This was my rather poor effort at reproducing a photo that I had taken of my son in April 2008. I’m going to have a proper go tomorrow. The location is the Peace Garden next to Sheffield Town Hall. The photos were taken almost 11 years apart. Ages eleven years and twenty-one years respectively.
In 2004, I began working at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College in Swaziland. This is a school about five hours drive from Johannesburg set amongst the mountains of a small landlocked country the size of Wales. WK, as it is known, was the place that Nelson Mandela chose to have his children educated. As a United World College, it recruits its students worldwide and they come to Swaziland to take the IB Diploma, the international alternative to A-level. These students get academic scholarships and come from far and wide. It also recruits younger students for the lower school from nearer home. Most of the students aged 12 to 16 are from South Africa and neighbouring countries with a sizeable number coming from Ethiopia and some from Europe.
A large proportion of the students boarded. In fact, most of the IB students did as most of them came from outside Africa. I lived on campus which was outside the capital city Mbabane on a hillside. The weather was hot in summer and cold and misty in winter.
In 2006, I began fostering two boys aged 5 and 9 who had been living in the paediatric ward of Mbabane General Hospital. The younger child was there because he had been beaten round the head with a frying pan by his step-mother. The older child had been resident there for about two years and had serious health problems. There are over 100 000 orphans in Swaziland, and if you know anything about the health crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, you will know why. I’m not going to elaborate. The only place for these orphans is the street or some underfunded government institution. There are multiple Church run orphanages in the country, mainly funded by American evangelical churches. However, there are far too many orphans. There is no culture of adoption in Swaziland. People rely on an extended family network and orphans tend to be looked after by distant relations but usually in an exploitative relationship.
There was another teacher at the school who had adopted a baby so I knew that adoption was a possibility. I had been working with the school on a community service project at the hospital. I discuss the adoption in more detail in another post.
Beketele was a woman whom I employed to look after my two boys when I was teaching. She also cleaned the flat and did the washing. I paid her well compared to other teachers and I treated her well as she did a great job. There were some staff who underpaid their workers and that did not impress me.
After I left Swaziland, I lost touch with Beketele. I enjoyed the chats I had with her. I would ask her how to pronounce certain words and she would tell me about Swazi culture. I was sorry to lose touch with her when I left Swaziland in 2007. I returned on holiday in 2013 and tried to locate her, placing an advert in the Swazi Times. I then heard from the housekeeper at WK that she was living in South Africa. I never did find her but I hope life has treated her well.
My son’s adoption in Swaziland in 2006
In 2006, I was living and working in Swaziland. I was teaching mathematics and science at a well-known school in the capital city, Mbabane. I also helped out with a community service project which fifth and sixth forms were involved in. At Mbabane General Hospital on the children’s ward, Ward 8, was a single room where abandoned babies, handicapped children and young adults were housed. There was a row of cots, a table and benches and a television in a metal cage that was left on permanently during the day. I took the school children down to the hospital on a Friday afternoon in a minibus and we usually took the residents of the ward to Coronation Park to play. These children weren’t sick for the most part but desperately in need of human interaction.
There is only one government children’s home in Swaziland, a country with tens of thousands of orphans. It does not take handicapped children. There are several private orphanages funded by evangelical Christian churches as well as organisations such as SOS Children’s Village and these do a great job. However there are not enough of them.
The young boy pictured above in all eight photographs was one such child and had been left at Ward 8 for almost two years with little contact from his family after he was orphaned in 2004. I found out a little about him. He always seemed lively and curious however it was obvious that he suffered from ill-health.
I knew that the future was bleak for him if I did not do something. Another teacher at the school had recently adopted a baby from the same place and so I thought why shouldn’t I do the same. I made arrangements to foster the boy as well as another boy who was in the same situation. So started a long journey.
I asked about the possibility of fostering at the hospital and they were happy for me to take the two boys home for the weekend. I did so. I very quickly realised that I would like this to become a permanent arrangement. Arrangements were made for me to visit the offices of Social Welfare. A very kindly lady called Babazile Sigwane was my social worker. After a couple of visits with her, she suggested that I go for adoption. I would not have done this had I not known that I could get British citizenship for my adoptees. I looked into this and as I was resident in Swaziland at the time, the adoption was the responsibility of the local authorities. Swaziland and the UK recognise each other’s adoptions and so after I adopted Sikhumbuzo as he was then known, I applied for British citizenship at the British High Commission in Pretoria in early 2007. The smaller boy in the top set of pictures had a more complicated situation. His father’s location was unknown and he had been physically abused by his step-mother. He had an open wound on his head that was healing when he was with me. He grew very attached to me and it was very sad that I was told that it would not be possible to adopt him. I tried my hardest but it was not allowed. The reason stated to me was that the father could not be located however it had been over six months since he had had any familiar contact so I think this was not a valid reason.
So I adopted my son in December 2006. In June, we left Swaziland for the UK. I had already secured a new job in central Europe due to start that September but in the meantime, we spent the summer in England staying at my mother’s place. In August, we both moved to Bratislava in the Slovak Republic where we remained for four years. My son attended the same school as I worked at. In 2008, I bought a house and things were looking good.
There was a happy ending to what happened to the other boy I could not adopt because he did find a place at the Lighthouse children’s home. It is a very well-run orphanage with a system of house mothers who are responsible for a small number of children. It is a very caring environment and the children grow up in a family atmosphere. I send regular parcels of clothes and books to him there and keep in touch.
