The Director of Student Life, Arts and Culture, arrived at African Leadership Academy intending to stay for only three months. 10 years later, he’s the go to guy for anything ALA related, with his heart and soul as rooted on campus as the original brickwork.
He’s also a treasure trove of the countless anecdotes that best describe life on ALA, from then to now…
‘The very first day was a disaster,” recalls Gavin. “We decided to hold a community event, as our last gasp of freedom. So we organised a braai, as a family day for staff to take a moment after the manic, one-and-a-half-year lead up to the opening. We were playing kamikaze football, with no rules, when the security at the gate called me to say someone was there to see me. Somehow, the schedule had been confused, thanks to the American way of switching of date and month – and three kids had arrived the day before they were due. We were grey-faced; totally unprepared, we couldn’t even offer them food. All we could do was give them a glass of water, and asked them to sit tight. I went back to the party and mustered help to get the dorms ready, as there was no staff, it being a Sunday.”
It took all of three hours to dress the whole dorm, he says, but the teamwork was phenomenal – and set the tone for the rest of the first year.
“It was a great team, and the kids bought into it as well, the understanding that we were building this together – that’s why the inaugural kids are so much more connected, because they literally built up the school.”
Speaking in code
Catchphrases, code words and mottos were formed that entrenched that understanding, adds Gavin. “If there was anything you didn’t know, you were told to involve the students.
SOS became the code word for ‘Students own Solutions’. We would present the problem, discuss it, and come up with ideas. We shared everything with them, even our financial problems.”
This, explains Gavin, is how everyone resolved to eat four vegetarian meals a week, to keep food costs down. Students also had a say in the design of the uniform – though that, too, is a whole other story. “We had commissioned someone to design the most beautiful uniforms, with exquisite embroidery… however, on the first day of school, a letter of apology arrived from our selected supplier: she was overwhelmed by the prospect of what we were setting out to do – it was ‘just too big a dream,’ she said and she was so scared of disappointing us that she hadn’t been able to even start.”
Fortunately, an angel came to the rescue, in the form of Lee Barker: “She knocked out the uniform the kids are wearing now, and simply reiterated every year – Lee is no longer in the business of making uniforms or even clothing anymore, but insists on doing this, just for us….”
There were many disappointment back then, reflects Gavin, but ALA held firm to another one of the motto: Measure against World Standards.
Despite constant financial woes that plagued the school for the first five or six years, the ideals and visions remained high. “We set out to be and offer the best, in everything, from the best uniforms – we asked the kids what they loved most about the uniforms at other schools, and determined that they wanted blazers, tunics, dresses, no skirts (these blew about too much) and how the uniform came about – to the best foods: we called other schools to ask about supliers; asked teachers and students about the meals they most liked…”
Try to Do Best with Available Resources became another catchphrase. “This is how we built everything together – and for first six years, until we got a lot more stable, there was no Wizard of Oz here – we’d talk everything through, shared everything with the kids,” explains Gavin.
The imminent arrival of guests led to another code: “Blazer up, Bright Shiny Potato Faces” – “this was to show that they had to turn on their smiles and hold their heads high, as it was not just another average, everyday of school.”
It’s hard to imagine any day at ALA as an average, every day – but that first year, particularly, was challenging. Not least because the school shared the premises with then owners, the Printing Federation of SA, and Cross Media, both of which were also boarding schools offering courses in Printing and journalism respectively. “It was tricky, as they were all adults – they were mixed, we had split sexes – and there were many misunderstandings and tension,” recalls Gavin. “It was also a shock for all of us, as we didn’t expect to be sharing; we shared the dining room, had to pay every time we used the auditorium, and what is now the Dean’s house was our admin building – one little room that housed the nurses, safe, and acted as office, staff meeting rooms, everything…”
It was hardly ideal – but, reflects Gavin delightedly: “Diwali and football saved the day.” Of the 100 students who initially made up the inaugural class – this dropped to 92 – two were Indian, who wanted to celebrate Diwali, the annual Festival of Lights. “We agreed to it, bought the fireworks and notified the other schools. An Indian journalism student wanted to join in, and came with her school. The other school came along to watch as well and in the end, we were all together, chatting, and I challenged them to a football match – ‘our kids vs yours’ – It was a fun game, the football got everyone together, and broke the tension…”
The delicate balancing act
Life on campus with students, staff and educators from all over the world can be exhilarating, even today, and is still not without its challenges. “The biggest challenge is that our kids are at a really tricky age where they’re still kids, trying to assert themselves. We we want them to take ownership, but they are fallible; they do miss flights, they are always on the phone… but at the same time, they are extraordinary future leaders – and the big question is: how far do we stretch the band? That’s the hardest part of this job, the constant struggle to allow enough freedom, to be modern, yet realistic – it’s hard to find that centre. And every year, we get in a new group, and have to work that same relationship… “
While finances were a constant stress factor, especially in the earlier years, achieving harmony in a melting pot of cultures and religions also demands a delicate balance, notes Gavin, recalling clashes between North and West African Muslims regarding language and gender splits and the difficulty in finding a suitable prayer room for Muslim kids.
“We couldn’t understand why they couldn’t simply share – we had all these kids from about eight different major religions, and quite a few from other, less well known religions and tried everything we could to accommodate all with one interdenominational prayer space. We tried separate entrances, everything… eventually, we figured out that it all came down to shoes! Muslim kids took their shoes off when they entered the prayer room, because they knelt and bowed their heads onto the carpet – but others didn’t – and this caused conflict.”
Today, the prayer room has space that is carpeted and uncarpeted – and most kids are happy to filter into a non-denominational service, while various different religion leaders also hold regular services to accommodate all.
“The community is thriving now; it’s student owned and there’s nowhere in the world to compare it with,” notes Gavin. “Nobody is doing what we are doing – just such a mix; we learnt a lot from the kids about not being separate and we are, literally, a family together.”
It’s not just the students who benefit from ALA. As a teacher, it’s where Gavin has found his ideal. “I came because I wanted to teach the continent, and this was the perfect way to do so – it’s great place lets you be completely be yourself, find your passion and supports you and your passion – my passion became my job.”
ABOUT Gavin Peter
Born in Zambia and schooled in Zimbabwe, Gavin boosted his BA degree from the University of Zimbabwe with Diplomas in Acting and Recital from London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, for which he achieved Honours and a Distinction, respectively.
A dedicated teacher who served 10 years at Prince Edward School and five years as Director of Theatre Arts at Harare International School, he is also active in Arts and Culture initiatives. Gavin was National Secretary for the Zimbabwe National Interschools Cultural Committee for eight years, has been actor, director and producer with the Over The Edge Theatre Troupe since 1992 and has been Festival Director for National Institute Of Allied Arts since 2007. He is also an External International Examiner accredited to the International Baccalaureate Organisation, and has also published a French textbook for ages 13+.
NOTE: This is the first in a series of recollections throughout our Decennial Year; watch this space for more – and feel free to share your own memories on our social media feeds.