A school of life

2012-03-30 00:00

WHEN Alan Paton wrote the book Cry, The Beloved Country , it was the tragic consequences of apartheid he was aiming to highlight with his story of death and redemption.

Many things have changed in the intervening years, but for one school, a headmaster has made all the difference.

For Dan Shoba, the headmaster of Carisbrooke Primary School, there are still many challenges to be faced. Apartheid has gone, but society faces the challenges of poverty, HIV, orphans, and the little farm school that appeared in the book could still inspire many stories.

Shoba’s recent award at The National Teachers Awards was a surprise — He was nominated in the Via Afrika People’s Choice category. The win showed how Shoba has done much to turn around the school that was featured in Paton’s literary triumph. Then, the school was no more than a humble rondawel, which functioned as a farm school for the labourers of neighbouring farmers. Today it is a fully functioning school.

When Shoba took over the school’s leadership in 1996, it was a shell, with no windows or doors, and the walls were full of cracks. It is barely recognisable — it has transformed from that crumbling shell into a flowering green hub.

The humble headmaster is overwhelmed by the support he has received in his community. His focus has been to make the school sustainable in the face of community poverty, and to encourage the children to learn about the environment and the nature that surrounds them.

He has achieved this by building relationships with the neighbouring farmers, and he has also eagerly embraced any opportunity to learn from programmes that have been offered by the local government departments.

Situated a few kilometres from the agricultural town of Ixopo, in the Carisbrooke Valley, the school is surrounded by a motley collection of informal houses. Goats are tethered to wooden pegs by ropes, and small crops are grown in the gardens. Mount Inyeza looms above the settlement, and aloes are dotted over the hillside. Shoba says: “We live in such a beautiful place, don’t you think?” The rains here are plentiful, and the soil is rich with nutrients.

A passage from Paton’s novel says:“Although cattle graze here, their feeding has not destroyed the land, and the few fires that burn have not harmed the soil. When storms come, the red dirt runs like blood, and the crops are withered and puny. These valleys are the homes of the elderly, who scrape at the dirt for sustenance. Some mothers live here with their children, but all the able-bodied young people have long since moved away.”

Unlike Paton’s novel, too few men have jobs, for the mines do not recruit men anymore, and young mothers have more children to get the paltry grant money. Shoba worries about how he is going to feed them. For young children cannot learn on empty stomachs.

Although today is a school holiday, many children play in the school yard. “They know it is safe here, and where else can they go?” he gestures meaningfully at the crowded houses. The school is not new, but it is full of colour. The flower beds are full of plants, and the walls of the school are bursting with motivational sayings.

Shoba says he could not have won the award without the help of others. A small welcoming committee awaits us. Shoba has come back to school from his smallholding where he was planting seedlings. A kettle has been borrowed from a neighbour, and we crowd into Shoba’s office for tea and a chat. As I chat, Shoba mysteriously slips away.

Ixopo High School headmaster Fredrick Haines says Shoba is very good at networking and listening to others. “He always encourages us to keep on going, even when things are tough.” Previously, Haines took over another poor school with few facilities, and Shoba explained to Haines how he should be proactive, but also get the community involved.

Lynford School Grade 1 teacher Cecile Hackland has been bringing her pupils to do reading with the Carisbrooke kids. This exchange has promoted reading skills, and also goodwill between the two schools. Hackland said she also brings her school choir, and they do a mixed cultural programme, which is also well received.

District education-specialist Ernest Mdlalose said he always found his visits to the school a pleasure. “Mr Shoba is always working on new ideas to try and improve the school. He has a passion for the environment, and this will only benefit the school pupils who are getting something extra.”

The District Manager for Health, Gcina Radebe, says the school has also been awarded first place for being a health-promoting school.

She explained that schools with this status are those who educate the pupils about health issues, where the teachers place a strong focus on health awareness and try to keep the children healthy.

The schoolchildren are also visited once a week by the clinic nurse, who checks up on any sick children. Some of the children who attend school are orphans, and they cannot go to the clinic during school hours.

Rumours have it that Shoba organised for an orphan family to get a house built, and even the local army arrived to pitch in and help. Shoba just smiles and shrugs his shoulders.

The school’s pride and joy is the vegetable garden, where the school children take turns to tend to it. The current thriving crop is a strain of yellow sweet potatoes, which are high in nutrients. They also feed the crops on natural fertiliser produced by earthworms.

The school uses recycled water as much as possible, and is part of the How Global network. It motivates communities to take ownership of water, and establish food security with food gardens.

Rachael Paulson from How Global was one of those who nominated Shoba for the award. She said: “ Shoba has gone way beyond the call of what was asked of him. He extended every project we put in front of him, and included the entire community within our lessons and workshops.

“He took it upon himself to seek ways to expand the food garden, and extend pipes to the community to bring clean water.

“Once his school was on its way to success, he started to help others, never asking for payment or help from How Global. He only wanted to see others become safe havens for their communities.

“He has also helped to inspire other teachers in the district to join the team of Green Hubs.”

After our visit, children line up to get a sandwich from the tiny kitchen, and a teacher counts the kids in the queue. Her face reflects a worried frown as she realizes there may not be enough to go around. Shoba reaches into his own pocket and withdraws some money. He knows it may be the only meal of the day for many of them.

The crop from the school garden is distributed to the needy families in the community.

The Via Afrika prize involves a trip to the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, and also a trip overseas to visit the Canadian University. Shoba is a little aprehensive at the thought of flying over the massive ocean, but he is very excited. His six children are hoping one of them will get to go with him, but he has told them they need to focus on their studies.

While the hero of Paton’s novel was a priest, Umfundisi, this time around, our local hero is a teacher, and his rumpled black pin striped suit and gap-toothed smile will perhaps inspire a new generation in the area, who will know him as utisha.

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