A rare privilege

2008-11-28 00:00

One of the things I’ve done which didn’t add much to my CV but has enriched my life considerably, was the period I spent teaching computer literacy courses to teachers in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands.

Every Tuesday night I would drive into the local township and collect a minibus-load of teachers and take them to our computer centre, returning them at about 9 pm. Having grown up as a Natal farm boy, Zulu was never a problem, but I must admit, in this instance, to finding it quite a daunting challenge. Issuing instructions to “phakela izinkomo” or “diliza inqola” is a far cry from interacting with educated peers in Zulu. Wisely we agreed to interact socially in Zulu but all teaching was done in English. Occasionally though, I referred to the computer mouse as mbiba which invariably produced gales of laughter. (Mbiba is the little three-striped field mouse.)

The minibus trip was always a very jolly excursion with laughter from start to finish. I could usually follow the gist of the story line, but the humour was in-house and would lose its punch on being explained.

One of my challenges with teaching word processing was to find relevant material for my teacher-students to type. One day I had a brainwave. I’d get my jovial students to type me a joke. What a hopeless failure! It appears that in spite of their happy disposition, there is no such thing as a joke in Zulu — certainly not of the type, “Have you heard the one about Van …” or “Chuck Norris can …” I was given very lame accounts of some arbitrary happenings without any punch line at all, but what stopped me right in my tracks was when one teacher typed me a tragic account of the death of her child which had apparently produced uncontrollable nervous emotional laughter. No more “jokes” in my lessons. Incidentally, a current pupil of mine — black as the ace of spades but a coconut inside — has a lovely repertoire of jokes poking fun at himself, but then again he is a Johannesburg Zulu.

I got a fascinating insight into African culture when I tried something else for them to type. This time I drew up a document with a few ideas for economic upliftment in the township. One of the thoughts I put down was that each home with someone unemployed was actually rich in time so could have the greatest vegetable garden and neatest verge and cleanest house. It was a successful typing exercise but hit a stone wall in terms of content.

A deep-thinking headmaster on that course was able to articulate clearly the problem with my Western thinking. There was no way a black person would even contemplate requiring a brother to pull his weight while being sheltered under one’s roof. He is there because of his misfortune and can sponge on the working relative for as long as he likes with no obligation. (I hope none of my brothers is reading this.) It has also helped me understand seemingly bizarre attitudes towards our politicians.

I’ve had all the clichéd stuff of the mouse being waved about in the air to try to control the unresponsive cursor; pressing “enter” at the end of each line, double spaces between every word and whole documents in upper case, but over the years there was a perceptible improvement in the base knowledge of the candidates entering my courses and I knew my efforts weren’t in vain.

Whenever I’d teach e-mail, I would feel like the proverbial mirrors, smoke and lights magician. At the time I had a brother-in-law working in London. Totally unrehearsed, as we’d start the lesson, I would e-mail him and ask him to greet my teacher-students if he was home and picked up the message before the end of the lesson South African time. Without fail they would be overawed, sometimes quite emotional, when I was able to show them a “saw’bona” from the tame expat on the other end of the world.

I have a particular interest in simple but appropriate technology and one day this bias landed me with egg on my face. One of the students from the night before memeza’ed at my gate at an unearthly hour in the morning. He had come to ask me about a screen fridge. He needed information for an assignment for studies he was doing. I didn’t know what he was studying, but my mind excitedly did a double back flip to a lovely, simple technological application my grey-haired old mother had recounted from her childhood in Mozambique. In the middle of nowhere, without electricity or gas, their only form of refrigeration was a screen cupboard over which water was allowed slowly to seep. The evaporation drew heat from the contents of the cupboard. I explained this to my visitor but could see his face was a total blank. On questioning him further, it transpired he was doing a computer course and the fridge he wanted to know about was one that reads the bar codes of everything in the fridge and, automatically, via the Internet, keeps the fridge fully stocked by ordering items which are running low! Oops, the techno-savvy teacher was only about 75 years behind the times.

One of the spin-offs of these courses was the goodwill it generated for me in the community. We had just come though a very torrid political conflict period in the township with many killings and regular gunshots being heard. I, however, always felt there were so many households with which I had positive interaction, who would look after me in the event of a real problem. Often at the supermarket and from across the street I would be greeted loudly by my childhood nickname, “Nkom’yahlaba”. It has been quite amusing to me that on the strength of my computer contacts, I’ve been invited to speak at local career days and even at a matric farewell party.

I had always been strict about only having teachers on my courses, because the rationale was that they would then be able to reach many more people than I could ever in my lifetime. However, when Sifiso and Zakhele approached me to join one of the courses, I went with my gut feel and agreed. They both worked on the Treverton estate as grounds staff. At the first lesson, I realised my mistake. They were both out of their depth in the company of a bunch of teachers. Their English wasn’t up to scratch and they battled even more than usual finding their way around the keyboard. While I was feeling embarrassed on their behalf for having put them in such an awkward position, they just kept doggedly coming to the lessons and steadily improving. By the end of the course they had both not only caught up with, but in fact were better than most of the more educated participants. I counted it as a rare privilege to stop their tractor in the field one day to award them their certificates.


Owen Buchanan teaches mathematics and computers at Treverton College in Mooi River. “I am not related to the first Witness editor David Dale Buchanan so am eligible to enter the competition.”

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