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Paper Bags + Six Year Olds=Puppets!

Whew, it’s been a busy, crazy, crazy-busy couple of weeks here in South Africa teaching, performing, meeting lots of amazing people, and all of us o.d.-ing on chips (fries). Chips come with everything here: breakfast, lunch, dinner, I’m sure there’s a dessert chip that we will soon discover.

One of the highlights has been the workshops that we’ve led. In this post, I’ll be touching on our work with six year olds at two of Africa Tikkun’s community centers in Johannesburg.

Africa Tikkun’s centers lie in the heart of two hard-scrabble informal settlements on the outskirts of Johannesburg. They are areas with limited resources and access to basic facilities: hospitals, banks, grocery stores, and schools. The centers are a place where local children are able to come gain skills, get tutoring, and eat a hot meal. Each center has a library, classrooms, exercise facilities, and a computer center. Africa Tikkun is a home for students from age 3 or 4 through their schooling years and even into adulthood until they have secured a career and employment for themselves. When we visited, there was a lot of anticipation for the sporting competitions that were set to take place between the students of the different centers on Mandela Day (July 18th).

Our first group of Grade R students came from Diepsloot, a neighborhood with a largely immigrant community. When we entered the classroom the kids sang us a greeting song to welcome us. We taught them red light/green light and learned that stoplights in South Africa are known as “robots.” (This is definitely a nickname I would love to bring back with me to the States.) Then we passed out puppet making supplies: paper bags, feathers, glue, googly eyes, popsicle sticks, and crayons. They were the most well-behaved group of six year olds I have ever seen. They watched wide-eyed at everything we did but waited to get permission before trying anything.

By contrast, the students we worked with the next day in Alexandra, one of the oldest informal settlements in Jo’burg, barely gave us time to put the materials down before they put them to use. Their puppets bristled with multiple mouths and elaborate headdresses. I asked one boy if he was drawing a belly button for his puppet, “no,” he replied as if I was the six year old, “this is his penis.”

Once they made their puppets, we sent them on a little adventure around the room: climbing imaginary trees, swimming through imaginary rivers, jumping through imaginary savannahs. Once we had finished our journey the Alex kids all spontaneously burst in to song about finding a banana, eating it, and what happens after your body digests it. (Their teachers were slightly mortified, but I was really impressed by how well they all knew the song and the gestures that went with each action.)

The community center at Alexandra also has one of the, um, most beguiling works of art that I’ve seen so far in South Africa.

Yes, that’s Bill Clinton in a leopard pelt...

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