On August 09th, a team from the School of Physics set out on a journey to celebrate the National Science Week with high-school learners from Venda in Limpopo, a six-hour trip away from Braamfontein. We were booked at Vhafamadi bed-and-breakfast in Thohoyandou, where we enjoyed a good night sleep before the long first day of our outreach trip.
The Wednesday started with a good breakfast and a few selfies to light-up the morning, before heading off to the Mukula High school, half an hour away from the hotel. Upon arrival, we were greeted at the entrance of the school by a bright hot sunshine and the Chief of the area, Mr Takalani Rudzani, who led us inside, where we met the school Principal and other member of staff for a brief introduction and discussion about the program of the day.
We proceeded to the courtyard to get ourselves set up. Meanwhile, some of the learners present in the yard had started the preparations for the ceremony that was to be held to kick-start the Science week. It wasn’t long before we caught the attention of the students congregating into small groups, observing us and probably wondering what was in the boxes we were off-loading from the car. They were certainly curious about the black telescope under the centre of the tent, but too shy to approach any of us to ask about it. All they needed was a little push, and it was exactly what we gave them. We quickly excited their inner pyromaniac self by using focussed sunlight to burn a piece of paper and explode balloons, just a taste of what we had in store for the day. Two brave souls, then five, then ten, the group around us grew in an instant. From science experiment, we quickly digressed and the morning turned into a photoshoot and we were more than happy to oblige; and why not? They were obviously bored with the long wait and we all had, from the looks of things, a good couple of hours to burn. The girls were clear the stars of the show; against their superior social skills were outclassed and relegated to the role of photographer. We took advantage of the moment to thank our main sponsor, the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP), with a beautiful aerial shot. It took some effort but were able to get the student to crouch and arrange themselves to form the SAIP initials. This would have gone much easier had we been well verse in the dialect of the area. The result was definitely worth it. Everyone was pumped up and ready for the introductory ceremony that was about to start. We had naively all expected this would have been a quick matter and that we would soon get on with the demonstrations. We were clearly mistaken. From the students directing the ceremony for the day, Chief, Pastor, to the Circuit Manager, everyone seemingly had a lengthy speech prepared. This tedious exercise may have, at first, seemed pointless, until one puts the events in context. The National Science Week was not simply an annual gathering; it was much more: a moment to remind the students of the approaching exam deadline, an opportunity to motivate each other, and more importantly, the perfect time to show them that a career in science is a fulfilling and rewarding. As their predecessors on the tortuous path that is life, we had a major part to play in realising some of these ideals behind the National Science Week. I confess feeling shocked when, in a motivational speech, one student in the entirety of the five schools that had assembled, raised his hand when I asked: “Who amongst you wants to be a scientist”. In private discussion later, I was relieved to know that there were more students interested in science, too shy to raise their hands. Though many of them had a penchant for the job of politicians: “They make a lot of money” some of the students told us; a natural feeling from their daily realities. Nevertheless, it was a sign that our role here was crucial. Two hours later, when the litany of speeches was over, we had enough time to grab some lunch and begin with the demonstrations: bending light with lenses onto balloons, focussing the sunlight with a parabolic mirror, optical communication using light, mechanical-to-electrical energy conversion, bending and polarising microwaves, scanning the sky through a telescope. After two hours of experiments and chat with the students, it was time to leave, thoroughly exhausted by the heat and the scientific explanations.
Thursday 10th August, we were back to Mukula high school, this time with a different group of five schools from the circuit to entertain and impress. I was determined to show off my new learned Venda words: I swapped the English “Hello” for the Venda “Ndaa”, pleasantly shocking my interlocutors, who lost me completely with unexpected answers. We had our round of photos before the litany of speeches (once again). Today was a bit different; we were joined by a special guest in the person of Dr Eric Musekene, the leader of a local NGO who arranged, together with the schools and Chief, our visit in Limpopo. Dr Musekene had helped arranging the same event the year before. It went well enough that we were asked to come again this year. Furthermore, the team of student DJs was more prepared – the microphone and electronic instruments had been out of service the day before. After the morning ceremony, we skipped lunch and carried on directly with the two-hour long demos. This time, we knew what the learners wanted. Though they had shown a preference for the exploding balloons, they were even more interesting in getting those balloons for themselves. This group was no different; this made it easier to entice them into paying attention. This group was more open than the previous one to personal questions: “How long does it take you to become a doctor?”, “why did you chose science?”, “what do I need to do to study at Wits?”, “is it difficult?”… . By the early afternoon we were done and ready to pack our equipment before heading back to the hotel for a power nap; we had a stargazing session planned for the evening. By six in the evening we were back to the school, where a sparse crowd of students and other kids in the area were waiting. The sky was dark enough that we could get set straight away, our astronomy crew leading the proceedings. Luckily, Venus had not yet disappeared over the horizon behind the school building. Though I admit we could not see much details with our telescope. Nevertheless, for a first time, it was amazing. After Venus had left the party, we settled for our closest galactic neighbour: the moon. Seeing the craters so close and in such high definition was a first for all the kids present. “Waaaaouh!” was the common interjection when placing one eye on the eyepiece. One after the other, they all wanted to witness this sorcery that allowed them to see so far away. Saturn on the other hand was trickier to catch with the eye; we had to almost continuously adjust the telescope to catch a glimpse of its shiny rings. For the lucky ones who did, it was definitely a sight they will always remember. Mars on the other hand was not as interesting as movies like the Martian portray it; in Mars’s defence, we just had our telescope to blame for it. The rest of the evening was dedicated to one more photoshoot, our last one in Mukula before heading to Vhaluvhu High School the day after, a little over a hundred kilometres away from Mukula High School. The goodbye were quite emotional; we received many thanks from the locals and the Chief. We hope to see once more.
Half past six in the morning, we left Vhafamadi bed-and-breakfast for our two and a half-hour journey. In the last thirty minutes of the trip, we had to take a dirt road to get to the school – our rental car did not handle it so well and we lost one of the wheel caps. Finally we had arrived: Vhaluvhu High School. An enthusiastic group of students had converged to greet us – It was quite refreshing I must say. We proceeded with unpacking our equipment and setting up in the school yard. Meanwhile, the crowd of students was growing. Ten of the neighbouring schools had been invited to attend, though only seven could make it. This was to be expected; many of the students had to walk a significant distance to get here. The lack of local transportation was evident on our way here. We were grateful that many could make the time and effort to come. This time, the introductory ceremony was much shorter. We divided the students into groups, scattered to the various stations across the yard. The show went on for about an hour and a half before the learners began to scatter. Some of them stayed behind with some questions about Wits and optics in general. I met two girls that had told me they wanted to do nursing, and one particularly curious boy that was interested in software engineering. Having experience the environment, it was admirable that there were here, and in the school we had visited previously, students with the passion to do great in life despite their less than ideal conditions of learning. It is that passion that will drive the development of South Africa for the years to come. I hope they keep faithful to their ambitions. Soon after noon, we were on our way. We made a quick stop in the family house of one of our companions: a brick house in the making, overlooking a vast plain of dry peaceful land.A reminder of the work that is still to be done to guarantee that every child in the country has access to quality education and enjoy the many opportunities South Africa has to offer. This marked the end of our journey and we were on our way. As they say in Venda: “Ndi a livhuwa”. See you all soon.