Diversity – a Waterford Kamhlaba experience

| November 9, 2010

By Laurence Nodder

I grew up as a white male in apartheid and chauvinistic South Africa. Even though in my university years I took an intellectual position for a ‘free and democratic society in which all people can live together in harmony and with equal opportunities’, maybe inevitably my approach to people is scarred by the environment in which I grew up.

My initial interaction with people who are ‘different’ is seldom completely spontaneous. As an antidote to my upbringing, throughout my adulthood I have chosen to live and work in predominantly black societies. My observation is that children from professional families but different racial backgrounds have an increasing amount in common, including allegiance to a Western youth culture.

So to the Waterford Kamhlaba (WK) experience

WK emphasises building a tapestry of people from different socio-economic, ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. Making sense of this tapestry for all within the school is not an easy task; research shows that poor people often find wealthy institutions ‘alienating’. On the other hand, my observation is that more than one student from a materially privileged background finds living at WK something of a challenge.

In part, this is because WK does not reference its material provision by what the richest in society can afford: their assumptions in many areas are challenged by the significant presence of people from materially poorer backgrounds and different world views. These seem to me to be the harder and more telling divides in society that
we need to confront. Moreover, WK seeks to make as strong an impact as it can within those communities that need the school the most: about 30% of students are on full bursaries, coming from currently disadvantaged backgrounds, rising to roughly half of its students within the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma programme years on full bursaries. The latter includes 23 Zimbabwean students – because that country will need as many young people as possible with the intellectual skills, broad outlook and sense of purpose to provide leadership in the coming years.

And it is important that many students throughout the school are orphans from currently disadvantaged backgrounds, again because they need the type of opportunity WK provides. In recent years, WK has been far more proactive in seeking out potential students who would add to the richness of the tapestry; students whose life circumstances would normally preclude them (or their parents or guardians) from thinking of applying to a school like WK. We encourage applications from top academic achievers in local public examinations through visiting schools in key areas (such as in poorer parts of Soweto) and through working closely with agencies such as SOS Children’s Villages, the Capernaum Trust in Zimbabwe, Burundi and Lesotho (which supports over 26 000 students, mostly in Zimbabwe) and the Alexandra Education Committee.

In many instances, selection of individual students is an act of faith because these students who have done exceptionally well in their current schools still normally lack a first-rate primary (and, for the IB, a first-rate secondary) education. Likewise, it is an act of faith for these students to enrol at a school where the majority of students will be from more sophisticated educational backgrounds and with far greater financial resources.

Our teachers and students increasingly try to exercise their imaginations as to how WK can move beyond simply assimilating students from financially poorer backgrounds and harder circumstances into middle-class assumptions. Rather, we seek ways for WK to embrace these students, value them for who they are and for what they bring to this community. We want WK to broaden its concept of itself so that these students can retain a sense of dignity concerning their families and their backgrounds, and possibly shift the perceptions of those of us from easier circumstances as to who we think we are. Even though this is an endeavour that remains imperfect in its outcomes, it is important that these questions are asked and solutions sought. Where we cannot reach consensus on an approach or an issue, we try to find solutions that require a degree of compromise for everyone at school, not simply a compromise from those who might be perceived as representing a minority.

Composition of the teaching body

I am more convinced than ever that students (even if they do not initially perceive this) benefit from a teaching body that brings diverse backgrounds and perspectives to the task of teaching. This is even more evident where the student body itself comes from diverse backgrounds.

I don’t want students to see their teacher role models through apartheidtinted lenses. I do want them to see themselves in their role models. They must know that anybody can be a role model – black, white, male or female, Cambridge or UNISA educated. In too many prestigious independent schools, students believe that the role models that
are teachers must be white and have been educated at leading universities.

WK has teachers from the usual backgrounds that one would find at a leading independent school – white, middle class, leading universities – and it is important to attract and retain these teachers. Equally importantly, WK also has African teachers from families prominent in their communities who have attended the ‘best’ universities within their own countries. Other teachers are first-generation educated within their families and from poorer families; another teacher was orphaned during his own schooling; several teachers could only complete high school because they received bursaries; some teachers are in economic exile; and one teacher is in political exile and cannot return home.

Of course, this diverse teaching corps comes with its own challenges. Irrespective of background, teachers require support and ongoing in-service training, which WK is not always able to provide, source or afford. I do not pretend that challenges don’t exist, but I assert that this multitude of backgrounds makes it far more likely that every student’s background will be understood at more than an intellectual level by at least someone on the staff. There is a far greater chance that all students will feel respected. And what a potentially rich experience each and every student can gain from these different perspectives.

Creating authentic journeys

And so I observe the teachers and students and myself, as collectively we move in relating authentically to each other, observe as our horizons expand, observe as we as we learn to share each others’ joys, triumphs and pain, our poetry, music and dance, imperfectly but increasingly spontaneously. Those of us who engage in this process without being dogmatic about what we perceive as the overwhelming merits of our own histories, traditions, cultural and intellectual positions, seem to journey the furthest.

From an institutional point of view, we move from a school with a more defined and enduring sense of itself to which students must attach, to a school which attaches to the students and tries to value what they bring. With regard to the latter, the diversity of backgrounds is something that is appreciated and seen as a strength, not  something to be ironed out and rationalised by a claim to academic excellence, tradition or a national or cultural identity.

To quote a Ghanaian student now studying in the USA: “Beyond the academic grounding, four years at Waterford offered a unique social preparation for Dartmouth. At WK, often without noticing it, we were comfortable with difference. Diversity was our lived experience and not an anxious administration’s goal. Here at Dartmouth, I am
an international student, a black person, a woman – all categories that check minority boxes. Yet I am able to relate across definitions.
“Sometimes when I am done talking about how I got here, people ask me to ‘say something in your language’. I usually respond with ‘Kamhlaba. It was part of the name of my high school. It means we are of one world, a world without distinction of race, colour or creed.’” And this is what I hope for: a world where we haven’t abandoned our rich heritages for the sake of a mass global culture, rather a world where we feel utterly comfortable in relating across definitions, and with human solidarity, the concern for the other, at the centre of the values by which we live.

Laurence Nodder is Principal of Waterford Kamhlaba UWC of Southern Africa.

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Category: Summer 2010

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