Cutting-edge Karoo farm school breaks poverty cycle

Transportation from widespread farms around Colesberg is one of the Hantam Community Education Trust’s greatest expenses. Photo: Chris Marais

Transportation from widespread farms around Colesberg is one of the Hantam Community Education Trust’s greatest expenses. Photo: Chris Marais

A Climax windpump spins and creaks quietly alongside a dirt road linking Colesberg with the blue horizon. There is a cool morning breeze and a few sheep bleat in the distance.

Soon, though, they are drowned out by the distant roar of a straining engine. A school bus appears, emblazoned with the words “Hantam Community Education Trust”, packed with children wearing grins as wide as the sky.

The bus heads over the hill and pulls up at a set of neat white buildings, red-roofed and surrounded by trees and lawn.

The school bus makes its way through the veld on rough roads every day, bringing children to Umthombo Wolwazi Farm School outside Colesberg in the Northern Cape. Photo: Chris Marais

This is the Umthombo Wolwazi Farm School, the Hantam Community Education Trust’s central project, and it is like no other farm school you’ve ever seen. At any one time, you will find around 200 children here, most of them the sons and daughters of Karoo farmworkers and nomadic sheep-shearers.

Fast-forward an hour, to when the youngsters are in class.

In Technology class, Charles Gavaza is explaining how pumps work. Later they’ll head out to a windmill so the kids can appreciate the beautiful simplicity of one in action.

In grade 3, teacher Hanna Phemba is interacting with the class via a Persona doll dubbed Thabo. This lifelike figure is given its own personality by the teacher and the children, and through it, various issues can be discussed – everything from bullying to problems with reading or racial discrimination where they live.

Visiting literacy specialist Anne Hill with grade R learners, helping them to observe, interpret and verbalise what they hear in storytelling and see in books. Photo: Chris Marais

In a classroom for those with learning disabilities, Delia Allens has the kids (nicknamed the Musketeers) on exercise balls, drawing infinity curves with both hands to help co-ordinate the left and right halves of their brains.

In the highly popular school library, Roos Pergoo – an old pupil of the school, now the librarian – is cataloguing another of the many thousands of donated books.

In the staffroom, grade 9 teacher Anel Heydenrych talks of her passion for teaching. “The moment when a light goes on in a child’s head, when the curtains open, that’s the moment we live for.”

Casting light

A farm school in the middle of nowhere is the last place you’d expect to buck the poverty cycle. But this school is clearly different.

The founders of the Hantam Community Education Trust (HCET) are Lesley Osler, Clare Barnes-Webb and Anja Pienaar, and when they started this, they had no idea their humble little plans would end up as this little miracle of a school.

What these three farmers’ wives had in mind back in 1989, was a little crèche for their workers’ children, explains Lesley.

Its success led to the parents begging for a new school to be created, and against all odds, the three made it happen.

Mothers from the surrounding 30 farms bring their toddlers to the school regularly to learn more about their children’s development, long before they are enrolled. Photo: Chris Marais

Umthombo Wolwazi (the Fountain of Knowledge) started in 1991 on a vacant house on one of the farms. Soon it was serving children in a 50 km radius, most from farms, some from Colesberg, some from the poorest of the poor – the itinerant sheep-shearers, the so-called Karretjiemense.

Healthy body, healthy mind

By 1999, some of the teachers were picking up health issues in the children’s development. Someone suggested a community clinic. Lesley, who had become the fundraiser in chief, initially baulked. But as if in response to a prayer, a donor came through.

Soon they had a fully-fledged clinic managed by a pharmacist and two sisters; three years later, the pharmacy was added.

The Trust’s clinic and pharmacy have become extraordinarily useful for the district’s people. Photo: Chris Marais

Each child is examined once a year, weighed, eyes tested, teeth and blood pressure checked. “Thanks to the clinic, we’ve picked up malnutrition, infectious diseases, even cases of abuse at home,” says Lesley.

Starting with pregnancy

This is also where pregnancy tests are carried out. As soon as they hear a woman in the district is pregnant, Trust community workers will go to her and explain to her what is happening with her body, what she should and shouldn’t eat, that she risks passing on the curse of foetal alcohol syndrome if she drinks liquor during her pregnancy. Through constant interaction and education, the rate of FAS has halved in the area.

The families become part of the Trust’s Effective Parenting Programme.

When the baby is born, the community workers teach the mother about the stages of development, hygiene and feeding, about allowing babies to crawl and move freely.

“We’ve found that children who don’t crawl have much greater difficulty learning to read and write later on.”

As the children grow into toddlers, the community health workers take toys with them and toss balls to the children to check coordination, balance and eyesight. They talk to the children and check their hearing. They discreetly check food availability in the house and give advice on everything from growing veggies to creating toys from scrap.

Lettie Martins (right) is an Early Childhood Development specialist and works directly with parents to help them stimulate babies and toddlers. Photo: Chris Marais

Shining stars

The holistic approach doesn’t stop when the children leave the school after grade 9. For those that need it and have good marks, there are bursaries that help them matriculate at nearby schools. And if they merit tertiary education, those kinds of bursaries are available too.

There are hundreds of little success stories – sons and daughters of barely educated parents who have gone on to become teachers, hairdressers, bank tellers, nurses, plumbers, welders and panel beaters.

Ninety percent of their past pupils are gainfully employed.

The Trust also runs the Hantam Hospitality School that trains school-leavers in hospitality: basic and advanced cooking, waitering, housekeeping, and industry-related computer skills. They leave with an accreditation certificate from City and Guilds in the UK.

Classes are small and Early Childhood Development is considered critical for future success. Photo: Chris Marais

The students from the Hantam Hospitality School (now in its 10th year, with more than 100 graduates) are drawn from towns like Cradock, Graaff-Reinet, Nieu-Bethesda, De Aar, Prince Albert and of course, Colesberg. After their year of study, during which they also learn to grow food, take turns cooking for each other and doing weekly budgets, they are sent on practical internships in their home towns.

Project co-ordinator Estelle Jacobs says 96% of the students are employed, in part because they are mentored through the first three years of their working careers.

“We are in constant contact with them via Whatsapp.”

The HCET has also started a Farm Workers’ Apprenticeship Programme where young people can be trained and mentored on farms before becoming agricultural interns.

“You have got to be quite patient and tenacious. You need to go back again and again. There is no silver bullet that fixes everything,” says Lesley.

“But you can never compromise on quality and the building of trust. And you need to walk with those children, every step of the way. No child is left behind.”

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