I’ve just found out that my great pal and co-presenter Graham Walker is back in South Africa this year with a mobile science show raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.
At last week’s “Meet the Talent” session, I talked briefly of my experience in a science circus, mentioning that I’ve presented to a gazillion children over my years on the road. Some of these children were in Zululand, South Africa, where Graham and I volunteered with the FABULOUS UniZul Science Centre and Science on the Move, a mobile science exhibition that travels to remote and disadvantaged schools.
What follows is the story of one day on the road
(the photos come from many different days ):
Fenced primary schools of ragged curious children, interactive science shows performed to packed classrooms, low-tech teacher workshops, streams of learners through the hands-on exhibition… We escape potholes, dodge taxis, pack boxes, choose words…Welcome to another day trucking with Science on the Move.
On this particular day we are travelling in a convoy of two, and already deep into the dirt roads and rolling hills of Zululand when we first suspect something is up.
The lead car, the one containing the teacher sent to guide us to her school, stops to ask a passerby for directions. Hang on…how can a teacher not know the way to her own school?
A few minutes on we stop again to ask for more directions. The T-shirt of the woman we ask reads: “Smile and be happy”. And so when she points in the opposite direction, we just smile and happily do a U-turn, narrowly avoiding a pothole that eats up half the road.
During the drive we pass two schools and no cars, and we are still heading into the hills when my co-presenter Graham leans over and whispers: “Are you covered for abduction?”
I’m still not sure what the answer to this question is. Hopefully I will never have to find out.
Just as we are beginning to entertain the idea that this teacher is an imposter sent to lead us to our ambush doom, we arrive at the school.
It is literally on the edge of nowhere. On one side are the round huts of the village, on the other, empty hills. The sign on the barbed wire fence says “No guns, No knives, No alcohol”. It’s a primary school.
There are 295 learners and the school fees are 50 Rand (around US$6.50) a year. There are six classrooms, wooden desks, concrete floors.
We do two shows (including the first-ever show performed by a female member of the science centre staff)(Yeeha!) and we get the whole school through the exhibition.
The kids understand hardly any English and are entranced by our white skin and big body language. The littlies dance in the just-shiny reflection of Derek’s car.
They seem to think I am an MTV diva…the girls strut and flick their hair in an imitation of what they think white women are, except that I’m wearing dirty sneakers with my hair shoved in a super-daggy cap.
The boys race to be the one to help me carry boxes; their friends point and look on and laugh. Some mock my sing-song language when they don’t understand. Others (none today) can hold a perfect English conversation.
There are ten staff, all women. At the end of the teacher workshop, when I ask if there are any questions, the teachers pepper me: How does rain work? Why are Australians so good at sport? What does the rest of the world think of Africa?
One woman raises her hand and says, “Can you help? Can you help our school?”
I have to say, “I’m sorry”, like I say at every school.
At the end of a hot, steamy, dusty, non-stop day we are offered another, different, escort for the trip home. Only then do the teachers come clean:
“Hijackings. This area is known for its hijackings. They see you arrive, and then they wait for you to come back. She will show you a different road home.”
Yikes. The first teacher didn’t know the way because she was deliberately taking us a different way. Yikes again.
I cannot say it enough: These weeks were an AMAZING time. Many, many thanks to the amazing staff of the UniZul Science Centre, to the Fish family, Graham Walker, the Duck Inn, CPAS at the Australian National University and many more. Wow. Thankyou.
Good luck with the new show Graham! One day we’ll bring Fergus to Richard’s Bay and see if he can build the house of nails!
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