A Climax windmill 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.
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. Fast forward to an hour later when the youngsters are in class.
In Grade 2, there’s classical music playing in the background as they concentrate on their books. “Invaluable for calming them down,” says teacher Louise Augustyn.
In a classroom for those with learning disabilities, Angelina 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 Technology class, Jan Augustyn 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 the highly popular school library, Vuyokazi Katise – an old pupil of the school, now the librarian, is cataloguing the 12 000th book to be donated.
In the staffroom, Grade 5 teacher Ettorina Stoop, 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.”
It’s a delightful slice of life at an inspirational school, but the light here shines all the brighter when you compare it to what’s happening in other schools.
There you’ll find unmotivated teachers, drunk teachers, overwhelmed teachers, children who walk 15 km or more to schools everyday, hungry children, sick children, children with foetal alcohol syndrome, children who are heads of AIDS-orphaned households, schools with no electricity, no toilets, no facilities, no textbooks and sometimes no roofs.
A farm school 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 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.
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.
“I thought it was going to be a white elephant. Now I wonder how the community coped before.
“We serve a huge area, including Bethulie and Venterstad which don’t have pharmacies.
“Through the health centre, we’ve picked up malnutrition, infectious diseases, even cases of abuse at home. Each child is examined once a year, weighed, their eyes tested, teeth checked and blood pressure checked.”
Starting with Pregnancy
Soon, though, the Trust realised they needed to go even further than that. There were too many children who entered the school with development problems. So with Vuyokazi Katise, Nombulelo Matyeka and Lettie Martins, they started up an Effective Parenting programme of early intervention.
As soon as they hear a woman in the district is pregnant, one of their health 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 foetal alcohol syndrome if she drinks alcohol.
When the baby is born, they teach the mother about 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 they children grow to toddlers, the 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.
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, plumbers, welders and panel beaters.
Ninety percent of their past pupils are gainfully employed.
The Trust also runs a ‘hospitality school’ in Colesberg that helps youngsters learn basic cooking, front of house skills and housekeeping.
“We’re helping them to break the poverty cycle,” say the founders.