Updates from IBD South Africa – Team African School for Excellence

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.

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Johannesburg, South Africa

7:15am Breakfast

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.

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8:00am Pickup

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.

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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.

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2:00pm Lunch

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!

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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.

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6:00pm Break

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.

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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!

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Cape Town Baby

After an eventful arrival in Joburg that Archit will blog about, we spent two days getting settled in the office and working on interviews.That, however, is not the subject of this blog, rather it is the fortuitous position that we fell into. Because Wednesday, May 18th was a national holiday for the country to vote, and the entire loveLife leadership team was going on a retreat the following Thursday and Friday to revise the vision for the organization, we were told that the team should take the time off.We decided to head to Cape Town, and had an amazing time!

Day 1: Arrived in Cape Town and went hiking on the Table Mountain which is a plateau, where lots of tourists go to the top for great views. There’s a cable car that goes to the top, but we hiked up, which was good fun, but a bit winding after none of us had gotten off our asses for the previous months. That surprisingly ended up being basically the only exercise we would get the entire trip. After that we took a city bus tour for the rest of the day and stopped all along the coast and in the city. One great stop was Camps Bay, which is the poshest area of Cape Town along the coast.We got some drinks, enjoyed the sunset and climbed around on some big rocks on the beach.

Day 2: Woke up at 4:30 am and left for shark diving (this was our normal wakeup time due to jetlag). It was a really amazing experience. Some 20 of us were on a big boat and went out to the sea where there is the highest density of great white sharks on the planet.This is because seals must swim the channel every day.

We were really lucky, because 6 sharks between 2 and 3.5 meters long came and stayed for quite a while. There was a cage in which 4 – 5 ppl could get in and basically just go a bit underwater to see sharks. Even in wetsuits, it was freeeezing cold!Since the sharks were floating very close to the surface, we could see them from the boat too.We had a close encounter with a shark when the 4 of us were in the cage; it caught the bait and was struggling to release it from the line and in the process thrashed right at the cage. Since the bars are really quite wide and open, it got its nose got inside the cage and freaked everyone out.It was a surreal feeling being less than a foot away from such a huge freakin’ shark. That was definitely the highlight of the entire experience.

The dinner was also a highlight as we got to eat Kudu, Crocodile, and Springbok, which were all surprisingly delicious.The culinary culture is really geared toward red meat, which is part of every meal.

Day 3: We also did some work on the trip.We went to loveLife’s (the NGO we’re working with) Youth center, 2 schools were they educate children on AIDS and other issues, and one of their clinics. We interacted with a lot of the people who make loveLife work on the ground, and it was a pretty great experience seeing the real Africa. It was remarkable to see the disparity between slums and poverty in the townships and the completely westernized and modern downtown.

Another highlight of the visit was that we got to go to Mzoli’s, which is a super well known butchery in the township outside of Cape Town.We got to pick our own meat and watch them grill it.Then we acted like real carnivores and tore at the meat with our hands and teeth.Archit can attest to how disgusting this was to a vegetarian, but to Pablo, Stuart and me, it was glorious.

That evening we met a girl who is joining Haas this coming year. She works at an NGO in Cape Town and took us around to a nice club where we got to dance to Dynamite and then to the shady bar district of Long Street at 4am.It was a lot of fun, and we’re looking forward to seeing her again around Haas!

Day 4: We rented a car and drove to Cape of Good Hope, which is almost the southernmost tip of Africa. We all thought it was the southernmost tip, but it turns out it’s not, which was devastating to Pablo, who had gotten very excited about being so far south.There were no people and it was a really beautiful, calm and peaceful place.

We also stopped at one place before getting there to see the crazy penguins that only live in South Africa. Look at these crazy little bastards sitting on top of their chicks:

From there we went to the wine country in Cape Town which was really beautiful. It’s just like Napa Valley in California, but much cheaper.

Cape town is HIGHLY recommended!

—Phil Dawsey