/ 20 April 2005

The wild west goes north-east

Reverend JJ Scholtz is creating an Oklahoma utopia in Mpumalanga’s agricultural heartland of Ermelo and plans to churn out gangly-legged cowboys and cowgirls armed with lassoes, chaps and the Bible.

‘If you look at what makes the United States the great nation it is today, it all goes back to the grass-roots principles of the wild west,” says Scholtz.

Contrary to popular beliefs, ‘The cowboy’s not actually a bad guy, the cowboy’s a gentleman,” believes Scholtz. ‘It’s not just about the wild west, it’s about responsibility.” The other principles Scholtz believes ride with the cowboys – and what he wants his learners to glean from ranch life – are pioneering, perseverance, confidence and self-sufficiency.

Scholtz and his wife Mettie already run a Christian academy called The Ark. It’s reminiscent of the school on the 1980’s family TV drama The Little House on the Prairie, except it’s bigger and has punchy praise songs ringing out from the classrooms.

Kids of all ages convene in common classrooms to teach themselves from subject guidebooks. Each of the 80 pupils have their own ‘office” – a partitioned desk space for their books and bags – where they have two to three weeks to work through study booklets (called ‘paces”). If they’re confused they hold up a flag to signal the need for the teacher’s help.

The Accelerated Christian Education (Ace) syllabus they follow is largely imported from the US but has been tweaked to fit the South African curriculum. Ace schools use the continuous assessment system and learners’ development is monitored through regular achievement tests.

Christian ethics are a strong feature of such schooling, constantly reinforced through graphics, the repetition of Biblical words and references and a moral for each day.

Principal Mettie Scholtz is keen to merge Christianity with ‘cowboyism” because of the therapeutic value of working with horses. ‘Give a problem child a problem horse and they will sort one another out,” she says.

Her action plan for an ethical generation lies in getting kids out of the cities and ‘back to ground level, back to the land”, where they can foster their own sense of self-worth.

Aspiring cowboys and cowgirls will participate in regular lessons at The Ark but will board at bunkhouses at the Scholtz’ home, The Ranch, where they will eat, sleep and breathe the ‘wild west” way of life.

Reverend Scholtz hopes to open the cowboy school in January and is presently negotiating with Damelin to accredit the in-saddle afternoon syllabus that will include riding and horse-care, cattle herding, lassoing and other intricacies of running a ranch.

Each cowboy and cowgirl will be allocated a horse to care for, but they won’t be allowed to ride until they’ve earned the privilege.

‘You don’t just get on to a horse and it’s ‘Yahoo’ and take off – you’ve got to learn responsibility first,” explains Scholtz

– African Eye News Service