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William Hawkins reflects on his teaching experience in Namibia

William Hawkins is a former Maths Olympian, winning a Bronze Medal in 1993 in Istanbul, Turkey and a Silver Medal in 1994 in Hong Kong at successive International Mathematical Olympiads. He has since been involved as an in-house tutor training potential IMO team members at Schools of Excellence and IMO Selection Schools. William completed his Mathematics degree with Honours from Australian National University in 1998 and is currently working as a volunteer teacher in a small African village called Tses in Namibia. He writes here of his experiences of living and working in the village.

William Hawkins

St Therese Junior Secondary School is situated in the small village of Tses, about 400km south of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Tses is a village of about 1000 people; probably 1000 more live in the surrounding semi-desert farming hinterland. Tses is one kilometre off the main B1 highway south from Windhoek to Cape Town and Johannesburg, so it sometimes feels as if Tses is a backwater from which you can watch the modern world, with its semi-trailers and lorries, going by.

Before independence in 1990, Namibia was known as South-West Africa, a province of South Africa. In the south, the main effect of the South African occupation of Namibia was the implementation of the apartheid system after 1948. Tses was designated a Nama reserve, which meant that the area around Tses was common land set aside for the Nama people; the vast majority of the better land in Namibia was allotted to white commercial farmers. The land around Tses is not very fertile: people manage to raise herds of goats, sheep, donkeys and a few horses. Many Nama people work as labourers on farms owned by Afrikaner and coloured people. Thus apartheid has contributed significantly to the poverty of this area.

Education, too, was very much a focus of the apartheid system. Before independence in 1990, funding was allocated to schools according to the racial background of the students. White schools received the vast majority of funding, with coloured schools next on the pecking order; schools for the nine other major ethnic groups were starved of resources. Fewer than 75% of children completed five years of education, only 8% completed secondary school, and 1% went on to higher education. The only significant institutions of higher education were teacher and nurse training colleges. A significant remnant of the apartheid era is the major role which mission schools play in education for non-whites in Namibia. St Therese Junior Secondary School was established in the 1960s by the Roman Catholic Church; Catholic and Lutheran mission schools were in many cases the only schools where non-white students could obtain any reasonable education.

St Therese Junior Secondary School is a relatively small school of some 230 students. A Junior Secondary School in Namibia contains students in Grades 8, 9 and 10; these students range from 12 to 21 years of age, although most are 14 - 18 years old. Many students live in Tses or the surrounding rural area, but there are also many from Keetmanshoop (the nearest large town, about the size of Goulburn), Mariental and even Windhoek. St Therese has some of the lowest school fees in the south of Namibia: students are asked to pay N$50 = A$15 for each year, although even this will be waived in cases of extreme financial hardship. This means that the school attracts some of the most disadvantaged students in the south. Some students come here because their parents believe that they will be able to concentrate more on education away from the distractions of the big city in Windhoek!

Because of its historic disadvantage, as well as the poverty of many of the families whose children attend the school, St Therese is not a rich school. There are 10 teachers: the Principal, Mr J. S. Konjore, seven Namibian teachers, and two volunteers. This year the volunteers are Ben Guest, a Peace Corps volunteer from the United States, and myself. Each classroom contains a blackboard, mistreated desks and chairs (in my case, about 30 of each, which does not allow all 39 students in my largest class to sit at a chair of their own). Beyond that, the decoration is up to the teacher's own ingenuity. Classrooms have concrete floors which the students need to sweep and polish once a week. The windows are mostly in good condition, but there are always a few broken panes of glass.

I am teaching English to Grade 9 and Maths and Physical Science to Grade 10. Students tend to find the more technical subjects difficult because of problems with fluency in English: imagine being taught Maths in French from Grade 10 onwards, and you will get some feeling for the problem! There are textbooks for Maths and Physical Science which are OK, although very lacking in exercises to practice with; in English the school cannot afford to purchase the (excellent) English textbook for Grade 9 which has just been published in Namibia. One of my projects for the year is to acquire twenty copies of this book, enough for a classroom set. However, when the school has only N$6000 in the bank and each book costs around N$50, this is a significant expense!

At the end of Grade 10, students (who are called 'learners' in Namibia) must sit for external exams called the Junior Secondary Certificate. Those who fail and who are over 16 years of age must leave the education system: they cannot continue into Senior Secondary School, and they cannot repeat Grade 10. Many of these, who may have failed for reasons which have little to do with a lack of intelligence, are destined for long-term unemployment. Thus Grade 10 is a stressful year for many students. Many are underprepared for Grade 10: for example, in maths, basic skills are lacking, and though calculators are permitted as crutches, most students at St Therese cannot afford them.

The first weekend I was in Tses, the school staged its athletics carnival. The running ability and enthusiasm of the students is (I think) greater than anything I saw at school. There are three houses: Red, Blue and Yellow, which compete fiercely in singing no less than in athletics: the spectator support is quite a spectacle in its own right! The athletics track itself was made by the students on the Thursday and Friday before the carnival: they measured the track, marked the lanes with a rake and with flour, and drew the line markings for the discus and shot put. The runners are usually barefoot on the gravel and sand surface. The performances of the students were quite outstanding: the winner of the open 1500m ran a time of 4:01! However, I have slight doubts about the size of the track and the accuracy of the timing, given that the winner of the open 100m was timed at 10.3 seconds.


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