Show me the way to go home

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And so to our final day at DCS.  For myself, having three lessons to teach became an opportunity to say goodbye to the learners I had taught over the past three months, and it was a gentle and relaxed day.  Val had a less comfortable time, having to fight with IT, but she was still able to enjoy most of it.

In no particular order, it was:

  • Me leading morning prayers
  • Teaching, with spirited playing of the “Who killed King John?” game, and some magnificent improvisations
  • Handing out presents to the laundry ladies, the security guys, the kitchen staff, and the maintenance team
  • A short outdoor concert given by the choir in our honour
  • A low-key but most enjoyable farewell braai
  • A trip to the astonishing Zebra Bar in Maboneng, including me playing an intense game of chess against Swazi, the owner. (I lost, but narrowly.)

And so we finish our stay, and with it comes the end of our daily blogs.  We shall record the last three weeks of our trip, but sporadically.  We hope it has proved (almost) as enjoyable an adventure for you as for us.  Au revoir.

Reflections XI – Memories (are made of this)

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Things we’ll miss about DCS:

Many, many people (with apologies to those I miss out): the triumvirate of ladies who really run the school – Mrs Marx in the staff room, Joyce in reprographics, Lina in the laundry.  Dayle and Paulus from the site team.  The security guys, especially Prosper, who welcomes us with a big smile when we come back late. The team in the boarding house kitchen/canteen.

Far more of the learners than we can possibly name.

The singing of the choir, especially rehearsing in the old chapel.

The congregation holding hands together in church as we sing the Lord’s Prayer.

Fitness boot camp (for Val)

The wonderful shower in our apartment

Working with Viloshni and Nthlane (Lucky)

Social occasions with Brighton, Darryl, others


Things we won’t miss:

Those (few) times when I have had to discipline learners

The toilet in our apartment, which kept going wrong

The ants, mosquitoes and the odd cockroach that have made occasional appearances in our apartment

Fried fish in the boarding house


Things we’ll miss about Johannesburg:

The weather

Bananas, cappuccinos

Taking Uber taxis, allowing us freedom: not to navigate, not to park, to drink

Friday evenings in Maboneng: a lovely meal out, great theatre (mostly) at the POPArt, home by 9.15

Swimming in the local (open air) pools

World class theatre – Woza Albert, Sophiatown, the shadows play… all for a mere pittance

The street art and the buzz of Johannesburg


And things we won’t:

Feeling trapped in our caged compound, not able to walk out the gate

Rubbish on the streets


Tea for two

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Our nearest neighbours (through a few layers of security fences) are the Sisters of the Holy Cross of the Third Order of St Francis – 4 sisters to be precise, two elderly, one student and Sister Maureen; I was pleased to accept the latter’s invitation to tea. They live together in a beautiful old house, built 100 years ago, and bought by the order in 1974. It has a lovely veranda and flower garden at the front, and retains many of its original features.

Over tea and scones, Sister Maureen told several fascinating tales of her life living and teaching in South Africa and Zimbabwe, through times of change, from the Apartheid era to now. She recounted how she used to take the bus into town to go shopping and visit the post office (now a burnt-out shell in the Central Business District). She did not hark back to a bygone era, but instead told it how it is – she still takes the bus to town today. “You just have to be sensible and not look like you have too much money”, while adding “It probably helps to be seen as a person of the church”.

It was also interesting to hear her experience of how teaching has changed over the years, especially through the 1980’s when students played a central role in the struggle for freedom, though one by-product was a decline in discipline in schools, making teaching more challenging at the time. This appears not to be an enduring legacy, at least from our experience at DCS, where the learners are focused and engaged.


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Maboneng is the name of one of Johannesburg’s trendiest areas, a refurbished couple of blocks of former warehouses.  It is only a couple of miles from where we live, though we have never walked there, and is our regular bolthole, usually once or twice a week.  It has lots of excellent and not expensive restaurants, and is home to Arts on Main, a network of studios, craft shops and stalls, as well as a large area which is car park during the week, but then transforms into a terrific food market on Sundays.  Maboneng is also home to POPArt theatre, our regular Friday night destination, the Bioscope, a small independent cinema with seating entirely comprised of old car seats, and the most fantastic second-hand bookshop.

