Schedules and shuffling

The second fortnight has passed quickly, I’m not sure if that is a result of me being busy or whether the mind gets used to little conversation! I now understand Robinson Crusoe much better!

In reality it is all about how busy the environment is. The days start at 5:45, I sort my breakfast and stuff for school and either walk up to 3 miles or catch a bus for a journey of just over an hour. I’ll let you guess which I prefer. The bus journey is interesting as an experience. The fare is around M30 or some £2, for that you get transport that looks like something from “The Exotic Marigold Hotel”. As this is Lesotho, the journey would not be complete without eardrum shattering music. This can vary depending on the driver’s preferences. The one I prefer is the home spun music which seems to remind me of Italian village music. My least favourite are hymns which go on for ever and remind me of my childhood Sundays. The bus has the driver accompanied by his first mate and a guy who collects the fare. Tickets are written out on receipt of the fare but you then sit for the journey wondering if you’ll get change.

The schedule has been difficult. My proposed stay at Auray Primary School has not happened as there was no running water and the Sister Head teacher did not feel that I would be sufficiently comfortable. As a result my visits up to the mountains have been a daily bus ride up and then usually flagging anyone in a large 4x4 truck for a return journey. Sometimes it’s a Government worker, sometimes a Policeman. This is certainly the way to find out what a country is like. The last trip with a member of the Thaba Tseka mountain police was enlightening. The biggest crimes are stock theft and abduction in this area. 


Managing the schedule has been the most frustrating part. I have turned up occasionally to find no one to meet me and take me to the next stop. Other times you arrive and then Basotho time kicks in with a whole range of long discussions in the background before you settle in to doing the job. What I have to constantly tell myself is that this is how the Basotho are. It’s a bit like Treebeard in the Lord of the Rings “well young Hobbit we trees take a long time to decide these issues…”. The reality is that they are right and we are wrong. We live life too fast and I think are stressed because of it, although there are times where this slow stuff stresses me to the limits.


Once in the schools and fully engaged in the teaching then there’s nothing like it. The children are responsive, they want to learn, want to please and be recognised. There are too many in classes. These can range from 45 to 100 and the normal structures of lessons in the UK are pointless. I keep on thinking of those proposed tick sheets on how you judge a good lesson. Bonkers, everyone here has to look at the environment and just get on with what you have … a chalkboard, limited space, limited text books, no photocopying. you make a resource and keep in your mind how many times will you use it, is it adaptable to another lesson and will it let the children visualise what you are explaining. I’m finding myself back telling stories, explaining things in language they understand, showing not telling. The difficult part is language and in this respect I’m insistent that one of the teachers is there to translate into Sesotho if needed. 

Sometimes I know before I arrive what it is that I’m going to be teaching. Other times it’s pot luck, I might get Ntate Sion can you do the percentage profit. it is completely different to last years experience where the regularity of 3 days at Thaba Tseka school and a day at Loti meant everyone knew how the days would work. This year I rock up and it could be a success or disaster. What I’ve found is that the best lessons are when the teacher is with me, not just physically in the room but active. Their contribution isn’t what matters it’s whether they seem interested. The children notice. The best staff are taking notes, trying the problems, happy to be asked to contribute. I think i am going to use this in the schools. The plan I’m hatching is that once a month we will have a staff meeting and the ones working with me will show the others how they might now teach a topic. Yes some are not going to be able to contribute but I’m getting a core who are there learning, thinking trying out new stuff.


I’m trying really hard to make maths a little more fun. Teaching primes, square numbers and triangular numbers the other day with a young student, we decided to make the three into clans and then set about explaining the characteristics of each clan. Half an hour later the clans were marching around shouting who they were and what was special about them.


The student teachers are great, they really want to learn, try new ideas. A visit to the college this week after school was fun as we were sorting out a workshop for the third year students. Unlike last year I want the lecturers to be part of the session showing the students how to use some of the resources or how to explain things in a different way. I’ve come to the conclusion that sustainable change comes through them.


