Back to School

You can hear the children singing at morning assembly as we drive round the last bend. I’m late, as usual, and still flustered from another early morning of searching through my closet trying to find the right costume to transform myself into a primary school teacher. I tip my giant Starbucks, travel mug nearly upside down, wishing for one more sip of caffeine and willing it to surge through my veins, and jump start a little energy. I half run, half walk to stand in line next to my fellow teachers along the outside wall, watching the last few minutes of the assembly. The children are bowing their heads for the lords prayer; it always makes me giggle when they speak in unison and their accents somehow make each word have 3 extra syllables. They say “amen”, and someone in the crowd starts signing the marching song, signaling the end of the morning activities as they march to class. The little ones disperse first, and the single line formation lasts about 2 steps before they scatter everywhere, and eventually run and skip to their classrooms.


I head to my classroom door, which is now barricaded with a heavy iron gate, that has to be unlocked in 3 places and lifted from the frame. It is always a surprise when I enter my classroom. I only see it 2 times a week, and I swear they have elaborate parties when I’m not there. Desks scattered, chairs stacked randomly, and every surface covered in a thick red dust, a familiarity to the area of Matsapha. I begin my morning ritual of cleaning up, and organizing my classroom as quickly as possible- my first students will be standing at the door soon. During this mad dash, I always curse myself for wearing tight black pants and boots, as I do every morning here– Matsapha is HOT. It feels like the core of the earth, even at 8am. There could be frost at my house a mere 30 km’s away, but down in the valley- it feels like the soles of my shoes are going to melt on the hot dirt outside. One day I will remember this, and dress accordingly- but for now I suffer in the stale heat.


When I took this job I thought i’d be teaching Art- now it is practical arts, and I am still learning the difference. It’s my 4th week, and I still don’t have my teachers guides or student handbooks- so I’m making it up as I go. From what I can tell, “Practical Arts”, is preparing the students for craft work- how to make all of the things you can find in the markets; from baskets and reed mats to beaded necklaces and bags. This is both exciting and bothersome. When you go to the markets around Swaziland, you can find any number of the same exact craft. A basket woven in Mbabane is the same identical one, you will find on the other side of the country, and for the same price. It has always boggled my mind- no difference in product. No one steps outside of normal, no one tries to improve or make their craft special. Vendors will even tell you, they don’t want to upset the other vendors by making their products unique. I remember when I was in the Peace corps, my Make would make “swazi buns”, a semi-sweet roll, that she would sell for 50 cents. At least 5 other women sold the same rolls for the same price, and there was no difference or variety. I tried on several occasions to convince her to sell banana muffins, since we had a span of banana trees on our homestead, and everyone seemed to like the muffins I would make. Even when I told her she could sell them for twice as much, she was afraid to disturb the market. To an American, I suppose this anti-capitalistic attitude just didn’t make sense. However now I am charged with the task of educating children on crafting- preparing them for a life of possibly working in these craft markets- this time I get to start young.


For the next few weeks I will be teaching my students how to do marketing- everything from conducting market research, to resourcing and using recycled material, to figuring out profit margins and then making a marketing plan to sell their products. It will be a 5 week lesson, before we even begin to make our craft, which will be decided only after all the research is done. I’m very excited to see them learn from their research, and how to start a successful business.


Class has been a very interesting new experience for me. My children range from 1st grade through 7th grade, and their background range even more drastically. I have a mix of urban children, and rural; as well as swazi, and Indian students (I must say I enjoy my Indian children with names like Justin and Abdul as opposed to more traditional swazi names like Sisibusiswe).


In the beginning of the term, I discovered right away that these kids have been trained to be obedient, and respond like robots. For a class specializing in creative thinking, this was my first challenge. On the first day of class I had them all draw self-portraits, mostly as a sneaky way of getting them to write down their names so I could practice saying them at home, but also to register what level they were at artistically. The kids broke out rulers, to draw their legs, compasses to draw perfect circles on top of their necks. The desks were covered in eraser fragments; after 15 minutes, nearly no one in the class had actually drawn something and left it on the page. A few of my classes I actually had to forbid erasers from being used at all. They were staring at me for approval- terrified they were doing it wrong. Some of the kids even drew straight from my example.


I pondered over all of these things during the next week, and decided that on day two we would just work on being creative. We took one piece of paper for each class, and drew one picture, together. They were SO confused by this project at first, but eventually everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves- I think in the end they understood that art is suppose to be fun and free, but we still have a ways to go. If I ask a question like “are you ready to start!? Are you excited?” I get a response back in a monotone, unison voice “yes teacher…”. Rule number 3 in my classroom is “You are not a zombie. Participate and Interact.”. One day I hope they catch the true meaning.


After school, I usually get stuck in Mastapha working with George as his unofficial assistant. He is full-fled working in his new job now, and too busy for words. He is a sales rep for the whole of swaziland, with at least 30 companies to which he supplies building materials to. He does the sales, the accounts, the deliveries and basically any other positions you could imagine for 1 employee running his own company. He is busy, but is enjoying the challenge. On the days when I’m not at school, I am busy running my own business, which is booming. I now have 8 clients I work with regularly, and more coming every week. It has been both overwhelming and exciting. Everyone is insisting that I register my design company and set up office somewhere, but I’m still happy working at home in my Pj’s (the advantage of having your own business in my opinion).


We have also expanded our little family recently, by adopting yet another dog. Let me tell you 3 large dogs are WAY more than 2. The new puppy, was another dog that no one wanted, the last picked for the kick-ball team, the runt, the little gimp- as were all our dogs. The new additions name is Frank, named for Frank Lamphart, the famous soccer player who had problems with hernias and could never finish a game. Dear Frank the puppy, also has hernias and will need an operation when he is a year old. His name was a toss up between Frank and Stevie Wonder, as he will also need eye surgery soon. He is a boer bull bred, which apparently have a common genetic problem with the inside of their eyelids growing inward, and causing the eyes to water and easily get infected. So until he is old enough for surgery, we walks around with his eyes closed, and he always looks like he is crying- despite this, he is the cutest thing ever.


We will also be making room for my first visitor this week! My friend Willow will be coming to stay in Swaziland for over a month, and will be my first official visitor form the states since my arrival almost 2 years ago. It will be nice to have a friend from home here, and get to show off my new home. It will also be a great excuse for me to do all of the touristy things i’ve always wanted to do in Swaziland but never had the time for. Additionally it will be a great test run for several of the activities I have planned for my family when they make the journey across the pond.



1 thought on “Back to School

  1. love to hear all this about the kids and the way they do things. Amazing the way people are suppressed in other countries to use their creativity and imaginations, it’s no wonder they break loose later in frustration and crime. I am so glad they have you for an art teacher, i would love to hear them say Ginger! in there accents, i would love to hear them saying the lords prayer too. Claire did a very cute picture on a bag that was a self potrait. Jake posted it on facebook for all to see, you would love it, might be a cute example for you to use too!
    keep up the great work, we wondered what happened to George, we haven’t seen or heard from him at all, we thought maybe he defriended us or something after coming here!!
    keep the news and shares coming as we all love to hear from you!
    love mom

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