Schooled in Kalahari’s hard knocks

I could see the lights of the Namibian border post from the tent camp where we were staying. Each tent had a bed inside, but everything else about the place felt like camping. Our companions were three Afrikaner engineers who shared their braai with us the first night. I was very far from anything I knew.

The drive from Upington to Rietfontein is virtually empty of anything but the occasional animal. After about 280km, you reach a robot and Rietfontein appears.

The first thing my cameraman Felix Seuffert and I needed was food. So we popped into shop after shop, buying a few things here and there. Four shops later, we found a loaf of bread. I kept wondering where people bought their food. Big trips to Upington every few weeks?

Felix and I really were outsiders – a German and an American who could only say "Goeie môre" and "Baie dankie" in a town where every­one spoke Afrikaans. We had continual conversations about what we saw and felt, and I couldn't help but wonder what others thought of us after a day and a half.

We had come to visit Sekondêre Skool Rietfontein, where Afrikaans is the medium of instruction. This is it for the people here – there isn't another school for almost 300km. And with an 87.8% matric pass rate last year, it is not a bad place to be.  

My experience at the school – the teaching, break time, assembly – was much more familiar to me than the town itself. It was the kind of place where you don't need directions because it is made up of about six streets. We even ran into a teacher whom we'd just interviewed at a shop. There are nurses there, but not a doctor.

No bursaries
It also a place that is rich and beautiful in its landscape – the red dust of the Kalahari – a compelling space to be in and in which to film.

Yvonne Saunderson, an English teacher who attended the school, can't imagine living anywhere else.

 "People always wonder, 'Why do you stay there, why do you teach there?'" she says. "Then I say, 'Why not?' Who says I will adapt in another place? I was born here, I grew up here, my husband is a farmer, here in the Kalahari. I want to be here … The Kalahari, the red dunes, I can't imagine my life without it."

By the time we left, I had come to understand what she meant: people stayed because it was home.

Even people from the education department, those who are responsible for the school, ask these questions.

"The [department's] subject adviser visited from Cape Town," physical science teacher Gerald Smith told me. "He looked around and asked, 'What is here, what keeps the people here, that this place exists, what do the kids do when they finish matric?'"

It is a question that grade 11 pupil Marshall Matthys has been asking himself. He knows the limits of his dreams and those of his classmates. If they pass matric and no bursaries are available to them, then their efforts will seem to be for nothing.

"A lot of the matriculants perform well and finish school, but then they don't get bursaries to continue studies," he says.

"Why bother making matric if there is no future? If we struggle, and we won't find jobs? So I'm asking, please, and requesting bursaries for the students of this school."

Like all schools, pupils and teachers alike have dreams for themselves. Teachers want pupils to get tertiary education, to get good jobs and give back to the community, whether they move back here or not.

"They have that vision of, 'I want to get out of these circumstances and the only way to get out is knowledge'. It's these red [school] buildings – that's the only way to get out of here," Smith says.

At the same time, in a place that is so isolated, and so desperately poor, it is sometimes difficult to convince pupils that there is a wider world out there that they have access to. And, on some level, you can't blame them for not believing they don't or won't have a chance for a different life.

The school has 961 pupils from grades R to 12 and there are no school fees. About 150 stay in a hostel, but most take buses to school from more rural areas.

We went on one of the buses for the first 10km, and the land looked empty of anything but dry brush. Some children were dropped off and began walking however many kilometres to their farms. Further on, many children got off at a more formal township.

Photocopy machines
What is unique about Rietfontein is that the school is literally and figuratively the centre of the community.

"We have pupils from different churches, their parents are from different political parties," says the principal, Willie Julius.

"Here are pupils from different levels of the community. Here are children from unemployed parents and children of professional parents. And the school has that uniting role to play."

Where there are few other services in the area, the school fills the gap. Its library is the community library. The photocopy machines are used to make pamphlets for funerals or other activities; the school offers its space to local churches and youth programmes.

Julius is aware of the significance of what the school provides. It is particularly powerful for individuals who may be uneducated to feel they have access to the school.

At the same time, because it is such a small community, teachers are role models, inside and outside the school. In a town where there are few professional people, teachers are seen as leaders in the community, and some said that they must be always aware of their own behaviour.

Julius welcomes the community to his school and he also asks to be welcomed into homes. He makes unscheduled visits to the homes of every matric student. It is an extension of the school's role not only in the community, but also in the home and the family.

"During the preparation for examination period," he says, "we visit them at home. Firstly, to check if they're busy with schoolwork, because some pupils think the time they [have] at home is for relaxing. [But we know] that, although they're not at school, we are still responsible for them. That's why we take the responsibility to go to their homes. We arrive unannounced and we check if the pupils are busy with examination preparation."

Julius is committed because he knows what the stakes are here. So do his teachers.

"If you were in the Kalahari once and you felt the Kalahari sand, then I believe you just come back," says Smith.

"What makes this school special is we are the only high school here and we know that if we are not successful in what we do, we will lose our children," he says.

But lose them to what?

Molly Blank is a documentary ­filmmaker. This is the latest of her Mail & Guardian articles about a video series, Schools That Work, which she is directing on ­disadvantaged schools that achieve exceptional results. The series was conceived by University of the Free State rector Jonathan Jansen. For more information go to or email [email protected]

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