The bus from Johanessburg can only take us as far as the city of Bushbuckbridge, the capital of the region. We seem to be the only white faces around and people start asking what on earth we are looking for down here. Until Phil appears. Very relaxed guy, not a sentence without a joke, he is going to be our host and seems determined to make us feel comfortable. We step into his car for a 2-hour drive out of the city.
In the North East of South Africa, 50km away from the Mozambique border, stands Hluvukani, a relatively big village surrounded by game reserves and dry savannah.
The closer we get to Hluvukani, the more we are stroke by the number of habitations without an actual city center or commercial area around. Thousands of individual houses, widely spreaded, and for the most unfinished, the bricks and sand piles standing in front of it. The place is far away from everything, very rural. When we ask about the incredible number of potholes on the road, our new friend tells us that the governmental report says there are none. The reports say there should be water in the tabs as well, but none of this is true. Apparently, local politics don't even bother coming with explanations anymore. Phil draws a picture of an area that is left behind with its many challenges. Well, let's have a look ourselves.
We find ourselves 800km from the boat to join Kids Global Network on a project to rehabilitate a library in Khahlela primary school. It might appear curious to you but at this time, we don't know much about the challenges of this school, its learners and teachers. Knowing Ann, the president of Kids Global Network, for a long time, we simply trusted her good judgement in the need of this school for our help. It is how it works actually, we trust people before facts.
However, we are available, motivated and well decided to understand this people and their challenges.
Only the main road is paved in Hluvukani. To reach Khahlela primary school, we turn twice and do not more than 500 meters on a sand track. A broad field, maybe 150 meters wide, delimited by a fence that seems to preserves an old concrete building and 7 mobile classrooms which all together hardly occupy a third of the available space. It is sand on the ground. In the back, we immediately see a green water tank, elevated above the , reminding every one of the draught that has been persecuting the area for the past three years. It is 7:30 am and the sun is threatening to be very strong on that field where the only shade is given by an old tree at the right opposite side of the classrooms.
The buzzer aligns the kids at the back of the main building with authority. Maniki, the principal of the school, introduce the five of us to the teachers and learners on that very first day of this school year 2018. Ann, president of KGN, Marie, Julia, friends joining to assit her and us Chmoine and Téo. Ladies would be called Granny, Chmoine and Téo would be Uncles. The kids, from grade R to grade 7, greet our venue with some very joyful gospel songs. We quickly realise that the commitment of a great share of the population to church is definitely developing their singing abilities. No matter which of the various churches and religions they attempt to. A few songs and everybody walks to his belonging classroom. Buried souvenirs are coming back... It is a while ago already.
Just as the kids starting school, we start assessing the needs of the dilapidated mobile classroom that shall become soon a library and the pillar of these kids education. We talk a lot to the teachers, to the principal and to Victor, a construction contractor from the village. Step by step, we are getting the bigger picture and a work plan is drawn.
We already had a strong opinion about it and it has been confirmed this time. When a project is shared, when two persons of a different background and culture are working on the same problem together, the chance to connect and to understand each other is boosted. You quickly get the ways of thinking, the values, the fears of the other person and it naturally gives space for friendship. This is exactly what happened.
Ann actually introduced a very nice way of boosting the cultural exchanges for us. It is called "photo voice".
A group of people is chosen (here the teachers) and given each a compact camera. They are briefed on its functionality and they each have until the next day to snapshot any everyday life moment they want.
So that's what happen, the next day everybody gathers in a classroom where 10 topics are written on the black board. Teachers are invited to present one or two of their pictures and try to illustrate a topic of their choice with them. It takes some courage to stand up of course but the outcome is worth it. The topic the teachers tackled are much deeper than what we expected.
Merciful, grade 1 teacher. Topics: "Self development" and "Challenges of living".
Merciful tackles the subject of immigration. She explains that the area is receiving a lot of illegal people from Mozambique. Without papers, these persons can't get a job and are kept for most of them in a state of high poverty. For their children, school is then extremely important. It is first the guaranty to eat a decent meal at least once a day and then a necessary process to bring motivation and hope in their lives.
A bit provocative, she says: "We all want to go to France here!". It is positive, it is an example of hope that can drive someone through his life.
Olga, grade 3 teacher. Topics: "Challenge of teaching".
"Without books, without computers, without real examples, it is very hard to trigger these kids attention."
Olga tells us that the children listen to what the teachers say like they listen to stories, without grabbing the reality of it. It requires more material for them to want to learn more. Right now, they stay too far way from what the real world is.
Gift, grade 6 and 7 teacher. Topics: "Challenges of teaching"
Gift explains that the lady on the picture is a volunteer teacher. Helping despite the lack of budget. In fact, the government allocates a budget to each and every school depending on their area and the number of learners. Khahlela is having only 250 learners, which is relatively small for the area, and therefore gets disadvantaged compared to bigger schools.
Then, she talks about the two smartboards that are installed in the classrooms. These new pedagogic equipments have been funded by the government but don't work and nobody comes to repair them. She blames the inequality of service given by the government. In other areas, like in the big cities, the budgets are bigger and the service much better. That creates a difference of development between the schools.
"Since the end of the apartheid, the gap hasn't been filled up at all. There are still advantaged schools and disadvantaged schools".
Theses ladies had stood up in front of us to present the pictures they chose to take with a small camera which for some of them was a first time using. The topics on the black board naturally brought very critical subjects and real messages that they had to share with us. Within only two days, the photo voice process gave them the opportunity to speak what was deep in their heart.
On that basis, the rest of the library rehabilitation went very smoothly, working hand in hand with the Khahlela school team and sharing some local meals for lunch. The local meal? Always contains pap, a preparation from maize half way between rice and bread that you only eat with the African fork, your hand!
Two weeks passed and at the end, we didn't know who was the most grateful for that project. Ann from Kids Global Network, ourselves as volunteers or the school kids actually benefitting from the library. Hard to say. I guess you can only be grateful to see your dreams coming true, whether you dream about supporting a project or benefitting from one. What matters is the link between people, that connection that made everything possible and probably a better future for the kids of Khahlela primary school.