The Gift of Education

Langa Township
Given Reyhani

Today we ventured to LEAP school, a Science and Maths high school in the township of Langa. Right when we arrived, we were greeted by a group of students and we spent time getting to know each other. After a while talking, we sat down and they started to perform for us. They started with a traditional South African gumboot dance, and then went into singing. As I watched them sing and dance, I noticed how talented they were and how seriously they take music. I also noticed how seriously they take their academics and how they really push themselves to do well.

After they sang, which they were very good at, it was our turn. Although they had beaten us in this field, we still did great. Eventually, they came up and joined us and we sang together. I feel like the singing really brought us together as they sang our songs and we sang some of their songs. We got to connect with them on a different level through singing, which is one of the biggest ways of connection throughout the world.

After performing together, we sat down in groups of three and we were asked to discuss the question, “If there was something that we could change about school what would it be?” In my group, we discussed the mandatory uniform that the LEAP students must wear. We talked about how wearing a uniform restricts you from expressing yourself, and that if you want to wear something you should be able to wear it because how you dress shows a little of who you are. This struck me because back home we don’t have a dress code and I never really thought about how we dress being a way to express ourselves.


Paola Jacobs

I felt a flood of emotions during my time at LEAP school today. Walking in, I was immediately greeted by Cetitu, a student who set my mood of the day with her joy and happiness. Her inviting energy made me feel accepted and the openness allowed for the both of us to get to know about each other’s lives easily. Throughout the day, I was surrounded by more and more kids my age, and noticed how well my classmates and I connected with everyone. We all live such different lives but I feel like that fact didn’t have a negative effect on the friendships and connections that I formed today. The differences just made the experience that much stronger.

After the school tour, we performed songs for the students and visitors at LEAP and they sang some songs for us. Their performances were amazing and they made me realize that community and culture are important. They opened their hearts to us, and the way they sang gave me chills. We sang them our songs and they were supportive of us; they clapped and smiled for us. I felt nothing but love for them. I felt a powerful community as we were all singing together. I felt so much appreciation and I enjoyed getting to know the kids through such a creative space. It made my visit to the LEAP school impactful.

After our time at the school, we all walked through the Langa township, talking and getting to know each other even more. It was interesting for me to walk through a town completely different from what I see in California. It really opened me up. It was like a big family. I saw a community where people helped people for the benefit of their own community. I saw children running around smiling, enjoying themselves. We were welcomed into their community and it seemed like they enjoyed our presence. We eventually stopped at a barbeque restaurant and shared lunch with our new friends. Sharing food and stories with them was so much fun, it felt like all I did was laugh today. It didn’t matter that we were from different countries. I find it amazing that people from two parts of the world can hang out without having a barrier or culture shock. I loved that there were so many unexpected similarities between all of us.


Maverick Bettencourt

“I value my school and my education a lot.” My new friend, Aluta, said this today during our time together at LEAP school. I would like for you to think about that for a second, and reflect on the average student in the United States and how they think of school. When we visited the Leap School of Science and Maths, I was in awe of how the students felt about school. I go through school not giving it my full attention, not valuing the very expensive, special, and amazing school that I attend. I go to Mount Madonna High School because my parents and I decided it was the right place to learn and grow.

The kids at Leap School had to take a test just to get into their school. They value each class. Each student takes very advanced and difficult classes. Classes like these would be taught in college in the United States. A good education is very hard to commit to in South Africa because of the lack of financial means. The average family only makes $6 a day, so higher education is not a viable option for many households. Leap School pays for clothes and food, in addition to education. These three items are hard to come by for many South Africans and this limits the success of students. I know that I have taken them for granted.

When we arrived at Leap School we were paired with a student to give us a tour of the school. I was the last through the door and there was one student standing alone. No one was paired with him. I went straight up to the student and introduced myself. His name is Aluta and he is the nicest person I have ever met. He was kind of shy.  I kept most of the conversation going but shy in South Africa is a bit different than the United States. In South Africa, most people seem outgoing in one way or another but compared to the rest of the students, he was a bit shyer. I spent the whole day with Aluta. I asked him about his school and his family life.

