One of the highlights of our trip to South Africa was our visit to the Dihlabeng Christian School in the town of Clarens. We visited it while we were staying at the St. Fort Country House.
Prior to our South African trip I had made arrangements to visit the Dihlabeng school. Knowing there was so much poverty in South Africa and reading how schools and hospitals in poorer countries are sometimes in need of supplies, I thought I’d search for a school at one of our destinations. I didn’t want to arrive empty handed or just give out pencils to random kids, which had been suggested to me earlier. I also thought it would be educational for our whole family. Researching on-line I found the Dihlabeng School and got in touch with their assistant principal, Carolyn.
I asked her what would be useful and she suggested books because “books tend to be expensive here.” She wasn’t kidding, they cost twice as much as in the states! Paper is very expensive in South Africa – toilet paper, paper towels, napkins that are so thin they are practically useless . . Anyway, I brought with me a range of books appropriate for the the youngest to oldest. Some were wordless, the rest were in English. Children in the first four years are taught in their native Sesotho or Afrikaans language and start learning English around the first grade. Eventually all their lessons are in English.
When we arrived at the school, we were welcomed by a pre-school and kindergarten group of about 40 kids. Carolyn told us they like to give hugs so I immediately crouched down to their level. I was overwhelmed by the most adorable children in the world coming in to hug me – one, two, or three kids at a time. I couldn’t help but tear up. My family was being engulfed by adorable children as well. It was the most beautiful welcome we have ever received and I will never forget it.
Carolyn asked two student leaders, a 13 year old boy and girl who spoke fluent English, to lead us around the various classrooms. Each class is one grade, no more than 20 to a class. We were welcomed and shown around each class by the students, or if the students were out, we just looked around ourselves. The classroom walls were filled with work and art just like we’d see here at home.
When we stepped into one class, the kids were speedily cleaning their room, trying to make it look nice for our arrival. They were washing windows, wiping down desks, sweeping the floor – you would never see that here! I think it would be a great thing to add to every elementary and middle school’s curriculum! Of course the janitor unions would not allow that, but I digress . . Anyway, the kids in this class were laughing and excited to see us. I walked over to the world map that was hanging on their wall and helped them find California and also showed them our flight route.
At one point when we were outside near the playground, some boys were playing on the jungle gym. “Look teacher! Look!” So I watched and laughed while they showed off. They were wonderful.
We visited the school office and met a young woman alumni of Dihlabeng. She had gone on to high school and then to college. She had planned to study mechanical engineering but when she came back to the Dihlabeng School to help teach, she loved it so much she decided she would rather be a teacher.
Many of the teachers at the school were from the United Kingdom, others were from various African countries. The British teachers became involved with Dihlabeng through their church. The principal had started the school in a garage with only seven children back in 2000. Now they are up to about 170 students. They are trying to build a high school next door and have received permission, but the government moves so slowly that nothing yet has been done. They need a high school. As of now, most of the children who graduate have to go on to public schools. They graduate with such an advanced education that they often become bored and frustrated in the public schools. I hope Dihlabeng can get their high school built soon.
Dihlabeng teaches diversity and acceptance of all cultures. This was very evident during our visit. They are a Christian school providing a message of hope, acceptance and love for all children. Their motto is “to bring hope to the hopeless.” They take in the poor, children from single parent homes and orphans from the AIDS epidemic. Families who can afford to pay something do so, but for the majority the school is free or nearly free. The school receives limited funding from the government so they need support from outside donors. During our visit I asked about sponsorship, the staff never brought it up other than giving us a flyer (which I had asked for) and showing a short video. They truly welcomed us to our school because they love to have visitors – it is good for the children to meet people from other countries and the teachers enjoy it too.
When our family returned to the states, I found out a bit more about sponsorship. My husband and I are now sponsoring a little girl who had really bonded with our teens. We are so happy to help. Schools like the Dihlabeng Christian School provide hope for the future of South Africa. If you would like more information about the school you can visit their website and facebook page.
Next week I will write about our visit to a rural home in Clarens.