Tag Archives: Education

Wealth & Poverty: A View from the Shower

How much is enough?  How much is too much? 

Usually the answer we give to the first question is, “Just a little more than I have.”  And the answer to the second is, “However much the people I envy have.”  Will we never be satisfied?

Those of us who have so much in the way of possessions have little or no idea of just how much we take for granted.  I was brought up short yesterday, and was reminded of just how wealthy I am in relation to most people in the world, and even most people in this country.  I was forced to ask the above questions again and to try to answer them more honestly. 

PROTEC Pietermaritzburg Academy runs an educational enrichment programme for high-school students, focusing on Maths, Science, English and Life Orientation.  The overarching aim is to help create more engineers for the South African economy from disadvantaged communities.  Recently the Academy entered seven three-member teams into the regional (KwaZulu-Natal) finals of the national Technology Olympiad.  The task this year was to devise a machine that would, under its own power, drop bottle caps at pre-arranged intervals as it was pulled or propelled along a straight line.  “Horrendously difficult,” one seasoned participating teacher described it.  PROTEC Pietermaritzburg was thrilled when two of its teams made it through to the national finals in Pretoria last month.  It was the only institution in the country to have two teams in the finals, to which only ten teams were invited.  One of the local teams came sixth, an achievement of which the PROTEC family is very proud.

The six team members were asked afterwards what they had enjoyed most about their trip.  For all six it was their first aeroplane flight, first trip to the big cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and first-time participation in a national competition, all of which must have been mind-blowing, and all of which were mentioned by the students.  But one of the six said, “It was the first time I have ever had a hot shower.”  And that just stops one in one’s tracks.  Not an aeroplane trip in which we only occasionally indulge, nor any other luxury we also feel privileged to enjoy.  We expect the students to be excited about those things; we are also pretty pleased when such things come our way.  No, this is something we take completely and utterly for granted: convenient, running, hot and cold water; something that is so much part of our lives we no longer think of it as a luxury, as a privilege to enjoy.

Suddenly we are reminded again how incredibly wealthy we are.  Just how much is enough?  How much is too much?


Filed under Articles, Community, General Writing

Stephen Hawking and Life after Death

Science is a wondrous thing, it questions how and when.
It tells us who, and what came first, and things beyond our ken.
Big Bangs and Quarks, Black Holes and such; the darkness is repealed,
And ignorance is banished by the evidence revealed.

Quite soon there’ll be no hidden things; Higgs boson will be found;
And closed doors will be opened by this ‘particle of god’.
One question still remains beyond where scientists like to go.
“It’s not important, quite absurd.” But still we want to know.

The question that’s ignored is, Why? What purpose could there be
In you and me, in life and death, and all we do and see?
Some think the universe is fickle, some think it quite benign.
But could there be behind it a creative force, divine?

Is love an accident, a love that lays no blame,
A love that’s unconditional, that has no selfish aim?
Love seems to contradict the laws of jungle, tooth and claw;
Love turns its back on Number One, puts others to the fore.

Survival of the fittest scorns a death upon a cross.
It makes no sense to suffer if it ends in such a loss.
Yet millions over centuries have claimed that death a sign;
And from that life of brokenness the whole world counts its time.

Inspired by Stephen Hawking who stated in a recent interview that “there is no heaven or afterlife… that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”


Filed under Poetry, Science & Religion

Fixing Education: more, not different

 First published in The Witness 27 December 2010

 Every new Minister of Education in  South Africa (and perhaps the world over) has suggested something new to revamp and fix what definitely seems to be broken in our public school system.  And every parent, teacher, unionist, and student has his or her own solution, which usually involves someone other than themselves doing something different. For more click here

(The mug from The Opinionated Liberal)


Filed under Articles, Books & Movies, General Writing

A Seminary is Born

SMMS Witness It was a great privilege to attend the opening and dedication of the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary (SMMS) in Pietermaritzburg on Saturday.

Dignitaries included Methodist leaders past and present from around the country, visitors from Duke Divinity School in the USA, and the daughter and granddaughter of the late Rev. Seth Mokitimi.

It is a beautiful cluster of buildings creating in its heart a sense of community, space to become, a place of hope and possibility.

The Chapel DoorsThere have been complaints about the cost (over R60 million or $8,5 million), there always will be. It could of course have been spent on any number of other worthy causes. The reality is that it wouldn’t have been. Other very worthy mission-oriented fundraising efforts by the MCSA have not succeeded, but this has. Almost all of the money has come in. Why? Is it an idea whose time has come? Is it a tangible project where the results can be seen and measured? Or was its very conception inspired and blessed by God? The latter seems certain, the others probably also.