Aluta has no mom or dad. He lives with his grandparents. His mom passed away when he was very young age and his dad is out of the picture. Aluta values the opportunity of the school more than anything in the world. We were given a talking point during the day to share with each other, “What would you change about school?”  He said, “Nothing. School is so perfect and the chance just be at school is good enough for me.” He wants to be a doctor when he finishes school and move the United States of America. I have faith that he can but the problem is that his family does not have enough money to send their kids to college. Aluta showed me how much I take for granted, and that I should be more appreciative of the fact that my parents sent me to my amazing school that offers so many opportunities. I see that I should try my hardest.

Singing at LEAP School

A Nourishing Meal for the Soul

Khayelitsha Township
Jahnakai Willis

The Philani Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition project is an organization that addresses maternal and child health. The program helps support pregnant mothers to improve their birth outcomes, educates women on how to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child, and teaches women about nutrition so that they can keep their children healthy. Today, our class visited the headquarters and starting point of this project in Cape Town.

I was very inspired after spending time at the center with the mentor mothers and the children. I believe that my peer Rowan summed up my experience when she said, “It’s so much more enjoyable doing work for others that you want to do, than doing work for yourself that you’re made to do.” I think that statement explained a lot about what the program’s mentor mothers (women who guide and support the local mothers to raise a healthy family) brought to their work. Near the end of our adventure, the mothers decided to sing for us and of course Maverick was the first one in our class to jump up and start moving to the rhythm. Inspired by this, our class threw ourselves into the whirlwind of sound. Every single person started dancing, singing, cheering, clapping or was in a combined state of smiling and crying. You could tell that every single mentor mother enjoyed their job and cared about the work that they did. They showed us how much love they bring to Philani and how that love empowers and helps other women and their families live a healthy and supported life. I think when people love their work and are 100% committed to it like these women are, it has ten times the impact it does on the people benefiting from their support and wisdom.

Another highlight from our time at Philani was being with the children at school. My favorite part of visiting the kids was during their snack. A small group from our class went into their classroom to hand out snacks and all the kids raised their hands up after they ate and started yelling, “Jojo! Jojo!” at us. Even though we didn’t know what it meant, our group said it back to them and this went on for what felt like ten minutes. We later found out that they were screaming a phrase from some burger advertisement that they had seen, but the part that was touching was that even with a language barrier, the children and we shared a connection because happiness and laughter are universal things. Being in state of love, appreciation, and sheer joy, it was easy to ignore the fact that our group and the kids didn’t speak the same language or couldn’t hold a conversation; the happiness was too important.

Every single kid had so much energy and interest in meeting new people that I found myself in awe and as happy as I could be. Being around these children made me remember how much innocence, joy, and curiosity goes into childhood. I was inspired by seeing these kids living their best lives, with such simplicity. Being with them truly made me realize how so many people think they need so much just to live but we really don’t need all that much. Overall, the Philani visit has been one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve ever been involved with. I believe that I’ll never forget my time there and what I learned just by being around wonderful and empowering people.


Noah Tervalon

Music, to the American is simply an activity; to the South African it is a way of engagement. While we were visiting Philani, a group of mentor mothers came out of their training session to sing to us. As soon as they came out, we could feel their energy. We looked around at each other and quickly realized that the songs we had prepared were going to be blown away by whatever it was they were about to perform for us. When they walked over to perform, there was no making sure they were in a specific line, no ensuring they had the right pitch, no warming up. They jumped right in and grabbed our attention with a grasp that we could not be pulled away from, even if we had tried.

The moment they opened their mouths a wave of raw emotion that was new to me flew out. When Americans sing, the music sounds wonderful and is a fantastic food for the ears, but the music that these women made was an entire nourishing meal for the soul. It was as if the women were singing to share a part of their story and their lives with us instead of singing so that we could hear their voices and appreciate the sound. For a good portion of the time they were singing they weren’t even singing to us, they were singing to each other. They used music to connect to each other on a deeper level and we were invited to join them, which was beautiful.

After their first couple of songs a fantastic moment happened. We had been watching them sing and dance from a short distance away, and then Maverick bridged the gap and joined them in dancing. Everyone in our class seemed to hold their breath, but the women went right on singing and dancing even accepting Maverick into their ranks with smiles and laughter. Soon, a few more people started dancing over to the women and before long our entire class had begun dancing, smiling, and laughing along with the mothers. This experience lasted around 5 minutes but it felt like hours. I remember having a massive smile glued to my face during the entire time.

