A Letter to Madlala

Debra Dong – a teacher from New York – recently visited Londolozi Private Game Reserve in South Africa. Prior to her trip she had arranged to set aside a day to travel to rural Madlala High School where she would engage over 100 ninth-graders in a poetry lesson.

What follows is Debra’s account of “an American teaching in rural Africa.” Her story is thoughtful, sensitive and touching, and so is her final message to the students that she so selflessly spent time teaching.

Debra, your footprints will remain in the dusty courtyard at Madlala High School always.



“It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.” Nelson Mandela

When driving into the gates at Madlala High School you first notice the large tables spread out under the shade of the trees. The tables are laden with fresh fruits and an assortment of bagged treats for the children to choose from. The children are fed a nutritious lunch, free of charge, provided by the government. The school grounds are well kempt with multiple buildings surrounding a large courtyard. Shade trees are plentiful and greatly appreciated in this hot climate.

The classrooms are small yet the class sizes are huge! The children sit on wooden benches or chairs with a table in front of them. They keep their books in their book bags as there is no storage in the desks. There is no teacher’s desk due to the lack of space as well as lack of teaching materials. They do not have lockers, water faucets, or indoor plumbing. The school lacks basic educational supplies that we, here in the US, take for granted.

How can children learn in an environment such as this you ask? How can children get what they need to be successful? Those questions are easy to answer- desire.

“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.” Nelson Mandela.

I was nervous and excited at the same time before meeting the students I was to teach. I prepared long and hard back in the States for this lesson but as every teacher asks: “Is it the right fit for these students?” I am a teacher of elementary students whose ages range from 8 to 12. Here I would be teaching ninth graders who were much older and so much taller. My class sizes in Brooklyn range from 25 to 32 students per class. Here in Madlala, the two classes I was to teach had 69 and 72 students. How could I manage all this? I worried needlessly.

The children were amazing! Their thirst for knowledge and learning was inspiring. Their brains were sponges soaking up everything I was teaching. I taught them two types of poetry – concrete and acrostic. They grasped this lesson and wrote poems that really should be published. I told them to use their names or a favorite animal to start off easy. No way! Many students wrote and used words that concern their lives today. Quite a few used Nelson or Mandela and wrote great tributes to this great man. All of the children were eager for me or their teacher Patrick to read and comment on their writings. I hope to see some of their amazing poems on the website soon.

“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that generation.” Nelson Mandela

I met some wonderful and inspiring people on my journey:

Witness – such an amazing friend. He was always there for us. He was a guide for our village walk; our driver to Madlala; but most of all he was a historian sharing his love of his country and his people.

Linky – an energetic teacher of students and adults. She loves the children and her job and it shows through her words and actions. She spends the day in Madlala working with and for the students in her role as the Course Coordinator at Madlala Digital Learning Center.

Pleasure – who is appropriately named as she is a pleasure to be around. She is a sweet girl who was there to lend a helping hand in our lessons. She also works for GWF at the Madlala Digital Learning Center as an ICDL facilitator – and spends some time teaching at Londolozi Digital Learning Center.

Patrick (a teacher at Madlala High School) – his enthusiasm for learning, his capacity for loving – makes him the teacher I aspire to be.  He teaches his students through his powerful love of knowledge. He helps foster their love of learning.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Kate Groch and “Gogo” Mo – a mother and daughter team (“Gogo” is the Zulu word for “Grandmother”). Kate is the CEO and founder of Good Work Foundation, the organization that powers the four learning centers, and Gogo Mo is the Course Coordinator at Londolozi Digital Learning Center. They are working hard to expand these centers to all the villages. They are working hard to educate any and all who want to learn. Gogo Mo was asked by Dave Varty seven years ago to help get the Londolozi Digital Learning Center up and running. At age 60, when most of us are thinking ahead to our retirements, she jumped into the unknown and has never looked back.

“Without language one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs.” Nelson Mandela

During my five day stay at Londolozi I was constantly thanked by all who found out that I was the teacher who volunteered to teach at the village high school. What they do not understand is that it is I who needs to thank them. Words cannot describe the emotions and feelings that I felt being with these amazing people. To have had the honor and the privilege to be able to share a lesson with children so willing to learn has truly been a blessing to me. For those children to take a brief lesson and create such amazing poetry so quickly boggles my mind. This has been one of the most remarkable and memorable experiences of my life. I will never forget this experience and I hope to repeat it someday soon.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela

I am a library teacher and I am spoiled with all the resources I have available at my fingertips.  To create a love of reading, one must have lots of choices to choose from. My new mission is to share my love of reading by getting some great books to my new favorite school. I promise to work hard on this mission.

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” Malcolm X

To the children of Madlala – You are the future and the future looks great. Keep learning – the world needs you all.

Debra Dong