Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thembelihle Primary School, Hlathikhulu, Swaziland

Thembelihle Primary School, Hlathikhulu, Swaziland

August 23, 2007

This morning, Vicki, my trusty guide and I drove out to Thembelihle Methodist Primary School. We, or I, thought we were going to meet with Rev. Margaret Dlamini, the superintendent of the Mahamba Circuit. The Mahamba circuit is in South Swaziland and is the most rural and hard to reach area. We didn’t realize we were also going to a prayer service for the school and that a school board/council meeting would also be happening.

Thembelihle was about a 70 minute drive from Manzini. The last 25 – 30 minutes was on a dirt road winding through the very hilly country side. As I was driving I felt like I was either on the set of “Out of Africa”, a John Wayne epic, in an Indiana Jones movie, or just plain camping out in the wilderness of the Texas, California or Idaho foothills. In reality, we only drove about 2 kilometers on the dirt road, but it seemed much further because of the condition of the road and the hills that were pretty steep in places. It didn’t help that we didn’t know for sure where we were going!

All of a sudden, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we were at the school. We were promptly met by the head teacher, a very nice and proper young man named Ndoda (means male young person) Zondo. We were ushered into the 7th grade classroom that also serves as the church and meeting hall. He informed us a prayer service was just starting so that Rev Margaret, church members and us could pray for the school and its teachers asking God for help in standing up to the evil that was trying to bring the school down. The school recently had two newly donated computers stolen and over time has had many things broken and stolen by “thugs”. (What I couldn’t figure out was where the “thugs” would go with these things and how they would get them away. I mean we are talking the middle of now where with houses spread far and few between.) It was a good service with lots of prayer and singing. The participants were asking for strength for the teachers as well so that they wouldn’t be discouraged. You see, the previous head teacher, was dismissed a year or so ago because it was found out that he had been embezzling funds from the school. The investigation is on-going. Mr. Zondo was hired and has worked very hard over the last year to try and make improvements to the school. This last burglary was quite a moral blow as well as a material one.

After the service, the school board, started their meeting. Mr. Zondo had a wonderful teacher, named Nelly Mathobela show us around the school. Nelly showed me everything except the library that is just being formed and only Mr. Zondo has the keys for it. Nelly is the 7th grade teacher. Each grade has two classes, each with their own teacher, but because of limited space, two classes share the same room, with the teachers alternating the subjects taught. Each grade has approximately 60 students, with the second grade having 74 students. Rev. Margaret said Thembelihle is a very old school. I don’t know how old, but it was definitely well-worn. There were big cracks and craters in the cement floors. Most of the desks were in a state of disrepair or non-existent. A few rooms had desks of wooden “planks” (boards, probably 10’ x 8”) propped up on cinder blocks. The same thing, only not so many cinder blocks, are also used as benches many cases. Nelly said the biggest problem with the planks is that it snags and tears the children’s uniforms.

The school has an enrollment of 423 students. Over half, 233 are Orphaned or Vulnerable Children (OVC’s). The government pays a set rate of tuition for all OVC’s (250 Emalangeni or Rand) per year, which is far less than the normal tuition which should be collected in order for the school to run. On the other hand, at least they are getting some sort of payment. The school is also starting to identify the HIV positive children and talk with their parents to try and provide them supplemental food and assistance. This program has just started. The are trying to also provide assistance to the child head of households.

There is not a preschool at this school. One was built in Hlathikhulu (wherever that is!) Mr. Zondo hasn’t asked for a preschool yet because he hasn’t evaluated the effectiveness of that preschool or the real need for a preschool. However, he did state that there is a very high rate of failure in first grade, probably attributed to the lack of proper readiness for 1st grade.

Mr. Zondo showed me where the teaching aids are in essence checked out from his office. The math cupboard had two yard sticks and a large rubber thing that looked like a compass. The social studies cupboard had a very, very old and worn globe and a picture of the King, the Queen Mother and a chart of the King’s lineage. The science cupboard had a bottle of some sort of solution.

