Eager to get back to their books, primary school pupils from a standout Wild Coast school have been writing about lockdown life in their cash-strapped village, writes Rachel Moore.
Their stories – entries in a writing competition – are part of a broader fundraising drive to ensure an inspiring, education success story in Mzamba village does not become a Coronavirus casualty.
The community is situated on the northern extremity of the Eastern Cape. It is home to more than 100 many families that got relocated from traditionally owned land to make way for Sun International’s Wild Coast Sun casino in the apartheid era.
Mzamba was a typically small rural settlement back then. In the past five years, it has mushroomed in size with the government providing subsidised housing. Besides jobs at the casino, work is scarce. Most residents depend on social welfare grants.
Amid this, the Ithuba Wild Coast Community College, founded by a former leader of the Austrian Green Party, Christoph Chorherr, stands as a beacon of hope.
The private, not-for-profit primary school offers high-quality education with English as the medium of instruction.
Unlike the often grossly overcrowded government schools in rural Eastern Cape, Ithuba’s classes are limited to 35.
Pupils participate in a range of extra-curricular activities as well as a Sprouting Entrepreneurs’ programme supported by the Austrian ministry of education. This includes vegetable gardening with Grade 4 to 7 children growing produce for mini-market days.
“This is part of our drive to reintroduce agriculture as a subject in primary schools in the area,” said the school’s general manager, Jackie du Toit.
The school’s overall site plan was conceived by German architect, Markus Dobmeier in 2010. Over the next seven years, more than 300 Austrian and German architectural students designed and built classrooms, toilets, library, kitchen, staff room, an open hall and playground. They hired Mzamba people to help as part of a “build together – learn together” skills development programme.
As new classrooms were built each year, the Founders Golf Tournament, a sporting and charity initiative with close ties to the casino, provided funding to kit out the classrooms and for stationery, textbooks and office equipment.
The end result: a design-savvy, creative learning environment.
Cultural exchanges between the Austrian volunteers and pupils add to the educational experience. Every year volunteers to assist with basic literacy, reading skills, mathematics, arts, sports and maintenance.
“The intended impact of Ithuba is more than providing an education,” said Matthias Forcher-Mayr, the Austrian ministry of education’s representative in South Africa.
He said Ithuba’s founding ethos was to successfully navigate the transition from school to work. In doing so, the fortunes of entire households would be lifted. Entrepreneurial thinking was instilled at an early age, he added.
But the good work that’s gone into growing the school – and its parent college in Gauteng – was now threatened by a worldwide economic crisis, brought to a head by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even before the onset of Covid-19, a funding shortfall had cast doubts on the school’s future. Its cash-strapped Austrian backers enforced a no-work-no-pay policy for April – a blow for teachers who are already earning less than their counterparts at public schools.
“Government subsidies cover only one-fifth of the education and operating costs. Parents also battle to pay even the nominal school fees levied,” said Du Toit.
Amid these difficulties, the Life in Lockdown in Mzamba writing competition has sparked the imagination of children and teachers.
“We have been astounded by the quality of entries received from more than 30 learners at such short notice,” said Fred Kockott, the director of Roving Reporters which helped organise the competition. “It will be a travesty if a school like this collapses.”
Tyna Charter, a leading representative of the community-based education organisation, SMILE agreed. SMILE focuses on interactive learning experiences.
“Ithuba’s learners showed a mature understanding of the situation and were able to express their thoughts and feelings poignantly,” said Charter, an adjudicator of the writing competition, who also helped formulate questions to guide the young writers.
“Children are wonderfully refreshing in their ability to observe their environment without the filter of preconceived attitudes and to express themselves without artifice,” she said.
Onele Dimane, a Grade 7 pupil, is a case in point.
“We have never suffered from hunger, but now people can’t work. There is no money for medicines or food. So we use herbs for stomach aches and rely on what Granny plants,” wrote Dimane, who misses the daily hot, nutritious meals at Ithuba WWC.
Mfundo Tshezi had particular sympathy for street vendors. “They can’t sell and provide for their families,” he wrote.
