EWMBA students Susan Hseih, Melissa Tsang, Cameron Passmore, and Kate DeLeo worked with African School for Excellence, a non-profit organization based in South Africa.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Our guesthouse in Melville, Life on 3rd, serves breakfast every weekday morning from 7-9am. There is a self-serve selection of cereals, yogurt, fruit, and toast, along with coffee, tea, and juice. Once we’ve settled into “our table”, one of the women who work there (Lydia, Beulla, or Blessings) will come and take our “hot breakfast” order. So far, every day has been an offering of eggs, bacon, and mushrooms. Between our group, we’ve had the eggs almost every way conceivable — scrambled, fried, hard boiled, an in an omelette. One day we’ll have to ask for them poached. The information booklet in our rooms says that the breakfast offering runs the gamut from American to traditional South African. Five days in we are yet to see an option other than eggs, bacon, and mushrooms. Regardless, the food is tasty and is a great way to begin our days.
Our client, Jay Kloppenberg, the co-founder of ASE, comes to pick us up after breakfast. We are heading to the flagship school in Tsakane, a township about 40 minutes southeast of Johannesburg. The site is remote and there is no good way for us to get there ourselves, so we appreciate his hospitality. Even though it is winter break, there is a holiday program called Accelerate running at the school to recruit students for the following year, and Jay continues to have meetings on site as well. As we head further and further out of JoBurg, the roads are becoming more and more remote. When we turn off the highway onto the road into the township, it feels as if we are in a different world. Paved roads turn into dirt streets and it seems as though the entire community is milling about. As it turns out, the unemployment rate in the area is nearly 80% so majority of the community remains close to home every day. Most see their children’s education as their single opportunity to employment, which adds a deeper appreciation as to the symbolism of the school as we enter the school grounds.
9:00am – 1:00pm African School for Excellence (ASE) visit
We arrive at the school and are the only car there. The school looks empty, and we are not even sure if anyone is there. Not long after we park, the head of school, Berkia Banda, comes out to greet us and asks to have a word with Jay in private. We later learn that Mr. Banda had just gotten off the phone with a Grade 8 scholar whose father has just passed away. This interaction serves to remind us that while the school is an oasis to the students and community, it cannot overcome all the ills that the students face.
We are then greeted by four Grade 9 scholars who are at school over their break to help out mentor students in the Accelerate program. Jay asks them to show us around, and the eight of us head down the hill toward the school. As they begin the tour, teaching us about the school and sharing personal anecdotes about their favorite classes and teachers, we naturally break off into pairs, each of us taking our own route throughout the school with our personal guide-peaking into classrooms and exploring the library.
Once the official tours end, we start having personal sessions with teachers and students. Topics range from how everyone became involved with ASE to the plot of a novel that one scholar is writing to how to say “hello” in the language that another scholar invented. The one message that reverberates across each conversation is everyone’s love of the school. The feeling is palpable and contagious.
When we arrive back in Melville, we pick up some salads downtown to supplement leftovers from last night’s dinner. We had ventured to a neat little restaurant called Ant Cafe, recommended to us by Bernard, the owner of our guesthouse. The food was great, but we severely misjudged the portions and ended up with more food than could fit on the table. But it was nothing that couldn’t be solved by some creative combining…of a chair placed at the end of our table to hold the excess. Needless to say, we didn’t finish it all. As an added bonus, a local overheard our conversation about our upcoming weekend trip to Cape Town as we were waiting for our food and shared her insider knowledge of the best restaurants and trails to try as a “thank you” for our work in the community!
3:00pm Work Session
We eat lunch back in the guesthouse courtyard before heading into the boardroom to do some work. “Boardroom” may be a slightly misleading term. It consists of a table in an indoor/outdoor room. Fortunately, it has power, heat, and wifi. Sort of. Despite showing full connectivity, there are pockets of time where the internet slows to a crawl. The effect on our progress on our slides for Monday’s mid-trip meeting with Jay is drastic, but it gives us time to test out the whiteboard. It turns out that “whiteboard” is also a misleading term. We learn too late that what we thought was a whiteboard easel is in fact just an easel without paper loaded on, and the dry erase marker is a Crayola. At least we’ve left our mark.
We take a brief break from work to retreat to our rooms before dinner. We have adjoining rooms with two single beds in each. The rooms are cozy and although we’re in Africa, we are appreciative of the heating system and heated blankets in our rooms. We quickly check the WhatsApp stream that we share with our fellow EWMBA students who are in country to check on the progress of our colleagues across the world. After sending a quick update to the group and to our friends and families back home, we order an Uber – which luckily enough for us is operates in Johannesburg (one of three cities served across South Africa!) and file out to dinner.
7:00pm Outing with ASE team
During one of our weekly calls while we were still in Berkeley, we told Jay that we wanted to take some of his team out to get to know them and to show our appreciation. He ended up picking a spot nearby that we had read about in a few travel books and were curious to try. The reviews were an interesting juxtaposition of a “not to be missed” restaurant and a dive bar.
We arrive with Jay to meet two members of his team that were supposed to already be there. A quick sweep of the place doesn’t show them, and the hostess tells us they are actually preparing for a large group so there might not be space for us. We are making our way to the door, assuming they’ve gone elsewhere, when Jay, who is on the phone with the others in our group, says “What? The secret room?”. Before he’s off the phone, our hostess starts walking towards some occupied tables, indicating we should follow. She goes between them and reaches out to the floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases against the wall, opening a hidden door to this aptly-named secret room.
Over wine, tisers and barbecue ribs, we begin to relax in the informal atmosphere where we get to truly know everyone. The one founder shares his background and love of education as well as some of his favorite stories from his students. The other shares her personal struggles to get through college and how her family has helped drive her success. The others share how much they truly care about and love the students, underscoring just the students reliance on the teachers for strength is a two-way street. We are all sorry to have the night come to a close.
10:30pm Arrive back at our guesthouse
We reflect on the fun night on our way back but have to admit that we’re somewhat relieved to be heading to bed. We typically cap the night off with one final text message to our loved ones back west before either turning to a book or quickly turning on the TV, which seems to consistent primarily of bad U.S. movies from the 90’s (or earlier). While it’s been a long day, we’re excited for the adventures to come tomorrow!