Five-year-old narrowly escapes drowning in human waste and provincial education department ignores desperate pleas for help
A five-year-old girl at a school in the Eastern Cape is battling to come to terms with falling into a toilet at school and almost drowning in human waste.
The Grade R pupil at Dalibango Primary School in Centane, whose name is known to City Press, is too scared to use any toilet – at home or at school.
Her grandmother says she now insists on relieving herself in the bush, and was so terrified after her ordeal that she refused to go to school for three months.
Dalibango Primary, 35km south of Butterworth, has no proper toilets, and pupils and teachers share the dilapidated pit latrines.
Built in 1945, the school has not received any infrastructural support from the Eastern Cape education department.
Young pupils are forced to use the toilets, which are completely open to the elements, as their classmates look on. Others use the bush.
A squabble over a toilet seat with her friend ended with the child falling into an open hole.
She was saved from drowning by an old desk frame that was stuck inside the toilet.
This was two months after five-year-old Grade R pupil Lumka Mkhethwa drowned in a dilapidated pit latrine at Luna Junior Secondary School in Mbizana.
Michael Komape, also five, drowned in a pit toilet at Mahlodumela Primary School, outside Polokwane in Limpopo, four years ago.
Six months after the little girl’s ordeal at Dalibango Primary, the provincial education department has still done nothing about the school’s dangerous toilets.
Five letters to the department from the school’s management and governing body were sent, but no help arrived, even after officials came to inspect the school.
The little girl’s 73-year-old grandmother said the child still suffered from nightmares about the day she almost died.
“She wakes up sometimes crying, saying she was drowning. When the incident was fresh in her mind, she struggled to even eat, saying she still smelt human faeces.
"She cries every time someone mentions the word toilet, and refuses to use the pit latrines at home and at school,” the emotional grandmother said.
She said she took the child to the doctor twice to check if she was physically healthy, but the girl has not received any counselling.
“If it was not for that desk frame, she would have died. I am also grateful that she managed to hold on to the desk frame because that is how she lived,” the grandmother said.
“What hurts me the most is thinking about what would have happened if she had got tired of holding on to that frame and drowned. That still haunts me. And what if the desk frame was not there?”
The child told City Press that she loved school and playing with her friends, and wanted to become a teacher. However, she did not want to speak about her ordeal.
Her grandmother said she would like the child to undergo professional counselling, but she could not afford it because her entire family depended on her state pension.
The child’s teacher, Phelisa Zekevu, said she told her young pupils to use the bush instead of the toilets because they were unsafe, but the children continued to use the open toilets.
“On that day, they went to the open toilets and while [she] was sitting on the toilet seat, her friend said the seat was hers.
"When she tried to stand up, the friend playfully pushed her and she fell into a hole that used to be a toilet,” Zekevu said.
“She fell inside the hole and was saved by the desk frame. She was pulled out by the same friend who pushed her, and other pupils ran to me and reported what happened.”
Zekevu said the child, who was chest-deep in faeces, clung to the desk frame.
“I could not believe what I saw. She was wet all over her body except for her neck and head. Her whole little body was covered with human waste,” she said.
“It was so painful to see a child in such a state. We then organised water and bathed her. Her friend was also crying.
"I called the other teachers and we used warm water to bath her and used first aid stuff from the office to help her. She was crying uncontrollably.”
Zekevu said the toilets were the same ones she used when she attended the school nearly 40 years ago.
School head Sigqibo Nohako said that, after they wrote to the department, officials were sent to inspect the school, but they didn’t return.
Staff also asked the department for help when the school’s roofs blew off in heavy winds, and again when a wall collapsed in the school hall.
Provincial education spokesperson Malibongwe Mtima said the department needed R2.591 billion to eradicate inadequate toilets in 1 598 schools across the province.
He said the department knew the school had no proper toilets, but said the school was “identified for rationalisation through a merger with nearby Kaltom Primary School”.
“The infrastructure upgrades will be done on the receiving school. The department is in the process of engaging with the school community on the merger process,” he said.
But Dalibango Primary governing body chairperson Thembile Phiti said this was the first he’d heard of such a merger.
“The department must take responsibility and build our school into a proper learning facility and stop trying to take short-cut solutions,” he said.
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