Gosh how lucky and excited were we?! We were off to meet Mechline the 12 year old girl we sponsor, to go to school in Grabouw in South Africa. Our daughter Kristyna had started our connection with the charity SOS Africa finding it on the internet and contacting them herself, and had specifically asked if we could sponsor a girl. The founder Matt Crowcombe suggested Mechline who is the same age as her so we were particularly thrilled to be actually meeting her.
Mechline goes to School in Grabouw which is about an hour outside Cape Town. This is farming territory and the main crop is apples. As a result work is highly seasonal with 8 months of the year unemployment being as high as 60 – 70 percent.
This seasonal work plays out badly in the community where in the off season there is sadly an increase in domestic violence and child abuse, and during the harvesting season children often return to empty homes as the parents are working. This is a dangerous time when children are at their most vulnerable in the townships and are preyed on by gangs.
This is one of the reasons that the charity set up the after-care school, as well as paying for the children to go to school. This is where the children receive extra tuition, homework assistance, and a free meal. Most importantly it provides them with a safe and friendly environment within which they can learn and grow.
Our day with SOS Africa
We started our visit at the Somerset West Methodist School where the SOS Africa team offers an after-care club for the 12 sponsored children who come from one of the two townships in the area. These settlements were originally established in the apartheid era and to give you an idea of the depth of the poverty in this area one township has a population of 60,000 alone with 19% of households having no income at all, and the children have a 50% drop out of secondary school.
To give you some general background of schools in South Africa; all children should go to school till 16. Sadly often the teachers are totally under- resourced and unable to have the time to support the slower ones to give them extra coaching and they can fall behind. The schools are under enormous pressure to perform to targets and SOS Africa chose to team up with this school as the School really cares about the development of all children. As a result they have embraced the charity as SOS Africa has also set up a remedial centre in the school, which is not just for the SOS Africa sponsored children.
This is for any child in the 1st year that the school teachers feel need more support – specifically in their reading in either Afrikaans or English. (For the Xhosa community this is particularly helpful as English is their second language). The SOS Africa team read with the children 30 mins at a time, one on one, to help develop their reading and understanding.
Tenille is the manager of this centre and her commitment to helping the kids develop was clear. As it was the end of the year the school had asked if they could help out with assessments. The children had to read a story aloud and then answer questions on the story, which was about space rockets, and be marked on that. The children had already studied space and rockets at the school, and Tenille took them through a picture book to recap. Then it was the time of the assessments; whilst some of them could read aloud quite well, they were not able to interpret what they had read and many could not answer the questions.
Whilst originally SOS Africa set up the centre to support those with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, it became obvious very quickly to the team that they needed to focus on the younger children, and just focus on reading and related understanding ability, so that they had a chance to get the basics right and therefore be able to progress through the school effectively.
Tenille is very ably supported by Eden who focuses on the Afrikaan children and supporting their reading. She oozed patience and warmth towards these children.
We popped into a classroom which Anna and the team was going to refurbish in the holidays. Whilst they wanted to give back to the school that has welcomed them so warmly into their grounds, the other objective was to teach the SOS Africa sponsored children to give back and not to just expect handouts – so the children’s holiday camp was hard at work stripping, sanding, repainting and scrubbing the classroom. A team effort.
We moved onto Grabouw and we had asked if we could see the sort of communities the kids came from so as to help us put into context their lives. Anna drove us through the outskirts of the Pineview Township but would not stop for us to get out as she was nervous about our safety.
The housing varied from the terrible corrugated iron lean to’s, (which she said 4 of the SOS Africa sponsored children lived in), to pre-fabs that the government had put up. The older pre-fabs were not constructed well and apparently are very damp leading to mold growth on the walls which cause all sorts of respiratory diseases and issues. The newer pre-fabs are built better, but are few and far between. Electricity wires have been diverted by the community into the townships and carry live electricity at head height. Tragedy struck last year when 2 children died from electric shock touching them.
The After-Care Club
To be honest we were also now feeling a little nervous. I had the fear of being put in-front of a class of 20 kids and having to chat and entertain them! As a result we had come prepared with some fun masks that the kids could all decorate with feathers, sequins and glitter as an activity. However we need not have worried as Des and Abigail had it all organised, and so our masks have been saved for another day.
As the kids came in after school first up every child spontaneously came and gave us both a hug. Next up we were sung a lovely welcome song which ended with a solo end-line of “Thankyou for popping in”. We were in stiches! A beautiful booklet was presented which every child had drawn in and written something about themselves. It really is a very special book, and something we will forever treasure.
Then followed a whirlwind of activities, which did not follow the usual format due to our visit.
We played games outside which consisted of singing and running around the circle choosing the next “leader” of the song.
We played a team game focusing on the importance of communication where we were blind-folded and our partner had to describe to us where to put the chalk in order to draw a face.
The kids did some mind-gym which was a new technique that Anna had brought to the aftercare. She said it had really helped calm and focus some of the children.
We all made stress balls out of balloons and flour and Kristyna noted how the teachers were very clear how important it was not to break a balloon and that the left-over flour would be used to make dough. I could see her processing that every balloon costs money and should not be wasted, and her comparing that to her attitude to balloons at home. We then all shared our biggest stress creator and many of the kids stresses were related to the exams that were looming the next day for them. This surprised me as I expected the stress to be more related to problems at home.
Then there was the random facts competition which was a fun way for the kids to be learning new information, and varied from how far a flea could jump, to what is the deadliest snake.
Abigail home-cooks a meal for all the children every day which they ate as the Stars of the Week were announced. To even be considered a parent had to sign off that you had done the homework, but it was stated that it was “unacceptable” if they were getting more than 1 or 2 words wrong in their homework. Standards are set high and the kids are encouraged and supported to rise to it. On achieving it they are celebrated as Stars of the Week. During this celebration one of the boys was spotted talking and was sent to another table to sit quietly by himself. Kristyna was shocked by the discipline, but what I saw were children being taught to respect, and to push themselves to achieve. Something I would like to see more in the UK!
Abigail and Des are outstanding teachers. The level of energy, passion and enthusiasm they had for the children was remarkable. Warm and engaging with plenty of cuddles on offer they also held their line on discipline, and pushed the children to keep trying. Nae-Dean supports Abigail and Des taking time with the children on a one to one for them to read to her, and offers quiet support.
We also had our special one-on-one time with Mechline. We talked with her about her dreams and ambitions and the importance of really working hard at school in order to achieve them. Her strength is maths and english and she wants to be an architect. How wonderful that someone from such a simple background has such an incredible dream! I so hope that Mechline can dig deep to find what she needs in order to fulfil this. It’s not going to be easy and she does need to significantly improve her work ethic if she wants to achieve such a fantastic ambition.
Kristyna and Mechline talked about their shared love of dance and Mechline was keen to join a new dance club. Kristyna had made Mechline the most thoughtful present which was motivational sayings in English. She had then got them translated into Afrikaans and bound it all up in a special book. She spoke to Mechline about how she found these sayings helped her when she was feeling life was challenging, and that she hoped it would give Mechline support when she needed it to keep trying, and to keep positive. She took Mechline through every saying and it was a very emotional moment, and I was very proud of my lovely caring daughter.
What did I come away thinking?
I can only end with expressing my genuine admiration and respect for the SOS Africa team who are professional, caring, driven individuals who care deeply for these children, and who are so giving in their energy and of themselves to these children. SOS Africa sponsored children are indeed lucky.
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