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South Africa, 10 January 2012: Going beyond the ABCs

© © UNICEF South Africa/2011/Marinovich
Teacher Leshiba Mahlatse addresses the Gem/Bem club. Next to him is Daisy, who starts her day with a 12 kilometres walk to school.

If you can read this, it’s likely you’ve had the benefit of education. Literacy is only one of its gifts ... it is also the fertile soil in which leadership, values and knowledge can grow – ultimately to take root in a life that is productive, successful and fulfilled. Yet quality education remains out of reach for many of South Africa’s children – and with it, their only chance to end generations of poverty. Quality education means so much more than learning to read and write. It also offers the chance for children to fulfil their potential and their dreams and aspire to living full, healthy lives far beyond the limitations of their poor circumstances.

This is one GEM of a club

January 10, 2012: It’s not just another activity … the Girls and Boys Education Movement – simply known as ‘GEM/BEM’ – helps children and young people to recognise and make the most of their potential.

These school-based clubs – which are run by the learners, with support from school management – provide access to training, information and a space where the youth can discuss issues that matter to them.

And there are many issues that matter – gender-based violence, HIV prevention, drug abuse, sexuality and the importance of education.

This programme aims to create non-sexist, value-driven leaders of tomorrow …which is why GEM/BEM is so important today.

The start to a school day: walking for one-and-a-half hours to get there

Leshiba Mahlatse likes to arrive at school early.

His habit serves him well during the scorching summer months in the parched west of Polokwane – because he’s first to park under the few trees that dot Mmaphuti Secondary School’s grounds.

He used to teach Afrikaans, but when his subject was phased out in 2008, Mahlatse started teaching Life Orientation to grades 10, 11 and 12. Ironically, the change to his subject also changed his life.

It started when the parent of one of Mahlatse’s pupils died.

As is customary, he arranged a collection to help with funeral expenses and each pupil was asked to contribute 50 cents (0,073 USD).

When Mahlatse arrived at the pupil’s home to hand over the money, he was shocked at the poverty he saw – and saddened that there was barely any food or income to sustain a school-going child, let alone the old man and two elderly women who also lived there. But Mahlatse soon realised that poverty is a grim reality for most of the school’s 600 pupils.

Of all the children from the five villages served by the school, only two get lifts from teachers. Everyone else walks. Some, like Daisy Mothoa, live 12 kilometres away. She wakes up at 5am to make sure she’ll be able to set off for school early enough and reach her first class on time.

Daisy Mothoa’s not the only one. For many, their school day starts with the first step of the one-and-a-half hour walk to school. And it ends long after the last bell … because they face the same long trek home. That’s why the children store their books in tin trunks in their classrooms; carrying them all the way home would be an extra burden.

Given these hardships, what difference could a school club make? A lot, according to Mahlatse. Without hesitation, he runs through reasons for his enthusiasm:

© © UNICEF South Africa/2011/Marinovich
Kgoma Tshegofatso regularly shares her lunch with fellow ‘gembemmer’ Agnes Radebe when she arrives at school hungry. They have become good friends since Agnes joined the school.

• Thanks to the club’s initiative, a vegetable garden was started to help feed children who come to school hungry.

• It breaks down the barriers to learning that many learners experience.

• GEM/BEM members take pride in their uniforms, setting a good example to others.

• They helped rout the bullies who hung around the boys’ toilets and stole from little ones – which had led to younger children relieving themselves in the bush.

• They helped the teachers find a boy who was selling marijuana to learners.

• Confidence and self-esteem have grown amongst club members.

• They support each other to strive for better schoolwork – and help others who struggle to cope.

The members’ involvement in educating other learners about teenage pregnancies – as well as HIV/AIDS prevention and other critical life skills, is making a difference.

Maphuti boast among its alumni, medical doctors, chartered accountants and engineers – all of whom were educated at this rural school.

 It is towards this kind of aspiration that the Department of Basic Education, in collaboration with UNICEF, promote the Girls and Boys Education Movement clubs.

 

 
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