An ‘oasis of excellence’ in the arid karoo

| Terry Bell
Vuyokazi Katise. Photo courtesy of the Hantam Trust.

For all the special pleading by the major teachers’ union, Sadtu and the assertions by basic education minister Angie Motshekga that all is well, our schooling system is in crisis.

The latest report on sexual violence in schools merely underlines how serious and multi-faceted, this crisis is.

It also tends to be felt most acutely in schools in rural areas where abuses, poor infrastructure and abysmal academic results are the norm. In areas such as these, the problems are all too frequently compounded by generations of grinding poverty and the nihilistic despair that leads to widespread drunkenness, alcoholism and associated violence.

Such home environments are associated, especially in the Western and Northern Cape, with the lives of farm workers. It is in these regions that the former — and now banned — “dop” system of payment in liquor to workers has left the horrific legacy of South Africa having the highest incidence of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in the world.

FAS destroys, to varying degrees, the central nervous system — especially the brain — of the still to be born. It is incurable and irreversible and, by some estimates, there are today as many FAS sufferers in South Africa as there are people who are HIV-positive and who can lead productive lives, courtesy of anti-retroviral drugs .

Yet, in one of the areas that contains all the ingredients — and many examples — of such societal disfunction, there exists what one observer has justly labelled “an oasis of excellence”. Not just in terms of schooling, but right across the board as an example in microcosm of what a developmental state might be.

This oasis can be found in a collection of buildings some 50km outside Colesberg. At first sight, these seem incongruous in the scrub-dotted vastness of the Karoo, but here is housed an early childhood centre, a school catering for children from Grades R to 9, a clinic, pharmacy and community outreach programmes.

Hanna Phemba. Photo courtesy of the Hantam Trust.

This community hub is the headquarters of the Hantam Community Education Trust (HCET), that, three years ago, completed the last link in a human development chain that extends from conception to adult training and employment. That last link was the effective parenting programme that sees young volunteer teachers from the HCET’s school carrying out home visits and training to expectant mothers on the 28 farms covered by the trust.

“We really know the area and the problems,” says Roos Pergoo who, with Hanna Phemba and Vuyokazi Katise, make up the core of the team. Like teacher interns Nandi Seekoei and Lolly van der Ranse who assist them, all were born to farm worker families in the district and are graduates of the HCET schools.

The team, with co-ordinator Estelle Jacobs, also produces its own illustrated manuals for parents. “You don’t have to be literate to be a good parent,” says Hanna Phemba. The group not only instructs mothers on foetal development and nutrition but also on how to encourage the basis of literacy and numeracy once their children are born.

Concepts such as shapes, sizes and colours are introduced using everday household objects. “We also give them simple (developmental) milestones to watch out for,” says Vuyokazi Katise, who is also the school librarian.

Field workers from left to right: Back row: Hanna Phemba, Lettie Martiens, Roos Pergoo Front row: Nandipha Seekoei, Prisilla van der Ranse (Lolly), Vuyokazi Katise. Photo courtesy of the Hantam Trust.

HCET began 25 years ago as a play school for young farm worker children in a disused farm building on land donated by a local farmer. It was set up by three wives of local farmers who were concerned about the early childhood development (ECD) of children in the district. “But then the children got to five or six years old and we thought: what next?” says HCET founder director, Lesley Osler. So next came a farm school as more younger children entered the ECD area.

It was the “what’s next” question that led, through what Osler admits were “many ups and downs”, to bursary schemes for vocational training, matriculation and tertiary education and a catering college. “We realised that, in order to keep the developmental vehicle on the road, you can’t just build one wheel,” says Osler.

That was how the first health care and outreach programmes developed and how the HCET programme expanded into home care, vocational training and support for tertiary education. Today there are children of Hantam farm workers who work as everything from bank tellers to teachers, welders, pharmacists, social workers and chefs.

Now a new generation of children, advantaged by the effective parenting programme, have begun their journey to adulthood. The path has been laid. And, to paraphrase a famous aphorism: I have seen a possible future — and it works.

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