Youth Day (June 16) and Mandela Day (July 18) this year were two days spent with the Heronbridge College community outreach programme, building a preschool in the Diepsloot informal settlement north of Johannesburg. The teacher at the preschool is a graduate of the HeronBridge Training and Resource Centre, a much-needed pre-school teacher training programme, aimed at uplifting the abysmal state of pre-school education in South Africa.
At some point in our near past, the government decided that sweeping changes were the order of the day and closed down all pre-school teaching training establishments, completely overlooking several facts. Firstly, that children learn the basics in pre-school: the physical and cognitive skills we take for granted like hopping, skipping, dancing, singing, counting, colours, shapes etc. They also learn social skills like cooperation, teamwork, listening to instructions and tidying-up after oneself. Secondly, that childcare centres are going to spring up wherever there is a need for them, and there is a huge need where so many women are off working hard to feed their families. The alternative is to send children back to the rural areas where they get cared for by grannies and aunties until they go to the local rural primary school at age 7. But still they would be missing a chunk of gross motor, fine motor and perceptual education.
About three years ago, the Heronbridge Centre was born. Charm Laubser, the visionary, who asked if it could be done, spends her time and talent, training, supporting and running this amazing venture, and has wrought huge changes in the local communities. She is supported by the Education faculty at The University of the Witwatersrand, and HeronBridge Pre-Prep’s Headmistress, Glynnis Courtney.
Sinah, the teacher at Mopati Early Learning Centre, was doing her best (between moments of despair and desperation), teaching out of a corrugated iron shack about the size of the average middle-class home’s bathroom. Dirt floors and no real space to conduct classes meant her school was listed as the most disadvantaged of all the schools HeronBridge supports. Mopati has now gone from most disadvantaged to least disadvantaged in a few short months with the help of a small village of sponsors and volunteers: Land was found and donated, plans were drawn up, the school was built.
My part was decorative. Sinah had a few murals painted on the corrugated walls of the small shack school and expressed a wish to have a school building that was bright and colourful. Charm Laubser, tracked me down (it wasn’t hard, I wasn’t hiding) and dragged me out to view the old school. She also showed me the site of the new school and provided me with the elevation drawings of the new structure. I had a 4m x 2m “canvas” to play with and came up with the concept of a tree with all sorts of indigenous wildlife in and around it. The final painting will have a measuring stick up the centre of the tree – just waiting for the landscape to settle so the starting point is stable. In addition to that, the children can compare how far they can jump with the animals jumping on the right. On the left they can see if they can stretch as far as baby elephants and giraffes.
This one mural project ended up being a five mural project with additional drawings of shape pictures, numbers (with corresponding critters) and alphabets (with illustrations) on the walls in the three classrooms, as well as a lot of crazy dancing stick figure style children on the back wall. The 4 additional projects were painted by volunteers while I spent time on my initial commission.
This must be the most decorated (in many different styles) and brightly coloured pre-school in the district. The village that converged to build and paint this school is one that will turn up for the next one and the next one. In this case it is a travelling village that is providing the structure and teachers to raise not just one, but hopefully thousands of children by the time we are finished.