July 21, 2013

New Family in Leratong

Here it is- an account of the highlight of my trip. I tried to make it as brief as I could without leaving out anything. 

Initial Road Bump

When I signed up for a week of community service, the attitude I had was very different to what it was when I actually started working there. I signed up for a project with some slightly selfish motives. I chose a construction project- one that would allow me to get some hands on experience on site. Besides actually wanting to use my knowledge of architecture in an act of service, I also figured that this opportunity would look great in my portfolio and would be a nice step for future career plans. 

When I arrived in South Africa, the news of my chosen project being cancelled completely annoyed me. My first thoughts were probably on the lines of, 'This trip is a complete waste now!' and I put myself in fault-finding mode. I frantically inquired about other similar construction projects and while I waited to be transferred, I joined a group of five from the island of Vanuatu in the South Pacific and moved out of the city to the little town of Soshanguve for a project at the Leratong Early Learning Centre. 

It was only on the way there that I forced myself to alter my mindset. Waiting to be transferred would probably mean losing another day of work (I had already missed out on one day because I arrived late) and the very definition of community service meant doing whatever was needed without any self demands.

New Home and New Family

Day 1 at work took away all my initial irritation. We stayed at the home of the school principal- the most hospitable woman in South Africa, who we called 'Mama' for the rest of the week. It is rare to find someone who'd give up her own bed for two of us while she slept on the floor. 

I had come prepared to somehow 'manage' in terms of food because South Africa is a predominantly meat eating nation. You cannot possibly understand my relief when Mama said that she was a vegetarian and I got to thoroughly enjoy the vegetarian version of traditional South African food for that week.

The kindergarten school is situated in a lower middle class residential area with a small staff of 8 teachers, 2 cooks and 2 caretakers for 100+ kids. I got an exciting tour of all the little details in the classrooms, kitchen and playground by the very enthusiastic teachers. We got things ready for the little bunch of toddlers who arrived shortly after (school holidays meant that we'd only meet about 20 of them).

I guess all things work out perfectly in the end. Mama had some ideas for an extension to the building and wanted me to draw it out for her. With no AutoCAD or even a laptop, no draughting board, set squares or a t-scale, it was back to architectural stone age. A table was set up for me outside and once in a while a little head would peep over the table.

A Bunch of Fabulous Kids!

The following days at Leratong were nothing short of amazing. The kids were the cutest, brightest bunch I've met. We told them stories and taught them many songs, some that had them on their feet with plenty of actions. It was especially rewarding that they learnt so fast. 

I've never seen such discipline in kids that age in such a warm friendly atmosphere. The kids are taught songs/chants for every task in their busy school schedule; "It's time to put our toys away, our toys away, out toys awayyyyy..." and eat by themselves neater than some adults I've seen. I'm quite sure that the Christian influence in the teaching plays a vital role in how well they are nurtured. And these kids can sure dance!

I learned that many of these children come from troubled or broken homes. Some are orphans that live with aunts or grandparents and some are tossed back and forth between homes. Yet, they come to school cheerful and energetic without any signs of hardship.

Work at the Leratong

Besides the fun we had with the children and teachers, there was work to be done at Leratong. On day 1, some of us got busy painting. Most of the school play ground equipment is made from tyres, barrels and scrap metal painted in bright colours. Some of the things needed a touch up before the new school year. 

Day 2 was for gardening. The fairly large school site provided enough space to plant vegetables. The ground was ploughed and divided up into areas for sweet potato, spring onions and tomatoes. Hopefully the caretakers will be able to look after them well enough to harvest soon. 

Day 3 was cleaning day. The windows and window sills were scrubbed and wiped clear, the floors swept and mopped. In general, these seemed like ordinary tasks, but helping hands for any sort of work was appreciated. 

Local Rural Construction

I got lucky again. Mama's son-in-law had started a small construction company. Despite having zero training in the field, he had taken up the renovation of school block into a government transport office in a small village. In order to cut costs and involve the community, he employed local labourers and used their expertise for the construction. Materials and equipment were bought at subsidised rates and even though the lack of professionals slowed the pace, the over all budget was halved. 

The project was near completion when I visited. The work was quite commendable and I quite liked the slight rustic edge to the building. 

In Summary

I couldn't have asked for a more perfect week. Minor blips were overshadowed by the people I got to meet. Hugs and tears at the end of the week only proved how much of impact we all had made on each other.

Even if the work was barely anything and the time spent was short, lasting impressions and memories cannot be measured. Thank God for such an experience.

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