Fear and Condoms in Jo’burg

I have been asked to write an article for the next newsletter (that I’m also editing and writing most of).  The idea is that each volunteer should submit a piece about his or her placement.  This is my first draft:

“You should carry around condoms in case you get raped.” 

          I received a lot of advice about coming to Johannesburg to work with an NGO.  Mostly the advice was to miss the plane.  One voice of support came from my sister-in-law who said that as I want to become a foreign correspondent and report from the likes of the West Bank and the Darfur region, that I “should get used to living in places like that.”


Of course Johannesburg and the surrounding region are a far cry from a war zone, but when you hear dozens of horror stories, they start to have an impact.  I did not know what to expect from my internship, but I did know I was supposed to be afraid.  As someone who does not fear easily, I was delighted to discover the perception many North Americans have of South Africa is inaccurate and unfair.


That perception of a hopeless situation goes beyond crime to other fundamental issues such as race, poverty and the future of disadvantaged children.  While I have met a fair few South Africans who also see a dire situation and a country in decline, my time with OLSET has shown me a different and, I submit, more accurate perspective of the country and its future. 


I see a land of hope full of bright and ambitious children who want only to be given the guidance to achieve their impressive goals.  I have interviewed six year-olds who want to become security guards and policemen so they can put an end to the rampant theft.  Their classmates speak of becoming doctors, lawyers and teachers.  Most of these children bus or taxi to school from Soweto and nearby informal settlements.  Of course crime, poverty and racism still permeate the world they live in, but these things seem no longer to be foregone conclusions.  The children I have met want to end those cycles, and from what I have seen, OLSET is helping them to do that. 

            The focus on multilingualism, different cultures, personal rights and responsibilities, safety, and of course, English helps children interact with one another and with the broader curriculum.  Having interviewed teachers and administrators, it is also clear the English in Action program helps students and teachers interact, as well as improving communication between staff members themselves.  Teachers tell me of how the program has helped foster a more caring and effective learning environment.  In doing so, it helps produce more honest police officers, dedicated teachers, and driven lawyers and doctors.  It creates a brighter South Africa.


I concede I am no education specialist; these are merely the observations of a novice journalist and fist-time NGO intern.  My previous job was as a radio reporter for the largest private news station in British Columbia, Canada.  My skills in both radio and television production brought me half-way around the world to help train OLSET staff how to shoot and edit videos. 


The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs sent me through a program called Young Professionals International (YPI).  YPI is “a program designed to help internationally focused young Canadians .. kickstart their careers .. [by providing them] with a first, career-related international work experience.”[1] Basically, the federal government funds implementing organizations to create and supervise internships. Those groups organize placements with host organizations on the ground, in this case, OLSET. 

             My implementing organization is the Commonwealth ofLearning; it encourages the development of open and distance learning (ODL) in Commonwealth countries.  The general idea is that technology can be used to reach far more people in an effective manner than people alone can.  Radio learning fits into this concept perfectly.

Media, be it print journalism or educational radio programming, has immense power.  It is power that is in this case being used for the good of this country and beyond.  As a journalist, I am accustomed to being skeptical and cynical, to looking for the flaws in the system.  I admit, however, I have completely bought into the OLSET agenda.  These are good people and I am proud to count myself among them for these six months. 


Fear and condoms not required.    

[1] Young Professionals International Website www.dfaut-maeci.gc.ca/ypi-jpi/menu-en.asp  September 1, 2006. 


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