Jaco Van Der Merwe

By Jaco Van Der Merwe

Head of Motoring

How reading books give rural children a fighting chance

Seeing over a thousand underprivileged children turn out in their school uniforms on a Saturday to celebrate the arrival of a shipment of reading books is enough to give anybody newfound faith in humanity.

Donating to a good cause is easy, whether it’s the extra R2 you pay when ordering your chicken burger to contribute to a meal for a hungry child or send a R10 SMS to help buy a homeless person a blanket for the winter.

As honourable as these deeds may seem, they are sterile. The donor parts with a few crumbs he or she won’t miss on the promise of a worthy cause which in turn enables them to sleep better that night. It requires no physical effort, doesn’t need any emotional investment and sure as hell excludes any contact with those terrible snotty noses from the pictures.

One sure fire way of getting the true picture of the difference charity work can make in other’s lives is joining the frontlines. And once you do, you realise whatever you can give those in need pales in comparison to the immense reward you get back from society’s most vulnerable. And not all the R2 donations in the world can buy the humanity you experience through the simple means of a gracious smile.

Early in March, The Citizen had the rare privilege to see what it is like in thick of things when the Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa (FMCSA) invited us to join the Rally to Read charity project it hosts in Mpumalanga. The briefing was simple, five convoys of five to seven vehicles each meet up in Hazyview on a Friday afternoon to receive a magnitude of learning aids consisting of mostly reading books to distribute among nine rural schools in the area on the Saturday.

The Rally to Read convoy is escorted into Majika Primary School in Nkambeni in rural Mpumalanga.

This is anything but a knock and drop project. Neither is FMCSA purely involved to score points with the government or to illustrate the toughness of their vehicles. Mind you, a Toyota Corolla in one of the groups escaped from the poorly maintained roads in rural Mpumalanga in one piece.

On this project, the human touch is as important as the donation itself. Seeing the excitement on children’s faces, underprivileged kids who have dressed up in their school uniforms and waited for hours in some cases on a Saturday to welcome the arrival of a convoy is very special. And there are no half measures in showing their gratitude to the people who deliver the learning aids.

The first school my group visited was Majika Primary School in Nkambeni outside Hazyview, whose 1 310 learners make it the largest of the nine carefully selected schools. After learners who lined the street outside in anticipation set off the welcoming ceremony with a loud applause, an impressive brass band led our convoy through the schoolyard filled with hundreds of children and parents joining in the festivities. A mass gathering followed with a seriously formal programme as dignitaries made speeches in alteration with enthusiastic performers whose acts ranged from singing to street dancing.

Majika Primary School learners read together under the watchful eye of their teacher.

Seeing that this was the second annual visit to Majika as part of by Rally to Read’s sustained three-year agreements with its selected schools, the principal proudly pronounced that not one single book from the first shipment had gone missing and was keen to showcase how far their learners had come since 2019. This turned into the true highlight of the visit. Each member of the Rally to Read party was invited into specially prepared ‘’show’’ classrooms, which was specifically set up for the children to showcase among other things their reading ability.

I wasn’t part of the first visit in 2019, but listening to the Grade 3 learners read individually was remarkable. Taking into account their humble circumstances, their hunger for education is almost profound. It’s like they truly grasp – even at the age of seven and eight – that education is probably the only thing that will help them escape a life of poverty. And if that isn’t enough to warm your heart, their enduring smiles and superb manners are. Not to mention how swollen the parents in attendance’s chests were with pride, realising that the potential benefits of the reading drive are much more important than the Saturday they sacrificed.

‘’It was not as easy to be granted the opportunity to donate these books as you might think,’’ says Trevor Chibaya, a Mbombela resident and proud team leader at Rally to Read in Mpumalanga.

‘’Initially there was plenty of red tape. It was almost like there was reluctance from the local government’s side out of fear that we were trying to expose them for not doing its job. But they eventually bought in, realising that society’s most precious commodity – our children – only stand to benefit in the end.’’

Our second and last stop of the trip was Mqwenyane Primary School in Kabokweni, just east of White River. Mqwenyane might have been the smallest of the recipients with 526 learners, but its challenge lies in having to educate them with only 11 teachers. Do the maths and that equates to 47.8 learners per teacher, which is huge compared to Majika’s average of 33.5.