It is probably the clearest example of the coming back to life of Johannesburg: a vibrant and exciting multicultural honeypot, attracting custom from all over the city, especially at weekends.  And it is continuing to grow and expand, new restaurants opening, new street art appearing, and spreading outwards, one block at a time.  It is not without its critics – gentrification is always controversial – but to our mind it is a sign of Johannesburg’s, and South Africa’s, growing optimism.

Tick-a-lish (not for the squeamish)

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I’d had a small scab on my hip for about a week, but had assumed that I had scratched myself, or even (rather more worrying) that it was a rogue mole, especially as it wobbled a bit. It was only when Val took a closer look, that she told me I ought to see the doctor, as she thought it might be a tick, picked up on safari.

The school arranged for me to be driven to the school’s doctor, Dr Leong, who operated out of a delightfully old-fashioned surgery. No appointment necessary, I signed in and was seen immediately. “Let’s have a look,” she said, and then “Ughh! It’s still there!” She told me she had never seen such a healthy, living specimen, so she took a photo of it, before attempting its removal. “It’s giving me the heeby-jeebies,” she said with a shiver. “He’s a stubborn little bugger!” but then, out he came. It was something of a surprise when she popped him into a specimen jar for me to take home, but it means you can see him too – he’s about a quarter the size of your fingernail.

Val was less surprised, as she told me she had seen him wiggling his legs that morning, but had kept the full truth from me to prevent me throwing a wobbly. Or fainting.

South African bont tick Amblyomma hebraeum (adult male)
Apparently, this one is most commonly found living on a buffalo’s hide!

Reflections IX – semi-colon

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The clever title is not mine, but that of the pictured figurines, exhibits at the Wits Art Museum, which we visited today. They are carvings of colonial figures seen from an African perspective (German Kaiser and western missionary respectively.) The entire exhibition questioned the colonial appropriation of African art, and elicited a number of (mostly) angry responses, as recorded on a purpose-built message board, debating such art’s inclusion in the enclosed and exclusive environment of a Western-style gallery in a formerly white university. A valid point of view, and one which I am not entitled to criticise.

Semi-colon could also refer to the position of South Africa today, still tied to aspects of its colonial heritage. On a trivial level, that means Wimpy bars, golden syrup, hot-cross buns; more seriously, the way the wealth of the country is still held by the white population, while political power has passed to the black majority. Who really has control of the (purse) strings of power?

And a semi-colon also marks a break, of course. We are drawing near to the end of our time in Johannesburg and the Dominican Convent School, and that brings about mixed emotions: regrets at leaving behind those we have come to know and value; nervousness about the ever-nearing production which will bring the project to a close; excitement about the safari we are undertaking with our children, and the further adventures in Africa before we return; homesickness for England, normal life, our garden…

A semi-colon is more than a comma, less than a full-stop, but holds both within it.

Reflections VIII – Words

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Some of the phrases in common use here are so well-known as to be the clichés spouted by the recorded voice on the open-air bus tour.  The variations of “now”, “just now” and “now now” are  examples of this, but remain true all the same, not least because they reveal the (extremely) relaxed attitude South Africa takes towards time.

There are also Afrikaans words that have become a part of the language of all here, black and white, English-speaking as well as Afrikaans.  A barbecue is always a braai (with its own aisle in supermarkets); a bakkie is a pick-up truck, pap is maize porridge. One of our friends at home had assumed that Afrikaans as a language was dying out, but this is absolutely not the case, and for a large part of the population it is their everyday language: living, working, and for many much-treasured. Many of the learners choose to take Afrikaans classes in school, as it can open doors for example, in certain lines of work.

Other words are less commented-upon, “Shame” being one such.  It is a sort of abbreviation of “What a shame” but has less of that expression’s mild horror, and more a twinkle of complicity and humour.  You hear it a lot.

Even more universal is the pairing of greeting and enquiry after one’s well-being, together with an expectation that you will use the same – “GoodmorninghowareyouImfinethankyou” – that makes one feel guilty at not having got one’s own enquiry in fast enough.

Finally, on the subject of words, a new addition to our blog-site (on the suggestion of Val’s brother Pete): a collection of talking head monologues, each lasting thirty seconds, in which young South Africans talk about anything they want.  It is called “Half a minute” and the link can be found on the home page.

