Kalahari Lessons (1)

Nkong Bushman at the age of 13 was still tiny. Typical of his people group.

The first time I saw him was at dusk, moving like a dart across a sweltering dust-cloud football field. Neither his size, light skin nor name deterred him. He was going to get a goal.

I had been living in the central Kalahari desert for just over a year, teaching at a junior secondary school called Lehutshelo. It was a bit of an experiment, funded by the World Bank in response to fundraising by local communities–a type of private public partnership. Peace Corps, World Universities Services Canada (WUSC), local and British Council teachers came together in this fledgling school in a remote community.

The Board of Governors and the principal were remarkable people. The latter, an Oxford graduate in English and former president of the student union.

He was standing beside me, commenting on Nkong.

The boy had achieved the best primary school results in the nation. He was one of my top students: a total joy to teach, gloriously mischievous, and yet winsome. What made him remarkable?

Nkong was a ‘bushman’ (properly called ‘San’ or ‘Baswara’ people). He was one of the nomads of the Kalahari desert. His father was a hunter gatherer. He was among the very first of his people to attend secondary school. For the other tribespeople in Botswana, schooling was commonplace. But here he was, a first generation student, thrilled to be kicking a ball about with friends, and to be learning Maths, history, geography and other things.

His successes, however, were not the result of his social and economic background (SES), nor did they relate to the level of his parents literacy (none). As a person who quite literally wandered the desert before coming to school, neither can we say his performance rested on access to books at home.

More likely Nkong’s life-changing results in formal learning were in consequence of his decision-making (work hard); his grit (keep at it); a decent curriculum; and one or two superb teachers: Tom Conklin, a WUSC volunteer, to name one of them.

Anything and anyone that enhances these (motivation; well-designed curricula; and teaching) will reap dividends. Great parents nurture a child’s natural desire to learn, and do everything they can to get their child in front of something or someone that builds on it.

Take away points: Wealth background and access to resources are less relevant to your child’s educational success than you think. More important is your child’s determination to learn and the effectiveness of the teaching he or she is receiving.

Info Graphic and researchhttp://www.educationalleaders.govt.nz/Pedagogy-and- assessment/Building-effective-learning-environments/Teachers-Make-a-Difference-What-is- the-Research-Evidence

Teach Effect InfoGraphic


Key factors relating to educational achievement.



Note: most people have roughly the same natural ability; the biggest factor in their educational success is the quality of the teaching they are receiving.



  1. The things you learn about kids years after you taught them! I do remember Nkong referring to the Earth as a sphere while the rest of us were happy with “round”. And thank you for your kind and very generous comments about my abilities.


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