Two weeks after my return from South Africa; the kaleidoscope of colliding memories and feelings of disorientation have finally settled so that I can begin to make sense of my journey.
I am left now with a longing to continue in whatever way I can to stay connected to the communities I visited, with excitement about the projects which are taking place and the friendships which have grown and deepened but with a deeper understanding of the difficulties people are facing in this beautiful but harsh country.
I arrived on a very cold spring evening. It was already dark as we climbed the dirt road and descended to the Umzimkhulu River just below Centocow. My fifth visit to the area, so I felt all the excitement of a homecoming to familiar territory and only imagined the picturesque landscape of forested hills forming the backdrop to the two brick-built mission churches, one behind the other on the hill below St. Apollinaris Hospital, but seeing only a few twinkling lights.
My mission was to find out which Early Years Practitioners had received the first round of the Persona Doll training which was funded by the Exmouth and Centocow Linking Association and to steer the progress of the follow up training for the teachers. In 2001 I had first arrived here as a volunteer with Hands Around the World and helped to set up the Isibani Sezwe Centocow Association, the association of pre-school teachers in this vast rural area. Back then there were eighteen pre-schools and now I hear there are about fifty! The Association is important for the morale of the teachers and regular meetings are an opportunity for teachers to share ideas, practice and feel connected. (It can be a hard job keeping the inspiration and fun needed to nurture a large group of young children when you may have your own family problems, when you know the children are coming from difficult home situations, facing being orphaned or abandoned or not knowing where the next meal is coming from. Yet all these teachers are committed to the care and education of their children, knowing that despite the difficulties they may face, education and loving care has to be the only way forward not just for the individual children but for the whole community.)
The Pre-school at Centocow is easy; it is based at the hospital at the geographical hub of transport and communications. For anything further out you have to have your own transport or have local knowledge of transport. I think it is just a western thing, expecting there to be a straight forward system, or a timetable so that at least you know if there is a bus or not. There are rural areas in this country where people are reliant on neighbourly lifts but out here few people have their own transport. Several times when I was expecting to meet my friend from Mpmlwame she had phoned me from the side of the road somewhere to say that she was still waiting for a taxi……and those waits were often several hours. Walking is a more reliable alternative, though time consuming and tiring.
Throughout my visit I was dependent on the generosity of Bev Everett and others for providing the transport needed to visit pre-schools and other centres in the rural areas. Bev Everett drives long distances to remote pre-schools monthly to take sacks of maize, soya mince and vegetables to 15 or 16 pre-schools. She also takes basic equipment such as crayons and paper and such toys or games that have been donated within the Creighton community. The vastness of those steep sided hills set against the distant mountains and seemingly endless pile upon pile of soaring white clouds on blue skies are a stunning sight and on this canvas a great network of winding rutted tracks spread like veins this way and that deep into the hills. Small scattered homesteads consisting of a cluster of clay brick rectangular or round buildings, rondavels, often brightly painted climb up the hills til the farthest resemble dolls houses. Every so often Bev pulls the truck up in front of one of them and, ‘this is the pre-school.’
On two days we visited some 12 pre-schools in this manner, (2 were closed on the day we visited.) Most of these I had visited in previous visits and many of the school teachers were familiar to me.
This time I had brought with me Lindiwe, my Persona Doll and a picture story book of which I had a copy in Zulu and one in English. After greeting the staff and children, I introduced Lindiwe to the children and told the children the story in English, each page followed by the Zulu teacher’s version.
Our visits were short as Bev had to fit in the round of visits to far flung pre-schools before 1pm. The children responded well to Lindiwe and enjoyed the story but none of the teachers we visited had begun the Persona Doll training.
The pre-schools were for the most part as I remembered them. The buildings were small and in a poor state of repair with roughly fitted pieces of lino as a floor cover. A few were in larger purpose built buildings. There were between 6 and 25 children in the schools although one school had 45. (This smart timber built pre-school had been gifted to the community by a donor from Pretoria. It had excellent outdoor equipment and plenty of resources and therefore attracted more children than most.) The resources in most were poor although some were better managed than others. The basics consisted of crayons, paper, magazines and recycled containers for modelling or make believe play, pieces of Lego or Duplo, scissors and glue. All the pre-schools had a few small plastic chairs and tables and a table for the teachers records and resources, including her phone. There were posters on the walls, mostly hand written, which displayed the Daily Routine, Days of the week, parts of the body etc. and for some pictures of animals and other commercial posters. Few pre-schools had more toys or games although some had jungle gym equipment or slides outside.
The children straggle along to the pre-school buildings in ones, twos or threes, with or without mothers or gogos (grandmothers,) on rutted paths, hilly tracks or across rough grassland. They appear eager, hungry, often really hungry, and ready for whatever the teacher will deliver
The resourcefulness and the stamina of these teachers is phenomenal. There will be days when the school is closed or days when morale is low. There are families to support and sick people to support but the teachers need to be encouraged and congratulated on all they do. The children are a mixed bunch in age; sometimes teachers are having to juggle baby feeding with coaxing the older four year olds. Bev with the help of a team of volunteers in Creighton provide Maize and soya mince to about seventeen of these pre-schools.
