Devon to Centocow – Highlights from a recent visit

Arrival;  Springtime

It was mid-October 2019 when I arrived in Centocow again. It was spring which in terms of the weather could mean anything but in terms of Climate Change meant drought. The last rain had been in April. The grass on the fields between the hostel and the Umzimkuku River were sparse, coarse and brown and the river stumbled over the rocks instead of the usual rushing torrent. The electricity company ESKOM is holding the country to ransom with its humongous debts and its inadequate infrastructure. Swathes of the country at a time were subject to what they called load shedding, (power cuts) to protect the system from total collapse and they hold a monopoly on power, so no solar energy yet.

The temperature over the month ranged from mid twenties to mid thirties but did plummet to nine degrees one day and thankfully at the end of my stay, evenings of rolling thunder and displays of fork lightning across the mountains made way to mists and then torrents of rain. The temperature dropped considerably but it was a relief to everyone. I had seen families washing clothes in trickles of muddy water in hillside streams and young children searching the areas around their homes with buckets looking for water.

View from Mission

Strangely these things had become the backdrop to life as usual. I felt I was coming home as I rounded the hill and saw Centocow’s familiar buildings below me. Nonhlanhle my hostess and weaver greeted me as a long lost friend. She admitted she had not been able to plant her potatoes this spring due to the lack of water. The beautiful indigenous flowers which have been cultivated for our exotic gardens still bloomed here and there in the grasslands and the flashes of bright coloured bird feathers still surprised me from time to time in my travels.

Pre-school teachers

The aim of my original trip to Centocow in 2001 was to work alongside pre-school teachers, helping them to set up an association which would unite them and give them mutual support and become a force for group training. Each time I visit I learn more about the country and its culture and my admiration for the educational achievements of women who study in very difficult circumstances grows. One such woman is Zimbili Dlamini whose home is in Mpumlwame, a beautiful village high up in the hills above Centocow. She works for one of our partner organisations, The Family Literacy Project and since April Devon Centocow Link has employed her on a casual basis to keep track of the many rural pre-schools and monitor their training and resources.

She called together teachers from all the pre-schools for three meetings which she co-led with me. It was wonderful to work with her and her facilitation was lively and spirited. We put our heads together over numerous cups of tea to make plans for the pre-school teachers and was so relaxed about leading and translating workshops with large numbers of teachers coming in at various times during the morning because they had travelled so far to reach us.

Teachers Workshop 1

Workshop one was attended by 48 teachers. I gave them some ideas of activities working with nature such as weaving with sticks, string and grasses and flowers or with wool and fabric oddments, making mobiles and crafting animals and pictures. Each teacher received a folder with some starter ideas and a few basic essentials such as pencils, sharpeners, string, glue and scissors. I had visited pre-schools frequently and heard from Zimbili that most still had very few resources. We had a group sharing time and then teachers took it in turns to demonstrate games, songs or stories they used in their pre-schools. They needed some prompting and a very animated example by Zimbili to tell stories but the ice was broken and we all laughed together at them.

Workshop two was a Persona Doll workshop which was attended by over fifty teachers. We had six dolls so had to divide into six groups. When each group had developed a family story and ‘persona’ for their doll they practised presenting it to their group before individuals volunteered to present them to the whole group. I suggested to Zimbili that she asked the teachers to respond to each presentation as children. This helped them to imagine how the children might respond to the scenarios given and so be more thoughtful about how they presented each story.

In the third workshop attended by fifty eight teachers, we looked at the organisation of the pre-schools. Having looked at the register and noting pre-schools which had not attended, Zimbili had worked out that there were now sixty pre-schools covering a wide rural area. She had the brilliant idea of dividing the pre-schools into clusters by area which would make management easier. Each cluster chose a co-ordinator who would arrange a meeting every six to eight weeks to share resources and support each other, helping each other with funding applications. They would have a smaller transport bill and Zimbili would be a nominal co-ordinator distributing funds for transport and refreshment costs but twice a year calling whole Association meetings for training purposes. The first of these will be in December when a social worker will visit them to advise them on the lengthy and complex bureaucratic process of registration.

