Miracle in the Karoo

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.—Martin Luther King, cited in the 2005 Annual Report of The Hantam Community Education Trust

Out of the vast stretch of Karoo farmlands, surrounded by hills, emerges a cluster of simply elegant cream coloured buildings with grey corrugated iron roofs. They house, among other institutions, the Hantam Community Education Trust’s school, Umthombo Wolwazi (Fountain of Knowledge), built on 11ha of donated land on the farm Grootfontein between Colesberg and Steynsburg in the Northern Cape.

A little miracle of private endeavour that has given hope to hundreds of children in this desperately poor rural community, the trust is the product of the dedication and obsession of three farmers’ wives—Lesley Osler, Clare Barnes-Webb and Anja Pienaar—and the community in which they live.

The school began in 1989, at the request of a group of farmworkers, as a pre-school for their children. “We started in a storeroom with Play Doh and a manual and later moved to a disused farmhouse,” recalls Osler. Today it has grown into an extensive rural education and development project with 13 full-time and 10 part-time staff members (all drawn from the local community) and caters for students from grade R (the reception year) to grade nine. There is also a nursery school for children from ages three to five.

The 2006 enrolment is 197, a number that includes not only farmworkers’ children but a small and growing number of children of local landowners.

In 1993 the Hantam Community Education Trust (HCET) was set up to administer the project and to raise the extensive funds required to maintain and grow it. Funding comes largely from local corporations, international foundations and from well-wishers abroad, many of whom are former South Africans.

The trust also administers an early childhood development programme, a skills training programme for adults and youths, a small business development programme, a bursary programme to enable successful students from the area (on average 10 students a year) to continue with their education after the statutory grade nine school-leaving age, and a primary healthcare and education clinic and pharmacy. A feeding scheme provides a meal a day for each of the learners.

Every step along the way has been taken in consultation with the community the project serves (both farmworkers and farmers), with all parties called on to take some responsibility for making it succeed. Parents decide on the level of school and transport fees and help with their collection, involve themselves in building work and maintenance, and help raise additional funds. Farmers help with transport, contribute to school fees and give workers time off to attend to school affairs.

“The role of the community has been and is crucial to the project and has steadily increased in its interventions, voluntary sweat equity, experience and expertise,” says Osler, who is project coordinator of the trust. Ownership of the project is a major contributor to its success—in paying fees parents acknowledge their responsibility for their children’s education and because the project is “owned” by the beneficiaries, there is none of the theft or vandalism that plagues many rural schools.

“We have,” writes Osler in the most recent annual report, “been relentless in creating an enabling environment that gives marginalised communities opportunities to break the cycle of poverty in a meaningful and sustainable manner—thus ‘restructuring the edifice that produces beggars’.”

With the area the school serves sprawling over a 50km radius (which includes 28 farms and the town of Colesberg) and the clinic serving farms, villages and towns within a 150km radius, transport is a major concern and, in an effort that can sometimes be a logistical nightmare, a fleet of bakkies and drivers is harnessed to ensure that every pupil is transported to and from school every day and that transport is available for members of the community to attend other trust activities.

To my regret, the day I visit the school the children are on holiday, but Osler paints a word picture that populates the immaculately kept buildings and grounds with a range of excited learners, from the tiniest making their first acquaintance with the alphabet through older children improving their maths skills by means of a sophisticated computer programme, to post-school youths and adults creating saleable objects in woodwork and metalwork classes, fabric painting and needlework groups and improving their employment prospects by acquiring computer skills.

In the well-stocked and well-used library (some of the learners, says Osler, have read every book in it) books are available in English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa. The medium of instruction, as dictated by the parents, is English.

On this icy winter Wednesday morning, the clinic, unlike the school, is well populated. A queue snakes out of the door; farmers and their employees awaiting the attention of the two sisters and the pharmacist who are on duty each week. A doctor visits once a month.

The concept of the clinic grew out of the realisation that many of the community’s problems related to health. As other clinics and pharmacies serving the area closed down because of a lack of resources, the demand for its services grew and the trust applied for a pharmacy licence—the 30% profit currently realised by the pharmacy subsidises the work of the clinic.

With outreach a central element of its programme, the HCET’s involvement with the children in the community begins long before they reach school-going age. A mothers-and-babies programme trains parents in effective parenting, and healthcare workers are sent into the community to pick up problems that might have a deleterious effect on future or current pupils. Each week the healthcare workers and clinic staff meet to discuss health or social problems identified during patient visits. Personal monitoring and support of families in their homes helps them to manage both social and health problems more effectively.

For all those involved with the trust, the maintenance of standards is crucial; whether it is standards of healthcare, teaching, upkeep of the buildings or administration. To that end, all nursery school staff members are trained at the Khululeka Training Centre in Queenstown; teachers receive intensive and ongoing training over and above that provided by the state and state curricula and teaching aids are complemented by specialised techniques and equipment.

The work of the HCET has been recognised with two major awards. In 1997 then president Nelson Mandela presented Lesley Osler with the State President’s Award for Community Initiative in the Northern Cape and in 2005 the trust received the Community Builder of the Year Award for the Northern Cape, fitting recognition of an extraordinary project run by a determined community dedicated to working their way out of the thrall of poverty and giving the young among them the promise of a brighter future.

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