Not there, but close

From the herd of cows crossing the road and young women walking into the forest to fetch wood it seems as if civilisation has not yet reached the village of Fernie on the border of Mpumalanga and ­Swaziland.

But, although the wheel of life apparently grinds slowly here, Ntombi Nhlabathi, a siSwati teacher at Methula Secondary School, is glued to a modern laptop. She is preparing lessons for her pupils.

“I reserve Saturday afternoons to prepare lessons for the week. I type them and then arrive at school early on Monday to print them. It helps my pupils a lot when I’m prepared,” she says.

Nhlabathi pays much attention to teaching in this deep-rural village more than 110km from the nearest town, Ermelo. Why?

Teaching is a calling

“To me teaching is not a job but a calling. I’ve always wanted to be a qualified educator, because when I attended school we didn’t have qualified teachers. Even worse, most of them were not from around here so they didn’t care much about the pupils. They collected their salaries and waited for the holidays, to return to their families in better towns.”

Nhlabathi has a national professional diploma in education from Potchefstroom University and an advanced certificate in education, specialising in life orientation. She is quick to add that she obtained her qualifications by correspondence.

Her big, warm smile masks the long winding road she has travelled to get to be behind a laptop, for which she saved her own money, because she thought it would make life easier for her pupils.

“When I completed matric in 1992 my parents were divorced and there was no money to further my studies. I left for Johannesburg, where I worked as a domestic worker in the homes of teachers. I just wanted to be next to what I loved the most, even though I got paid R250 a month for cleaning, cooking and washing seven days a week.”

Mushroom picker

When her mother took ill, she returned home to nurse her until she died. Although she still felt like a teacher at heart, her circumstances forced her to work as a mushroom picker.

“The trucks collected us at 4am and dropped us in the middle of a forest. We would then pick mushrooms and fill three baskets to make a full bucket that paid R4. The R100 I got fortnightly was something I appreciated, because it took a lot of hard work to earn it.”

Nhlabathi admits that there were moments, especially after burying her youngest sister in 2008, when she felt like giving up on life. But instead she did what her mother had taught her to do — tied a doek (cloth) around her stomach to steady herself. Real women do that, her mother had told her. That painful experience, she says, has made her more determined not only to teach her pupils how to write an essay but to give them life lessons.

“I may not be teaching life orientation at the moment, but I make time to talk to my pupils about life. I grew up dirt poor and I could easily have become a prostitute or gave myself away to drugs, but I persevered.”

The patient teacher

Pupils with learning difficulties are close to Nhlabathi’s heart. She says it gratifies her to comfort and not ridicule them because, in most cases, it is not their fault that they

do not understand. Her life experience has taught her to be patient
of and understanding towards others.

Her biggest wish, Nhlabathi says, is to teach in a school for children with learning difficulties. But the fact that Fernie still does not appear on the Mpumalanga map means it may take her years to see her dream fulfilled, because she does not want to leave the village.

“I waited 10 years doing laundry for other teachers, or picking and packaging mushrooms that I never even tasted once. I’ll wait much longer to help pupils who are experiencing difficulties. One day our government will build such a school here.” —

Help is at hand


Name of school: Unity College, 126 Cedar Avenue, Fourways, Johannesburg
Area of expertise: Learning disabilities
Maximum annual fees: R65 232 Tel: 011 465 2422/3


Name of school: BrainTrain (independent school), 4 Quarry Road, Hilton, Pietermaritzburg
Area of expertise: Learning disabilities, developmental delays
Maximum fee: R3 200 a month
Grades: One to eight
Tel: 083 395 1321

Eastern Cape

Name of school: Elsen Academy, (independent school, national senior certificate), 21 Bird Street, Port Elizabeth
Area of expertise: Learning disabilities, developmental delays
Minimum monthly fee: R2 870
Maximum monthly fee: R3 516 Grades: one to eight
Tel: 041 582 3289


Name of school: Flamboyant School (independent), 26 Tom Lawrence Street, White River
Area of expertise: remedial school that aims to place pupils back in mainstream education
Minimum monthly fee: R3 537
Grades: one to nine
Tel: 013 751 3484

Western Cape

Name of school: Shelanti School of Inclusive Teaching (independent school), 24 Stepney Road, Parklands
Area of expertise: remedial school that aims to place pupils back in mainstream education
Minimum monthly fees:
grades one and two, R3 550
grades three to six, R3 750
Tel: 021 557 3484

If you know of any private or government school in your area that caters for children with learning problems please
email their details to [email protected]

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