'Hero' school caretaker praised for carrying children across flooded river
Lazarus Phiri is a real-life superhero, lifting school pupils on to his back and carrying them safely across a flooded river in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga.
The caretaker at Alexandria Primary School has made it his habit — when heavy rains fall — to roll up his overalls, lower himself into the cold, muddy water, and carry scores of pupils safely across the flooded stream that often bursts its bank.
Phiri’s selfless acts went viral when a picture of him carrying the children on his back circulated on social media platforms.
Speaking to TimesLIVE on Thursday, Phiri said he has been helping children to cross the stream since 2009.
“I found a job at the school in 2008. In 2009, I left my father’s house and went to stay on the other side of the stream. I then noticed that during the rainy seasons the stream would get flooded and there was no way through. One needed to take off their shoes and wade through the waters to the other side,” said Phiri.
As Phiri made his way to work each day, he would come across some children who also needed to get to the other side. The alternative route is about 4km away so many of the children would opt to brave the flooded stream to get to school on time.
Phiri told TimesLIVE that there was no bridge there and those who had to cross from one side of the stream to the other had to use a concrete strip. But when rains fell, this was submerged.
“There is some concrete there which encases a water pipeline. Myself, the children and other villagers usually walk on this concrete pipeline to get from one side to the other when it's dry. But on rainy days, the concrete is submerged and it becomes dangerous for the children to cross,” Phiri said.
The humble man told TimesLIVE that he was not alone in helping the children cross the river.
“There are other parents who help me. It has become a norm that on rainy days we make our way to the river from early in the morning to help the children across. No child has ever been injured since we started doing this,” Phiri said.
On Thursday he was honoured by Mpumalanga's education MEC, Bonakele Majuba, who paid him a visit at the school.
“Mr Phiri is a true-life hero that not only Mpumalanga is proud of, but SA as a whole,” Majuba said after the visit.
“We are very grateful for the generosity that he displayed towards the welfare of our learners. He is a true embodiment of the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child to another level. We thank him for appreciating that education is a societal matter and having such a positive impact in the lives of your community with his gesture of true selfless patriotic sacrifice,” he added.
Majuba’s office said it had alerted the department of public works to the situation, and a permanent solution was going to be found to make crossing the stream safer.
Phiri welcomed the intervention — but says that as soon as this problem is fixed he will find something else to help with.
“I love to help my community. It is a way of life for me. I do it daily. It is not for recognition but it is a calling for me to help where I can,” he said.