South Africa--We sat in the church waiting for the students, who usually arrive around 1p.m., but there was no sign of them. The educator had a pretty good idea why her students dodged classes. “We have so many dodgers every month on the day before pension [is paid out] because many of my students are pensioners,” Dolly said in a loud, friendly tone that echoed around the pink-painted walls of the empty Nazarene Revival Church. She sat wearing a long black skirt, crossing her legs in a plastic chair, and holding an exercise book of vowels, consonants and numbers. Everything was written in a red permanent marker.
Dolly, 22, from Tintswalo is one of the ten people who volunteers as an educator for Kha Ri Gude (Let us learn), a national government project that started in April 2008. The program will provide basic writing and reading skills for elder people. It is scheduled to run for six months. Upon completion, students will receive certificates accredited by the University of South Africa (UNISA).
Dolly has fifteen learners who are pensioners from within her community. Out of the fifteen, only eleven attend classes in the church. The oldest is 96, six years older than Nelson Mandela. For two hours, three times a week, they learn how to read and write in xiTsonga and also a little bit in English—despite their arthritic fingers, poor eyesight and other medical conditions. Others receive lessons in the comfort of their homes. “I don’t want any of my learners to be behind on anything, so I do home visits to give lessons,” Dolly explained. “When we first started, they never thought they would be able to do it, but now they can sign [their names] instead of marking an X.” Dolly was responsible for finding and registering the students for her class.
Lessons are continuing as planned; however, there are some challenges that interfere with the success of the project. “They promised to bring the materials before we started, and we haven’t heard anything yet,” Dolly added with frustration. “The books that my learners have now, I got from around the community by asking for donations. When I teach, I have to go around the rows and write on each of my learner’s books because I don’t have a board to use. It really makes my job very difficult.”
But through all that, Dolly has managed to continue with her lessons and, as we left the church, she headed to one of her learners’ houses, just a block away. “I would have came to class had it not been for my daughter who took my wheelbarrow away,” the learner explained. “She took my barrow without my permission, knowing full well that I need it for classes. I bought that wheelbarrow on my own for cash; she has no business taking it.” The learner is disabled and relies on the wheelbarrow to get around.
Soon two more students appeared on the street, and Dolly called them over. “We attend these classes so that we can get help where we can’t manage,” said Florence Mathebula, 52, as she flipped open her exercise book and showed off her homework, reading it out loud almost perfectly. “When are we going to start learning how to use a calculator?” she asked her teacher. “We need to learn how to calculate our money at the pension points because those guys rob us. They count the money so fast that you can’t see that they are stealing a few hundred, and give it to you so fast, rushing you to move from the queue.”
Another student joined in. “I feel that this school is really helpful. I didn’t know how to read and write, but now I am getting full marks,” said Safina Sibuyi, 69, as she got up from the stoop ululating and dancing. “I love reading the bible by myself, although I won’t be writing any love letters because I don’t have a boyfriend to address the letter to,” she said as everyone laughed at her joke. “Soon we will also be speaking English like professors.”