Hell ride to school

2015-02-09 06:00

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Ten pupils have died and at least 61 have been injured on the country’s roads since the start of the school year three weeks ago. Lubabalo Ngcukana joined a group of 22 pupils on their way to class

A treacherous trip on the back of a bakkie each morning is the only way many South African children can get an education.

This is certainly true for 23 children in the small Eastern Cape town of Ngqeleni.

It is 6am on a Friday and a white Hyundai H100 bakkie pulls up next to the Caltex garage. The driver signals for me to approach. We had arranged a meeting the previous day.

The driver, who asked not to be named, works for the principal of a local school. He insists he has a permit to transport children and says he has been driving kids toschool for 10 years. The parents of these children pay him between R800 and R1?200 per child per month.

The driver advises me to sit in the front, and I can see why. There are 23 children between the ages of three and 15 crammed in the back.

The driver picks up children from different spots before embarking on the hour-long, 32km drive to Mthatha, where they attend different schools.

At the back of the bakkie, there are two long built-in benches on either side, and another small one up front against the bakkie cab. In the centre, there is another long bench, dubbed ihashe by the kids because they sit on it the same way they would sit astride a horse.

The smaller children sit on “the horse”. They are new to the bakkie trip and they can fit there.

The ride is not an easy one. Every time the vehicle hits a bump, their heads are knocked together. The heads of the taller children hit against the roof, the vehicle’s shock absorbers clearly worn.

I am the 23rd person to enter the bakkie, as three children didn’t attend school on Friday. There are usually 25 of them in the back and the eldest two sit up front next to the driver.

The windows are darkly tinted like most of the bakkies carrying children around the Eastern Cape. It’s as if to hide what’s happening inside.

There is little oxygen inside the bakkie. All the windows are closed in the chilly weather.

Next to me is Andile* (6), who wants to be a lawyer. He is in Grade?1 and has been riding in this bakkie since last year, when he was in Grade?R at Holy Cross Educare in Mthatha. He says he enjoys the trips toschool because he chats to his friends on the way.

Andile, seated at the front of “the horse”, clings to his schoolbag as we hit against each other while the driver negotiates potholes in the road.

I am more frightened than the children. They laugh at my screaming each time I hit my head against the roof. For them it’s an everyday occurrence, a non-issue.

“We are not scared. We are used to it. We don’t even think about accidents. We just cross our fingers that we never get involved in an accident,” says 15-year-old Olwethu*, a Grade?10 pupil at Zingisa Comprehensive School in Mthatha. Olwethu enjoys maths and science, and wants to become a doctor.

Medicine appears to be the career choice for most kids in the bakkie. Buntu* (13) wants to be a doctor or a pilot. He is in Grade?7 at Model Private School in Mthatha.

“I am just glad that I can go to a private school in Mthatha because we learn better things there. The schools in our villages in Ngqeleni are not well equipped and there is not much to learn,” says the talkative young man who introduces me to everyone in the bakkie.

For Buntu, being at the back of this bakkie is the best thing because his parents don’t have a car.

Sazi* (14) wants to be a farmer so he can be his own boss and grow his own food. The Grade?9 pupil at Model Private School says the bakkie gets more stuffy when it’s hot.

And then it gets more dangerous.

“We end up opening the door of the canopy because we can’t take the heat. You are lucky today because it is cold, otherwise you would not be able to breathe in here, especially when there is dust as well,” he explains.

While I am preoccupied with safety, the children chat about everything from lipstick, TV and computer games, to carbon dioxide and photosynthesis. The small ones, some still sleepy, suck their thumbs.

Just before 7?am, the bakkie arrives in Mthatha and starts delivering the children to their respective schools.

Unlike the seven children who died and 18 who were injured while the bakkie transporting them toschool in Pietermaritzburg crashed last Wednesday, these bright, happy children saw another day at school.

*?Not their real names

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