I try and walk most mornings, weather and lungs permitting.
A few months back, much against my better judgement, I allowed myself to be talked into taking a young puppy, who came with the claim of being a purebred Jack Russell. Well, judge for yourself! But he is a character, very enthusiastic about many things, and ‘walkies’ is high on the priority list. Each morning he watches me like a hawk, and at the first sign of the possibility of a wander, his tail begins a silent tattoo, and he inches closer and closer to the gate in expectation. But should I show no sign of compliance, his demeanour crumbles piteously, hurt eyes dart towards me from under still expectant eyelashes, until at last with a sigh he closes them to escape the horror of another day within the confines of the yard. Such a guilt monger as you have never met!
It was on one of these perambulations that I was stopped by a young man, gently insistent when I tried to walk on past him after the usual greeting.
“Please look at this,” he pleaded, pulling documents out of an ubiquitous brown envelope.
It was his school report, together with the offer of a place for Form 1 at a local high school. His finger trembled over a paragraph towards the bottom of the page. I saw the amount in, typed in bold. E4990. An impossible amount for me, and for many of us, but totally out of reach for some 65% of the local population. He had passed Form 7, the last grade of junior school with a second class pass, making him deserving of further education in my book, and obviously in that of the school to which he had applied.
That was me netted. How do you tell a kid who wants to better himself that there isn’t a hope of him finding that sort of money, you don’t have it and the chances of your convincing anyone to help are slim to non-existent.
It’s the same story each January. Parents and children alike, desperate for that chance of a better life, unable to find the wherewithal, take to the streets in the hope that they will find some good Samaritan willing to part with some ‘bucks’. For some, employers will take pity and lend them the money – they spend the rest of the year paying it back.
Anyway, I tried, very aware that it was not only the preposterously high school fees that I was looking for. School uniforms are not cheap, although at some stage in our independent history there was a suggestion the same uniform be adopted throughout the country to lessen the cost. Then there are books, endless school building funds, whatever. I knew the E5k would end up closer to E8k. and if we didn’t find all of this, by the end of January he would be sent home from school until such time as he could make payment in full.
Every day thereafter Siboniso was at my gate, his eyes pleading, his shoulders desperate. After a week, I knew I had to be honest with him.
“Siboniso, you need to accept that this is not going to happen.” His shoulders slumped. “But I have an idea. Distance learning. You can get some part time work, and study part time.”
So the next day saw us off to Ezulwini, that sometimes lives up to its name and at others seems to represent the other place! (Ezulwini means ‘heaven’ in siSwati)
Emlalatini was strangely quiet, but the principal was in and after a short wait we were invited into his office. I told him our story, he looked at the paper work, and gave the nod for Siboniso to register. The delight on the young man’s face was a picture to behold. The excitement and exuberance that accompanied me home was fabulous.
And that was the last I saw of him. I found him work. He was due to report that Saturday to find out the details. I kept checking my gate, the road. No show. We were supposed to register last week. No sign of him.
Now, he did lie to me, told me he was an orphan, that neighbours took care of him. I gave him food one day because he was so hungry. I then discovered he had both parents, his father was employed, but that is no guarantee that he would be able to shell out what amounts to a large fortune to most of the people of this land of eSwatini to ensure his oldest son’s education.
Was it a scam? If so, to what end? Did he think I would hand over E5000 crisp brown or green notes, without making sure they went where they were intended? Was it a test of some sort? The bible says we will be tested by men and angels?
Whatever. The issue represented in this tale is what really concerns me. Why have we in Africa made it so difficult for our people to be educated? In this country the increase from primary school fees to secondary is huge. After much fuss, a programme was rolled out to offer free primary schooling, which used to be around E500 a year, but to jump from there to approximately E8000 a year, in a country where the average worker earns less than E2000 a month is disproportionate.
The end result is a large portion of population, barely educated, trying to eek a living out of the soil, handicrafts, or their wits. Surely we would all be better off with well-equipped, enquiring minds, bringing new inventions and businesses and ideas to stimulate our sagging economy? The same goes for most of Africa.
In neighbouring South Africa the #Feesmustfall campaign was born of a desperate need by youngsters who believe they deserve to be equipped to succeed at their chosen careers, to have the same opportunities as many children they see daily in television programmes and the internet from around the world.
Is there a deliberate, covert policy to keep the masses uneducated? Do the minority that constitute the leadership fear that if these young minds are trained to think, they may ask too many questions that cut close to the bone? Why is it that only the well-off, the well-connected can educate their children, and so perpetuate a system that is not beneficial to the vast majority.
I fear that our laxity in addressing this issue will lead to our downfall. There is a tale told of a conversation in the French court at the onset of the revolution that changed the ways of governance in the European world. The queen, Marie Antoinette, asked why the masses were so unhappy, so restless. When she was told that it was because they were hungry, her replay was: “Tell them to eat cake!” Her words were called back to her as she knelt in front of those hungry people, put her head on a block, and waited for the blade to fall that would sever it from the rest of her body.
I am a great proponent of the lessons of history and I think we in Africa would do well to become conversant with them, before we, too, lose our heads for living in lavish excess while our people die hungry and our children are denied their right to a better future, one that comes from being adequately educated and equipped to deal with the challenges of the modern world.