Long walk to freezedom

Nzuzo Mnikathi, who wrote his matric exams last year, has decided to begin his post-matric year on a selfless personal odyssey.

He is trudging the 111km distance to the South Pole to highlight the importance of early childhood development (ECD).

Last week, Mnikathi, part of a six-person team of South African adventurers, was scheduled to begin the hard slog, which they hope to complete in 14 days.

The expedition has been organised under the banner of a non-profit organisation, The Unlimited Child (TUC), to mobilise the public to invest in ECD, the first crucial stage in the development of a child.

Weak foundation education
Education experts attribute the consistently poor matric results and the recent woeful performance by grade four and six learners in annual national numeracy and literacy assessments to a weak foundational education system.

Iain Buchan is the brains behind the initiative and chairperson of the The Unlimited, which is a financial service provider based in Hillcrest, KwaZulu-Natal. He said urgent intervention was needed to address the plight of the more than six million children under the age of six “who have little to no exposure [to ECD]”.

He said: “If the average child has a potential of 10, then a child with no ECD [education] will only reach a potential of two. Not even the best teachers in the world will be able to impact on these children’s potential. They will always have a potential of two. They are untrainable and destined for a life of poverty as they will never have the ability to learn a skill.”

Ambassador for education
Buchan said Mnikathi was their “perfect ambassador”. “Here is a young man who has had a tough life, but is changing his future and has taken up our challenge to be an ambassador for TUC and the youngest black person ever to walk to the South Pole. He is a living example that people have unlimited potential,” said Buchan.

Mnikathi said: “I have been through a lot myself and this initiative strikes a chord with me. I want to use this experience not only to raise awareness about the negative impact of growing up without exposure to any form of education, but also to inspire young children and show them that everything is possible. I want to show them that you can overcome difficulties with determination and the right attitude.”

Intensive training
Buchan said Mnikathi underwent intensive specialised physical and mental training in December last year to ensure that he was up to the challenge. It included a great deal of walking and dragging a tyre to simulate the 40kg sledge he will be pulling in Antarctica.

He also had to endure a number of freezer training sessions in a commercial freezer to help acclimatise himself to the sub-zero temperatures, which range from -30°C to -60°C.

A polar veteran, Sean Wisedale, who is also part of the expedition, said exposing Mnikathi to the extreme cold conditions “will also remind him that, in Antarctica, while the team will be with him every step of the way, physically he will have no assistance other than his own will”.

Generous donations
Buchan said the private sector had been very generous to the TUC and had donated money and toys.

But he appealed for more assistance so that the organisation could extend its reach. “At the moment we are serving communities around the Valley of a Thousands Hills,” he said. “Three percent of our company’s bottom line goes directly to the TUC. We have distributed 14 500 toys, trained 500 caregivers and are working closely with 250 crèches. We have also developed a training kit with a full set of toys.”

Buchan said the idea was to make the project “duplicable”, adding that “we don’t own it and we would be happy to work with anyone who shares our vision”.

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo reports for the Teacher newspaper, a Mail & Guardian monthly publication. Apart from covering education stories, he also writes across other beats. He enjoys reading and is an avid soccer and athletics fanatic. Thabo harbours a dream of writing a book. Read more from Thabo Mohlala


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