This is what I learned volunteering in a township outside of Johannesburg, South Africa.
As part of Team4Tech, we taught technology and entrepreneurship in the township of Ga-Rankuwa in Pretoria.
Most Meaningful Experience: How to inspire those in poverty who think money will solve all of life’s problems.
This is a good example of voluntourism in action.
“How do I get out of here?” “How do I make lots of money – money solves everything?” I hadn’t expected teaching tech skills to kids in South Africa would be such an emotional experience and couldn’t ignore their disheartenment and lack of hope at their own situation. I had just flown into Johannesburg after a six-week training program with Team4Tech – a non-profit that brings 21st digital technology to underprivileged communities. I’d left my lesson planning and preparations until the last week (and the plane flight) but thankfully it had been enough!
I was met at the airport by co-team leader Paul and other Team4Tech volunteers who were fresh off safari. It was nice to see some friendly faces, have a coffee and relax to ease my entry into South Africa before being driven the 90 minutes to our hotel in Pretoria where horses grazed in the backyard. While the surrounding streets appeared much like the United States, barbed wire topped all of the fences and I was warned against leaving the property to go for a run.
Our group of Team4Tech volunteers was a combination of engineers, business people, and teachers, most of whom were from the US West Coast and Tennessee. A day before I’d left for South Africa, I’d called up Wayne, a 72-year-old former coder at IBM to hear about his motivations for being part of this project. He’d decided he wanted to do some traveling while giving back at the same time and had roped in his friend Al, a retired high school teacher. It was Al that ended up being the glue that connected the rest of us to the teachers and students, helping us to contribute to their lives in a meaningful and impactful way.
Our teaching engagement was at Leap6 School, which was located just outside of Pretoria in the township of Ga-Rankuwa. It’s an advanced learning school for talented students, with a particular focus on math, science, and leadership. A teacher and principal who wanted to find a way to bridge the unequal academic divide in South Africa, John Gilmour formed the school and focused on the townships. With no support from the government, The Leap schools raise capital every year and are sponsored by companies in South Africa like BMW, Credit Suisse, and Toshiba. I couldn’t help but think, perhaps, US public schools should get investment from Google, Facebook and the like.
The talent was immediately apparent when we first met the students who were super engaged and asked lots of great questions, many about the political situation in the US. “Are Americans racist? Do you like Trump? Will he help Africa?” Why does everyone in the US have Apple?“ These were the common questions that they shot at us out of the gates. They knew all about the latest American hip hop and rap, as well as having a good grasp on politics and sports in various countries around the world. I didn’t think American kids the same age would be as knowledgable as they
We spent a week setting up new computers and installing software, then assisted the students using Google Cardboard, Makey Makey and creating websites with WordPress. Some of the volunteers taught the teachers how to use Google Online and Microsoft Online to run lesson plans while Alda taught the students how to build an Android application. My biggest success was teaching entrepreneurship classes and seeing the excitement in the kids as they discovered how they could develop a business plan in just a few hours.
Our visit to the school coincided with their end of the year awards ceremony, which was a wonderful exhibition of culture. The students sang and danced, then demonstrated their entrepreneurship project (one team sold around $55 worth of burgers which excited them), another made trash cans to separate recyclables, and the winner was a group that started a landscape company servicing yards around the area.
During the week we participated in a township field trip, with the students and I helping older members of the community pull weeds and do general yard work. I put on my old landscaping hat and tore through the yard, with a job that would have taken 10 minutes with a weed wacker taking two hours by manual labor!
It was during this experience that the kids opened up about the realities of life in the township – the lack of father figures, rampant alcoholism and difficulty finding the money for basic supplies. They explained that people are granted a basic property but must build their house themselves, with most living in rundown shacks.
There was a feeling among the students that money solved everything and I tried to explain that money doesn’t create happiness – many very wealthy people are also very unhappy. We had reflection sessions each evening that made me thank about my own life experiences and that creating meaning in life is a better goal than building wealth.
I used Youtube videos from Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in my entrepreneurship class and suggested the students create a belief and stand by that. It was the only way to instill a sense of hope that they could get to a better place and gave me a new way to look at my own path in life. I really honed on Steve Jobs quote around “connecting the dots”. “You can connect them going backward but not forward he said. Try to find out what you want to do.”
I feel that our biggest accomplishment as a group was giving these students hope and that by the time we left, most felt empowered by what they had learned. Through technology, they could envision a world outside of their own (both literally with Google Cardboard and figuratively) and we left hoping that some of them would use this knowledge to create a better life for themselves.
As a group we learned a lot from each other. We not only learned about each other but also how to make things work from different walks of life. The final night we had braii at a fancy place in Johannesburg which served many types of meat – my favorite was the Orix. And then we spent the night dancing and drinking for Dawn’s birthday at a local strip mall. The next day we would drive back to Johannesburg, do some sightseeing, and then part our separate ways.
Here is a separate video I made.