A Path Unexpected: The humble farm school that became a national rural education movement
On the eve of the 1976 Soweto uprising, journalist Jane Evans left her career as women’s page editor on South Africa’s biggest morning newspaper in Johannesburg to begin a new life as a Free State farmer’s wife. The farm’s nursery school became the founding, pioneering initiative which led to the birth of an organisation called Ntataise – ‘to lead a young child by the hand’ – which has brought hope and change to thousands of rural women and 800,000 to a million children.
November 1980. School boycotts continued. The country’s bubbling discontent was a volcano waiting to erupt.
At Huntersvlei, we were preparing to host our first training course. Behind the primary school, Anthony had built the requested “clubhouse”. Painted white to match the rest of the buildings, it came complete with dartboard, brown armchairs and waist-high wooden counter that served as the pub. Beer was delivered every Friday on a farm trokkie, and by Monday the fridge was empty. This was to be the training room.
We placed a blackboard at the front of the room and arranged a collection of chairs and benches in a semicircle facing the trainers. This was less threatening, Maria said, than the usual straight rows placed one behind the other. At the back of the room, trestle tables held tea, sugar, coffee and milk, there was a gas cooker to heat water, and brown bread sandwiches filled with jam or cold meat. A pile of Early Learning Research Unit Learning to Play training manuals, written by Karen van der Merwe, waited on the trainers’ table alongside sticks of white chalk and a blackboard duster. The course material was in English, and Maria and Lydia would translate it into Sesotho as they went along. We called them the “green books” because of their green covers.
Families in the Huntersvlei stad (farmworkers’ village) had agreed to host the 14 trainees in their homes. They turned out in force to welcome their guests, who arrived on the back of farm bakkies and tractor-drawn trailers; the taxi industry wasn’t as developed as it is today and this was the transport that farmers used. The trainees clutched bulging blue-and-pink plastic shopping bags or cardboard suitcases.
Rebecca’s smile was wide. It was a special day, she said, for all of us – the first training of its sort on a Free State farm. Standing next to Rebecca, Maria and Lydia, I felt I’d burst with pride, excitement and plain, terrified nerves. Each of us was breaking new ground and flouting traditional roles. The women, despite their own fears, had stood up to their husbands and they had come. I don’t remember what I said to welcome everyone when we were finally seated in the training room, but I do remember it was followed by Lydia saying a prayer and singing a hymn. It didn’t take long for everyone to join her. The sound of those women singing followed me all the way home from the stad that day, and has followed me through the years. The clarity and passion of their song reached something deep inside me. Singing is, for me, the sound of Ntataise.
We had hardly settled in the mottled shade of the now-tall honey locust trees for our post-training indaba when Bonny poured out an indignant torrent of Sesotho and English. “You promised that all of us who had people to stay would get money for food and accommodation. We didn’t get any money. We had to give them our food and we only had enough food for our husbands’ skoff tins.” A frown creased her forehead.
My stomach turned into a tight ball. The farmers had given everyone money for their accommodation, but apparently it had never reached their hosts.
“They spent it on other things,” Bonny said. Apart from everything else, there had not been enough room in the already overcrowded houses for these guests. “It’s fine to share with guests for a few days, but for two weeks? We gave them our sheets and blankets, we moved out of our beds for them.”
“But it was your idea, Bonny.”
“I know, but it was a bad idea.”
“Why did everyone agree to it?”
“We wanted the money. And we thought that was what you wanted.”
It was what I wanted; none of us had had an alternative, but no one had objected.
“That, my girl, is something you’ll have to learn. No one in the stad is going to say no to you.”
“Why on Earth not?”
(“They’re nervous it might impact their jobs,” Anthony said at our own post-training indaba.
“They know that’s not so.”
“Don’t be in such a rush. You’ve come a long way with Rebecca. The other women will trust you, but it takes time. And they’ve told you the mistakes and none of you will make them next time.”)
“It wasn’t only that.” Maria leaned forward in her chair. “I might as well have left the green books wrapped in plastic. The women didn’t understand me. They talked about the clothes we wore and the different earrings Bonny wore each day. Some of them didn’t really know why they were here.”
“But what about the farm meetings?” I said, confused – and, as it turned out, totally naïve.
“That was just words. It sounded like something different to do,” Bonny cut in again. “Some of them thought they were going to be teachers and write things on blackboards. They wanted A E I O U. Now they don’t want to be called teachers. They say they aren’t teachers – not what they know of as teachers, anyway.”
“What do they want to be called?”
“Mangwane,” said Bonny. “They thought they were going to be mangwane.”
“What’s a mangwane?
“A nanny or an aunty. They say they’re not teachers, and you’ll have to call us something else.” Bonny was not convinced. She wanted to be called a teacher.
They were all mothers; as far as I was concerned, they were already teachers. They were not being taught to be nannies. We compromised and called our burgeoning nursery school teachers teacher aides – on paper, at any rate. The women who didn’t want to be mangwane wanted, Bonny said, to learn to sew or get drivers’ licences. “That’s what schools for women do, they teach them to cook and sew.”
