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It takes a village…

| November 17, 2017 | 0 Comments


My family and I were recently driving back to Knysna, after a soul soothing week in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.1

The contrast between the barren Kalahari dunes and the lush Garden Route vegetation struck us anew as we
dipped into the Kaaimans Pass, just before Wilderness.2 We noticed with a sense of relief that Mother Nature
had responded keenly to the early summer rains we have recently enjoyed in the Southern Cape. At first glance, the new growth provided a deceiving green cover-up of the scars left on the landscape after devastating fires devoured thousands of hectares and hundreds of homes only five months ago. Upon taking a closer look, it became evident that countless trees are, in fact, not sprouting, and large areas of land are still lifeless and bare. As we drove around the corner on the western end of the Knysna lagoon, we were met by dozens of homes either in the process of being demolished, being rebuilt or still standing as untouched ruins. It reminded me of the fact that, although a
large part of our community has been remarkably able to pick up themselves and each other from the ashes, countless other families and individuals are still haunted by the consequences of this nightmare on a daily basis. My mind started drifting back to the astonishing events that unfolded on 7 June 2017, and how the months that followed challenged and changed our school community.3

Fire moved faster than anyone could imagine

On Thursday 7 June, the school day at Oakhill School in Knysna started at 07:40, as usual, with only a few people
noticing the small plume of smoke on the north-western horizon. Little did we know that, 24 hours later, 32 Oakhill
families would be homeless and many more left traumatised by the siege of devouring flames, smoke and chaos that was rushing towards us on the wings of gale-force winds blowing at 100 km/h. By early evening, the fire had already ploughed through our sports campus and a third of town, and flames of up to 30 metres high were curling over the Oakhill Learning Commons on the north-western boundary of the academic campus. The last few staff members and parents who tried to save our school were eventually forced to flee from the thick smoke that was engulfing the entire campus.
Earlier this year in February, we celebrated Oakhill’s 25th birthday with much pride and gratitude for the quarter century of highlights and obstacles that the school managed to scale, to the point where it is recognised today as a centre of excellence in the region and country. The irony of the possibility that we might lose the school in our celebratory year was not lost on me. I was therefore understandably emotionally devastated as I drove away, forced to accept that the beautiful gem of a school, where I had started as the new principal only six months prior,
would not be standing in the morning. I made a number of phone calls, among others to the board chairman, to discuss the implications of having to find an alternative school venue, and we decided to send out a message to parents that school would be closed until further notice.

Putting a system in place

I drove back early the next morning, exhausted after a traumatic night of horrifying scenes and sounds, to find that Oakhill School had survived! It stood out like a beacon of hope among the surrounding black devastation of smouldering houses, vehicles and vegetation. I could not stop my tears when I met equally overwhelmed colleagues
drifting around on campus in disbelief. We established that our staff room and storage sheds had burned down completely, while our Learning Commons – a recently built concrete and glass structure – had taken the brunt of the onslaught, shielding the rest of the school sufficiently to have saved it.

Our focus immediately shifted to our school community, and the management team got together to strategise. There was no “user manual” for handling this situation, and we had to rely on common sense and collective wisdom to work out the best way to act. The first priority was to establish which families were directly affected and
to gather as much information about their situation as possible. The second was to communicate to the school community, and we did so via class representatives on social media, as our bulk e-mail facility was down due to a power failure that disabled our servers. Letters were posted from the principal’s office to keep parents
and pupils informed on decisions, arrangements and the status quo, as it unfolded. The aim was to gather and
send out accurate information and to make arrangements as clear and predictable as possible. Parents were hugely
appreciative of this beam of certainty coming from the school, among mass confusion, shock and anxiety under the

Oakhill a conduit

We realised that the school was best positioned to be the conduit between those families in our school community who needed help and those who were able to offer help. A committee of parents and staff were called together to build a database of information on the affected families and their immediate needs, of which the most urgent was finding places to stay. On the other hand, we gathered detailed information on the help that was offered by families, individuals and organisations. It required hours upon hours of work to gather, verify and confirm the information and then follow up, negotiate and match the needs with the assistance on offer. Each member of the committee adopted two or three families, made personal contact and started a journey with them that is still continuing. We were able to record very useful details in this manner, right down to shoe sizes, a lost teddy bear and
favourite books that were destroyed in the fire. This enabled us to respond to specific personal needs. It also made it possible for us to protect people’s dignity, as we could build a safe trust relationship in which victims could afford to be vulnerable without feeling embarrassed to voice very personal needs. The added benefit of paying attention to detail in this manner was that victims felt emotionally held and cared for. In the longer run, this turned out to be much more than an added benefit, but rather the most important aspect of the healing process of the community.

