This trip happened upon the insistence of my 17 year-old daughter Monique. When she was 10 years old, we had visited Khanya as a family, and this had left her with a lasting impression and some unfinished business. Before that trip, she had raised a small sum of money for Khanya by foregoing presents for her tenth birthday, inspired by a Year 2 Herne Hill pupil who had started this exemplary gesture. At Khanya, Monique noticed something I had never noticed on my three previous visits and asked me: “Dad, it’s strange, why aren’t any of the children wearing eyeglasses?” I agreed that there must indeed be something wrong that not a single one among the approximately 1,200 children at Khanya was wearing glasses. We asked Linda Mahote, the Deputy Principal at the time, if they did not have any children with eyesight problems.
“Yes, of course we do”, she replied. “But the parents cannot afford to take them to an eye clinic and get glasses for them”. She brought us Zukani, a 10 year-old boy who she thought had severe eye problems, and he could indeed not read from a book we presented him without holding it right up to his nose. We spontaneously took him to a Specsavers, where he was tested. He needed very thick glasses, which Monique purchased with the money she had raised. We later tried with Linda to organise a screening system at Khanya but we never quite managed to put it in place, and Monique has been regularly nudging me about it. So, we decided to visit together to try to make things happen for good. I also wanted to use the opportunity to catch up with Linda, our connections at the Western Cape Education Department and some of our FHHS bursaries. We ended up having a very successful trip on all fronts.
Eyesight screening and glasses for Khanya children
Linda had done excellent preparatory work and organised support from some health workers from a wonderful local NGO, http://childrensmovement.org.za/, whose head Marcus Salomon we also met (an impressive, wise and kind man who had been part of the struggle against apartheid and was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island). They helped us screen in Khanya’s staff room the children who had been identified by their teachers or themselves as having eye problems. Of the approximately 60 children we screened on the first day, 16 had sufficiently poor eyesight that they needed proper testing by an optometrist at one of the state-run health clinics. We organised to go to the clinic the next day, a Friday, the only day the clinic is open for eye exams, with 10 parents, children and their birth certificates. We managed to have five children examined that day, with the others needing to come back the following Friday. All five children needed glasses, and the next Friday, when we went back with 11 more children, again all of them needed and will receive glasses, provided free of charge by the government.
We had two heart breaking cases among these first 16 tested children: two 13-year-old girls are nearly blind in one eye because their initially squinting eye had become so lazy that it is now virtually irretrievably shut off. This type of case will be avoidable in the future as this condition can be corrected if identified sufficiently early through ongoing screening, which Linda is implementing from January for newly joining children. She is also devising an annual monitoring programme of those children who will have received glasses and other borderline cases as the state will pay for a new pair of glasses once a year.
Magdel, the competent and kind optometrist who examined the children, agreed to come visit Khanya on 30 September 2014 to examine on site the additional 41 children who have been identified through further screening. Linda is taking the first 16 children back to the clinic on 12 September to fetch their glasses. This proved to be a highly rewarding exercise for Monique and me because we had heard so much about some children being considered to have learning difficulties when in fact they just could not see the blackboard or their books properly. Please click on the folder below to view the 15 photos we have selected to illustrate the experience.
New school site visit
Ever since its formation in 2004, Khanya has been in facilities far away from where the children live, requiring them to be bussed to and from the current location in Mitchells Plain in journeys of about 20-30 minutes. This has meant that parents could not easily be involved in the school life and that children could not readily be kept longer for after school activities. This had always been considered a temporary measure until a school could be built for Khanya in the area the children live. After 10 years “away”, this is finally happening following a personal intervention in 2013 by Helen Zille, the Premier of the Western Cape and leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance, with Khanya moving into brand new, purpose built facilities in Philippi. It was wonderful to see construction having started and already progressed far. In March 2015, Khanya will be able to move into fabulous new facilities which are sited right next to a police academy, which should ensure improved security and that the vandalism problems Khanya experienced in 2010 and 2011 will not reoccur.
