Zest for life and learning amid poverty
At Wesbank Primary School in Delft, the well of potential defies the odds against these future Michelangelos, Einsteins and Chester Williamses, says Lindsay Johns.
Cape Town - Last week, on a sunny, invigorating Cape Flats morning, I visited Wesbank Primary School in Delft, as part of a community outreach programme run by the Public Health Department at the University of the Western Cape.
Back home in London, for the past decade I have been a volunteer mentor to young people in Peckham (an equivalent neighbourhood to say, Hanover Park) with the Leaders of Tomorrow scheme (www.lotlondon.org.uk), hence my desire to meet young pupils from similar backgrounds in Cape Town.
Arriving at the school gates, I was immediately both humbled and inspired by the school motto which proudly adorned the signboard: “Shaping Brilliant Futures” – the palpable, intoxicating optimism of the mission statement seemingly so incongruous when cruelly juxtaposed with the dilapidation and neglect so evident on the township main road.
Having stayed with family in Athlone, Grassy Park and Kensington on my many visits to Cape Town over the years, I saw nothing in Delft I had not seen on previous peregrinations around the Cape Flats, be it the ramshackled, corrugated-iron dwellings, the barefoot children playing in the dust, or the general air of forlorn poverty that hung heavily in the streets.
The traditional “challenges” facing young pupils in schools like Wesbank are widely known, but never get any easier to deal with, let alone resolve, despite the assiduous reportage and the politically correct euphemisms, with the result that we often become immune to the human tragedies lurking behind sterile buzzwords and insentient statistics.
The nefarious scourges of poverty, gangsterism, drugs, physical violence and sexual abuse are tragically ubiquitous in such “sub-economic” areas (often in part as a result of apartheid’s vicious legacy) and, together with an alarming lack of positive male role models and a shockingly high number of teenage mothers, not only decimate the community, but make learning itself a gargantuan, almost insurmountable obstacle for many young people.
My first thought as I stepped inside the school was of the sheer abundance of human potential contained within these 1 300 young minds and bodies. What future Michelangelos, Einsteins and Chester Williamses were sitting under this very roof? Then, sadly, I wondered if theirs was a glorious potential being stymied by the inclemency of the surrounding environment – arguably enough to callously quash even the keenest thirst for knowledge. Would the world ever get to see their talents and geniuses blossom and flourish on a worthy stage?
Despite the powerful stigma attached to Delft by inhabitants of the city’s more salubrious suburbs (many of whom, when pressed, sheepishly admit to never having been to Delft), I was in no way surprised to meet children at Wesbank with ebullience, determination, intelligence and politeness.
With a Falstaffian zest for life, derived perhaps from ProNutro or the awareness of its sanctity which vicissitudes often bring, these pupils seemed determined to drink life to the lees, and their intellectual curiosity knew no bounds.
With infectious energy, rapier wit and fiendishly cute grins, which belied a knowledge of hardship far too advanced for their tender years, not to mention trenchant Cape Afrikaans badinage which often defied translation (let alone a belief that such vernacular epithets could emanate from those so young), many of these children are kind, sharp and evidently very clever.
Despite, or perhaps because of the brightly coloured, didactic posters on the walls of the classrooms and in the playground warning of the dangers of drugs and bullying, there was a happy, peaceful atmosphere in the school and one conducive to learning.
Some children at times seemed momentarily distracted from the joys of English verbs or rudimentary mathematics – perhaps by a gnawing pang of hunger as a result of having had no breakfast that morning or even as a result of impaired mental faculties from prenatal exposure to alcohol.
Admittedly, both surmises are conjecture, but sadly conjecture well within the realms of possibility in such an area.
Others thankfully seemed transfixed and overjoyed to learn, hanging on their teachers’ every word like audacious mountaineers off a vertiginous precipice and with a devotion to their studies that would put English schoolchildren to shame.
Never was the Shavian aphorism “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” revealed to be more wrong than when I sat and watched the Wesbank teachers patiently (and at times sternly) impart knowledge and pastoral guidance to their young charges with love, care and commitment.
With a huge admiration for those who tirelessly engage with these “challenges” daily, let alone managing to convey a passion for their subjects, I salute Wesbank Primary’s teachers and all the other teachers in township schools striving against similar odds to make a tangible difference in the lives of their students.
Were I mayor of Cape Town I would readily pay these teachers a salary commensurate with what they truly deserve – a sum far surpassing that of a Liverpool or Manchester United footballer.
The cruel injustice of one who entertains by kicking a glorified pig’s bladder around a field earning infinitely more than one who lovingly nurtures and educates a country’s next generation – be it in South Africa or the UK – strikes me as one of the greatest travesties of our age.
As we leave, the children clap and wave goodbye, sad to see us go. Some have clearly grown attached to their visiting varsity mentors and have during the three-month programme evidently begun to develop a genuine and meaningful rapport with them.
As those who do it know only too well, mentoring young people can be exasperating, frustrating and heartbreaking. It can also be infinitely rewarding, deeply satisfying and truly exhilarating. It can engender the deepest sadness and yet also the biggest natural highs.
But whether painful or easy, enervating or illuminating, it is quite simply the right thing to do. Like giving blood or donating our organs after death, mentoring enables us to play our own small part in the eternal cycle of life. Passing on some of the wisdom and experience we have accumulated on our terrestrial journey to youngsters, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, is one of the most precious gifts we can ever give.
Coming from the Latin, the word education means “a leading out of the darkness”, be it moral or intellectual. Education – be it at a school in Delft, Wynberg or Bishopscourt – should be a life-changing, joyous and momentous gift that enables pupils to broaden their horizons, fulfil their intellectual potential and achieve their dreams.
Nelson Mandela famously said education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world. But for these primary school students, on a much ravaged and often forgotten corner of the Cape Flats, education is also a tool that can help them transcend the stultifying and often dangerous parameters of their immediate environment and also hopefully change their world for the better.
It is often rightly said that education is the ticket to the ball park of opportunity. I sincerely hope the little cherubs I met at Wesbank Primary last week also get given that ticket, so that they too can play in that much coveted ball park and in so doing transcend the unenviable circumstances of their quotidian reality.
As Mandela’s children, a decent education should be their birthright, not a pipe dream, a vacuous soundbite or an expensive luxury. Every child in the Mother City, whatever their hue, ethnicity or social strata, deserves at the very least this chance.
I shoot a parting glance at the “Shaping Brilliant Futures” school motto. Given what I have seen, I am quietly confident that with the love and guidance of such dedicated, solicitous and passionate teachers, coupled with the much-needed support of benefactors and more volunteer mentors, they can do just that.
But be in no doubt: only by shaping the futures of all Delft’s children – and of all the other Wesbanks Primaries in Cape Town – until they too are brilliant, will our collective future, as a city and a nation, be brilliant too.
* Lindsay Johns is a writer and broadcaster.
** For donations to Wesbank Primary in the form of books, sporting equipment, clothing or even volunteers to do reading sessions, call Ms Jeffries at 076 451 5294 or e-mail [email protected]
*** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.