On a steep plot above a rutted hill track, Bev and I climbed to where she expected to show me a pre-school. Instead there were two women singing and laughing as they made clay bricks. On the ground rows of bricks lay ready to be used. There was no pre-school.
The teacher told us that the storms of the previous week had washed her school away so they just got on and made some new bricks. Meanwhile she explained that they had requisitioned a house in a track below them and a teacher was working with the children there until the new school was built.
Some teachers worked alone with a few children others had two or more teachers, varying in age and experience. There might be anything from between six to forty children at a pre-school. One school is a relatively new wooden building donated by a woman from Pretoria. It is well equipped and has a large outside play area equipped with a range of climbing equipment and even a boat. This school has attracted a large number of children and has several teachers.
Another teacher has asked a local business for funding, which is quite unusual. They have been provided with a lovely garden and outside equipment.
Some teachers just have that gift for inspiring the children to play creatively with few junk resources, others use their imagination in stories and many enjoy the traditional Zulu dancing with their high leg kicks that the children love to demonstrate.
For many the level of training was fairly basic and a daily routine of songs and games interspersed with learning days of the week or talking about the weather and food kept the children occupied. The fact that these dedicated teachers turned up day after day and took care of the children for no financial reward was a huge resource for their local community. Many teachers had received more training and it was evident that some were naturally gifted and creative in their use of meagre resources for play, their vibrant storytelling manner and in their general rapport with the children. Training of all pre-school teachers in the area was carried out by trainers working for TREE, Training and Resources in Early Education, a Not for Profit organisation based in Durban.
During our visits we sought out participants of the recent Persona Doll training; we had a register of attendees sent to us. We found that the ladies who were trained were working for TREE as Family Support Workers. TREE has put a great deal of energy into the training of these women who visit rural families in the area. Given the poverty, a low level of basic education of parents and the restructuring of families due to either death from HIV/Aids or migration of parents to the cities this is valuable supportive work. Many parents are very young women. The women help families with social grants, health care and parenting skills and the addition of Persona Doll training to help the children to communicate their emotional needs is a great breakthrough in the care of children. Nondamezele was one, she was amazed at how easily a young orphan who had been rehomed was prompted to tell her of his fears and anxieties by his introduction to the Persona Doll. Another trainer we met was similarly impressed. The teachers who had learnt about the use of the dolls because they were in the same community as the family support workers were very keen to have the training.
When I held a meeting for the pre-school teachers I asked them to talk in groups and share the important and positive things that kept them going as teachers. The feedback I got was that they were rewarded by the happiness of the children and they loved to play games and be there for them. They were reluctant to say anything negative. Twenty seven teachers arrived at the community hall between 8.30 and 9.30. They had made the effort to walk or wait for transport at their own cost to get together and share and perhaps to see what I had to offer. Among those gathered were faces I recognised from the first workshops I facilitated for the teachers. Some I had met on more recent visits, 2005 or 2011 and some fairly new.
The reality was that the going is tough. There are many requirements a Pre-school has to fulfil before being registered with the social department and become eligible for a grant. Most had met those requirements; a secure fence, a safe building with tables and chairs suitable for young children. The teachers must show they have a basic level of training and a daily programme and other activities displayed prominently on the walls. A register for the children ….
In fact, despite working hard at attaining this some teachers were still waiting for the inspection and as far as I was aware, none had received even the small remuneration they were entitled to. The teachers were there for the children the reward for the teachers is the happiness of the children. The fees that should be paid for their school places are rarely paid. This is a region of high unemployment. There is less than 10% employment! There are Grade R, (reception teachers) who have a higher grade of training and when the Reception age changed from six to five these teachers were either moved into the primary schools and paid a salary or remained in the pre-schools if there were not enough classes in the local primary schools. In many ways there is little change in the pre-schools.
It would be good to see more resources, for the teachers to get the training they need to really give the children the best start in education. If not paid as professionals they should at least gain the self -esteem and feel valued in the vital role they play in their communities. Of course, it would be even better if they were paid a decent wage. Like so many areas of rural life the government has plans in place. The new bureaucracy supports the aims of the communities but the wheels of functionality and provision are not turning. Corruption and politics often syphon off the money before it reaches those remote places. This apparently is true throughout education at every level in South Africa and there has been a lot of discontent resulting in National strikes. What is important though is the recognition that establishing an ethos of education from the very beginning of life right through to adult literacy is the only way forward to build stronger and sustainable communities.
I come away with a strong mental image of little groups of young children brim-full of curiosity surrounded by enthusiastic teachers. .