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A Tale of Two Schools

Map of South Africa
After our harrowing arrival in Cape Town and a couple of days recovering from jet lag, Abeja and I traversed South Africa (a 24-hour bus ride...) to visit the east coast city of Durban, home to some of South Africa's most glorious beaches and near the native land of the Zulu. We took the opportunity to visit two different schools in the area - one about as poor as you could imagine, and the other doing its best to support kids with disabilities, both with amazing kids overcoming tremendous obstacles to get the education they deserve.

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Two of the four Egcekeni school buildings
Egcekeni School
The four battered buildings that make up the Egcekeni school sit high on a rolling green hilltop overlooking a township of the same name in the Kwazulu-Natal province of South Africa. As Abeja and I, and our guides from the Roteract Club (a service group that works with Rotary International), arrived at the top of the winding road that leads to the school, we stopped for a minute to stare in disbelief. No more than crumbling little shacks, the buildings that we had been told were a school seemed to be on the verge of collapsing at any moment. They appeared impossibly small to shelter the 450 students that go to school there. We were getting our first glimpse of the realities of life for most of the black people who live in this country , and suddenly the divisions between native Africans and white people that we had heard so much about was becoming all too clear.

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Abeja and Mrs. Lembede, head teacher of the Egcekeni school
At the school we were greeted warmly by the head teacher, Mrs. Lembede, who led us up to the first building where class was being held. Looking inside did nothing to ease our minds, as it was absolutely packed with students. Only about half the students had desks and chairs. The others stood or were crammed into the corners, sitting uncomfortably on a wood floor that had gaping holes. The school is without electricity, bathrooms, doors, and windows. It barely has a floor to stand on. There is no heater, so in the winter only about half the students come to school because it is too cold. In the summer the school is infested with snakes. The school cannot afford books for the students and when they do get some, they are immediately stolen if left there overnight.

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Does this look like your classroom?
The attitude of the students was a stark contrast to these sparse conditions. These children, who have been all but forgotten by the government, were remarkably well behaved and engrossed in learning. Even the very young students were quiet and attentive, barely distracted by the interruption of our presence. Every morning they march more than a mile uphill to work in these challenging conditions, and as Mrs. Lembeke explained, it is only for one reason -- they really want to learn. There are only eight teachers at the school with classes of 80-90 students, making learning very difficult. Although English is one of the main subjects, even most of the older students could barely understand us.

Fortunately, thanks to Rotary International and the South African Lotto, plans are underway to build brand new school facilities complete with electricity, locking doors, and bathrooms. Not only will this new complex have all these "luxuries" that you would expect in a school, it will be much closer to town so the kids will not have to walk so far every day. However, things move slowly due to the bureaucracy and corruption of the government here, and although the land for the new school has been purchased, construction has yet to begin. Hopefully, soon the children of Egcekeni will have safe new school, but there are still thousands of other schools in South Africa that are just as bad or worse, and have little hope of recieving special grants from foundations like Rotary or Lotto.

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Students and teachers of the Open Air school in Durban
Open Air School
After our tour of Egcekeni, we returned to the coastal city of Durban where we had the opportunity to visit the Open Air School, a special school for children with severe physical handicaps. Kids that go to school here have problems ranging from quadriplegia to deafness to epilepsy.

The school is called Open Air because when it was started in 1921 with eight children it was located out in the country. This setting was thought to be more therapeutic than an urban environment. Since then, the city of Durban has surrounded the school but inside its walls are a series of buildings and courtyards that still give it an "open air" feel.

Although at first the Open Air School seems modern and affluent, it is facing a funding crisis that threatens its existence and the future of the students who depend on it. The special care these students require is, of course, much more expensive than a standard education, as the school must employ a variety of physical and speech therapists, and provide things like a swimming pool and vehicles with wheelchair lifts. During the apartheid era, Open Air was an all white school and was fully funded by the government. Since apartheid was lifted, it has become integrated, but it has also lost much of its funding because more government resources are going to rural black communities and schools.

Our tour was guided by the principal, Mrs. Hartley, who patiently walked us through the impressive facility and introduced us to some of the students and therapists we encountered. Mrs. Hartley explained to us that when the school was opened to black students in 1992, many of them were far behind the curriculum because their disabilities had prevented them from attending school.

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Me with two members of the Open Air speech team
Despite their physical challenges, the students at Open Air have proven themselves academically. The school has a 100% pass rate over the past three years, and 95% over the past decade. The speech team won a national competition last week by giving a speech about how handicapped people are perceived by the public. I chatted with these articulate youth for a while and they told me they don't like it when people patronize them or feel sorry for them. Although their bodies do not function normally, their minds work just like everyone else's. They want to be treated equally.

Is South Africa Accessible for People with Handicaps?

According to Mrs. Hartley, the principal of Open Air, South Africa is not very accessible to the physically challenged. There are not very many ramps for wheelchairs, and public transportation is for the most part inaccessible. This makes the Open Air School very important for those who are fortunate enough to attend it, while the funding cuts which have grown steadily for the past few years threaten to make education nearly impossible for them.)

Since the government has cut funding so dramatically, the school has to look for donations from private sources in order for their programs to continue. Principal Hartley is confident that they will make it. "What we do here is important enough that people will make the necessary contributions to keep us running into the next century," she said.

No Longer Separate, Still Unequal
Although the era of Apartheid is over in South Africa, the problems of racial division and poverty still exist. Abeja and I stayed for three days with a wealthy family in Durban and had the opportunity to see how the students from richer schools live. While schools like Open Air and Egcekeni are struggling just to stay open, students at Westville Boys School wear designer uniforms and can afford to bus the entire school to rugby games, at which attendance is mandatory. Although a small minority of black students attend schools like Westville Boys, most are struggling in places like Egcekeni. For handicapped black students, there is almost no alternative. While South Africa is one of the largest producers of diamonds and gold in the world, only a very small elite group still enjoys the benefits of this wealth. This beautiful and culturally rich nation still has a long way to go before true equality is achieved.


Kavitha - Back to School
Abeja - White Woman in the Rainbow Nation
Monica - Window into a South African Home

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