Limpopo is easily one of the prettiest places I’ve ever lived (after CPT ofc). The mountains are vast and unique. Even in the stretches of bush you can find beauty, especially in the quiet way that it separates you from the modern world. That being said, it is definitely the province that SA forgot. When I’m traveling in the bigger cities or coastal towns, people are always shocked to learn that I live in Limpopo. “How’d you end up there?” “I’ve never even been there!” “Do you have any malls there?” Questions I actually received several times when talking about my life in Limpopo. To be fair, before I moved to Limpopo, I had no idea what it would be like either. It is very different from CPT and the Western Cape and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to move here.
But now, after living here for over 7 months, I absolutely love it. Sure, there isn’t a lot of cool restaurants and we don’t have first Thursdays and sometimes the most exciting part of my week is visiting the cinema, but the character, charm, outdoor adventure, and people make it all worth it. It is certainly a special place and I’m very thankful to have ended up here. So, when we found out from our US embassy contacts last week that the Fulbright ETA program would not be continuing in Limpopo, I was heartbroken. I was so looking forward to new ETAs coming and experiencing this beautiful province. Although I was heartbroken, I was not surprised.
One of embassy bosses had visited our school in early August. We were so excited for her to see all the great work we are doing at Boetse, as well as meet with our principal about next years ETAs. At the end of July, we had asked our principal, Mr. Motsepe, if he wanted more ETAs and he said “they’d be most welcome” (which is a common phrase he says; he is always telling us to feel welcome at Boetse). So, we were ecstatic for our embassy boss to meet with him. We thought it was a done deal.
Unfortunately, a week before the embassy visit, a colleague passed away. He had been battling complications from having the flu and had been in and out of the hospital for a few months. He was the choir director at our school and was loved and respected by all the learners and staff. So, the day the embassy came to visit, just so happened to be his memorial service at school. Our boss couldn’t observe any of our classes or extracurricular groups (all the learners were preparing for the service) and the meeting with our principal felt tense and rushed. He said he wasn’t sure if he wanted to the program to continue as he needed to consult the SGB (like PTA but with more power in changing the school) and other stakeholders. We were bewildered by this response and assured our boss that he had just told us the week before that he wanted the ETAs to continue. We chalked it up to the weird vibe at school with the passing of the teacher and his focus being on the service at that time. We and our embassy boss weren’t too concerned and both agreed to check in with him again in a few weeks.
A few weeks went by and we went about our business, conducting our classes, preparing our debaters for competitions, etc. Then, in a meeting about our debate camping trip, we asked Mr. Motsepe again if he wanted ETAs. We were shocked when he said he had consulted the SGB and they agreed it wouldn’t fit into the calendar for 2019, but possibly could make it work for 2020. Um what? How does free labor not fit into a calendar? We tried to express our utter confusion by this response. We had no idea why the SGB, a group of parents and teachers, wouldn’t want more ETAs to come to Boetse. We tried to tell him that if he didn’t take ETAs next year, there would be no way for them to come in 2020 as the program tries to spend 3 years at each school. We asked him if we were doing anything wrong and if that was the reason the SGB didn’t want more ETAs. He avoided the question. He told us not to worry and he would talk to our embassy boss and that nothing was officially decided yet as he was still working with the SGB. We left school that day in disarray, not sure which teachers were supportive of us and wondering what we were doing that was so bad that they wanted to get rid of the program entirely.
The following Monday, we got an email from our embassy boss in which she said she had talked to Mr. Motsepe and he said the SGB had officially decided to discontinue Fulbright ETAs at Boetse. I was so so so so so sad. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. We got this email at the very end of the school day and it led to me tearing up while I ran on the treadmill at the gym (side note: can y’all believe I am now officially a regular gym-goer??? Who even am I??).
Lara and I were convinced we had ruined the program by doing something wrong. We had major suspects that it was because of our remedial groups. The English HOD has expressed to the principal in the past (and hinted at this in meetings) that she thinks her exam pass rate is so low because we take her learners out of class. We have explained over and over again that we take these learners out once a week (aka they are missing one English class out of five) and these are the babies that can’t read at all! So sitting in a class with 60+ learners, they aren’t learning anything and aren’t getting the support they desperately need.. Alas, this HOD acts like she is on our side to our face, and then complains to the principal. At the term 2 data meeting, the principal asked her to explain her results and she said “you know my problem. I’m not talking about this here.” Essentially, she doesn’t want to say to our face that she dislikes our remedial groups. Honestly the most frustrating thing ever!!!
We went home and mourned the loss of Limpopo. The new ETAs are to arrive in January, and with Boetse backing out, there isn’t time to secure a new school. So, the WHOLE PROVINCE misses out on this program. A province that already has minimal nonprofits, NGOs, etc working here. A province that has minimal foreigners visiting and working here (shout out to peace corps that also prioritizes Limpopo). A province that even South Africans in the bigger cities know nothing about.
But, Limpopo, is so worth it! Limpopo is worth for people to come here. It’s worth programs coming to work in schools with not as much resources, especially the rural schools. It is worth foreigners coming here and creating social, international exchange.
We went to school the next day feeling uncomfortable and out of place. Which teachers didn’t like our work? Did our principal truly appreciate our contributions? Were we making a difference in our learners lives if parents of the SGB didn’t think it was worth it to continue the program? Distraught and confused, we pulled aside our favorite teacher friend to tell him how we were feeling and find out if he was at this SGB meeting. Turns out he wasn’t at the meeting but he was shocked to learn the principal wouldn’t want the program to continue. He admired everything we were doing for the school and thought the program was beneficial for the learners. He said he would ask around and see what he could find out.
Later in the day, he brought about 6 other teachers into our classroom. He entered and said “let’s prepare for WWIII.” Surprisingly, the SGB did not say they didn’t want the program. In the contrary, they unanimously decided, teachers and parents, that they wanted ETAs to come for the next school year. We were shook. Why would the principal blame his decision on the SGB? We told the teachers how we had felt so uncomfortable at school the last few weeks, like we weren’t sure if they all thought our work was useless. They were shocked by this. They said they could see a difference in the learners and thought of us as family. The teachers said they wanted to hold an intervention with the principal and fight for the program.
A few days later, we met with the principal again. He told us he had had a change our heart. That he wanted more ETAs. He reminded us that he had supported every project we had taken on (which is v v v v true). He said that he was facing pressure from others. Without saying it, we knew he was referring to the HOD and that she was truly the one who didn’t want the program to continue because of the remedial groups. We told the principal that those groups didn’t have to continue with the new ETAs but he agreed with us that these groups are very necessary for the grade 8 learners. Immediately, we emailed our embassy bosses and updated them on the situation.
Understandably, Fulbright does not like to place ETAs where there is any unrest among the teachers or admin. So, it is still pretty unlikely that Boetse and Limpopo will get any ETAs since it seems the principal and teachers are not on the same page. This breaks my heart. The Boetse learners are so so so so deserving of more ETAs. Our debate learners are already worried about what will happen to the debate program once we are gone. But there is nothing we can do. We have fought so hard to keep the program here and now we just have to wait and see what the embassy staff decides.
Limpopo, you are so worth all the work. I wish more programs and people could see that.