The celebrations and the service were very moving and very meaningful. I know some were apprehensive but it was not, on the day, about the hype. It was about a real celebration of something exciting God is doing in our midst.

Continue reading


Filed under Community, Odds & Ends

World Cup Confusion

Everyone is still talking about the FIFA World Cup.  I heard a delightful conversation last Wednesday afternoon—a most important public holiday in South Africa.  It was also the day that our beloved Bafana Bafana lost to Uruguay (but no one is talking about that).

I was at a coffee shop in the afternoon, enjoying a chance to do some writing (OK, and drink some coffee) while Jen was working.  An elderly couple came in and sat down. They must both have been at least 85.

One of the great things about older folk (older than me that is…..) is that they tend to talk rather loudly.  The TV was on, showing the Chile/Honduras game. The wife (speaking very slowly as if trying to understand something) said, “Are there lots of different teams?”

The husband, very gently, replied, “Every country in the world has sent their best teams here to play in the World Cup.”

“Yes,” she said. “But our team; do we have more than one team?”

I didn’t hear his reply.

“So, if it’s the same team,” she was still struggling, “they have to travel all the way to Port Elizabeth!”  She pondered this for a bit and then added, “They must be exhausted!”

Later, in the parking lot, I came across a group of guys getting into their car carrying beer and bread rolls and snacks.

“Enjoy the soccer,” I called out.

They beamed and one of them said, “It’s going to be great. Three-nil,” he said.

Little did either of us know how tragically right he would be.

Leave a comment

Filed under Odds & Ends

Best school in the world?



So our Minister of Defence wants to send all the young people off to the army.      

“Best school in the world,” they say.  “They’ll learn some real discipline.”  “Make men out of boys.”  And my favourite, “It didn’t do me any harm.”  All the clichés come rolling out like well-used goodies at a garage sale.  This last is always said     

 with such conviction (usually about some mindless behaviour or destructive environment) I have to bite my tongue not to say something like, “It didn’t?”     

Such clichés are spoken with a great deal of unsubstantiated authority.  The ‘men out of boys’ one especially appears to be an internationally held belief, no more true, however, for being repeated so widely.     

It’s the process of growing up that turns boys into men and (presumably, but I haven’t heard anyone say it) girls into women.  That process, which involves interacting with others and learning to make decisions among other things, will take place wherever the young person finds her or himself.  And I can think of a whole lot of places where it is more likely to happen more effectively than the army.     

What about discipline?  After all, “That’s what the youth of today need.”     

What?  In the army?  Where destructive actions during a recent strike showed an appalling lack of discipline there?  The SA Institute of Race Relations quotes commentators who “suggest that the SANDF was the last place in South Africa to find discipline, moral fibre, and the will to work.” (www.sairr.org.za, 7 May 2010).     

Image Provided by Classroom Clipart


And what is discipline anyway?  What is desperately needed is self-discipline.  You don’t get taught that in the army.  Not at the basic recruit level at least.  All you get taught there is mindless obedience: “Do as you’re told;”  “Don’t ask questions;”  “Obey orders;” And, most important, “Don’t get caught.”  How exactly is this supposed to help a young person become a thinking, contributing, adult member of society?  Those of us who went through the apartheid’s army call-up managed to grow up, (some may even have become men) in spite of our time in the army not, I assure you, because of it.     

I was told a number of times during my basic training, “You are not here to learn how to die for your country!  We are going to teach you how to make sure the other guy dies for his country.”  Pretty standard fare for armed forces around the world, I’m told.  And when you’re young and naive I guess it sounds very funny the first time you hear it.  But is that really the sort of ‘skill’ we want our young people to learn?     

The skills we need in this country more than anything else are skills that enable us to understand and relate to others different from ourselves, to learn from them and to build a future together.   These are in short supply in most communities.  They are not found in great abundance in the army.  The armed forces are ultimately about force of arms.  When all else fails, we’ve got backup.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trashing the army.  I’m glad to have the backup available, and I’m glad that there are those who are able and willing to provide it.  But the endemic violence in this country suggests that force is our first choice, not the last.  We don’t know any other way.  There is a desperate need for skills that will ensure we don’t resort to violence.  The army has an important place and role to play, but don’t let’s pretend that it can ever be something it was never meant to be.      

If there is money to pay for this type of exercise then let’s ask, how could young people develop the skills that would be most valuable to them and to their communities?  How best could they develop those skills while serving the communities that need them most?  Then let’s put our money there.     

(This was first published in The Witness on 27 May 2010)     

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, General Writing