We have our initial information needs and wish-lists from the community and teachers and decide it is now time to learn from those who have been down this road before. When we started talking seriously about the project, many people told us we should go and visit a small rural town in Northern KwaZulu-Natal called Ingwavuma. The reason being that there were examples here of incredible success stories around developing rural schools. So we got in touch with the relevant people and hit the road. Ingwavuma is a good 1000 km from Nqileni so we are expecting quite a journey!
We arrive in Ingwavuma on Sunday night 27 May and our first meeting is scheduled for the following morning. We wake up on Monday morning eagerly anticipating meeting two women we have heard so much about. They are Bridget Walters and Hlengiwe Mthimkulu. We go to meet them at the Zisize Buildings. Zisize is a NGO that is helping to support a number of schools in the vicinity. It offers teacher training and follow up visits and support. There is also a beautiful crèche and library on site, as well as services of a psychologist and social worker. They are clearly doing wonderful things.
We meet with Bridget and Hleng and ask them a barrage of questions around their experiences of developing excellent rural schools. Each of them is responsible in part for growing a school in the Ingwavuma area.
Bridget was a founder member of the excellent school, Nansindlela, which is an English medium school that goes from Grade R to Grade 12. Their pass rate last year was an incredible 100% and their exemption rate (university minimum entrance requirement) in the region of an amazing 70 percent. Fruit trees planted around the grounds of Nansindlela are full with paw paws and bananas – learners are welcome to pick and eat the fruit during break times.
Inside a Nansindlela classroom
Hlengiwe has grown Mpotshini from three classes being taught under three trees to an incredible school of 14 classrooms, 1 library, an orphanage, a class for children with special needs and a fast track facility which ensures learners are placed quickly in the correct grade for their age, regardless of the schooling level they are at when they enter the school. The school reportedly has incredible community support and children come from neighbouring towns to attend because of the excellent education it offers. They cater to approximately 750 learners and offer Grades R to Grade 7.
Mpotshini’s first classroom (a bit like how our school is now…)
Mphotshini’s fruit trees
The two women are an incredible inspiration and visits to both schools blow us away. It is remarkable to see what dedication and hard work can produce. In fact the deputy principal of Mpotshini says to us “There is no miracle here, just hard work”. The school also offers extended feeding in that it feeds needy children on weekends as well as during the week.
Brendan Carroll, current principal of Nansindlela walked us round the grounds of this beautiful school and gave us other advice and useful tips on growing and managing schools. The area got electricity 4 years ago so even though the schools are happily wired up now and can run computers etc, they would have operated quite differently in their “growing years”.
All our advice-givers stressed the importance of community support. Both schools were built by their respective communities and this allowed money to stretch further and builds continuing community support. Educator motivation is also key and the necessity of providing toilets for educators should not be ignored! Pleasant educator accommodation is also an advantage to draw good educators and keep them happy. Building a school ethos around respect and support for each and every child is imperative, and the basis for great teachers and happy kids!
We are very sad to leave Ingwavuma on Wednesday morning but we are incredibly motivated and we need to keep moving. We spend the day driving towards Howick, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal and home to the headquarters of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA).
Thursday 31 May
We visit WESSA in the morning to find out about their eco-schools programme and their teaching resources. Once again, we are blown away by what we are shown. The centre is fantastic and the eco-schools programme a brilliant way to integrate environmental awareness and health into the normal teaching day. Much support is offered to teachers at schools enrolled in the programme in terms of developing lesson plans in line with the South African Revised National Curriculum. The programme is also supported by heaps of teaching materials developed by experts in a range of fields incorporating environmental health and protection themes. What is so fantastic for us is that one of the greatest resources of NO-OFISI, is its location in the most magnificent and environmentally diverse region. We grab pamphlets on coastal forests, mangrove swamps, the sea shore, coastal grasslands and on the nutritional benefits of umngqombothi (locally brewed Xhosa beer)! The idea is to incorporate the eco-schools programme from the beginning of school rehabilitation, so that it becomes the normal way of teaching at NO-OFISI. The kids in Nqileni don’t have to go far to have outings on science and nature! (Check out www.wessa.org.za/eduecoschools.asp).