This entire experience, with the mothers singing to us and us joining them in dance, really brought me into this trip. As soon as it was over I realized that I had just experienced such a deep sense of emotion conveyed through song that music would be changed forever for me. After having experienced this, I realized that music was not simply an activity for them as it is for us, it is a way of giving yourself to another so they can understand you by sharing with them your raw emotions.


Tessa Ortiz

After unloading and sorting the clothing donations that we brought, we were met with much excitement from the coordinators and mentor mothers. They told us that many children normally would only be wrapped in blankets. Now, they could go outside and play in the winter weather. After hearing from several of the women that worked at Philani, we were sorted into groups to work. My group went to start rolling balls of fabric that would be used on the loom. Once that job was mostly completed, we hung out with the kids from the preschool. I remember looking around the play structure and then I saw a little girl just looking at me with her arms raised, so I picked her up and we walked around as she played with my hair.

A highlight of the day was when I met a mentor mother and her daughters and niece. As we worked rolling the fabric string into balls, we talked about school. The eldest was in twelfth grade, her sister was in third grade, and the niece was in ninth grade. The eldest talked about studying psychology in college. We talked a lot about our relationships with our moms. As we kept untangling the string, we laughed and joked in the small amount of sunlight. It felt like we were all connected by that string. I couldn’t have felt any more peaceful. I have made a new friend and she wants me to come back, and I have plans to make it happen. Another highlight of the day was when one of the administrators said, after explaining how she made it to South Africa as a refugee, that she learned that we are here to bring light to people when it is very dark. Bringing a small amount of help can lead to great opportunities.


Fiona Burgess

It is safe to say that the two days we’ve spent in South Africa have surpassed any expectations I previously held. I thought I was prepared. I had read the blog posts of the class that came before us as well as watched the videos of their trip, but all my preconceived notions were quickly wiped away.

Upon arrival at Philani, I learned of the many inspiring women who work within its mentor mother program. These women are mothers from low income areas that have surpassed their circumstances and raised healthy children themselves. Recruited by Philani, these mentor mothers go out into communities and support other mothers with children ages zero to five in being confident mothers who raise healthy children. What really struck me is that not only are they providing these women with resources but working towards the continued progression of the communities.

After spending the day helping at Philani, as well as interacting with the children, we were surprised with a concert from the mentor mothers we had learned about earlier. As they sung, we all watched and I was unable to stop the smile from spreading across my face. By the middle of their performance our class had joined them, and we were all dancing around the courtyard. For me, it was extremely empowering to be surrounded by these women who inspired me with their hard work. By the end of our time there, I realized how completely present I was, the usual thoughts of self-consciousness I carried were nonexistent. I had spent the day completely focused and interested by my surroundings. Today has left me both inspired and excited for the rest of our time here in South Africa.


Haley Kerr

“Good morning,” the kids at Philani chimed as we stood in their happy presence. It didn’t matter that these young kids and I didn’t speak the same language because the love still flowed through each and every one of us. Small, simple communications were all we needed to have fun together. When the kids wanted to go across the monkey bars in the playground they would simply say, “Missy! Missy!” and then we would proceed to help them across. To communicate our love, and joy that we were together, we would smile, wave, and say, “Morning!” repeatedly.

Personally, I got the pleasure of spending time with one specific little girl named Mary. She was very shy at first, but when we started singing and dancing with the whole group, she held onto my hand and didn’t let go. The group spread out and went to do other things, so I turned to Mary and proceeded to try and communicate with hand motions and facial expressions. After only two minutes of simply smiling at each other, Mary wrapped her arms around my legs and gave me a big hug. I squatted down so that I was the same height as her and she adjusted so that her arms were wrapped around my neck. I hugged her back and we continued to hold each other fondly. In that moment, feeling Mary’s arms wrapped tightly around me, I looked around at all my classmates playing with the other kids and felt pure joy. The sun was shining, everyone was having fun, and in their faces, I could see the enormous amount of love that they felt. At that moment, my heart was full and I realized how immensely grateful I am for the opportunity to be here in South Africa with such warm-hearted people.

