The Student Volunteer Programme - presently a project of Rhodes University Community Engagement - was started by the CSD primarily to provide assistance to ECD Centres in Grahamstown. The Student Volunteer Programme has now grown exponentially and is situated in the Community Engagement Office of Rhodes University. However, many of the student volunteers continue to work at ECD Centres in Grahamstown. The student volunteers are placed at the following ECD Centres in Grahamstown: St Phillips, Siyazama, Noncedo, Nompumelelo, Luzuko and Raglan Road. The student volunteers are placed at these various schools to assist and extend the children's learning through play. This is achieved through the help and guidance from the CSD through meaningful workshops and the ECD teachers themselves.
One of the workshops held in 2010 focussed on making resources for the preschools that teachers don't get the chance to make but would love to have in their learning sites. The group of student volunteers with the teachers from the preschools soon got into the swing of things and the creative juices certainly flowed. The charts, puppets and matching games that were made were well thought out and beautifully made.
Volunteers enjoying an ECD Workshop
Volunteering in a pre-school
Gabi Falanga is one of the ECD student volunteers coordinated by the CSD and the Community Engagement Office.
Communicating across barriers
By Gabi Falanga
As the Rhodetrip bus rounds the corner, a chant starts up: “Umisi, umisi, umisi!” as 20-odd children run to the gate, their tiny fingers clinging to the loose chicken wire. I walk in and the children start pushing and shoving, fighting to be the first to hug my legs and grab the flowery bag that contains the activity for the day.
I started volunteering at Luzuko Preschool in February this year. Although the children’s enthusiastic reactions have always been unconditional, the volunteering hasn’t always been easy.
I arrive at my first session, empty-handed and clueless. What am I actually supposed to be doing? The over-excited children pull on my hands, making a huge racket. The teachers ask, “What have you brought today?”
“Um, what have I brought?”
“Do you have a story?”
Completely stranded, I spent my first few sessions making up activities, trying to teach the children nursery rhymes with actions and reading story upon story until they were so bored that running riot became a better option. Trying to control 30 excitable children in my non-existent isiXhosa, and their equally non-existent English, was impossible. The teachers kept their distance and my questions were met with short, curt answers. Occasionally they would help translate stories. And so Tuesdays arrived week after week and I would head towards Fingo Village with a tight hand squeezing my insides and my confidence dwindling. I would leave feeling as though I was failing the children and not contributing to their development at all.
In the second term the Centre for Social Development (CSD) held a resources workshop for the volunteers and the Early childhood development (ECD) school teachers. A room filled with paint, paper, scraps of material and glue sticking to everything, lead to a break through in the relationship between me and Kholiswa Tsewu, the headmistress of Luzuko. In the absence of the energetic and demanding children, MaKholiswa laughed at the floppy puppet with the big head and mismatched clothes that I was making. It was only during the workshop that I realised that she struggled to express herself in English. Suddenly all the previous incidents at the preschool started falling into place. Relaxing, talking and getting our hands dirty together forged a bond between me and the headmistress. Only once we could relax, could we begin to communicate with each other.
After the workshop I became aware of how I approached the teachers and toned down my English. From then on volunteering became very different. The teachers started supporting and helping me more, but the language barrier between me and the teachers and children was still there, and still just as frustrating.
Mihle Stamper (5) runs up to me, her little face earnest, her dark intelligent eyes serious as she points and asks me a long, complicated-sounding question.
“Sorry Sisi, I don’t understand, go ask your teacher.”
Her forehead crinkles and she gives me a bewildered, almost indignant look as she stares at my face a little while longer, before running away.
I ask Pamela Sandi, the Community Development Practitioner at Luzuko, to ask Mihle what she thinks when I don’t answer her questions properly. Mihle says, “I think she is ignoring me.”
“How do you feel when that happens?”
“It doesn’t feel good.”
“And what do you do when that happens?”
“I go away and I play on my own.”
A dagger pierces my heart. What am I doing to these children? According to Dee Shone, the ECD Student Volunteer Co-ordinator, it is important to always show a child that you’re interested in what they’re saying. And I am, but I don’t understand them. Pamela says that Mihle does not know that what she’s saying is incomprehensible to me. She thinks I understand isiXhosa. Again, I can’t stop wondering, what am I doing to this child? Am I forever damaging her perception of white people or of English-speaking people? Henriette van Zyl, a psychology masters student, reassures me that unless I do something really horrible to a child, it should not have a long term effect on them. Children are very adaptable and bounce back easily, she says.
And then something that Dee and the teachers say makes me feel better and somewhat less guilty about my lack of isiXhosa: My body also speaks a language! My actions, gestures, facial expressions – the children understand and interpret all of these. They learn some English by matching my words to my actions. But Dee also says that I should learn some isiXhosa to make communication easier and less limited.
I decide to get over my self-consciousness. During the next activity, the children are making birds out of toilet rolls. A tiny boy runs up to me. He’s been struggling to cut the wings out and now finally his bird has wings. “How do I say ‘that’s very good’?” I ask one of the assistant teachers. She says a word that has a click followed by a strange sound. I try and try and try but can’t get my mouth to make the right shapes and sounds. The teacher starts laughing and shouts across the room, telling the other teachers what has happened and asking them for an easier word. Soon all three of them are laughing out loud at my inability to make the sounds that come so easily to them. This was ice breaker number two. But still, I am determined to keep trying.
This term I have become a guinea pig. The Xhosa department are teaching a whole group of eager journalism students the basics in isiXhosa. I couldn’t wait to try out my first few words on the children and teachers!
(BIG smiles.) “Molo Sisi.”
“Ndiphilile Sisi, wena unjani?”
“Ndiphilile Mama, enkosi.”
And then, to show off even more, I whip out the flashcards I made for myself with scribbled pictures of boats, cars, donkey carts, aeroplanes and helicopters, with the isiXhosa words in big colourful koki letters.
“Look Mama! I’m learning the words for the transport theme. Inqwelo-ntaka.”
“Shoo! That’s a helicopter. You know, ntaka means a flying bird,” says MaKholiswa flapping her arms.
“And this one, Inqwelo-moya,” I say trying hard to get the click right.
“An aeroplane, moya means sky.”
And so the guinea pig has taken one step closer into the world of the teachers. The activity goes well on this day. All the teachers come inside to help me. At the end of my hour there, one of the teachers brings me a plate of food. I am touched; I know they don’t have much. Before I leave, MaKholiswa shows me a robot made out of paper. She points to the red and says, “This one, stop, is yima.”
“Yima,” I repeat.
“And this one,” she says pointing to the green, “is hamba, go.”
Piece by little piece, the communication barrier is being chipped away. By putting myself out of my comfort zone and risking embarrassment by trying to speak isiXhosa, MaKholiswa has become less self-conscious of her English.
South Africa’s history of colonialism and apartheid is what forged these language barriers. Grahamstown is no exception, with clear geographical boundaries indicating the areas in which different languages are spoken. Sixteen years into our democracy and these boundaries still exist. People like me hesitate to cross them because not being able to communicate is scary. In the same way people like MaKholiswa are intimidated by English, because they have never had the opportunity to learn it properly. Only by gaining this wisdom are we able to start breaking down these barriers.
Now I try to remember to use my body more. I point at objects and say the English word. At story time I read books to the children, with a teacher by my side to translate. Every now and then, MaKholiswa will whisper something next to me, teaching me new words. And through a strange mixture of English, isiXhosa and body language the children learn. Just as I am learning to communicate in more ways than one, so are they. Sixteen years later, the language barrier is being broken down, and friendships and understanding are being built in its place, in a little preschool in a Grahamstown township.