Deepening Western Cape Education Department links
It was wonderful to catch up with our by now already “old” friends, notably Thandi Jafta (she visited Herne Hill School in October 2013 and is Circuit Team Manager overseeing a number of schools in the township areas, including Khanya when they move to their new site), Reggi Dreyer (he was IMG Manager in charge of Khanya when Jane Beales and I visited in January 2013 but has since moved Circuit to work for Thandi and will therefore hopefully again be the IMG Manager for Khanya from March 2015) and Myrtle February (she visited Herne Hill with Thandi in October 2013, retired at the end of 2013 but was swiftly headhunted back by the Department to turn around 7 underperforming schools). We had a lovely dinner with them all and Reggi’s wife, Janice. Thandi and Reggi also organised that we could meet Thandi’s boss, Mr Glen van Harte. He is the Director of the Metropole South Education District with its seven Circuits and has the huge task of managing the educational needs of 188 public ordinary schools, 11 special schools, 23 adult education centres and 70 early childhood development centres. It was an honour to meet him and good to hear from someone with such great responsibility how much our link with Khanya is appreciated. The following link provides furether background on Mr van Harte’s district: http://www.metrosouth.co.za/?shownav=Director.
Township tour with Thandi
Thandi kindly took Monique and me on a tour in her car of the townships where the Khanya children live. I had driven through these deprived areas before on the school buses and when Linda took Jane and I to visit Sibongile, our bursary, in her home. As a result, I knew a fair amount of facts about life in the townships such as about three quarters of inhabitants being unemployed and living off limited social services, there being no running water in the shacks, that the toilets are communally shared, that entire families live in the tiny shacks, etc. However, Thandi’s explanations provided a deeper level of insight into the conditions in which Khanya’s children grow up. For example, I had not suffi-ciently appreciated how fire prone the wooden shacks are and how quickly fires can spread due to the proximity with which they are built, how freezing cold the tin shacks get in the winter and boiling hot in the summer as there is no insulation, heating or air conditioning whatsoever, or how muddy the floors in the shacks get when it rains and that the ones on hills are therefore greatly advantaged. The little photo gallery in the folder below will hopefully provide a good feel of what we saw on the tour.
Meeting up with our university bursaries
We went to University of Cape Town to meet with Sibongile Fatiy, who graduated from Khanya in 2007 and was part of one our first class of FHHS bursaries. She is now in her second year at University of Cape Town, which has the reputation of being the best in South Africa, studying biology and environmental sciences. She obtained a bursary and some student loans, and the Friends have been supporting her at uni with about £35/month of pocket money which pays for her weekend transport home, stationery, toiletries, mobile phone, the odd coffee with friends, etc. She is doing extremely well and wishes to thank everyone at Herne Hill for the ongoing support she is receiving.
We also met two stand-out bursaries from the Khanya class of 2008, Unathi and Olwethu. Both managed to get accepted at University of the Western Cape and are studying for a bachelors degree, Unathi in physiotherapy and Olwethu in computer science. They were both raised by a single mum and have turned out to be diligent, intelligent, charismatic and truthful kids who did ever so well to get into university and organise student loans for themselves. Last year’s FHHS Committee had decided to show their support for their achievements by releasing a small amount of funds from the bursary pot, with which we were able to buy them a laptop for their studies. The lack of a laptop was one of the greatest disadvantages they faced compared with other students, virtually all of whom have a computer, since professors often post lectures or give assignments on the internet. Olwethu faces the additional handicap of still living with this mother in the township, which takes up a lot of his time (1 ½ hours of two train rides each way, daily!) and does not provide him an environment conducive to learning. Hopefully, he could move closer to campus to next year.
Happy women’s day at Khanya
It was a joy to be able to witness the celebrations at Khanya for South Africa’s Women’s Day, which annually commemorates the national march of women on 9 August 1956 to petition against the pass laws that required South Africans defined as “black” to carry a ‘”pass”, an internal passport that severely restricted their movement and served as a segregation tool during the apartheid era. It was a wonderfully happy affair with lots of singing and dancing – a glimpse of which you will hopefully get by scrolling through the photos in the folder below. It also reminded me of what a wonderful beacon of not only happiness but also safety, cleanliness, normality, discipline, learning and hope Khan-ya represents. At every visit I marvel at how clean the children manage to keep their uniforms and at how much our ethos and culture are aligned in spite of the different environments, with big doses of love, care and excellence provided by Linda, her team of educators and the people at the Department who all only have the best interests of the children at heart.