Registration does not give the teachers anything other than a nominal quarterly payment but it does ensure that their provision is adequate in a basic sense and the big bonus is that they receive good food for the children they care for on a daily basis.

The pre-school teachers do not have a salary and I provided some example letters and advice on fundraising and encouraged them to look at local companies as well as larger companies. It has become more common for companies to support rural education in South Africa as it has become recognised that the government is failing to provide for them.

Pre-school visits

Unfortunately, time and transport made it impossible to visit all these sixty pre-schools but I did go out on two mornings with my friend Bev to visit thirteen of them. She regularly delivers fruit and vegetables and reads stories to them. She knew them well and we were greeted enthusiastically. We visited the new mud brick and painted pre-school run by two enthusiastic young women. Two years ago we came across them making the bricks a week after their pre-school building had been completely washed away by storms. One teacher have requested a set of traffic lights for activities which Bev had made and painted on pieces of pallet wood.

In several there was a separate building where a woman funded by the Department of Social welfare was cooking a substantial meat stew. We heard many songs and I had remembered a story about a rabbit and an elephant which I acted out for the children. Thankfully the video camera failed to capture the moment where the elephant fell onto his back with his legs waving in the air! Many of the teachers had made their own posters for the children.

Pre-School 1

One or two had very good resources but it appeared that the teachers were reluctant to use them fully as they had not been given adequate training in managing group or free choice activities. This is an area which we have plans to address within the new organisational structure of the cluster groups.

Women’s Leadership Training Programme –

Centocow Teenagers Group 18th – 20th October 2019

Teenagers from four schools in the Centocow area set off after end of school on Friday, piling into a minibus with anticipation and excitement. The girls were from grade eight through to grade eleven and had been hand-picked for their budding leadership potential but they had little idea what the weekend would offer. The singing, harmonious but at typically adolescent volume was kept up throughout the two hour journey. This group of young teenagers from poor rural backgrounds are like teenagers the world over, the cell phone, selfies, downloads of music and other media messages were a must have to go along with that other teen preoccupation, self-image and fashion. They are vulnerable and the glamour portrayed to them is alluring

One of the aims of the course is to empower the girls to avoid the practice of abduction and early marriage so prevalent in their communities.

Topics explored during the weekend were issues of women’s health, knowledge of Climate Change, how to change a culture of domestic and gender violence, how to overcome prejudice and how to become leaders as young women.

WLTP Workshop 1

The material for the workshop is taken directly from Ethmonjeni 1, the handbook written by Marilyn Aitken, developed by the WLTP team and published in 2005. This innovative training was developed from the Catholic women’s group The Grail, and is based on the vision of transformative educational work of the Brazilian Paulo Freire who worked with communities of unschooled adults in the 1960’s empowering them to think for themselves and create their own pathway to knowledge and understanding. The workshop material allows opportunity for familiar scenarios to be viewed, discussed in groups and analysed afresh using role play and presentations shared with the group.

After self-reflection and the writing of their own stories, the girls were divided into groups, splitting friends and school allegiances, so that a period of courageous collaboration generated harmonies of deep symbolism of self, expressed richly in their pictorial representation of the Tree of Life. The symbolism of seeing themselves in terms of a tree, relating to their roots and the pains and emotional scars they carried with them: their leaves, their buds and the fruits which grew from that beginning, was powerful.

Here was truly a dynamic group of young women. They had fast learned to translate their thoughts into a group situation which embraced pathos, humour and impressively good acting demonstrated in the various role plays enacted throughout the weekend.

The overall focus on leadership was crystallised in their individual short summary and presentations. The girls themselves were so keen to have a follow up session that one was arranged at short notice two weeks after the first. They were also eager to invite some of their peers to experience the workshop material and this too has been arranged for a date in December.

Devon Centocow Link is committed to pay the teachers’ travel costs to their meetings and for maintaining a few essential resources such as scissors, crayons and glue. See the whole article for more information about our work with the pre-schools.

Please consider a monthly donation, however small, in order for us to continue this basic support