We travelled to South Africa disoriented and exhausted from the intense weeks of work feeling relieved with the upcoming respite of the overnight flight. We had been invited to speak at a conference where over 600 teachers were learning how to use technology to improve the learners’ education. An invitation that we could not turn down.
Meeting Freddy, Ze Vunder German at Heathrow, we boarded the plane without a hiccup, an anomaly in the theme of the trip. Looking forward to getting some much needed sleep I sat next to the window but then my brain started working in overtime. ‘How can it be that hundreds of people are flying through the air in a metal box!?’ No sleep for me then.
We landed in Johannesburg with the array of winter clothes we had been advised to bring. Coats, scarves, hats, gloves only to find that their coldest winters are warmer than our hottest summers. Sweating profusely we found our BnB and got settled in. With severe jet lag and no sleep we thought that it would be a brilliant idea to shun sleep some more and get out to explore the sights/nightlife. South African University students were everywhere and we met a cool, friendly group who thought that people from Europe were somewhat exotic and interesting. Either that or they found it strange that an Englishman and German had come to teach South African teachers about technology and were randomly secretly speaking in Spanish. Probably the latter.
With 3 days until the conference we had nothing prepared. Nothing. The realisation of the amount of work we had to do came crashing down. (Crashes become a theme throughout this post). We had to prepare a 30-minute presentation on the Open Educational Resource Movement and three 2-hour workshops on how to create and use their own resources. Still with jet-lag and sleep deprivation we got to work…. (Working on the veranda with a lovely view wasn’t all bad)
After working day and night our endeavours paid off and we were finally ready. We packed up the car and were on our way to the conference in Bloemfontein. The South African roads are dangerous at the best of times and we constantly passed road accidents on our way. We counted our lucky stars that we hadn’t been involved in anything like that. Until it happened…
As Freddy was driving, I relaxed, shoes off, listening to Simon & Garfunkel. Coming up to a lorry, Freddy went to overtake, passing on the right side where cars would usually be coming towards us. We were halfway past the lorry, not another car in sight, just a hill that progressed upwards. However, the hill was deceptive, hiding a car in the little valley at the bottom of the hill. A car which was now racing towards us at 80 mph. With the lorry still blocking the left lane Freddy had no choice but to get off the road on the right side. It was such a great idea that the other car did the exact same thing, following us in the same direction. ‘Oh no’ I groaned as we hurtled into each other in a cacophonous crash, the bulk of it in the passenger door causing a wave of shattered glass and wind mirror to fly through the car.
After this disconcerting, seemingly slow-motion crash, I sat there shocked, shoe-less with the paradoxical sound of a happy, chilled-out song from Simon & Garfunkel still playing. Thankfully no-one was badly hurt and I was surprised to not even have a scratch. After waiting for a replacement car all that was left to do was to drive 3 hours in pitch-black darkness on these crazy, dangerous roads, through the ghetto and finally to the hotel.
The following day was the opening ceremony of the conference and the next car crash, our first workshop. After fantastic, enlightening speeches from Baldev Singh from Imagine Education and Deputy Minister of Education, Enver Surty, we made our way to the workshop room, where we were going to show teachers how to create their own educational videos, only to find it locked. ‘Don’t panic’ we thought as we searched the deserted building for anyone who could help. However, all we found was enthusiastic teachers ready for the workshop. 10 people, 20 people, 30, 50, now 100 all waiting outside the same locked door. After forcing an ‘it’s all under control’ smile to the teachers for a few minutes, which seemed like hours, we finally got into the room to find over 100 computers but no projector, no microphone, no speakers, no hope. I had a horrific image of over 100 teachers crouched around my small monitor whilst I talked step-by-step through creating a video whilst cupping my earphones for everyone to hear the audio.
I don’t know how we got through those 2 hours but it must have been a culmination of Freddy shouting to the whole room, myself sharing a screen with everyone, copious amounts of bottled water and much needed help from the late technicians. It was deemed a success under the circumstances and we were happy to have got through two car crashes in two days, one literal and one metaphorical. All that was left was two more workshops and a 30-minute speech in front of over 600 people. Simple.
The whole of the following day was smooth, after finally having enough sleep we were relaxed yet alert. The audience was fantastic as we talked about a subject that we were both so passionate and enthusiastic about. Free, high quality education for everyone. We played to our strengths with design, animation and video whilst our naive talking style was well received as rudimentary enthusiasm. The other workshops also went much better and the buzzing atmosphere left teachers so excited about creating and using their own resources.
At night there was a celebration with drink, food and a live band. Everyone was happy and all the teachers were dancing in the traditional South African way. Then they made a circle for individual showcases of dancing talent. As the singer started calling people up we knew it was only a matter of time, we heard the ominous call from the singer reverberate around the hall. ‘Guys from the UK, show us what you can do’. We thought it would be rude not to. Whilst Freddy displayed the traditional dance of Germany, ‘The Metal Mosh’ I thought I’d perform a distinctly culturally dance, a rendition indigenous to the North West of England, ‘The Robot’. Popping and locking, bringing out the running man, the crowd went crazy and eventually joined in.
Our new friends invited us to a pub/club afterwards to continue with the celebrations. Returning to the ‘ghetto’ described earlier, we entered a club where Freddy and I were distinctly aesthetically different. With all eyes drawing towards us in a ‘you’re not from ’round here’ kind of way, we passed through the club with our new friends, eventually being accepted as two crazy, foreign guys just wanting to have a good time.
The closing ceremony solidified the experience of meeting so many welcoming, friendly, passionate and kind people. We left exhausted but with a fervent spirit instilled in us by all we met along the way and we disembarked, re-entering the flying metal box to return to England.
Special thanks to Janet Thomson, Naomi Harm, Baldev Singh, all of SchoolNet, University of the Free State, Xola, Moses, Heath, Danyca, the sponsors, all of the teachers and everyone else we met on our trip.
And if you don’t want to read all of this, here is a quick update video on the conference and our trip -