Judging by the show they put on for us, the tough challenges certainly don’t hinder their ambition. Traditional dances, plenty of song and even an enthusiastic deejay eager to turn up the base completed an impressive programme of events.

Learners dressed in school uniform welcomes the Rally to Read convoy at Mgwenyane Primary School in Kabokweni, east of White River.

The impoverished surrounds were a lot more evident at Mqwenyane. Large pieces of missing ceiling expose the inside of the corrugated zinc roof, electricity cables stick out around light switch fittings on class room walls and bare cement floors that have seen better days were the harsh bits of reality reminding you of the difficulties these schools are faced with over and above the inflated teacher to student ratio.

The little souls, some wearing stitched up faded garments a size or two too big, quickly find a way into your heart. They read to us, engaged with us and confidently joined into song and conversation at their teacher’s request. It was quite disappointing to finally part with them.

As our convoy left the schoolyard, watching the kids neatly line up for their free meal sponsored by the project on Rally day was very sobering. Whatever pressing matters we were returning to in our own lives suddenly felt hugely insignificant.

The sad reality is that the average rural South African 14-year-old child has the reading age of seven. To put this into context, a seven-year old is in Grade 1 and a 14-year-old in Grade 8, the first year of high school. This handicap greatly contributes to a high dropout rate, making it very difficult for them to find any form of formal employment for the rest of their lives.

Rally to Read has reached over a quarter of a million children since 1998.

This is where Rally to Read adheres to the ‘’learn a man how to fish’’ instead of ‘’give a man a fish’’ philosophy. With the right support at the right time, rural children’s lives and most probably that of their families too are guaranteed to be enriched for the good.

According to the project, the average Grade 4 performance moved from 37% to over 49% over a three-year period as monitored in a cluster of schools, with the average Grade 6 performance growing by over 10% to 52.6% over the same time.

A big part of the upward curve can be contributed to Rally to Read’s constant engagement with their schools throughout the three-year period. After the initial shipment of books, educational games and balls for outdoor activities are delivered on days as we were part of, designated trainers make regular stops to conduct support, mentoring and training. The training demonstrates and encourages the effective use of resources, which in turn enrich the teachers.

Teachers’ role in learners’ development should not be underestimated.

Since it was founded by philanthropist Brand Pretorius in 1998, Rally to Read, part of the Read Educational Trust and now spearheaded by the Jonsson Foundation, has offered hope to more than 250 000 children and 12 000 teachers over five provinces, helping them close the rural literacy gap to enable them to attend high school and even tertiary institutions.

‘’No child left behind’’ is the summary of the project’s core purpose. We couldn’t do what we do without the ongoing support of our loyal sponsors,” says Pretorius.

“This year alone, Ford assisted us with an incredibly generous R1 million donation to help us continue our work. But over and above that, we are also so very grateful for the logistical support they provide in their fleet of Ranger bakkies, helping us to physically get the books and supplies to the schools, which are often in very difficult to reach locations. We’re talking wading through rivers sometimes, and climbing rocky roads that only the very toughest of 4x4s could handle.”

Ockert Berry, Vice-President of Operations of FMCSA, insists that their involvement with Rally to Read is more than just handing out books. Rally to Read is just one of numerous charity projects FMCSA is heavily involved in with the bulk of its projects centred around Mamelodi, situated next door to its Silverton Assembly Plant.

“To share in the excitement of the book hand-over, to meet and engage with the teachers, children, parents and caregivers, and to see first-hand the tangible results of this programme – the very real progress that is made in the schools we support – is both humbling and inspiring,’’ says Berry.

‘’No child left behind’’ is the summary of Rally to Read’s core purpose.

“This Rally is not just about delivering books. It’s about delivering hope. Giving these children, their families, their communities, and our country much-needed hope for the future.”

I thought taking along my five and eight-year-old daughters would be a good way of giving them idea of how privileged they are in their Johannesburg middle class schools, where they attend normal sized classes in buildings which well-maintained structural basics are taking for granted very easily. But while my girls participated with typical childlike enthusiasm, I think they are way too young to fully comprehend the situations they were exposed to.

It turned out to be me who got the good old reality check. And not by the brutal harshness of the surrounds, but rather by the humbling way those communities accepted not only their donations, but those who delivered it to them. Unknowingly, they did a lot more for me than I did for them. They managed to restore my faith in humanity.

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