GEM and Bread
Ga Thoka is a dusty, grey village on the brink of major reinvention and transformation by some of its younger citizens. It is only 40 minutes from Polokwane, the capital of Limpopo Province but unlike the better resourced capital it lacks basic infrastructure and resources. Basic needs such as water and health facilities are still inaccessible to many families. There are no streetlights and electricity. The village, named after the Chief is made up of a community resettled on land claimed through government’s land redistribution programme in an attempt to redress one of the most iniquitous legacies of apartheid – forced removals and land dispossession.
At the Klass Mothapo High School in Ga Thoka there is an air of expectancy with just a hint of excitement. A huddle of girls and boys attending a forum of the Girls Education Movement (GEM) prepare to discuss with their peers their experiences of the GEM in their schools and community and their plans for a cleaner, safer, child friendly environment. In a community where teenage pregnancy and early marriage is common place a significant strategy of this GEM group was to bring boys on board at the very beginning. This was certainly achieved. Out of a group of 16 participants at the meeting, whose ages on average range from 12 to 17 years, eight of the participants were boys between 7 and 19 years old.
According to Mrs Albina Kekana, a member of the non-governmental organisation, The South African Girl Child Alliance who works with the Provincial Department of Education and UNICEF to monitor, train and support the development of the Girl’s Education Movement, “There is no point in starting up new clubs, so what we do is integrate the principles of GEM into existing youth groups and clubs so that boys also become part of the movement -although I must add that when we first began, boys just would not talk. It was only after training boys in life skills and through sensitization workshops on gender and masculinity that they began to share their stories with their peers, particularly girls.” One such boy is 15 year old Bethuel Mothapo.
Bethuel, commenting rather grandly states, “After my participation in a GEM group I had a dream to start a GEM club at my school. I approached the principal who fortunately supported the idea but there were always questions about why a boy would want to start the GEM group. For me this is not about girls only, because girls and boys need to find solutions together. It is through the GEM that we are able for the first time to listen properly to what girls feel and think about us. This has made a difference because it has thought us to respect everyone’s rights and to work together to make our make our community a better and safe place for both girls and boys.”
The meeting and planning workshop was ably and sensitively facilitated by seventeen year old GEM veteran, Millet Nkonyane. Her hair fashionably braided, looking hip and cool, Millet is one of a growing number of enthusiastic and dynamic young leaders and role models encouraging both girls and boys in Ga Thoka village and Limpopo Province to talk and listen to each other, break down stereotypes, communicate important life skills information and plan and implement community development activities. Millet began by welcoming and introducing all the participants, collectively structuring the agenda for the afternoon including breaks and energisers and concluded by saying, “We are here to learn from everyone, old and young and very soon you will be here facilitating instead of me.”
Through five hours of animated small group discussions, energisers and well managed reporting back sessions, including a lunch break the participants dialogued freely and gave feed back on a range of issues. Topics included the challenges being faced by girls and boys trying to start a GEM forum in their schools and community, suggestions on strategies to clean up the environment, human and child rights and the South African constitution, what boys and girls think about each other, power relations and rape and violence against girls and the best way to influence adults and community leadership to take on young peoples concerns into the community’s development plans.
“We are always talking about rights this and rights that, but I would like to know how knowledge about my rights will help me when I am in a rape situation when as a girl I do not have power?” asked a 17 year old, Refilwe Malatji.
“We don’t want you to get raped so we must learn how to prevent rape. Remember that your rights are protected by the law,” Millet replied. “Making you aware of your rights, your right to electricity and a safe environment for example could help to reduce violent crimes. But we need to make these rights real and take action. We must work together among our peers and with the community to do this.” Millet continued.
“Also we need to break the silence on rape,” interjected 15 year old Ntshupi Matshaba. The discussion on rape, power and violence was intense and long with Millet giving the final words on the subject to a boy.
Fifteen year, Samuel Lephale said that “With these things we need to start with the younger children, bring them into the group earlier so that they speak out, understand each other and get information earlier but we need the support and encouragement of our parents and teachers because at first it was difficult, because many learners and parents said that meeting like this was a waste of time.”
To ensure that the GEM is not a waste of time and to encourage more children and young people to participate in the GEM activities Millet Nkonyane, says that she and her group try to use creative ways in which to attract membership. “We use drama, music and sporting events. We also organised for a group of young girls to receive training on the use of radio to put our issues and messages across. The girls created exciting messages on gender and the prevention of HIV and AIDS which were broadcast on some of the community radio stations.” Mrs Kekana adds that because radio is the most important medium for many poor communities they are working with local radio stations and partners such as UNICEF to include other districts in Limpopo and take radio programming for the GEM much further. Inter-personal communication and dialogue through the GEM forums supported by creative initiatives such as developing content for community radio for, with and by children appears to be making a difference to the lives of children in some districts in Limpopo. Once where there was silence, there is now a chorus of clamouring voices speaking out on previously taboo subjects such as sexual violence and HIV and AIDS. “More children need to benefit-we must make it bigger” Mrs Kekana reiterates.
Millet’s story about how to attract more children to the Girls Education Movement adds a welcome note of irony and light relief to an otherwise pretty intense session. With eyes sparking with intelligence and a face trying hard to stifle her laughter she giggled, “To get more members, we’ll tell them that they’ll get Gem and Bread “- jam and bread, of course being the free staple handed out by government to hungry children at school.
But the GEM groups are not all intense workshops and just talk. Through individual and collective action, Millet Nkonyane, Samuel Lephale, Bethuel Mathapo and Ntshupi Matshaba have already influenced their peers, headmasters and schools, including a local priest to take on board GEM and encourage parents to support the initiative, drew attention to the plight of orphaned and vulnerable children in the community and organized initiatives bringing children and young people together to clean up the environments around the schools and the community.
In the long term this group of 16 children and young people, one of 53 GEM groups from 3 districts in Limpopo Province, in their own words want to take immediate action to “build a caring community so that girls and boys can develop in a safe, healthy and protected environment” or as Millet Nkonyane says, the GEM groups do not have to wait for the problem; GEM can also prevent the problem.” So don’t be surprised when you find that in the near future Ga thoka village, in Limpopo Province because of the Girls Education Movement, will be marching to the tune of its children.