Finally we visit Iain Gutthrey who now works at Michaelhouse School, and previously taught and was principal of Nansindlela. Iain gives us some more valuable tips on building and growing an excellent rural school. He again emphasizes teacher motivation and also suggests that it is useful to do teacher exchanges, where one sends your teachers to other schools in different areas for a term to let them get exposure to different teaching methods etc. Iain is greatly interested in nature and was the man who got the trees planted and the organic permaculture going at Nansindlela. He mentioned the pride and motivation resulting from entering and winning competitions. This came through strongly at Mpotshini as well – being award winning schools.
We make our way back to Mthatha and stop off at Julia’s mom, Elise’s house to say hi. Elise is our Mthatha fairy godmother – she is a botanist and works at the Walter Sisulu University. She has lived in Mthatha for years and seems to know everybody! We are chatting to Elise and Jules mentions that our great concern now is finding a principal for the school. This person will be key to the success of our project, and will need to be someone who wants the challenge of turning around this difficult situation and building something amazing. We also think it would be ideal to have someone who is familiar with the area. Elise thinks for a while and says she knows the perfect person. She calls her friend and asks her to come over and meet us.
She arrives and we chat for a while. She is currently a teacher at an excellent school in Mthatha. She has been teaching at really great schools for 18 years and has a masters degree in educational management. She is a wonderful person and has a passion to help the poor. We ask her if she would be interested in taking on the challenge of rehabilitating NO-OFISI. She says she could definitely consider it. We invite her to Bulungula the following weekend so she can have a look around and see what she thinks.
We can’t believe our luck and head off for the weekend to Mdumbi Lodge, an hour and a half from Mthatha where we are meeting up with Kath Nurse, who is running the Mdumbi Education Trust. We spend the weekend at Mdumbi and Kath shows us the incredible work they are doing there. The Mdumbi Education Centre has been set up to offer after hours support to learners who wish to have help with their school work. Attendance is totally voluntary and already there are about 150 kids attending daily. Kath has also gotten more than 7000 books donated and plans to set up the biggest and best rural library in the Eastern Cape. Her plan is to loan sets of books to other schools and resource centres in the region. Kath currently teaches in the church hall on the premises. The trust is busy building two rondavels for the centre – one for teaching and one for the library. Kath’s attitude is: Nothing is that complicated – just get on and do it.
Mdumbi Education Trust project
Dave has called us during the weekend and tells us we have a meeting confirmed with the Circuit Manager of NO-OFISI. The Circuit Manager is the Department of Education Official who is in closest contact with schools on the ground. We collect Dave on Monday morning and drive to Elliotdale for the meeting which coincides with the first days of a nationwide strike of public service officials.
Mr Qendu welcomes us to his office and we sit for a couple of hours with him asking him a range of questions. We explain who we are and our intentions. He is very supportive and says we should push forward with his backing. He explains certain systems issues around hiring of educators, financial matters regarding schools and the principal’s position. When we ask him how NO-OFISI rates in terms of other schools in his Circuit (of which there are 35) he suggests that NO-OFISI is the worst off school in the circuit, because she “is and orphan” – she does not have a principal. He informs us that he has submitted an application for the principal’s position to be advertised, but that this may take a long time as a strike has just begun and it may delay processes.
He also explains that every school has a paper budget that indicates the budget for the school that year. If for example, there is budget for electricity, but the school has no power, one can make an application to use the money for other purposes. We have also been told there is a priority list for building schools in the Eastern Cape. Unfortunately, he does not have the list and everyone else is on strike so he cannot get it!
He gives us some useful contacts and we make our way back to Nqileni and Bulungula Lodge. It has been a phenomenal trip. We must now report back and get writing.
Friday 8- Sunday 10 June.
Our potential principal visits for the weekend. We take her on the village walk and go and look at the new site for the new school that the community has selected. We also take a look at the four rondavels that the community has made available for teaching as an interim measure. She is full of great ideas and we all feel extremely positive and motivated. In fact, she has been bouncing over the hills all weekend – I suppose Nqileni does have that effect!
During of this we get a few prospects for dedicated funding and start to pull some promotional fact sheets together.
Here’s our first fact sheet.