The funny things that happen make me roar. One class I could hear this shuffling by the desk all lesson. As I was packing up the teacher asked if I’d seen the live chicken in her bag on the floor. The children are so positive. They love talking and asking questions. They all have aspirations and want to travel, but I’m not sure that they want to leave this country. Every time I walk to Loti school I have a multitude walking with me singing, chatting, carrying my bags. As the children in Katlehong and Paray get to know me they are getting the confidence to just walk along in a kind of silent harmony. Even parents are beginning to shout out Ntate Sion how are yoooo. Chess has been fun we have pawns (foot soldiers), bishops (priests) and castles (fortresses) next week we are introducing the queen. The children are demanding a happy face when they get their worked marked and it’s correct. They also seem to like the challenge of differentiated questions. I walked into Katlehong today and was faced with a hundred asking me to mark their homework. They’d refused their teacher to mark it, I set it and so they wanted me to mark it! Tbh I think the teacher reckoned that I should experience the joy of marking 100 books.


There are some opportunities to do something different. A visit to grade 1 in Loti as I was checking in with the principal, and I saw them singing a Sesotho song about parts of the body. They now know the song heads, shoulders, knees and toes. They also know that I am not George Michael in the vocal department. I walk into another class and am asked to help with drawing portraits. One teacher even asked if I wanted to mark the Sesotho test papers. In a way that sums up these people they love a bit of banter and a joke.



The odd child still demands “give me the sweets”. This is more likely if they don’t know you. the trip I had to Kolberg for a course the other day resulted in children shouting for sweets as the car passed, just because I was a white man in the car. The trip itself was interesting,20 Km took one and a half hours on a pot holed dirt track. The road was supposed to be built as part of the Katse dam project, however I’ve been reliably informed that money never emerged. 16 staff watching a lesson I taught Grade 7 on ratio. This was followed by three hours of their time to ask anything regarding maths. Most wanted ideas on how to teach specific topics, we also looked at the grade 7 papers to see how the children could best answer them. Last year we ran a stack of courses for teachers but in all honesty this seemed more real as they saw you working with a class. I’m more and more convinced by this idea of modelling how to relate to pupils, how to move around a class. Returning from Kolburg with three teachers in the car, I think they were shocked as Loti children were waving and shouting mr Sion. I explained that I’d taught them for a 5 month slot last year and they either think every white man is Ntate Sion or that they know me well.


The downtime is the hardest. After the day is finished and preparation done for anything I know is coming up then the evenings are long. is it just being here but TV has not appealed. I’m reading a lot which is great. Why is it that I find so little time to do that in the UK? The weekends are like long sick days they go on and on and on. I’ve scheduled a decent hike for each day but I still have to be careful. 


My friend charlie the cricket has I suspect died or developed the common cold and lost his voice. No worries, last night a new friend appeared. Brian the bug flew around the lounge for a while. Brian is the size of a large thumb and to be honest, was not welcome.

In a fortnight I will have company and I think I need it just for someone to have a gripe to. I’ve realised that to be miserable you have to have someone to offload your misery to. When you think about it even the Grinch has a sidekick!!! By misery I mean those whinges that everyone feels they deserve. My biggest complaints happen on “no electricity Thursday" where I arrive home and can’t even have a coffee. Cooking has been fun. I think when I return I’ll see if Jamie Oliver is interested in a recipe book I’m putting together called 101 ways to cook a butternut squash. My first aid skills are also improving from different ways of mutilating your hands as you peel a butternut squash. The supplies I bought in Maseru are going well. That said the block of cheese has finally been finished and the two jars of coffee are almost spent. Coffee in Thaba tseka is the chicory coffee. Now I’m not sure if anyone remembers camp coffee from the sixties but my time at Llandovery college as a young boy put me off that for life. What I can’t find in the town which has surprised me are tinned tomatoes. “excuse me Mme do you have the tinned tomatoes/”….long pause then I’m taken to the jars of ketchup. Firstly in fairness tins are not tins, they are cans, secondly they just don’t have a market for them here. Stacks of corn beef cans, baked beans and bizarrely pilchards in tomato sauce!!!


At the end of it though, I’m still here smiling, looking forward to the next day teaching, leaving schools with a personal sense of achievement. You can’t ask much more than that. Likewise when you are up in the mountains surrounded by silence and magnificent views or an old Basotho comes up genuinely interested in what you are doing, it makes one realise what a great experience doing this sort of work is.

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