Reflections VII – Culture clash

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Taking advantage of a long weekend – Human Rights Day – we headed into Kwa-Zulu Natal and the town of Dundee, an excellent base to explore the battlefields of the Anglo-Zulu and Boer Wars – we took a guided tour of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift (for those of a certain age, think “Zulu” with Michael Caine.) Our guide, Pat Rondgren, gave an excellent insight to battle strategy (and stupidity), but also into Zulu culture.

The Zulu were raiders, with no concept of borders and the ownership of land, and had little interest in things that were anchored. There are monuments to both sides  – the photo is of a monument to the Zulu fallen at Rorke’s Drift, a statue of a leopard on hide shields – but it is largely for the benefit of (white) visitors.  The Zulu see far greater point to the tree planted alongside, which provides shade and sustenance.

Western virtues do not sit easily with Zulu culture. We value punctuality (the politeness of kings), making eye contact upon meeting, even the idea of ladies first when entering a room (it is the duty of the Zulu man to enter first to ensure no danger lurks within). And, knowing this, I have had cause to question my own teaching.  Am I being stubbornly dogmatic (and racist) in demanding that the learners in my class “listen with their eyes”?  Should I continue to insist upon the learners arriving on time for lessons and rehearsals, and getting down to work straight away?  (That is certainly something the school insists upon.)  Or is it patronising (and racist) to make allowances for a different approach, when they will have to make their way in the modern world.  No straightforward answer, I fear.

Reflections VI – Mallingering

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Shopping malls are very big in South Africa, both literally and figuratively. For some sections of the population, they are truly the only place to shop. And that is all kinds of shopping: fashion and homeware as well as the weekly food shop, as they are home to all the major supermarkets, from (curiously) Woolworths at the luxury end down to Pick’n Pay at the budget. Apart from in the malls, there are plenty of other shops which call themselves supermarkets – eight on the short trip to our local swimming pool, along run-down Jules Street – but they are what we would call corner shops, and fairly wretched ones at that, with food on pallets and a lockable gate at the door; that is where the majority of the poorer black population does its shopping.

There are black people in the malls, but apart from the relatively small (though growing) black middle class, they tend to be the people working there – shop assistants, waiting staff, security guards.

Malls are also leisure venues, containing cinemas and private gyms. Most have an area open to the sky, with a children’s play area fringed by restaurants of all kinds – Italian, Indian, Mexican, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese… all staffed by black people. There will frequently be a hotel attached, and along with the other Stowe teachers who came last February, it was in one of these that I was booked. Apart from when we were in a car or inside the school gates, the mall was pretty much the only place we saw.

For mall goers, there is no concept of walking to the shops – it’s always a drive. The trick is to work out which multi-storey car parks gets you closest to your preferred shopping destination. And after transporting your purchases to your car, staff tether together huge trains of trolleys and return them to their respective stores, often maneuvering them by hand, sometimes using golf buggies or small tractors.

Note – this will be our last posting for a few days. We are taking advantage of the school being closed for a long weekend to visit the South African battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal (or KZN as it’s known here), so the blog will be on holiday too. More news upon our return.

Reflections V – Art for art’s sake…

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When we told anyone who knew anything about South Africa that we were coming to Johannesburg, the automatic response was, “But you must go to Cape Town.” Well, we have done, and there’s no doubt about it – it is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and has an enviable laid-back lifestyle. The temptation is to wonder why anyone who has a choice would live in Johannesburg, with the crime and the rubbish piled everywhere. But in fact Johannesburg does have an edge and a vitality that Cape Town lacks, and we’ve met quite a few who choose to make it their home.

A lot of that is down to culture. We’ve already mentioned the theatre here (and, courtesy of the POPArt theatre, that continues to be wonderful) but even more visible is the art. There are huge public artworks of all kinds, figurative and abstract. There is First Thursday, a monthly explosive celebration when the city’s magnificent galleries throw open their spaces (and supply free wine!) Most obvious of all is the street art: murals a tower block high, graffiti of all kinds covering just about every available wall with colour, wit, humour, life.

And it is art that is gradually colonising Johannesburg, bringing the city back to life a block at a time. Maboneng, Braamfontein, Rosebank are full of studios and galleries, which bring with them restaurants and bars, which bring loft apartments and shops. Gentrification maybe, but of the most benign kind; artification maybe.