Dance in a trance

Thursday, November 11, 2010


the Star Tuesday, November 2, 2010 starlife 21
See Page 24
African students at Victoria
University have started holding
“harambees” to strengthen
their relationships and provide a
regular platform for discussion
with members of staff.
These are not your ordinary
20-something Aussies with few obstacles
to higher education: they are older, mostly
with families, and from conflict areas like
Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. They are
enormously grateful for the chance to study
and the campus at Footscray is designed
for people like them, with plenty of extracurricular
help in the way of mentoring,
study support labs, English tuition and
pastoral care.
Of course there was excellent food,
music and dancing to create the right
Most of them would be envious of
Kenyans and their grasp of English since
they have not been taught in the medium
Incidentally, this has often struck me as
a missed opportunity: Kenya could attract
thousands of students from neighbouring
countries and offer similar money-spinning
courses if it seriously decided to become the
English-speaking hub of East Africa.
Kenya does not lack good teachers
and could capitalise on the substantial
collection of African writing in English
as a plus. Look at how many Kenyans
are leaving the country to study in South
Africa. Nobody wants to go far away
unless they really have to.
You can’t help admiring the
resourcefulness of the Africans in
Melbourne: though the facilities are good,
they are nevertheless stretched to the
limits, and so students have to fend for
themselves. They look for ways of getting
support within their own community and
form strong bonds with each other.
Mohammed who is 41 now has a
Bachelor of Engineering and can advise
and guide the younger ones. He came up
the hard way; having dropped out of school
in Sudan for 10 years, he went to Cairo to
teach English. Like many of his fellows,
he felt lost in Australia. When he saw the
name “Victoria University” he decided it
must be good because it was named after
the state. Now he is in love with it. “If
I was to marry a university, it would be
Victoria,” he says. But he had to conquer
feelings of inferiority at being so much
older, since in his society age-mates are
expected to be able to do the same things.
Mary, also from Sudan, has a Diploma
of Community Welfare and is doing a
Bachelor in Social Work. She overcame
her feelings of discomfort and nervousness
after coming to VU. Now working for
the International Red Cross, she is still
“climbing the mountain.”
She tends to speak in metaphors.
Because it is hard for these students to
be critical since they come from cultures
where politeness to elders and teachers is
instinctive, she gets round the problem by
comparing lecturers to driving instructors.
“If you push the car too hard it will crash,”
she says. A gentle push is what’s needed.
Encouragement and an appreciation of
how hard it is for these students are likely
to bring about success.
The Africans at VU have come up with
the idea of creating an American-style
“buddy” system where each new student
is assigned an older, more experienced
one to help them settle in. Mary has been
back to Sudan and found that she didn’t
feel at home any more. “Am I at home
anywhere?” she asked herself. “Where
I live now is home”, and that’s that.
“We can encourage friendship between
our countries and Australia and act as
ambassadors,” she said.
The education of foreign students has
been a big money-earner for Victoria in
particular, though there has been some
controversy about sub-standard colleges
and discrimination against Indian
students, which received bad press. As
a result, numbers may drop in future
which might be a good thing for existing
students who will perhaps get more
attention. Despite the negative publicity,
students get a good deal from the
AMES (Australian Migrants Education
Service) assists with excellent free courses
in English and directs young women like
Bethlehem from Ethiopia to preparatory
courses like Gateway to Nursing so that
she now has a full Bachelor’s degree in the
subject. But Hakim felt there was a need
for yet more English teachers.
As parents, they are aware that their
children find things difficult; discipline is
far more lax in western countries and the
youth, caught between their parents’ world
and their new one are confused and lacking
in focus. They haven’t had to make the
sacrifices their parents made.
Mohammed pointed out that the
community had crucial role to pay here:
graduates should propagate the idea of
education amongst the younger ones and
help them find clear goals. They also want
them to retain a sense of who they are
and the cultural values of “home.” The
temptation to drop out, and get into bad
habits is always present.
Footscray is not one of Melbourne’s leafy
suburbs. It even feels like a bit of Africa
with its markets and African restaurants.
On a Friday night at the Lalibella, the
owner not only serves tables but also sings
and dances. Videos of Ethiopians in their
crisp white costumes dancing in front of
green hills make you want to be there.
Drop-out rates are a general problem
causing the state to look carefully at its
educational provision.
Together they can commit to getting
a quality education. “Everything is
available,” Hakim says. “It’s a good
environment.” And the staff are anxious to
get their feedback to make it even better.
forum: Victoria University students panel comprising older students, mostly
with families, and from conflict areas like Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Inset, the
administration block at the university.
letter from OZ
By Betty Caplan

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