Maria stood up, too agitated to sit still any longer. “Teaching adults is so different from teaching children. I expected them to understand everything all at once – the daily programme, playroom layout, weekly themes, how to talk to children, listen to them and play with them. And there are new concepts which don’t have words in Sotho.” She paused. “When those women were at school it was either right or wrong. If it was wrong the teacher hit them with a ruler or a wooden stick. They weren’t at all convinced about this papadi [play]. They said schools aren’t for playing in. They said real teachers don’t play with children. Playing isn’t learning, reading and writing is. Teachers, they said, went to the teachers’ training college in QwaQwa to learn, not to Huntersvlei.”
Years later, Rebecca told me that they’d all been frightened of not being able to live up to the expectations that came with being a teacher. Teachers and priests were the most respected members of the community. They didn’t feel they knew enough to be counted among them. I don’t think I ever realised the depth of what I was asking people to do. It was groundbreaking, almost seismic, and it had never occurred to me that we couldn’t do it. Was this good or bad? I don’t think it was either; it was change.
Maria took the green books away and, shortly after our meeting, started all over again. The trainees came to special workshops and made skipping ropes out of the long, dry grass that grew at the edge of the lands and scraps of material from Alina’s sewing group, the way their mothers had made skipping ropes for them when they were children. They sang the songs they knew. They drew in the sand with sticks, modelled small animals out of clay that Maria dug out of the salt pan, and drew on cardboard boxes with pieces of burnt wood. “That’s what they know. That’s how they play with their children,” she told me.
Through that first year, the new teachers had taught children songs from their own childhood, played games their parents had played with them. They were comfortable with things that were familiar to them. We threw out English nursery rhymes, which were foreign. We re-introduced them years later when Nelson Mandela would sing his “favourite” nursery rhyme, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. With our small core staff, we relied heavily on expert input from outside, particularly from Denise Parkinson and the ELRU team from Cape Town. Some, like Karen van der Merwe who had written the green books, were so well-loved that her final training session for us would be 35 years later. Once Maria had laid the foundation, the green books became everyone’s ECD “bibles”.
Maria and Lydia were used to teaching or working with adults, and we could not have done without Karen, Ann Short and Denise Parkinson. Karen taught us all to praise people. “Look at what they’re doing right first, then discuss with them what you think they could do better, why you think that and how to correct it.” Among the many things Ann emphasised was to progress from “the known to the unknown, the concrete to the abstract”. And that was how Maria started to teach the farm nursery school teachers. She built, little by little, on what they already knew.
Denise Parkinson’s arrival at a Huntersvlei training session was greeted with decided suspicion. Who was this woman with her larger-than-life personality? What did she want? As she taught the trainees to make balls out of empty orange sacks stuffed with newspaper, and child-sized furniture out of cardboard boxes and glue, the shy, frightened women came to life. This was something they could do, something they understood: how to make things, use their hands. The Huntersvlei clubhouse buzzed with sound. We pushed the chairs against the walls and spread newspaper on the floor. Denise said there was no right or wrong way and that no one would “get into trouble”. Why would adult women “get into trouble?” “Their only experience of being taught is school and if you didn’t get it right, you got smacked, you got into trouble.” Maria translated and everyone got involved in cutting, pasting and painting.
The trainees went home with child-sized chairs, stoves and dolls’ beds. They were not yet convinced that children would learn anything while they played, but it was a start. It would be part of Maria and Lydia’s role to teach all of us – but particularly the teacher aides – how children developed and how they learnt basic concepts – colour, size, shape, in front, behind, large, small, the same, different and so much more – by playing. Making activities to help children learn these concepts appealed to me enormously. Friends, family and acquaintances from Viljoenskroon and Rammulotsi to Johannesburg were dragooned into collecting different-sized boxes, yoghurt containers, different-coloured bottle tops, empty plastic cold drink bottles, anything that was not torn or soggy, to make activities for our learning through play programme.
I was at a formal black-tie business dinner with Anthony soon after Denise’s visit. A glass bowl of thick chocolate pudding with a coloured-paper umbrella sticking out of the blob of cream in the centre was put in front of each guest.
“They can’t let those go to waste,” I whispered to my horrified husband. Before he knew it, I’d stood up and asked in a loud voice, “Please, may I have the umbrellas for our nursery school?”
Most people laughed; Anthony cringed. Umbrellas, some still sticky with cream, others licked clean, were passed down the tables to me along with business cards. “Give me a call, I’ll try to help with other products,” said several of the “captains of industry” in the hall that night.
Help they did: 30-year-old sets of red, blue, green and yellow bottle tops, and big, small and medium plastic yoghurt containers, still appear in the “concept” areas. DM
Jane Evans has held positions on a number of Early Childhood Development (ECD) government bodies, as well as serving as a trustee on, among others, the Helen Suzman Foundation, the St Anne’s School board of governors, PAST and the Lee Berger Foundation for Exploration Trust. She has a particular interest in palaeoanthropology. She has received a number of awards, including ‘Woman of the Year’ awarded by The Star newspaper, the Johannesburg College of Education’s Rectors Gold medal ‘for exceptional contribution to education in South Africa’, and the Chancellor’s Medal awarded by the University of Pretoria. A Path Unexpected is published by Jonathan Ball.
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