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How I was Taught Life Lessons by Illetrate Farm Workers

18 December 2012, 07:59

I have often thought about the differences between the different races in South Africa. This became very clear to me when I was involved in the teaching of illiterate farm-workers to do artificial insemination on cattle.

My first course was conducted on a farm in the Tolwe district. I realise that very few people would know where that is, but one of the farmers there, succinctly told me that "Dis nie die einde van die wereld nie, maar jy kan hom van hier af sien." (It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here)

Before I embarked on this venture, I stipulated that all candidates for my course had to have at least a Standard Six education and there had to be one interpreter. On the first morning I discovered that the only person there who’d had any schooling was the interpreter, and he’d only scraped through Standard Three. The rest were illiterate. I nearly gave up there and then, but I have never been a quitter so I plodded on.

The first problem I encountered was the fact that my students would not use any words that had a sexual connotation. They regarded such words to be “rude”. I had to explain to them that we simply had to have words to describe the “things” that we were going to work with. I could not refer to the vagina as that thing, and the testis as that other thing. This would cause utter confusion. They seemed to understand this, but it took quite a few days before they could utter the words without a shy giggle with hands covering their mouths.

I also had a lot of fun coining new words in the different languages for anatomical entities, physiological processes and artificial insemination actions. To them, all the different organs (except the uterus, vulva, penis and testes) had only one collective name: “meat”! It was with a certain satisfaction that I corrected ancient misconceptions that led early anatomists to coin erroneous Latinoid names. For instance seminal vesicles or vesiculae seminales are not used to store semen as the ancients believed but provide certain sugars to the sperm during ejaculation. This gives them enough energy for the long, dangerous and arduous journey that lies ahead. So naturally I renamed them “givers of food to the seed of the bull”.

Naming the infundibulum of the fallopian tube was a real challenge. The infundibulum is situated at the end of the fallopian tube, and it works like a funnel that actively envelops the ovary to receive the ovum at ovulation. None of the languages had a word for funnel, and I was loath to use the easy way out by calling it “iFunnel”.

I had noticed that all the members of the African tribes put out both their hands in a funnel-shape when receiving anything from another person. I asked my interpreter and the students if there was a word for the action of “bringing your hands together to receive something”. They confirmed that there was such a verb. By adding an o at the end of the verb, my students and I manufactured a new noun “cupped hands to receive something”. With lots of laughter and wonderful cooperation we manufactured many more words. These words are still used today at the special school where black farm workers are taught to do artificial insemination. 

One of the most challenging concepts to explain to my students was why it was so important to get the timing of the insemination right. Apart from giving the sperm sufficient time to reach the ovum, you also have to give them time to lose their “head-caps” when they reach the fallopian tube. The caps contain hyaluronidase, an enzyme that makes the outer layers of the ovum penetrable to sperm. The caps from a few million sperm are necessary to produce enough hyaluronidase.

So this is the story I told them:

“Now you remember this morning when I showed you the dead bull’s testes, and I cut open the store room of the bull's seed (Epididymus). You saw how I took a little bit of the store room and put it under the microscope and you, Philemon, got such a fright when you saw all these little tadpoles swimming under your very eyes?” There was some good-natured laughter at Philemon’s expense.

“I told you to look closely at the heads of the seeds of the bull, (spermatozoa) and you saw that they all had hats on.” Eager nods all round.

“Now the seeds of the bull have to travel a long and dangerous journey through the vagina, through the door of the uterus (Cervix) and then through the uterus itself into the tube of the cow’s egg.(Fallopian tube) This is where they are supposed to meet the cow’s egg. (Ovum) But if they get there too early, the cow’s egg may not have arrived down the tube from the storeroom of the cow’s eggs (Ovary) yet. Even if the cow’s egg has arrived and is waiting in the tube for them, they don’t just barge into the egg!

“These tadpole-shaped seeds of the bull are very polite. They first say “Dumela” (Greetings!) and take off their hats, before they enter. Taking off their hats takes quite a lot of time, because the hats fit very tightly on their heads. It is also a trick! Inside each of the hats is something like battery acid. You know that battery acid can eat through just about anything? So, after they’ve taken off their hats and said, “Dumela”, the acid coming from their hats makes the shell of the cow’s egg soft so that they can get inside!

This is why you have to give the seeds of the bull enough time to swim through the uterus and get off all their hats. The egg of the cow does not stick around for too long either. After about eight to twelve hours, the egg of the cow starts moving down the tube of the egg into the uterus and out through the vagina.  Then it is too late! The seeds of the bull cannot fertilise the egg of the cow because it is no longer there!”

The other problem I had was one that became clear to me quite early on during that first course. I was actually quite proud of the colour slides I had prepared with my own hands. I had taken close-ups of all the important organs and proudly projected them onto the screen. I was especially keen on the one of a bull’s testis that filled the entire screen. So I was most disappointed when one of my students could not identify it. In fact I got quite annoyed and shouted:

“But Philemon, can’t you see that it’s a bull’s testis? Just this morning I showed you the testes of a dead bull, and now you tell me you don’t know what this picture is!”

He looked intently at the projected picture again, looked utterly perplexed, and shook his head.

“No doctor, that cannot be, you don’t get bulls that size!”

I suddenly realised that somebody who was raised without picture books could not possibly translate a flat two-dimensional picture into a living three-dimensional object without being taught. Virtually from birth we are shown pictures in books and told this is a cat, a cow or whatever. So, automatically, the next time we see the picture, we recognise what it represents.

For somebody who has never had the opportunity to learn this skill, it would be virtually impossible to visualise depth and proper size when looking at a picture. For instance, a photograph with one man standing close to the camera and another standing further away would be interpreted as a large man and a small one standing next to each other. I solved the problem for later courses by explaining to my students at the outset that the organ in the picture was not really that large, “I only made it bigger so that everybody at the back of the class can see it.” They all seemed to accept this explanation and I had no trouble after that.

That first course was a great success so I was soon involved in courses all over South Africa and had to coin new words in all the different languages.

After a few months farmers started reporting that their farm-worker AI technicians were doing such a good job that, although they themselves had done an AI course, they now left all inseminations up to their black technicians.

I started wondering how much of my teachings my students retained, so after a year I went back to some of the farms to “test” the graduates. I found that some of them had done surprisingly well. Obviously their technical skills had improved with practise, but what amazed me was their retention of theoretical knowledge.

I set about trying to figure out why their retention was often so much better than most students. It struck me that if you are illiterate, you cannot rely on notes written down while listening to the lecturer, so you simply have to remember every word if you can. We literates are not trained to do that. You need not concentrate quite as much if you know that you have made some notes that you can go over later or will get a printed synopsis of the lecture afterwards.

The fact that my methods of teaching, developed as I went along, and the new technical terms I had coined in all the languages are still being used today makes me quite proud. I certainly learned a lot about my fellow South Africans and started to understand their cultures and ways of seeing things much better.

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