An Independent School • Grades 5-12

Avalon Igawa '13: Supporting students in South Africa

Avalon Igawa ’13, standing third  from left, with her  students at the South African Education and Environment Project.

Teacher  |  South Africa

October 2018

By Paula Bock

Life journey: After Lakeside, I studied at the University of Southern California and did a semester abroad at the University of Cape Town. I was keen to return. After months of applications and visa paperwork, I started teaching at the South African Education and Environment Project, where I support underprivileged students of color in their journeys to reach and succeed in higher education institutions. 

On the hardship of lawless, unreliable, unaffordable transportation 

Although our program is free and we give students a stipend for transportation, getting to class is still one of the biggest barriers they face daily. City buses and trains don’t reach many impoverished communities. Trains do not come on time and protests often cause entire routes to close for weeks. Privately run minibus taxis, one of the most relied on forms of transport, drive with a sense of lawlessness; route disputes can lead to violence, which can cause the whole system to shut down. All these vehicles can also be dangerous to ride alone, especially once it’s dark. This winter, buses weren’t running due to protests. Our students were queuing at 6 a.m. for minibus taxis, standing for hours in pouring rain. They were unable to attend classes when bad weather became a health concern.

Safe, reliable, public transport that will get you to school on time is a privilege many of my students will never realize in South Africa. Avalon igawa '13

On the misconception that apartheid has ended

The myth of the “rainbow nation” is a beautiful one but does not encapsulate the disunity of the most unequal country in the world (as determined by the World Bank). Inequality falls upon racial lines, with millions of people of color living in townships. Many white folks have comfortable homes, with access to vacation homes as well, and that is the accepted reality. Many people negatively affected by apartheid never actually received reparations and inequality is still systematically enforced through poor infrastructure and a lack of resources for those not in the wealthiest areas. Spaces we take for granted in America (universities, businesses, cities, etc.) haven’t adjusted to accommodate folks who don’t come from privileged backgrounds. The few underprivileged individuals who do make it into these spaces are continuously put through mental (and sometimes physical) hardship. Although South Africa has attempted to be progressive in reform, the legacies of apartheid live on. 

On wine tours, diving with sharks, and questioning privilege   

It’s very easy to live within our bubbles, especially when we’re traveling abroad, so it’s important to question our privilege: Where are we staying? Who am I talking to? What am I seeing? What am I not seeing? You can visit Cape Town and go on wine tours, dive with sharks, eat out every night, and hike the mountains, but acknowledge that you are only experiencing one side of South Africa. Once you’re able to understand your privilege, you can make more informed choices about what you want to do and why. Relish what you’re experiencing while recognizing what’s missing.

On Cape Town’s terrible drought 

The city was on the brink of running out of water. This meant not only turning off your shower while you’re putting on shampoo or conditioner, but also plugging the tub so you could collect all your grey water in buckets (to use to flush the toilet after a number two). Nobody flushes after going number one anymore. 

This article was first published in the Fall/Winter 2018 Lakeside magazine. Paula Bock is innovation and communications strategist for Mobilizing Myanmar, an initiative leveraging Burma’s smartphone revolution to connect women and the poor with economic opportunity. She’s the mom of a Lakeside 10th grader.