Mr. Zondo’s dream for next year is to start a garden for agriculture. This garden would not only satisfy the government requirement for the 6th grade curriculum, but it would supplement the school’s lunches. To grow a garden, a fence has to be constructed to keep the cows, goats and people out of the school yard. One is in the process of being erected, but the person who donated the land has some objections. This was one of the things that would be resolved at today’s school board meeting. It is felt that until a fence can be completed, it is impossible to also keep people, including the “thugs” out of the school.

Mr. Zondo’s top three items needed at the schools are:
1) An agriculture building to house the tools needed for the garden in one half of the building and the other half would be used for the 6th graders to raise their chickens in.
2) Razor wire for the top and bottom of the fencing to keep animals and people from breaking through the fence.
3) Teachers Quarters. There are 4 single room teacher’s cottages and one two bedroom teacher’s cottage that has been severely damaged by thugs. Two teachers with children are sharing this cottage. Nelly is one of the teachers so she took me inside. Her 16 month old son was taking a nap on a mattress on the floor in the “living area/kitchen”. She showed me the real kitchen that had been torn apart by the vandals, leaving nothing usable in it and no way to lock the teacher’s cottage because of the damage done via this entrance. There is a bathroom, but no water to it. Simple math says that 6 of the 19 teachers of the school have a place to live on the school grounds. The rest have to commute via kombi and then foot. Nelly’s from a town near Manzini. She said the kombi fare is 30R a day. When she goes back to town for the school holiday she will have to take all of her belongings with so that they are not stolen or destroyed. She has a 14 year old daughter living in her home town. I assume with family.

Regarding water at this school: Technically, there is a bore hole that is owned by the school. However, there is not a local source of water, so the head teacher doesn’t feel he can keep the community from using it. Therefore, because of the wide community use, it often doesn’t work. Mr. Zondo said he couldn’t in good conscious tell the community they had to go to one of two streams, which are fairly far away to get water instead of sharing the bore hole. However, if a second bore hold could be drilled, he would then reserve the second one for the school but would still want to retain responsibility for the first one to ensure the community keeps it in working order.

The home economics teacher and the cook made us all a delicious lunch which included rice, a bean & mealie dish, chicken, salad, beets, cooked carrots and greens. How such delicious food, could be so pleasingly served with what they have is beyond my wildest imagination.

This school is known to be very poor, and indeed I would agree with that from everything I heard today. However, it is a school with pride and potential. It needs a lot of work, but it is a charming school in a beautiful country hillside setting. The people are some of the warmest and most welcoming that I have met since coming to Swaziland. I enjoyed my short amount of time there very much, even though hearing their story brought tears to my eyes. Mr. Zondo and the teachers want to know how I will be able to help the school. I am at a loss for words. How do I answer that question when I don’t have a clue? I don’t have the means. I wish I could just write a check and make everything better, but I can’t. My only answer is that I don’t know, but I am starting by learning what the needs are and then figuring out what can be done by whom to start filling those needs. Not a very good answer. It’s one that makes me realize that I don’t know what my purpose is here in Swaziland and I don’t know how I can help. The question is one I ask God each and every day and night, praying for guidance.

The Rev Margaret is a very bright, sensitive, Christ-filled woman. Her greeting to me was that she was so happy to learn that a woman was brought to Swaziland because a woman can understand the needs as no other can. My heart breaks and I am overwhelmed. I asked her to pray for God to help me learn the things the need to learn and to guide me in just how I can be of service. I am going to meet with Rev. Margaret again next Thursday, this time in the mission (what they call the home church) at Mahamba. I promised Mr. Zondo and the teachers I would be back even though I didn’t know when that would be.

My camera batteries were dead. I know that God is teaching me patience and to rely on my heart and mind when seeing all that I see. I recharged the batteries last night just to make sure they were good. I don’t know what happened. So I don’t have pictures to share. You have to use your God-given imaginations. But as Mr. Zondo pointed out – maybe this was God’s way of ensuring I will be back. I must get my photo’s!

Have a blessed day, one filled with thanksgiving for all that we in the US have and take for granted. When you take your shower this evening or in the morning, thank God for that luxury. I know I do each morning. My shower barely comes down on me, BUT it is warm (usually) and it is water.

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