Offers of assistance flowed in

The response from our school community, as well as other individuals, schools and organisations
from across the country, was completely overwhelming. Oakhill families and friends opened their
arms, hearts and homes in the most wonderful embrace for those who were most vulnerable. Within a day, we had a
classroom filled with supplies of groceries, clothes, bedding, personal items and much more to provide for the immediate needs of the fire victims. We were also able to find immediate and longer-term housing for every family who lost their home. I cannot even begin to describe how much effort our committee members invested in achieving this. Our telephones rang non-stop with offers of supplies, help to tidy up the school, accommodation and counselling. It was the start of a journey of compassion and care that became the silver lining around this dark cloud that was hanging over us. We use a number of mantras at Oakhill to enhance awareness of our values and principles among pupils. It was deeply moving to witness our “Caring counts!” in action as pupils, staff, parents
and friends pulled together to support and console each other.

Tough decisions, based on care

We reopened our Little Oaks and Preparatory School as soon as we knew that our campus was safe and had our water supply reconnected (electricity would only be reconnected a week later). With the help of our school psychologist and voluntary trauma counsellors from our parent body, we spent most of the first day of school on group counselling, aimed at briefing our pupils on appropriate interaction with each other under the
circumstances. Teachers received guidance on how to facilitate discussions and spot and refer traumatised pupils. Pupils were given a chance to articulate their stories verbally, in writing and through art. The return to the normal school routine brought a sense of calm safety amidst the chaos around us in the still-smouldering warzone that used to be our tranquil town on the lagoon. To prep parents, Oakhill provided a safe haven where their children were securely held while they were occupied by the challenges they faced in the aftermath of the devastation and loss they suffered. The tough decision was taken to proceed with the college examinations, albeit a week later than scheduled. This was going to test the grit of our college pupils, as many of them were displaced, had lost books, had no electricity and were emotionally shaken by what had happened. We sent a message to our pupils, assuring them that we had their backs and encouraging them to tackle this challenge with their best effort. No one was forced to write the examinations, and it was made clear that emotional well-being was far more important than answering any question paper. The college pupils stepped up to the plate and got stuck into their examination preparation.
Many reported that the examinations gave them a much needed focus under the disturbing circumstances, while some found it very difficult to cope with the distraction. We braced ourselves for a significant negative impact with regard to the examination results, but we were wrong. The resilience of our pupils shone through as their overall results bore testimony of their capacity to push back against the odds.

The care continues

The winter holidays offered a welcome breather to exhausted staff members, who had given so much of themselves. For our support committee, the follow-up with affected families continued through the holidays. They organised work-party teams to deal with the flood of supplies that streamed in from all over the country. Truckloads of supplies arrived and parents, staff and pupils pulled together to sort and distribute these among all the school communities in the Knysna area. It was hard work, but this labour of love also proved to be therapeutic. Thanks to the change of season and early spring rains, following a half-year of extreme drought in the Southern Cape, term three was marked by the first signs of regrowth and a general sense of hope in the community. Now, five months after that extraordinary day which forever split Knysna’s history into two segments – before and after the fire – we can look back and, dare I say, count a few blessings. Although the bare skeletons of fire ruins, scattered all over town, are stark reminders that we are still far from being “out of the woods”, we are thankful for a number of things – most importantly, what could have been the case had the fire struck at a different time of day (or night). The generosity of many friends of the school enabled us to support and retain every one of the 49 pupils from the 32 Oakhill families who lost their homes and possessions. We were able to provide each of them with a full set of school uniform, sports gear, stationery, school bags, daily lunchboxes and reprinted notes, and we could supplement fees where necessary with funds from kind donors. One of the most moving stories involved our much-loved estate manager, Zolani Jenteza, and his family, who lost their timber house on the Oakhill Sports Campus and everything they possessed. They were immediately taken in and cared for by a member of our administrative staff. The school started
rebuilding the Jenteza house and, by the end of September, it was completed. The Jenteza family were unaware that their new home would be fully furnished with brand-new furniture, finishes and appliances, thanks to the generosity of Oakhill families, colleagues and community initiatives from Knysna and Sedgefield. This demonstration of love is indicative of the growth that has taken place on a personal level and in the relationships within our community. This is what hope for the future looks like.

The rise of resilience

The disaster brought out the best in our community, as it moved us to drop our masks and inhibitions, to call out and
reach out to each other in our most vulnerable and desperate hour. We were brought to reconsider what is really important and to rediscover that it came down to the immaterial treasures rooted in relationships and community. There is a saying that people do not build relationships on shared beliefs or even shared values, but on shared experiences. Add to this concept another Oakhill mantra, “There is no growth in the comfort zone!” and it becomes understandable how it was impossible to go through such an ordeal unchanged. The fire has galvanised the relationships within our school community into a close-knit family of parents, pupils, colleagues and friends. It brought us closer to our greater community than ever before. It showed us that we are stronger than we thought
we were, and it confirmed what we knew all along: just as “it takes a village to raise a child”, it takes a village to raise a young school to become a resilient young adult. But now, after the fires, we have gained another insight into the village analogy: there comes a time when it is the school’s turn to reach out and hold the village, and allow it time to heal.

Jannie de Villiers is principal at Oakhill School, Knysna.

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Category: Summer 2017

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