On the up side, Tshezi’s colleague, Ntando Mngoma, was relieved that a local tavern had closed. “There is no more crime that is reported or noise,” wrote Mngoma. “But the bad thing is we cannot go shopping in Port Edward (5km away).”
Mngoma was referring to lockdown regulations prohibiting people from crossing over from the Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal. “We have go to Bizana which is expensive in terms of transport and food is not fresh,” said Mngoma.
Bizana is a crowded Eastern Cape town serving a vast rural area where the sheer number of shoppers, many of them back home from across the country, puts visitors at risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Lockdown life had deprived Sibahle Mabude of privacy. “We share the room. Even if I sometimes want to be alone, I can’t,” wrote Mabude. But Mabude said it had also made her appreciate life and family more, as well as “my mom’s cooking”.
Sisona Mthini cut straight to the chase. “I feel like I’m in prison in my own life,” wrote Mthini. “We are living in fear (of people dying). Who is next?” A few sentences later, Mthini expressed appreciation for the lessons learned. “We don’t always have what we want. It’s taught me to be satisfied with what we have.”
Back to school
In almost every entry, pupils wrote about their desire to be back at school.
Forcher-Mayr welcomed the writing competition as an innovative intervention. “Teaching should focus on the life-worlds of learners. Life happens here and now. Learning must connect to the here and now,” he said.
School principal, Tembekazi Makedama, said the competition was also, in its own modest way, a step toward introducing technology-based learning at Ithuba – something sorely lacking in the country’s rural schools.
Most pupils, she said, had managed to submit their entries via WhatsApp – no small sacrifice considering the price of data and the financial strain many families were facing.
Du Toit said support from cellular network companies, like MTN, would go a long way to helping.
“Although Ithuba already has fibre optics, thanks to Founders and Dimension Data, we need unlimited wifi access to introduce e-learning and get help from outfits like iLeadlab in providing IT training and education software to our teachers,” said Du Toit.
The Future We Want
Meanwhile, with the pilot writing competition having already proven a success, plans are afoot for a follow-up competition, Life after Lockdown: The Future We Want.
It caters for Ithuba graduates now in Grade 8 and 9 at other schools in the area.
Noneka Mthwa, the school’s first dux, and Grade 9 pupil at a nearby private high school is helping organise this next writing competition.
“My friends are very excited. Most of us are all from Ithuba which has enriched our lives. Some that I know are interested in journalism, and getting this chance to put our thoughts out there, makes us feel good about ourselves, especially at a time like this,” said Mthwa. – Roving Reporters
• Rachel Moore is a Roving Reporters intern.
All photos were taken by German architect, Markus Dobmeier, who helped design the school and document its development.
Golfers keep education ball rolling
Roving Reporters’ Life in Lockdown in Mzamba story writing competition is sponsored by the Founders Golf Tournament.
The tournament has been held every year in May since the Wild Coast Sun golf course was established 38 years ago by Charles Fiddian-Green. Fiddian-Green invited 25 of his friends to become founder members of the course.
Founders chairman, John Cheshire, said what had started as a fun event had turned into fundraiser of sorts when members got wind of a primary school being built just off the back of the golf course.
“For us, the Ithuba Wild Coast Community College ticked all the boxes,” said Cheshire. “We were inspired by the people and energy driving it. We said: ‘Right, we are onto a good thing here. Let’s make a grand effort’.”
He said that close to R2 million had since been raised in association with the Wild Coast Sun Casino to support the development of the school.
“We are very proud of this association. The school has become an absolute gem in the community, but given the worldwide impact of Covid-19, it’s going to be less and less aided by its international donors,” said Cheshire.
“So personally, we feel the responsibility to ramp up support,” said Cheshire.
Covid-19 had forced the cancellation of this year’s tournament but had inspired the Founders to up their game on the fundraising front.
“Amid this crisis, we really need to do our bit and there are there are certainly some influential businessmen in our ranks,” said Cheshire. “Sponsoring this writing competition helps us get the message out that this school deserves all the support we can give it.” – Roving Reporters
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