A journey of self-discovery

2008-09-23 00:00

ASK 51 ninth graders from a private girls’ high school to give up their creature comforts — and cellphones — for three weeks and trek 200 kilometres over mountainous terrain into Lesotho and you’d expect to hear a few mutinous mutterings.

And no doubt there were. But by all accounts, the girls from St John’s DSG threw their hearts and souls into the 20-day expedition and have come out at the other side more confident, reflective and inspired young people who also know they can live without the trappings of modernity ... if they really have to. Called uHambo, which means “journey” in Zulu, the St John’s expedition is modelled on the established 28-day “trek” introduced 10 years ago at Somerset College in the Western Cape.

“We adapted Somerset’s concept to our needs,” said St John’s accountancy teacher and seasoned hiker Teresa Whitfield, who led one of the groups. “It was important that the trip be a significant period of time so the girls could have a chance to get the bigger picture, learn lessons and allow opportunity for those lessons to be reinforced.”

Following the success of this year’s pioneer expedition, uHambo is now a firm event on the St John’s school calendar and part of the formal Grade 9 curriculum. The physically demanding journey is designed to encourage the development of life skills, including an ability to work in groups, problem-solving and leadership skills.

“The programme also aims to nurture an appreciation of the natural environment, encourage empathy, endurance, a deeper understanding of the value of relationships and to encourage spiritual exploration ... all the ‘deeper stuff’,” said Whitfield.

Why choose Grade 9 pupils? According to Whitfield, the year is a notoriously “unsettled” one for girls around ages 14 and 15. “Emotionally and physically, they’re in a transitional phase,” said Whitfield. “This trip helped them to put themselves and their worlds into broader perspective.”

Divided into three groups of 17, with each group separated by a day, the girls began their journey near Bulwer. Following a winding route, they mainly hiked but also cycled in the general direction of Sani Pass. By day four, the pupils caught their first clear glimpse of the imposing Hodgson’s South Peak, which they would summit on day 17. In Lesotho, they travelled some way on horseback and were hosted by a Basotho village, craft centre and school.

Nights were spent mainly in tents. All personal items and camping equipment were carried by pupils in backpacks and drinking water was sourced from streams and cattle troughs. Organised food drops every three days spared the hikers the burden of carrying food, but reminded them of the constant need for rationing.

Whitfield said the girls quickly developed an appreciation of what is done for them at home. “They had to take care of themselves and do everything for themselves — washing dishes, their clothes, packing up and putting up tents.”

On day 10, Whitfield said some of the girls in her group started to get bored. “I asked them what they would be doing now if they weren’t on the hike. One of the suggestions was: ‘We’d be at the mall’.

“So we talked about the value of self-entertainment as opposed to superficial ready-made entertainment. We were just about to set off on another five days of hiking; I told them they’d have to make a plan.”

The challenge paid off. Whitfield said the girls started to engage more intensely with different members of their group. “They relaxed, flung themselves into mountain streams and had fun. Boredom was never again an issue,” she said.

A booklet produced by St John’s teachers provided the girls with a daily itinerary, extracts from motivational literature and guidance for reflection during compulsory daily “quiet time”. The girls were encouraged to keep a daily log of their feelings. A group debriefing session was held at the end of each day, during which they could talk about the day’s experiences.

“Quiet time” culminated on day 14 in nine hours of solitary time and rest, during which the girls stayed apart without speaking. They were encouraged to reflect on their lives, make journal entries and to write a letter to themselves which will be given back to them at the end of Grade 11.

That same evening, pupils had the chance to phone home for 10 minutes. At that point, the only contact they’d had with family was through handwritten letters which were delivered each week through the school. As well as facilitating contact, the process of writing letters and receiving them was an enjoyable novelty for teenagers born and raised in an age of instantaneous e-mail.

For Whitfield, a highlight was the chance to get to know her pupils better and build a “greater sense of connection” with them. Another was the girls’ successful climb into Lesotho and the summiting of Hodgson’s Peak. “We could see the peak from far away, so we always had a sense of the challenge that lay ahead,” said Whitfield. “We were able to illustrate the notion of physical endurance as a metaphor for life.”

The programme in Lesotho, during which the girls participated in a community tree-planting ceremony and engaged with Basotho pupils, crafters and villagers, had the intended effect of consolidating lessons learnt along the way. “The relative poverty that the girls saw helped to reinforce their appreciation of what they have. They realised they didn’t need many material goods to lead productive, happy and meaningful lives,” said Whitfield.

What the pupils said

Megan Mackenzie: The biggest challenges were trying to keep positive for the whole day and dealing with minor injuries. But I really enjoyed the trip. For me the highlight was the two days of cycling. We covered 33 kilometres on day four and 25 on day nine and that felt like a real achievement. I enjoyed the Basotho village. It was great to be in another country and we learnt about other people’s lives, and we saw how little people survived on. We didn’t miss our phones or computers — we didn’t need them.

Jessica Taylor: Our guide told us that all we need to survive in life is family, shelter and food. Well, we came up with a fourth: spirituality. Our group was close and we helped each other. I enjoyed the horse ride in Lesotho. A lowlight was the blisters. And on day eight, we got a bit lost. One day, the weather was miserable — cold and rainy. We dragged on and my blisters were hurting. I wanted to sit down and cry. But when we arrived at camp, we found a big fire, army tent and soup waiting — prepared by the local farmer. We loved the letter drops. They meant a lot to us and reminded us how much we take for granted. During the phone call, some of the day scholars broke down. It was very emotional. Approaching Giant’s Cup, the wind was terrible and we used each other for support. I’m terrified of heights, so it was hard. When you look back, these things seems small, but at the time, they were big. As a result of the trip I think we are more disciplined in our personal lives.

Bianca Wittig: I’d do it again, but perhaps for a shorter distance. Not knowing what lay ahead was difficult. After the first day, I thought: Oh my word ... another three weeks of this! It seemed like forever. The best part was what we learnt about ourselves. We discovered that you can do anything if you set your mind to it. And you get to know your friends a lot better.

Jessica Hodgkinson: I loved it. I was surrounded by positive people. The first day was hard; it seemed like we were never going to get to camp. We came across veld fires the second day, so we had to change our route. We also got lost and it was a relief when we finally found our way. I learnt more about myself mentally than physically. We had to be very self-disciplined and organised in order to be able to leave promptly in the morning. We had to pace ourselves with our food. On the second last day, we ate all our snacks, so we were starving. Fortunately, Ms Whitfield gave us some leftovers. I learnt to appreciate what my mum does and the benefits of living in a solid house as opposed to a flimsy tent. The beauty of Giant’s Cup and Hodgkin’s Peak humbles you. We had a chance to reflect on God’s creation of the Earth. Being there was special.

Advice for next year’s hikers

• put comfort before fashion;

• practise walking with your backpack;

• get the right-sized backpack;

• take fewer clothes rather than a backpack that’s too big;

• wear in your hiking boots beforehand;

• go without deodorant rather than have to carry it; and

• buy SPF long-sleeved shirts to prevent sunburn.

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