Updates from Centocow –  the Pre-schools

Updates from Centocow 2017 –  the Pre-schools

Two weeks after my return from South Africa; the kaleidoscope of colliding memories and feelings of disorientation have finally settled so that I can begin to make sense of my journey.

I am left now with a longing to continue in whatever way I can to stay connected to the communities I visited, with excitement about the projects which are taking place and the friendships which have grown and deepened but with a deeper understanding of the difficulties people are facing in this beautiful but harsh country.

I arrived on a very cold spring evening. It was already dark as we climbed the dirt road and descended to the Umzimkhulu River just below Centocow. My fifth visit to the area, so I felt all the excitement of a homecoming to familiar territory and only imagined the picturesque landscape of forested hills forming the backdrop to the two brick-built mission churches, one behind the other on the hill below St. Apollinaris Hospital, but seeing only a few twinkling lights.

My mission was to find out which Early Years Practitioners had received the first round of the Persona Doll training which was funded by the Exmouth and Centocow Linking Association and to steer the progress of the follow up training for the teachers.

The Isibani Sezwe Centocow Association

P1010437 acIn 2001 I had first arrived here as a volunteer with Hands Around the World and helped to set up the Isibani Sezwe Centocow Association, the association of pre-school teachers in this vast rural area. Back then there were eighteen pre-schools and now I hear there are about fifty! The Association is important for the morale of the teachers and regular meetings are an opportunity for teachers to share ideas, practice and feel connected.

It can be a hard job keeping the inspiration and fun needed to nurture a large group of young children when you may have your own family problems.  When you know that the children are coming from difficult home situations. They are often facing being orphaned or abandoned or not knowing where the next meal is coming from. Yet all these teachers are committed to the care and education of their children. They know that despite the difficulties they may face, education and loving care has to be the only way forward not just for the individual children but for the whole community.

Getting to the Pre-Schools

Throughout my visit I was dependent on the generosity of Debbie and Alan Rowe, Bev Everett and others for providing the transport needed to visit pre-schools and other centres in the rural areas. There is no formal public transport system and any use of the local mini bus services would not only be unreliable but would leave me stranded on a one way ticket.

Bev Everett drives long distances to remote pre-schools monthly to take bags of maize, soya mince and vegetables to 15 or 16 pre-schools. She also takes basic equipment such as crayons and paper and such toys or games that have been donated within the Creighton community. The vastness of those steep sided hills set against the distant mountains and seemingly endless pile upon pile of soaring white clouds on blue skies are a stunning sight and on this canvas a great network of winding rutted tracks spread like veins this way and that deep into the hills. Small scattered homesteads consisting of a cluster of clay brick rectangular or round buildings, rondavels, often brightly painted climb up the hills until the farthest resemble dolls houses. Every so often Bev pulls the truck up in front of one of them and, ‘This is the pre-school.’

The Pre-Schools

On two days we visited some 12 pre-schools in this manner, (2 were closed on the day we visited.) Most of these I had visited in previous visits and many of the school teachers were familiar to me.

This time I had brought with me Lindiwe, my Persona Doll and a picture story book of which I had a copy in Zulu and one in English. After greeting the staff and children, I introduced Lindiwe to the children and told the children the story in English, each page followed by the Zulu teacher’s version.

Our visits were short as Bev had to fit in the round of visits to far flung pre-schools before 1pm. The children responded well to Lindiwe and enjoyed the story but none of the teachers we visited had begun the Persona Doll training.

Pre-school 0463

The pre-schools were for the most part as I remembered them. The buildings were small and in a poor state of repair with roughly fitted pieces of lino as a floor cover. A few were in larger purpose built buildings. There were between 6 and 25 children in the schools although one school had 45. (This smart timber built pre-school had been gifted to the community by a donor from Pretoria. It had excellent outdoor equipment and plenty of resources and therefore attracted more children than most.) The resources in most were poor although some were better managed than others. The basics consisted of crayons, paper, magazines and recycled containers for modelling or make believe play, pieces of Lego or Duplo, scissors and glue. All the pre-schools had a few small plastic chairs and tables and a table for the teachers records and resources, including her phone. There were posters on the walls, mostly hand written, which displayed the Daily Routine, Days of the week, parts of the body etc. and for some pictures of animals and other commercial posters. Few pre-schools had more toys or games although some had jungle gym equipment or slides outside.

For many the level of training was fairly basic and a daily routine of songs and games interspersed with learning days of the week or talking about the weather and food kept the children occupied. The fact that these dedicated teachers turned up day after day and took care of the children for no financial reward was a huge resource for their local community. Many teachers had received some training and it was evident that some were naturally gifted and creative in their use of meagre resources for play, their vibrant storytelling manner and in their general rapport with the children. Training of all pre-school teachers in the area was carried out by trainers working for TREE, Training and Resources in Early Education, a Not for Profit organisation based in Durban.

Jane with Lindiwe
Jane with Lindiwe

Persona Doll Training

During our visits we sought out participants of the recent Persona Doll training; we had a register of attendees sent to us. We found that the ladies who were trained were working for TREE as Family Support Workers. TREE has put a great deal of energy into the training of these women who visit rural families in the area. Given the poverty, a low level of basic education of parents and the restructuring of families due to either death from HIV/Aids or migration of parents to the cities this is valuable supportive work. Many parents are very young women. The women help families with social grants, health care and parenting skills and the addition of Persona Doll training to help the children to communicate their emotional needs is a great breakthrough in the care of children.

Nondamezele was one, she was amazed at how easily a young orphan who had been rehomed was prompted to tell her of his fears and anxieties by his introduction to the Persona Doll. Another trainer we met was similarly impressed. The teachers who had learnt about the use of the dolls because they were in the same community as the family support workers were very keen to have the training.2 Persona Dolls

Thoko, a great support to the community, arranged a meeting of the association for me to talk to the teachers about the Persona Doll training and give them some support and encouragement.

A meeting of the Pre-school Association was called and 27 teachers assembled in the community hall at Makholweni. Teachers updated each other with their news and I introduced them to Lindiwe and explained the Persona Doll training to them. The women were keen to participate.

After making phone calls to the training co-ordinator at TREE and to the administration manager of Persona Doll training, we have now arranged for the Persona Doll training to be delivered to the teachers during two of their Association meetings early in the New Year. The trainer who delivers the Persona Doll training has been trained by Persona Doll Training but is a trainer for TREE in Durban. There is an agreement between the two organisations that Thobekile the trainer will revisit centres where she has trained and ensure the practice is being maintained, giving advice and support where necessary. It was good to see that so many teachers attended the meeting as they often have to travel for up to 20km to get there.

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