I must be Zulu.

While I was in high school I continued a tradition that my elder sister started when she attended Mother Teresa Secondary, and that was to hold Black History Month assemblies every year. This was not only an opportunity to respect the history of our people, but it was also the only way we felt we could educate students about what it meant to be black in the west, as well as to learn about some of the history that was forgotten and never inserted in our history books. I love to teach! I’ve also had the privilege of teaching Black History at a middle school in Toronto, grade 6-8. There have been many different opportunities I’ve had to teach both formally and informally. The reason I’m mentioning these experiences is because teaching has been the highlight of my first week in South Africa.

We arrived and met the amazing Principle of Slangspruit Primary School, Mr. Msomi. We also met the wonderful teachers that we would be working with directly. On our first day we were introduced to each class one by one, as we entered a classroom the students would all rise from their seats and in harmony say; “Good morning Educators”, we would respond back “good morning, how are you?”, they would respond “we are fine, thank you and how are you teachers?”, we would then respond back kindly. It was so beautiful and impressive to see the amount of discipline and respect that is taught and maintained in the school; even the children in the first grade greeted us in the same manner.

I was placed in the grade 5 class for the first week and until we settle into our positions. The children are taught in Zulu from grade R (kindergarten) to grade 3, grade 4 and 5 are the transition years where everything switches into English and the students are still adjusting; grade 6 and 7 is pure English and the students are pretty much well versed in both English and Zulu. Being in the grade 5 English classes I had to remember that the students might still struggle to understand and speak in English. There were challenges I was not fully prepared to encounter and may have gone over my head in terms of preparation. So here I am trying to communicate in English and having it turn into a mini broken telephone game. I would speak in English and many would respond back in Zulu, I then reminded the class that “I only speak English”, but that was not acceptable.

Throughout the week I came to understand that the students were a bit confused by my appearance and my inability to speak Zulu. I had a student raise her hand for help, she wanted to know whether the exercises on both sides of the workbook needed to be completed and was pointing as she was asking me. Once class was over a group of girls came to me and firmly stated; “you speak Zulu”, I clarified that I did not. The student that had asked me about the exercises said, “I asked you the question in Zulu and you responded correct”, I hadn’t even noticed what language she was speaking in when she asked me her question because she was pointing and made it obvious.

Mrs. Ngcobo, the lovely teacher I am working with shared with me that many students had been asking her why I do not speak Zulu; that I must understand and not speak, that I look like them so I must be able to speak. Mrs. Ngcobo had to remind the class that I only speak English and that I’ve come from Canada not from their local community, which is all they knew; they didn’t know that people who looked like them lived anywhere else.

By day three I was teaching on my own, not only was it challenging because of the inability to communicate efficiently through language; the most challenging part was to keep the learners engaged when they could not understand me well. At least there would be a chance for Mrs. Ngcobo to translate in Zulu if they could not understand, but for me – this was a heck of a challenge. So the experience that I mentioned starting this blog did not really apply in this case, this is a total new challenge. Luckily there were a couple students in each grade five class who ultimately felt bad for me and would translate to the class.

The week ended with me getting many hugs and love notes from wonderful students in my classes + a remarkable Zulu dance lesson. Check out the video Below!!

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