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Branching out: Mahonisi Christian Learning Centre joins ISASA

| November 7, 2014 | 0 Comments

In rural villages around the world, women have traditionally gathered to create educational opportunities for their children, however rudimentary.

In 1995, in Elim, Limpopo, Esther Masia Rakhuadzi chose a familiar African setting to teach the very young children in her community Bible hymns and stories: under a tree. Her commitment to a Christian ethos soon led to a parental call for her to formalise her classes in 1998 by starting a Grade 1 class, taught in English.

Rakhuadzi was not alone. Among the women who supported the project was her daughter, Shirley Masia, who brought her academic achievement – a BA degree from the University of Venda, and later an honours degree and a postgraduate diploma in education from the University of South Africa (Unisa) – to bear on the project, christened the Mahonisi Christian Learning Centre. “I have stayed here ever since then,” she says humbly of a school that began with volunteer teachers, shack premises and no textbooks in her own village.

“I did not mind compiling workbooks and teaching Grade 1 learners for free, as so many community members depended on me. My academic background helped me to structure a registration and management system and a formal teaching environment. Suddenly, I was no longer an unemployed new graduate. I had a purpose: to give back to my own community.”

A sacred meeting space Masia pays tribute to the women who formed part of the original Mahonisi network and to the school’s original location. “I like to say that our school was established by community members; unemployed women, living in poverty but trying to uplift their community. The community is still part of our school. The school has been built on the site that used to be the chief ’s kraal and where the chief held his meetings, under the tree.

“The community still holds important meetings in our school, because they regard it as a sacred space and they love and support the vision of our school.”

The community the heart of the school

It’s clear that Mahonisi relies heavily on community support, because of its fairly isolated location. “Mahonisi is the only independent school in our community,” says Masia, adding that the teachers meet their colleagues from other independent schools only when specific meetings are convened in the largest nearby town of Louis Trichardt. Support from the Zoutpansberg East circuit district office of the Department of Basic Education is sporadic, while relationships with local public schools are more regular: “We compete on the sports field with local public schools, but differ from them in our methods of teaching, since our language of learning and teaching is English and theirs is Xitsonga or Tshivenda.”

The latter two languages are also spoken at home by Mahonisi students, who are aged between three and 18 years in grades 0 to 12. Parents are nurses, teachers and members of the police force, who scrimp and save to afford the fees (R3 000 per annum in the foundation phase to R7 500 per annum in Grade 12.) Like many Limpopo schools, Mahonisi has a diverse staff, whose members hail from Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Others are local Venda and Vatsonga community members. All have the necessary qualifications, asserts Masia.

Masia also believes that Mahonisi is the only school in the area based on strong Christian values. “Our logo states: ‘We believe that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom,’ and we start our lessons daily with Bible readings and prayers that reinforce the passion and discipline of each staff member and student.”

The importance of ISASA

A sustained faith has also helped Masia and her colleagues deal with recurring challenges, such as the ever-diminishing government subsidy and the increasing threat of dangerous drugs available to young people. Such problems do not deter a woman with great strength: “We plan to make our school one of the best schools in our province. With help from ISASA, we need to continuously find ways to improve the standard of education in our school to enable us to produce quality results.”

Masia was delighted when Mahonisi’s ISASA membership was approved earlier this year. (It was not a complicated process, she reports, due largely to the support from regional director Lynn Nelson.) She has long since recognised the benefits of networking with other independent schools that ISASA provides. “We are hoping to learn the ins and outs of the South African independent school system and to share ideas and knowledge with other institutions like ours. We hope our learners will also be able to network with other learners outside our community.

“As an ISASA member, we want to share our struggles, needs and experiences and be able to get support if the need arises.”

Masia’s confidence in ISASA is because “we benefited from the membership even before our formal acceptance.

When Lynn recommended that we make some improvements in our school before we applied for membership, our teachers’ and students’ outlook changed and the future became more appealing.

“We are grateful to be welcomed as members of ISASA, and we plan to work hard to stay a member of this organisation.”

The right attitudes

Masia’s gratitude is matched by her passionate belief in the importance of being an independent school. “We have much more freedom of choice and freedom of speech than public schools. As an independent school, we believe we must acquire the reputation of being the best school on offer in our area.”

For Masia, being the best does not yet mean having the latest technological gadgets in every classroom. “We want our children to be responsible, trustworthy, honest and confident,” she says simply. “We believe that these values will help our students develop learning habits that will help them succeed in a wider academic sphere.”

Lifelong learning is something else Masia believes in and wants to inculcate in her students. “It is our goal to help them develop not only the academic skills they will need in the future, but also the perseverance, courage, faith and truth they will need to continually pursue understanding and wisdom.”

It seems to be a recipe for success. Masia is proud to report on “graduates whose parents struggled to pay fees before they passed Grade 12, the majority of whom are now attending universities on bursaries. Some of our graduates are prospective scarce-skills professionals, studying and achieving highly in their respective institutions. Our learners have proved that our community can produce doctors, accountants and scientists.”

Support and celebration

Mahonisi is now a permanent part of this community, like the original sheltering learning tree and Grandma Esther – who, smiles Masia, “still reprimands and encourages learners who lag behind, while the staff put their heads together to find solutions to problems that may stand in our way, just like parents do. This environment makes our school a place of belonging, security and happiness, where young people are challenged to attain their full potential. Children attain their physical development through sporting activities in soccer and netball, while drama, chess and other social activities develop their social, psychomotor and intellectual skills. When the time to choose comes, there is a wide range of subjects to choose from to accommodate every learner. We celebrate achievements in prize-giving ceremonies, which all members of the community are free to enjoy.

“Our graduates can testify that our methods work efficiently. For that, we praise and worship God Almighty.”


Category: Featured Articles, Summer 2014

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