Little school on the prairie

| November 17, 2010
BY JULIENNE DU TOIT

We’re standing beside a windmill at the side of a little dust road, somewhere between Colesberg and the blue horizon.

The Climax spins and creaks quietly in the cool morning breeze and a few sheep bleat in the distance. Another day in the vast Karoo. Soon, though, it’s drowned out by the distant roar of a straining engine. A school bus appears, emblazoned with the words ‘Hantam Community Education Trust’, packed with children wearing grins as wide as the sky.

Welcome to Umthombo Wolwazi Farm School

The bus heads over the hill and pulls up at a set of neat white buildings, redroofed and surrounded by trees and lawn. Before long, nearly 200 kids are out practising sprints, hurtling along string-lined tracks in the dust or on the grass in the courtyard, watched over by teachers. To the side, a man with a lime green cap bearing the words ‘Mighty Men’ is teaching a group of nonplussed girls how to throw a heavy metal shot-put.

This is the Umthombo Wolwazi Farm School, the Hantam Community Education Trust’s central project, and it is like no other farm school you’ve ever seen. Fast forward to an hour later when the youngsters are in class. In Grade 2, there’s classical music playing in the background as they concentrate on their books. “Invaluable for calming them down,” says teacher Louise Augustyn.

In Grade 4, there is a palpable flutter of excitement as the children are handed back the books they have written and illustrated themselves. The project, overseen by Cape Peninsula University of Technology lecturer Anne Hill, helped them create enthralling accounts of magical creatures and brave youngsters through pictures and new vocabulary.

In a classroom for those with learning disabilities, Angelina Allens has the kids (nicknamed the Musketeers) on exercise balls, drawing infinity curves with both hands to help coordinate the left and right halves of their brains. In Technology class, Jan Augustyn (the shot-put instructor) is explaining how pumps work. Later they’ll head out
to a windmill so the kids can appreciate the beautiful simplicity of one in action.

In the highly popular school library, Vuyokazi Katise, an old pupil of the school and now the librarian, is cataloguing the 10 391st book to be donated. In the staffroom, Grade 5 teacher Ettorina Stoop talks of her passion for teaching. “The moment when a light goes on in a child’s head, when the curtains open, that’s the moment we live for.”

A shining light

It’s a delightful slice of life at an inspirational school, but the light here shines all the brighter when you compare it to what’s happening in other rural schools. There you’ll often find unmotivated teachers, drunk teachers, overwhelmed teachers, children who walk 15 km or more to school every day, hungry children, sick children, children with foetal alcohol syndrome, children who are heads of Aids-orphaned households, and schools with no electricity, no toilets, no facilities, no textbooks and sometimes no roof.

In fact, if you ever wonder why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, look to the schools. That’s where it starts. A farm school is the last place you’d expect to buck the poverty cycle. But this school is clearly different. At the heart of it is a large breezy office where you’ll find the three founders of the Hantam Community Education
Trust – Lesley Osler, Clare Barnes-Webb and Anja Pienaar, plus project manager Estelle Jacobs. Pinned on the wall above their heads are these uncompromising words:

“The only way in which the people of South Africa will be empowered entirely and permanently is through quality education.” But 21 years ago, Osler, Pienaar and Barnes-Webb had no idea that their humble little plans would end up as this little miracle of a school. “We really weren’t thinking big at all,” says Osler. “We would never have had the courage to dream as big as this.”

‘The Fountain of Knowledge’ started flowing in 1991

What these three farmer’s wives had in mind back in 1989 was a little crèche for their workers’ children, she explains. Its success led to the parents begging for a
new school to be created and, against all odds, the three made it happen. Right from the beginning, the school went against the stream. The state was called on to contribute resources, but the project was to be privately coordinated.

Umthombo Wolwazi (‘The Fountain of Knowledge’) started in 1991 in a vacant house on one of the farms. Soon it was serving children in a 50 km radius, most from farms, some from Colesberg, and some from the poorest of the poor – the itinerant sheep-shearers, the so-called Karretjiemense. (Lately though, middle and upper class members of society all around the region have been clamouring to get their children enrolled.)

Funding came in fits and starts, because the school had already shown signs of what would become its signature strengths – ongoing training wherever needed and a holistic approach to education that spread far beyond the classroom. Training spilled over into the community – there were classes in literacy, welding, sewing, leatherwork, fabric painting, cookery and woodwork. Later the Trust started to provide methods of outcomesbased education to teachers at other schools – from Colesberg to Noupoort, Norvalspont, Hanover and Richmond.

Expansion to include medical services

In 1999, some of the teachers were picking up health issues in the children’s development. Someone suggested a community clinic. Osler, who had become the fundraiser-in-chief, initially baulked. But, as if in response to a prayer, a donor was found. Soon they had a fully-fledged clinic managed by a pharmacist and two sisters;
three years later the pharmacy was added. “I thought it was going to be a white elephant. Now I wonder how the community coped before.

“We serve a huge area, including Bethulie and Venterstad, which don’t have pharmacies. Through the health centre we’ve picked up malnutrition, infectious diseases, even cases of abuse at home. Each child is examined once a year, weighed, their eyes tested, teeth and blood pressure checked.” Soon, though, the Trust realised they needed to go even further than that. There were too many children who entered the school with developmental problems. So together with Vuyokazi Katise, Nombulelo Matyeka and Lettie Martins, they started up an effective parenting programme of early intervention.

Parenting programmes and bursaries available

As soon as they hear a woman in the district is pregnant, one of their health workers will go to her and explain to her what is happening with her body, what she should and shouldn’t eat, and that she risks foetal alcohol syndrome if she drinks alcohol. When the baby is born, they teach the mother about hygiene and feeding, about allowing babies to crawl and move freely. “We’ve found that children who don’t crawl have much greater difficulty learning to read and write later on.”

As the children grow to toddlers, the health workers take toys with them and toss balls to the children to check coordination, balance and eyesight. They talk to the children and check their hearing. They discreetly check food availability in the house and give advice on everything from growing veggies to creating toys from scrap.
The holistic approach doesn’t stop when the children leave the school after Grade 9. For those who need it and have good marks, there are bursaries that help them matriculate at nearby schools. And if they merit tertiary education, those kinds of bursaries are available too.

The teachers are terribly proud of their alumni, many of whom have excelled beyond all expectations. One of their pupils is now in his fifth year at medical school, and there are hundreds more little success stories – sons and daughters of barely educated parents who have gone on to become teachers, hairdressers, bank tellers, plumbers, welders and panel beaters.

One boy excelled at welding and went on to become one of the best junior welders in the world at a competition in Helsinki. “We’re helping them to break the poverty cycle,” say the extremely proud project founders. “Where we’ve succeeded, we can say it’s because we’re all personally involved. This is where we live, and this is why we are all committed.”

This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of South African Country Lifemagazine and appears here with the magazine’s kind permission.
Contact the Hantam Community Education Trust at tel: +27(51) 753 1419, or visit www.hantam-trust.org.za

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Category: Summer 2010

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