After we said our bittersweet goodbyes to the kids, a group of about 30 women, who were in training to become mentor mothers, came outside and sang for us. Seeing the joy in their faces as they performed increased the love in my heart even more. Not only are they great performers, but they are also changing the world. These mentor mothers save the lives of so many children in South Africa by checking on them and their mothers to make sure that they are well-nourished and developing correctly. These inspiring women are the reason why Philani is so successful and why the children that we met today were so joyful. I can confidently say that today was one of the best and most inspiring days of my life. I will never forget the beautiful smiles of those kids and the immense love I felt singing, dancing, and playing with them.

At Philani Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition Project

Stay Educated and Make Noise

Connor Murphy
Thulani Mabaso

Before the sun cut through the morning’s winter chill, we were fed and on a bus set off for the Cape Town harbor; from the harbor, we took a boat to Robben Island. Robben Island is the place where Nelson Mandela as well as other political prisoners were held for defying apartheid. One such political prisoner was our tour guide, a man named Thulani Mabaso. At the young age of 15, he was captured and brutally tortured for fighting against apartheid. Learning this was one of many humbling moments of the day.

During our interview with Thulani, I was shocked to hear the stories about his horrific incarceration and I was humbled by his vulnerability and openness in sharing his experiences with complete strangers. I was left in awe by his conviction and strength of will. He told us about participating in hunger strikes so long that he was forced to eat in a hospital. Lastly, I was put into a pure state of wonder and I was left humbled by his ability to forgive and move on. This was a man who was tortured for months without trial and constantly degraded and abused by authority figures. A man whose world was unjust. Yet, despite these extreme injustices this was also a man who, once released, treated one of his guards to dinner. His ability to believe in the good in the world, forgive, let go and move on, and the way he turned anger into focus and drive, left me and my classmates in awe.

From the canyons of emotions that we traversed with Thulani, we traveled into the heights of Table Mountain. The views from what I would call the peak of the mountain, if it were not flat as a table, left me in almost as much awe as Thulani had. At the top of Table Mountain was the first time it truly struck me that I was in South Africa. As I stood at the top, I turned to my left to see the southern tip of Africa whose curvature I knew from maps, and to my right stretched the expanse of South Africa’s coast off into the mist. It was then, with the expanse of the continent before me, that I could reflect on the legacy that we stood upon. Just as I stood upon Table Mountain, I stood on the shoulders of all those classes that came before me. Each interview feels like an extension of the last trip, as we get to continue our journey deeper towards the heart of South Africa.


Cecilia Rothman-Salado

Today we traveled to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela and many others were imprisoned for years. We got the incredible opportunity to interview Thulani Mabaso, a former political prisoner there. The interview was powerful, horrifying, and deeply saddening, yet somehow at the same time it empowered me. Although I haven’t done many interviews, I can almost guarantee that this interview will have been one of the most moving interviews of my entire life. I will never forget our time spent with Thulani.

The boat ride from the mainland to the island took about 20 minutes; I’m not a person who gets that affected by motion sickness, but I’m not going to lie, the trip over for me was quite sickening. The boat was rocky and the rolling swells brought me and others some unsettled nerves.

When we got off the boat, we were greeted by Thulani, and immediately his kind demeanor made me at ease. I remember whispering to Ksenia, while walking towards the prison, “Wow, I really like this guy,” even though he had barely said any words to us yet. He was calm and reserved, and the energy that he carried with him was very soothing.

First, Thulani gave us a brief but thorough tour of the prison. As soon as we got through the doors of the prison, my other classmates and I felt very uneasy. He showed us the place where straightaway prisoners were taken to get their prison numbers, as well as being stripped naked, inspected, and searched all over their bodies. The guards’ treatment towards them was inhumane.

Thulani brought us to the courtyard, which was basically a concrete box, where prisoners were given the chance to exercise and play games such as soccer, tennis, and volleyball. He told us was that one of the ways that prisoners communicated with other prisoners who were in other cell blocks was by cutting open tennis balls, putting secret messages into them, and hitting them over the concrete walls.

