On a Thursday morning in northern South Africa, the sky is so clear, and yet there is a cool enough breeze to freeze the cheeks and cause a runny nose. After all, it is almost the end of winter and the start of a new season, spring.
Excitement is what this day holds for more than 161 Green Valley Primary School learners from grade R to 3, five to eight years old. All are in uniform: boys wear grey pants with white shirts or maroon tracksuits and yellow shirt; girls wear maroon socks, dresses and ties with yellow stripes. Along with twenty teachers and members of the school governing body, the students enter the gate at the Acornhoek Railway station. Footsteps, whispers and laughter linger in everyone’s ears. At long last, the day they have been waiting for is finally here.
“We are going on a school trip to Hoedspruit,” says Mr. Khosa, a schoolteacher holding an exercise book containing a list of the names of most of the pupils. “None of the learners have seen the inside of a train before. But today, for the very first time, they are going to experience what it’s like to ride in it.”
It seems that it’s not only the children excited by the thought of the trip, even though it will only be about 30 kilometers. Just a few steps away from Mr.Khoza, another teacher is standing with his arms folded. “The children are not the only ones who have never been on a train before,” Mr. Manganyi confesses smilingly, looking straight at the children in front of him. “I have never ridden on a train. Even my children have been on a train ride, but never me. It is going to be my first experience, too.”
The preparations continue. The female teachers now have their hands full. The learners are moving around uncontrollably, and a teacher tries to discipline them with no success. Their chats become loud. More teachers join in to try to get them to behave, but their efforts go unheard. As the teachers start to group the students in one spot, they notice something strange. There are more children than the actual number that has paid for the journey.
It is impossible to spot the ones that didn’t pay. The clerk who is responsible for registering the learners lost the original list of all the pupils who paid. The list that the teachers have is not a hundred percent accurate; however, they have no choice but to use it. One by one, the teachers call the names of the learners appearing in the book to step aside. In the middle of this, some of the children who have not yet been called run to the other side to join the ones who were called. This makes the teachers upset because now they have to start over and over again. The learners continue to jump groups.
Throughout the chaos, the educators manage to spot one of the suspects amongst the groups. “Albert! Did you pay?” one woman tries to inquire. “No, Albert, I don’t remember ever seeing you pay or seeing your name on the list.” Albert, with his hands in his pockets and his head facing down, responds, “Yes, I paid,” mumbling. But the teacher does not believe him, and she continues to ask her colleagues. None of them recognized him on the list. She returns to him again. “Everyone, show me your pocket money.” Everyone shows the teacher their paper money, but all Albert can show is a few coins. “Is that all you have!?” Now in shock, the teacher says, “I knew it! You didn’t pay! That is your pocket money for school, not to come on the trip.” Shame hits Albert as the teacher catches up with his tactics, and he gives up on his argument. “I guess my grandmother didn’t pay for me after all,” he admits.
It is almost 9 a.m. The educators have now managed to identify some of the learners hoping to catch a free ride. It’s almost time for the train to arrive. Eyes start to wander in the direction of the train. The ground starts to vibrate. From a distance, everyone becomes excited as they spot something that looks like the train. But before it gets even closer, the clerk who was supposed to sell them tickets at the station comes to talk to the educators and the principal. She announces something that shocks everyone. “The train will not be coming today,” she explains, in a soft humble tone. “A cable got stolen in Hazyview early this morning. I am so sorry for the inconvenience.”
Disappointment now shows on every teacher’s face. All the adults go quiet, fearing how the parents will react if the trip gets postponed. While they are still thinking of a solution, what looked like a train a few minutes ago passes the station. It is only the driver’s car that was going to pick up the passenger cars but now is returning because it cannot pass the place with the stolen cable. The children watch with anticipation as it passes, but there is nothing that can be done about it.
In the end, the teachers decide to use the bus that originally took them from their school to the station. The learners are escorted to the bus once again, and this time to the final destination of their trip, the town of Hoedspruit. Along the way, the students see some animals, like monkeys, impalas, and giraffes. They learn more about busses at the bus depot and touch different kinds of snakes at the reptile park outside Hoedspruit.
However, nothing can wipe away the children’s disappointment. As the bus drives them back home, against the backdrop of the beautiful Moholoho mountain range, their disenchantment at not getting their first train ride remains in the front of their minds.
Thandi Mkhatshwa is a reporter with The Amazwi Villager, a newspaper written by rural African female journalists of Sotho and Shangaan descent and distributed in their home communities within the lowveld region of South Africa. Amazwi, a non-profit organization, publishes the Villager monthly. To read more, visit: www.amazwivillager.org