun, so I figured I’d do it again. Besides, I figured it would be easier to not worry about shaving for my trip, and it would make me look more like Alan. You know, help the locals see we’re related.

But today I decided it was time to shave. I do feel different: I’m thinking about much different things than I was two weeks ago. Some things that used to be hazy have become more clear. I am in a different state of mind for sure and I believe I’m heading towards a different phase of life. It is good.

And I’d be lying if i didn’t also mention that this figures in: Zenzo saw my license picture yesterday, which is only from two years ago, and proclaimed, “Wow, you look so young!”. the beard wasn’t helping in that regard.

So that’s that: I bought a razor and cream, and various food goodies. This time I even bought some fresh fruits and veggies. I’m moving up in the world.

At the checkout the lady seemed extra friendly. She started by saying “Saybono” which is “hello” in Zulu. I think that’s an uncommon thing to say to a white guy in that context; at least it hadn’t happened before. Just as I paid she said “I know you, but you don’t remember me,” with a smile. It was true, I didn’t remember her. “I’m Thabani’s mother.” I laughed and shook her hand Zulu style, with respect (you hold your forearm with the non-shaking hand, to add the respect).

As I walked out I passed an ATM machine which I’ve used a few times before. I was just about out of cash at this point, so I decided to take out a few hundred rand. The fellow in front of me finished up and I appraoched and put my card in. I think I put it in before the screen had changed back to saying “welcome”. It was saying “please take card”. But now my card was in the machine. I waited for it to figure that out, but after a bit it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen. So I pressed cancel. No reaction. I pressed every button in sequence. No reaction. The screen still said “please take card”, and my card was still gone, inside the machine. I waited a bit longer and the screen finally changed: “Time exceeded. Your card has been retained. Please call issuing bank.”


The ATM is part of an actual bank, so I go inside and explain to the teller what happened. She’s a pretty young black girl, pregnant, who speaks with an accent that sounds more British than Zulu. “Sorry, we can’t give the card back. It’s policy.” I explain that is the only way I can get cash (probably not entirely true, but close enough). After a few more rounds of her “It’s policy” and my “but pleeeease?”, she agrees to check with the manager. The manager looks skeptical at first, but I tell her I have my passport and drivers license and everything out in the car. She shakes her head but says to get them and she’ll look into it. I hand over all the goods. About now I’m wishing I had already shaved; partly because I’d look more like the clean shaven picture on the passport and license, and partly because at the moment I look like the kind of scam artist she’s worried about.

About 15 minutes pass with all my identification out back in the bank. I smile at the other patrons at the bank as they come and go. I pleasantly note that all of the bank personnel are black. The manager was white, though. I also note that the front entrance is a mantrap; meaning it’s a set of two doors you must pass through, but there’s only room for one person at a time, and the second door won’t open until the first closes. This means that the bank is never open to people running in or out. One person at a time crosses the controlled threshold.

The teller I first spoke to walks by and says “I can’t believe it, they’re going to give you back the card!” “I guess I looked very sad,” I reply. “Nah, it’s the accent,” she says, “I bet that’s it!”

The manager finally returns with my card. She tells me that it is very rare, but she is going to let me have it. She said the only reason was because my card, the ATM card, had my picture on it. So: if you ever think you might find yourself in this improbable situation, you better get your picture included on your ATM card.

She makes me sign a form about this departure from normal protocol, and then accompanies me back to the machine to make sure it works this time. It does. I thank her, and finally leave with my money.

I drop back to the backpackers place, and I chill for a while. Then I shave, a laborious process with only a basic razor and 23 days of growth, then take a shower and write for a while.

Alan calls a little after sunset and invites me to do a little drop off trek around Sibongile before we get together for dinner. He picks me up and we head to Simangaliso’s house. Alan has fixed his laptop, a decent used Toshiba which Donna had given him last year. The socket for the power had broken. Alan soldered a wire directly to the laptop’s innards, which now dangles out the side. Not pretty, but effective. Simangaliso thanks him. As we leave, Simangaliso warns us, “be careful, walking around in the dark. There’s a lot of reports in the papers of people getting hurt”.

Next we stop by Muzavele’s place. Alan has an arrangement with his dad; he puts together these special dual-power cords that Alan likes to use at the schools, and Alan buys them. We pick up a boxful and finally head to see Zenzo.

We bring Zenzo an older Windows 98 laptop. It’s a little sketchy: it has frozen up a few times for no apparent reason and the battery won’t hold a charge for more than two minutes. But it does work, and Zenzo is so happy to have it he gets nervous as I show him how. He knows the old Macs well, but has never used a PC before.

Then Alan takes out 50 rand and gives it to him, explaining it is for helping us out in the schools the past few days. It’s a small amount, but Zenzo is so happy he gives Alan a hug.

We head back and have a wonderful dinner of chicken and this neat pinapple tabboleh. We drink some beer and talk about the seeming success today at Ncome, and Zenzo, and a thousand other crazy things.

We also talk about how when Donna logged in today, her google alert pointed her to my blog. That was surprising, to say the least. I know that this isn’t anonymous and anyone can see it, but I figured the chances were slim that anyone in Dundee would find it while I was here. But only a week of posting in and Donna is led directly to my blog. We discuss the challenges of wanting to communicate what we see and do here with the need to have discretion with people’s lives.

I’m perhaps a bit too comfortable with this blogging thing, and some of the people I write about might feel I am too open, or that I’m calling attention to the less than ideal aspects of their lives. It is true: I’m not a trained reporter and maybe there are some ethical issues here which I’m not familiar with. But I am doing my best to tell a true story of my travels into a world that most of the people I know are not familiar with. And I have an idealist view that the spreading of knowledge is a good thing, as long as it is delivered with enough context. So that’s what I’ll aspire to.

It’s 1:30 AM, and I haven’t posted last week’s entry yet. I have no plans for tomorrow, though, so I should be alright.

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