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Ntsika Secondary School (South Africa)

When you drive towards Ntsika, you could notice the pot holes, the fence that is not quite upright. The grass is long and the rubbish dump at the entrance to the school is an eyesore.

You could despair, or you could see potential.

You could frown when you see some of the people of Ntsika, or you could SEE the people of Ntsika: the smiling mamas at the school gate selling fruit, fish and packets of tartrazine; the caretaker chasing a goat or cow – always with dignity. You could frown at the types of school uniform, or you could see the pride of the boys swinging their school cases jauntily, hand in pocket. Perhaps his trousers are too short, his homework not quite right, his tie hanging; but when he stops, he takes out his shoe brush and cleans his shoes. He might duck and dive behind a pillar, but he is always willing to carry, help, clean, to try, and he is proud.

You might see a dirty window but come around on a Friday afternoon and you see boys and girls all over the school scrubbing class rooms with foam flying. Our girls have started cleaning their one working set of toilets: our seniors set the trend; they Jeyes fluided; scrubbed – and were proud to show off their handiwork. Or you could just notice the blue nail polish and an open skirt with a zip that cannot close.

You could stop to listen to the teachers laughing; the men standing in the sun at break time dreaming of a smiley. See the teachers helping one another, learning from one another, trying, trying and wanting their school to be the best. See a learner coming to ask for a class room key because he wants to teach Maths to some class mates who are struggling; or the learner who stays at school until dark because he cannot study with his little siblings at home.

You could meet one of our volunteers: unemployed young people of the community, or people from ‘town’ who know that Ntsika is not a ‘charity case’, but a school with pride who can rise with the help of the community. Speak to one of our ex-learners and hear them speaking fondly of the profound influence the school had on them.

So why is Ntsika still under performing; why did it only have a 40% pass rate in matrix, 2010? There are many reasons, and we are working at them, together. A Ntsika environment is tough; it is a different world. When you constantly battle against odds like inadequate funding, resources, capacity, you could stop dreaming. Add to that the tremendous socio-economic problems of our area, the close-to-non-existent English of the majority of our learners, and you have a situation that can be overwhelming.

We have been offered many trees, but we cannot plant them until we have good fencing around the trees to prevent the goats from eating the leaves. Picture a sapling struggling in the winds of the Ntsika area. Every time it shows promise by growing a few leaves, a goat eats its promise. The analogy of the goat and the tree can be applied to most township schools: we have to take care of the basics before we can do what other better schools consider normal. We have to take care of fences and food before we can have education.

Our children are not secure and safe, in terms of their future, protection from the cold, and more. But much more sapping is the knowledge that so many of our children are hungry. Imagine a life where there is no food at home in the morning and little possibility of food in the evening, but during the school day you could get something to help you concentrate and focus on your school work. Imagine where the children could go with security and food, bottom of the pyramid stuff and so basic that most of us never think about it. At Ntsika we cannot feed them, not yet, but we will. We cannot secure them as we want to, but we will do our best. The odds against the learners are unbelievable, but they still dream because they are children.

Every day I learn something new from the people of Ntsika and every day I see their resilience. Ntsika means pillar and that is what Ntsika will be, because of its people, the community of Grahamstown, and people who care about the future.

Come and visit us just before eight one morning. See the children walking into the school grounds; the chaos when the bell goes, chaos that self-organizes into lines in the quad. And then the singing starts – a prayer at the start of the day.

Ntsika is an enchanting, spiritual place with humbling potential.

Location: Eastern Cape, South Africa

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