Thulani showed us the cells that the prisoners were locked in. The cells were 2×2 meters and contained a thin sleeping mat, a small stool, and a bucket; you can guess what it was used for. We could walk into Mandela’s cell, though there really wasn’t much space to walk in. Thulani said that Mandela couldn’t sleep with his legs fully stretched out. This gave us perspective on how little the guards cared about the inmates.

The last part of our tour was our formal interview with Thulani where he shared with our group some of the most disturbing stories that I have ever heard. From a very young age, Thulani fought against apartheid. He was arrested, tortured, and beaten, and was ready to die. The fact that Thulani could be so vulnerable with a group of teenagers, that he had just met, brought many of us to tears.

I was most moved by the fact that even though Thulani experienced so much pain and suffering, he could find hope and forgiveness through it all. The way that he could forgive the people who treated him so horribly was inspiring to me. This is a lesson that I want to carry back with me and implement into my life. I want to learn how to let go of grudges and resentment, and be a more forgiving person overall. Thulani has inspired me to become a better person.


Ksenia Medvedeva

“Injustices should not be promoted; we must promote justice in the world.” This is one of the many quotes that I was struck by during our interview today with Thulani Mabaso, a former political prisoner from Robben Island. I think I can speak for the whole class when I say that despite the inhumane suffering that he endured, Thulani was an incredibly compassionate man and used his experiences to fuel his lifelong journey to find truth and pursue justice.

It was a cold, still morning. I, along with many of my classmates, stood anxiously on the docks as we waited to depart. Today being our first interview, I didn’t know what to expect, and the cloud of unknowing seemed to loom over me and mock the clouds in the sky. I was already quite distressed due to my luggage not arriving in Cape Town the previous day, but I tried to not let that interfere. Despite all the fear and unfamiliar territory, I had faith that it would be an impactful and perspective-altering interview. I clung on to that thought and it put me at ease as we made our rather sea-sickening trip over to the island.

My heart jumped into my stomach as Thulani slammed the first of many metal doors, signaling the beginning of our tour. He explained that this was how the prison guards closed each door in the prison, giving insight into how the prisoners were constantly intimidated. The prison was cold, concrete, and echoed with the buzzing of the overhead lights. We were taken into several rooms, including Nelson Mandela’s cell and the courtyard where Mandela hid his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” Finally, we circled in a cafeteria and began our interview.

Thulani shared his story with us. I was speechless. It was almost unbearable to listen to, and a wave of shock and awe overcame our group. Many people began to cry, as did Thulani himself. The atmosphere in the room shifted as he spoke, and vulnerability seemed to seep out of his words. He was so young when his fight began, and he endured so much loss and hardship, yet he still managed to find forgiveness in himself. This inspired and empowered me. Honestly, his words and values are something that I will carry on with me for the rest of my life. I’ve always heard stories of resilient people who fought through their hardships using hope, but meeting Thulani and having a first-hand account of someone with this immense emotional strength was truly moving and made me feel more connected with the world. “Stay educated and make noise,” he said in regard to advice for our generation. After today, I know I will.

Mount Madonna students with Thulani Mabaso

Umbono Project Anticipation – Student Thoughts

Tabitha Hardin-Zollo

In less than one week, we will be leaving for South Africa. It hasn’t completely hit me yet. There have been small moments, for example, when people ask me about my summer plans, or when our trip t-shirts arrived; but it still hasn’t fully hit me. We are going to South Africa!

Our class chose to name our trip Umbono, a Zulu word meaning “perspective”. We feel like it expresses our goal for our journey. Collectively, we want to gain a greater sense of the world around us, by immersing ourselves in a different culture. Personally, I want to gain a deeper understanding of a post-apartheid South Africa, a country in repair. I am excited to meet Thulani Mabaso, a man who lived through the apartheid era and fought against that oppressive system. I want to learn how he is able to be so forgiving; so forgiving that he is able to work closely with a prison guard who worked on Robben Island while he was imprisoned there.

My goal for this journey is to take every opportunity that comes to me and come out feeling that I got the most that I possibly could out of the experience. It is easy to plan for the upcoming trip, what I am packing, what I am wearing, who we are meeting, but I don’t think I will understand the magnitude of how lucky I am to be going on a journey like this until I am in the air, on the way to South Africa.


