Wednesday, November 2, 2011

my katutura glee club

I’ve been volunteering at Bernhard Nordkamp Centre, an after-school program for disadvantaged kids in Katutura. I went with these grand dreams of teaching the kids to play music, maybe creating the next Langley Schools Music Project in the style of Jack Black's School of Rock, or leading a Katutura Glee Club of lovable ragtag kids to glory and fame. Mainly, though, the whole experience has been a big lesson for me.

My first day volunteering was Pool Day at the Western Suburbs swimming pool in Katutura, where all 140 kids from the program showed up, full of excitement. And I swear, when I showed up, almost all 140 kids swarmed me. It didn’t matter that they’d never met me before, or that they had no idea who I am. About four kids took my hands shouting “Teacher! Teacher! Come swim with me!”, another kid jumped on to my back demanding a piggy-back ride, and two more climbed up the front, hanging off my neck because they couldn’t swim. On one hand, their immediate affection for me melted my heart. On the other hand, I wished that I hadn’t worn an old bikini that day, because the kids liked to grab on to my bikini top as they fought for my attention. I don't think Katutura needed the sudden flash of yellow lightning.

My next volunteering stint was at the Centre itself, where I was supposed to tutor some kids in what I thought was English. Instead, they weren’t really “kids” – they were fifteen-year-old boys needing tutoring in math. And not in the sense that they were behind in math and needed to catch up. They were there because they just seemed to like math and wanted a chance to do extra math. It kind of blew my mind. Back in Canada, kids pretty much have to be forced by their parents into extra tutoring. Yet here these boys were, glad for a chance to do math for fun.

It goes for the rest of the kids in the after-school program too. None of them are there because their parents are forcing them to be there, like might be the case in North America or Asia. In fact, many of their parents don’t know or care where their kids are. The kids show up to the program to do extra math, English, and science because they want to be there. According to the Director, Marybeth, some of them are just glad to be in an environment where they’re not being yelled at or hit. It just feels so unbelievable to me to see how these kids just soak up the extra learning, and it makes me realize how much we take a lot of this stuff for granted in Canada.

Anyway, I digress. So there were three serious well-behaved young men who were hoping to get some extra math help from me. Sadly, even though I am Asian, I am actually pretty bad at math. The number of times I’ve spent too much money because of my inability to mentally divide Namibian currency by seven to convert it to Canadian dollars...anyway, after reviewing the perimeter of a rhombus (what's a rhombus?) a few times with the boys, I just chatted with them about the Namibian school system for the rest of the tutoring session. And then told Marybeth that I should probably not be teaching high school math when i have trouble calculating the tip on my bar tab.

The next time I came to the Centre, it was Saturday and I was with a few other friends. We had organized fun activities for the kids: Julia would read to them, Allison would do crafts, Karen would teach them about aerodynamics through paper airplanes, and I would teach them how to sing Journey songs in four-part harmony in time to win at Nationals.

Obviously it didn’t work out that neatly. There were a lot of kids, really excited kids, and it was hard to hold their attention. They really dug Karen’s paper airplane project, mainly because they could throw the airplanes at each other. But my teaching them to sing was not a well thought-out plan. Forget the fact that I don’t actually know how to sing. Some of the kids don’t read, so I can’t just pass out music sheets. They also didn’t grow up with the same songs that I did, so we can’t just do singalongs. Also, the kids were fascinated by the guitars and were far more interested in taking them from me and banging out their own songs on it. My Katutura Glee Club will just have to wait for another day.

Oh, let me speak about the guitars for a moment. In my quest to be useful to kids, I’ve taken on the task of repairing all their guitars. There were three donated to the centre; the kids have broken all of them. No worries. we have Gloria and the art of guerrilla guitar maintenance. This too has been a learning experience for me. I am learning that changing the strings on a cheap guitar will change the tension it’s used to and the neck will warp. I’m learning that cheap classical guitars don’t have truss rods with screws that you could turn to fix a warped neck. I’m learning that filing down a fret is a bad plan for dealing with a warped neck. I’m learning that tuning pegs can’t be properly replaced by pencils (but whoever decided to try that was very creative). I’m learning that scotch taping the guitar will not improve its sound. I’m learning to build a guitar humidifier out of a sponge, which is kind of useful in a desert. I’m also learning how to play all my songs with a capo on the second fret, because nothing before the second fret works.

No matter. There’s something about sitting in my dark bedroom, struggling to pull a pencil out of a broken tuning peg while giant insects the size of my fist fly around my head, that makes me feel like I’m truly in Africa.

Today was my latest volunteer session at the Centre. This time, I was supposed to be actually teaching English. Unfortunately, I had about ten kids all between grades one to six, and it was unclear what I should be teaching them, since I had no textbook to work from, even if they were all in the same level. Suddenly a lightbulb went off in my head.

“Do you guys want to learn poetry?” I asked them.

“Yes!” they all said.

And so I taught them poetry. I taught them how to look for rhyming words. I taught them about couplets, free verse, and haikus. I taught them about internal rhymes. I taught them about homonyms and homophones. I taught them that their favourite rappers were basically poets, reciting poetry to a beat. I taught them that their favourite songs were poems, set to music. I taught them the rules for poetry, and that it was okay to break them.

I had them try to write poems of their own, and some of them came up with really cute ones, although the number of times they rhymed “dad” with “bad” was a bit alarming. At their prompting, I pulled out a guitar and played them one of my own songs, to show them how rhyming schemes work in song lyrics. I had these visions in my head of creating a Katutura Dead Poets Society, with these kids reciting beautiful poetry, seizing the day, and addressing me passionately as "O China My China"...

One of the older boys shyly told me that he had written a song. I encouraged him to sing it to everyone. He stood up in front of the classroom and sang it. I didn’t catch all the words, but heard enough to recognize that it was a form of free verse, and complimented him on his creativity. He asked me if I could play his song on the guitar. I agreed, took his lyrics sheet, and then realized that it was full of the N-word. There was no way I could bring myself to do that; I handed his lyrics back to him and told him that songs sound the best when sung by their original composers.

Maybe next week will be the sonnet.