When it comes to South Africa’s ailing education system, few would argue that new ideas are desperately needed. As pupils returned to schools across the country this week, a small number of children in a Cape Town township stepped through the doors of a new school. The first private girls’ school in Khayelitsha, Molo Mhlaba is promising its students a different kind of education. By REBECCA DAVIS.
It’s the second day of the new school year, and the young pupils at Khayelitsha’s Molo Mhlaba school are busy. In a brightly painted classroom named in honour of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, children are threading cylinders on to tubes and working together on puzzles. A “book nook” in one corner features among its volumes Zakes Mda and a children’s science book by Stephen Hawking translated into Xhosa. On a dress-up rack hangs not fairy wings, but a stethoscope.
Molo Mhlaba is a school with a difference, and these girls are its very first students. When this period of supervised play is over, they will move into the neighbouring hall for a yoga session. In the afternoon, it’s time for robotics. Acting principal Dr Rethabile Sonibare unpacks a deconstructed computer set on which the youngsters will learn to code.
Photo: A bookshelf displaying Molo Mhlaba’s dedication to bilingualism sits in one of the school’s classrooms at Harare Centre, Khayelitsha. Photo: Hlumela Dyantyi.
This school is the brainchild of 33-year-old Sonibare, her colleague Athambile Masola, and the board members of a non-profit the two women established in 2013 called the Thope Foundation. It is deliberately run and driven by black women.
“We ourselves are first generation graduates; first generation everything,” Sonibare explains, cackling, as she pours Oros from a teapot.
Sonibare, a social worker by training, spent several years working in the NGO sector before becoming frustrated at the extent to which interventions targeted at township children were created by white men and women without reference to the actual needs of kids.
“I had my daughter, and I thought: I cannot bring a child into this world and not try to change this,” Sonibare says.
She met Masola – “a frustrated teacher who loved her students but was working in a system that was very challenging” – and the pair decided they needed to try something different.
Molo Mhlaba – “Hello World” in English – grew out of an after-school programme that the women devised and ran for Khayelitsha, girls focusing on science and technology. While the project was a success, drawing in kids from 19 primary schools, Sonibare soon understood that the education the girls were getting elsewhere was of unsatisfactory quality.
“The minute we started to grow, we realised that different schools were not only at different stages of the curriculum, but we were also getting kids who could barely read,” she says. “These were not just small holes in the net, but craters in learning.”
It’s not just that many township schools offer poor quality teaching, says Sonibare.
“It’s that they stymie ambition and limit the outlook of a child.” She imitates an adult: “Who are you to think you can be an engineer?”
Photo: Teachers play with students during recess at Khayelitsha’s first private school for girls, Molo Mhlaba. Photo: Hlumela Dyantyi.
Sonibare and her colleagues began to dream of a new kind of township school. One which would be passionate about freedom and independence for girls and women. One which would encourage young girls to dream big; to visualise for themselves Masters degrees, doctorates and high-flying careers. One which would instil critical thinking, project management, and entrepreneurship. And one which would teach love.
“Everyone’s so angry with themselves and their condition, and angry with education,” says Sonibare. “Whenever there’s any kind of issue, it’s manifested in schools being burnt down; schools being closed by protests.”
Before attempting to create a new school, Sonibare and her colleagues undertook a survey of the Khayelitsha community to find out whether there was a demand for such a service, and if so, what kind of a school they would like.
The answer was unequivocal: they wanted a girls’ school, where girls could be safe.
Molo Mhlaba opened its doors this week in what was previously used as a political gathering space in Khayelitsha. The building itself is emblematic of the fraught social currents in the township: last year, it was vandalised and partially burned down. Now the rooms are freshly painted in bright, child-friendly hues. Furniture is still being moved in, and much still needs to be procured for the school.
The first group of students admitted by the school number just six, ranging in age from three to six. A further eight will join them in February.
“Nobody wants to pay January fees,” says Sonibare wryly. “It’s only half a month.”
The very notion of a fee-charging private school in a township might seem counterintuitive, though not unprecedented. While Molo Mhlaba’s fees are just R400 a month, this will still make the school hard to afford for some township families, though limited scholarships are available.
“We’ve battled with the question of private education,” acknowledges Sonibare. She points out, though, that township schools are so stigmatised that many parents will spend R600 a month on transport to shuttle their children to a government school in a better area.
“Why not try get them an education in their own community, which is cheaper, safer, and doesn’t require them to wake up at 5am to travel for hours?” asks Sonibare. “Why do we think having alternatives in under-served communities is so… fucked up?”
Photo: A Grade 00 student partakes in early childhood development activities. Photo: Hlumela Dyantyi
The fact that many township parents opt to send their children to school in different areas means that it is automatically difficult for parents to participate in the life of a school, says Sonibare.
At Molo Mhlaba, parental involvement in the school is not just encouraged, but required. Parents are expected to spend 30 hours a year volunteering at the school. In the run-up to the school’s opening, for instance, they were asked to help construct learning materials for the classroom.
Sonibare points out puzzles made out of ice cream lolly sticks, buttons and clothes pegs. The lids of milk bottles have been painted with numbers, to help teach counting.
“We’re trying to stay away from the idea that toys and learning materials have to be expensive,” she explains.
The school will also be investing in training and literacy for parents. One staff member is an on-site social worker, which Sonibare hopes will be a resource as much for parents as children – allowing them to receive help discreetly in an environment where openly seeking assistance for mental health issues is frowned upon.
The school may be private, but is by no means opulent in terms of resources. The minimal school fees do not stretch far. Molo Mhlaba has received some grant money and is hoping to qualify for education subsidies in 2019. In the interim, a public crowdfunding campaign is up and running.
The hope is that Molo Mhlaba will be the first of a network of schools in underprivileged communities across the country.
“The government cannot provide quality education, by its own evidence,” Sonibare says.
She repeats: “We just need to give parents and underserved communities alternatives.” DM
Visit https://molomhlaba.org/ to find out more about Molo Mhlaba schools.
Photo: Grade 00 students partake in early childhood development activities at Khayelitsha’s first private school for girls, Molo Mhlaba, situated in Harare centre on Thursday 18 January 2018. Photo: Hlumela Dyantyi
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