School of disgrace
IT'S like climbing into the heavens to get to Mkanzini village's only school - up, up, up a winding dirt road. The only indication that the building perched at the top of a hill is a school is the explosion of children's laughter cutting through the air.
At "interval", almost 100 tiny faces burst through the door of just one classroom at Mkanzini Junior Secondary School. The view is breathtaking - green hills roll on forever. But it is here in the postcard-perfect Eastern Cape that suffering is epitomised.
"Come see," says teacher Boniwe Sobuza. "Come see our pigsty."
About 44 Grade Rs and 66 Grade 1 pupils are crammed into a dark, dusty room.
"Yellow!" they scream as the teacher holds up a yellow pen she has fished out of her bag.
The walls are raw and bare save for one or two labels - "wall" and "cupboard". There are dangerously high stacks of old books, donated to the school, at the back of the class.
The floor resembles a dirt road: "They use the stones to count and beer tops too," jokes teacher Maureen Nomakhosi Ndabeni.
Virtually all the children's parents are unemployed, so owning a toy is just a dream, a luxury.
"What would you like at our school some day?" Ndabeni asks her charges.
A Grade 1 boy smiles shyly: "Desks and chairs, and picture books and work books."
And a playground and a see-saw and pencils and food and, of course, toys.
The teacher asks a Grade R girl, not much taller than a bedside table, what she wants.
She stares at her tiny feet and her finger slips into her mouth.
She is only three years old and walks to school alone. She is not old enough for school and learns nothing. She comes to eat.
"The children come to school at this age because this is where they get something to eat," says Sobuza.
Sometimes the bowl of samp and beans, or vegetables and rice, is their only meal for the day.
"If I had known then what I know now maybe I wouldn't have become a teacher. It hurts, it is very painful, to see so much suffering," confesses Sobuza.
She recalls the day a girl fainted because she was so hungry. The child's father, a miner, lost his job last year and Sobuza assumed their food cupboard was empty.
"Here crime is not high, but when there are break-ins, they steal food. That's all."
Sobuza teaches economic management sciences and technology to the seniors, but she has decided to stop teaching about computers.
Her pupils dream of computers. They have yet to see one.
"How am I going to explain what a mouse does? Or a keyboard?"
The Grade 7 and Grade 8 pupils are taught in a brick classroom built by the community. It does not have a floor or a ceiling but they manage, except when it is too cold, hot or wet.
Asked what they wanted for their school, a boy screams : "Water!"
Not a computer laboratory or a television. The rest agree wholeheartedly with their classmate.
They drink from a nearby river, which is also used by livestock, and the community to wash clothing and bathe.
The children also want toilets. They have to endure the indignity of using "the forest" nearby instead of the pit latrines that have not been cleaned in 14 years.
The smell grabs one by the neck and punctures the lungs before oozing to the stomach.
Nokubonya Gqibani teaches Grade 2 in a shack built on a steep slope. Inside, what is meant to be the floor has not been levelled and when it rains the shack floods.
There are holes in the ceiling and the walls, and often snakes and frogs join her class.
"The children would scream when the snakes come in. But then the boys would kill them with stones. They're used to it already," says Gqibani.
Principal Zanemvula Jama does not have an office and apologetically sets one up in the shade with a flimsy bench and a wooden crate.
He tries his best to put in words how demotivated he feels.
But when he sees the children it reminds him why he is still here. The noise from tractors almost drowns out his voice. He said contactors arrived at the beginning of the month to level out a section of land where the school's new prefabricated classrooms will stand.
The school struggled for years to get assistance from the local authorities after a fire destroyed four classrooms in 2009. Only after the non-profit organisation Equal Education took up their fight in court did the education department commit itself to helping.
Finally, Jama will have his own office so he can realise his dream of nurturing future leaders.
"I think of their future. I want to help them achieve. I am so proud of this place. There is so much poverty here, but this is a caring community which takes pride in this school although we have nothing."