AnMei Dasbach-Prisk

Through the hustle and bustle of junior year, I haven’t quite thought about going to South Africa. Yet, as I sit here now and write this, it’s starting to hit me. My classmates and I will be embarking on this unique and special learning journey, halfway across the world in t-minus 6 days. One thing I have definitely already learned in preparation for this trip is to “trust the process,” as Ward told my class and me on the first day of Values class. This has been a challenging class for me throughout the year, as I am a person who likes to know exactly what is to come and prepare accordingly. Basically, what I am saying is that I am a bit of a control freak and I dislike not knowing what to expect. However, throughout the school year, I have learned a lot in Values class and I have come to realize that I should be more open and not get caught up in my expectations, as they will only hinder my experience on this trip.

Despite my apprehensions about the unknown of this trip, I am very excited to visit South Africa and become immersed in the history and culture there. I think that it will be very interesting to visit a country that is a relatively new democracy and has a very violent and tragic history. I think that this trip will help me to gain more perspective and grow as a person, as it will push me out of my comfort zone. I am truly grateful for this opportunity and I cannot wait to meet the people there and share stories with them.

Donation Bags

The Jumping Off Point Is Near

Shannon Kelly
Johannesburg

Anyone that is familiar with Mount Madonna School knows that this is a very busy time of year here. We have many wonderful rites of passage, trips, ceremonies, and of course, the Ramayana. And, in the background, the juniors have been preparing for their learning journey to South Africa. On June 14th, we will embark on this long-awaited trip.

Throughout the year the juniors have been working hard, both in the classroom, and outside it, to learn about South African history, culture, and to fundraise for some amazing organizations that we will visit. They, along with their families, have put on amazing events, sold jewelry and t-shirts, and collected and packed clothing and shoe donations. These are the types of experiences that deepen student commitment and connection with the trip.

Once we are in South Africa, we will engage with other high school students, visit NGO’s such as Botshabelo and Philani Children’s Nutrition Project, and conduct interviews with thought leaders and activists such as Mamphela Ramphele. We hope that you will read the student blog and follow along with us on the 2019 Learning Journey to South Africa.

– Shannon Kelly, Co-trip leader


Ward Mailliard
At LEAP school in 2017

We depart on June 14th for the sixth Mount Madonna Learning Journey to South Africa. For some reason this year has been challenging to get our schedule fully set, but finally we have it in hand. I am always amazed at how good fortune seems to support our efforts (knock on wood of course). This year for the first time, Archbishop Tutu will not be available to us as he has fully retired from public life. We wish him good health and rest after his life of giving.

As those who carried the banner of the anti-apartheid movement retire or pass on, the danger is that the spirit of the remarkable, even miraculous, transition made by South Africa will begin to fade into history.

I am so thankful that we have found one of the seminal leaders of that time, and that she is willing to take time to speak with us. I am speaking of Mamphela Ramphele, who was the partner of Stephen Biko, one of the great martyred heroes of that time. Dr. Ramphele is an iconic figure of that era and has been a prominent leader in the new South Africa. We have also heard from another close associate of Stephen Biko’s, Dr. Barney Pityana, President of Convocation of the University of Cape Town. He is a seminal figure in human rights and the black consciousness movement.

At Philani in 2017

I am also excited to report that we will be again visiting the Botshabelo Children’s Aids Village. The students have been raising funds and gathering clothing and other needed things for them. We will also visit the Philani Child Nutrition project in Khayelitsha Township, The LEAP School in Langa Township, and we will be performing with the Tswelopele Performing Artists in Tembisa Township.

We will complete our journey with a three day safari in the northern part of South Africa.

We are grateful to our many friends in South Africa for making all of this possible and excited to make new friends at Botshabelo, Philani, Tembisa, and the LEAP school. We hope you will follow us on our journey to see what the students learn.

-SN Ward Mailliard, Co-trip leader

Umbono Project Coming Soon!

The juniors of Mount Madonna School will embark on their Learning Journey to South Africa, the Umbono Project, on June 14, 2019. Check back for updates coming soon! View the schedule in the sidebar on the left.