What I couldn’t understand about the situation at Ward 8 was the fact that the nurses seemed so apathetic and disinterested. A lot of toys had been supplied and were stuffed into a cupboard and never taken out. The walls were bare. Food was very basic and the older children slept on old mattresses on the floor with no-one to ensure their safety at night. There was a playground at the back of the hospital just behind the room which housed these children and the grass was overgrown. Our plan at the start of the project was to cut the grass and paint the swings and slides so that they could be used. But this was discouraged as the nurses wanted us to take the babies off their hands in the afternoon.
Teaching in Denmark
This is my son Patrick in Sønderborg, Southern Denmark, taken in October 2011.
I taught at a college in this small provincial town in Southern Denmark for just over a year. It was called EUC Syd. I found the transition from working in Slovakia (where I had lived previously) to cold and wet Denmark difficult. Part of the reason was the high cost of living and my reduced income. The other factor was getting used to the Danish rules and the culture of expecting foreign workers to find out important facts by osmosis. The attitude was one of unhelpfulness. I found this very frustrating. The language barrier was also another factor and the high tax regime.
EUC Syd would fall broadly under the category ‘community college’ in the UK. It is mostly for vocational students but also has a technical high school. There was being set up an IB department (International Baccalaureate) here but there were certain people in the school who seemed hostile to the idea that they should cooperate with the setting up of this school within a school. This caused a lot of difficulties.
The academic coordinator was a Czech man who had lived for thirty years in Denmark. He had recruited me and had been very optimistic about the opportunities the new department would afford. However the first cohort of students was too small. We only had eleven students to begin with and I had had no hand in recruiting them. They were mostly unmotivated, lazy and bored by the whole concept of education. I don’t know if it was something in the water but they were rude and surly too on the whole. Getting homework done was like getting blood out of a stone. Forget deadlines. Plagiarism warnings went unheeded as everyone copied off each other for coursework assignments. We went down from 11 students to four by the year’s end and two of these were students coming in from other colleges. I really felt that I was wasting my time.
The behaviour of a lot of the students in the college left a huge amount to be desired. They became aggressive when challenged. Some of them used to enjoy kicking a full water bottle as hard as they possibly could down the entire length of the corridor. Once, this happened right in front of the principle and he did nothing. They also enjoyed pushing each other on office chairs as fast as they could. After I began complaining, a spate of door knocking began on my classroom door – by the invisible man. I found the group behaviour amongst the students the strangest. They had an unnerving habit of all turning and staring at someone at the same time. It was very odd. Danish culture to me seems a warning against those who would say give young people all the freedom they want.
I was also struggling financially and I could not afford to own a car. Most of the other staff had two breadwinners. I was at the time a single parent with a teenage son.
Here is a comment I made on FB in 2011. “Been trying to persuade teachers in my school that the behaviour of the kids here is not good enough. Lost the battle a long time ago. ‘You’re used to working in private schools – their behaviour is fine. ‘ So kicking furniture around the corridors is fine. Disrupting lessons by fighting in the communal areas is fine. Not doing homework is fine. Being rude and arrogant is fine.
Meanwhile, our IB coordinator shows a prospective replacement around constantly introducing him with the wrong name. How difficult is it to get someone’s name right?”
“Danish students – a group walking past my classroom overhear another teacher giving instructions to their class:’Ok please sit down and …’ so they mimic ‘Please sit down motherf***ers’. In Denmark, this is normal and is not reacted to by any teaching staff.”
When something needed doing urgently, the attitude was ‘who gives a fuck.’ Not even the management seemed to care. No one seemed to try to plan ahead of time. My first pay packet was taxed 55 % and I had to inform the school that unless they taxed me correctly, I would have to leave. I needed my son’s residency permit in order to register him for school in August 2011 and to apply for educational support for him and I had to plead to get this piece of paper in time. No one had thought that I might need it. On some days, I would be the only one in the office 5 minutes before lessons started. One childish teacher began to accuse me regularly of not putting away lab equipment and would even chastise me for having an untidy desk. I would definitely advise anyone against working in Denmark.
“If you are interested in horrible places, I can recommend Denmark. No one starves. Everyone lives in small, pretty houses. But no one is rich, no one has a chance to a life in luxury, and everyone is depressed. Everyone lives in their small well-organized cells with their Danish furniture and their lovely lamps, without which they would go mad,” V.S. Naipaul.
The holidays were a lot shorter than in the UK and in Slovakia. In Denmark, the school year starts in the first week of August and continues right through to just before Christmas but nothing ever seems to get done for the amount of time kids spend at school.
To say that I disliked living in Denmark is an understatement. I noticed a “couldn’t care less” attitude in many different ways. I once got locked out of my bank account for entering my PIN incorrectly. I went into my bank branch and without showing any ID, they gave me money from account. They didn’t know me from Adam. After 17 months of this, I decided to leave because I could see that it was a lost cause. I did not make myself popular because I vented my frustrations in the staff room. Other staff did not seem to care or were too soft on the students. I would just say most didn’t care at all. Communication was very sloppy and my feeling was that many IB teachers were not following the IB guidelines in grading and assessing material and in assessing group coursework. Staff were always happy to make excuses for the students. This is how things work in Denmark: I call a meeting at work for all teachers who work in the physics lab. I invite the head of the section too. Out of 4 people, only 2 turn up. Even the head of section doesn’t turn up. He even acknowledged the invitation and I saw him moments before the start of the meeting. The other person disappears from the meeting while the first person who turned up is showing me something in the next room. I find the way people work in this country very strange.
Yes, I felt that the Danish claim to a perfect life was a big lie. Everyone seemed miserable, like the weather. And I didn’t mention the casual racism my son encountered.