Eurgain Haf works as a Media and Communications Manager for Save the Children in Wales. During the charity’s centenary year, she recently visited Education centres in South Africa, to see for herself the work that the charity carries out there.
Working for a charity can be a rewarding and humbling experience. You constantly come across inspirational people, each with a story to tell, that motivates and reminds you why you do what you do. There are also opportunities that open your eyes into how the work does make a difference, be it on the ground here in Wales helping families experiencing poverty or overseas.
During Save the Children’s centenary year, I was fortunate enough to go on my first field trip, to South Africa.
Getting to South Africa
As part of my role I’d already had an insight into the charity’s work in Wales over the decades whilst researching and writing our book Bringing Our History in Wales Right Up to Date. I’d had the privilege of meeting and hearing the stories of our valued volunteers, many who have dedicated most of their lives to the cause.
It was therefore with mixed emotions that I embarked on my trip to South Africa. As a mother of two young children, leaving them for nine whole ‘sleeps’ was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I was also apprehensive about what I would possibly see and how I would react. While life expectancy and child survival rates have improved, the mortality rate of South African mothers and infants is still alarming. South Africa is still marked by high levels of violence against, and exploitation of, children despite its sophisticated legal framework. Furthermore, massive inequalities remain in learning opportunities, with many children under the age of five not being able to access Early Childhood Development Services, and poorer communities severely under served.
But with the wise words of my husband ringing in my head it was with optimism that I set off on an adventure of a lifetime: ‘think of the stories that you will bring back to tell them’.
And it is those stories, from our colleagues in South Africa who deliver projects on the ground, the practitioners, teachers and community based workers and the children and the young people who benefit from the work – which really stick in my mind.
The first couple of days
We visited projects in the provinces of Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo focusing on early childhood development, health and nutrition and child protection.
During our first couple of days we focused on early years programmes in the Ugu and eThekwini districts of the Kwazulu-Natal province, a very complex, mainly Zulu area with severe wealth disparity. This was evident as we travelled from the prosperous seaside city of Durban and climbed to the rural townships passing banana trees and children in uniform chewing on the sugar canes from nearby open fields on their walk to school. Travelling along bone-shaking dirt tracks to arrive at our remote destinations we saw cows and goats walking freely on the roadside. We also saw rounded coloured huts where people lived and women washing clothes in nearby lakes.
In these areas Save the Children’s role is to support and improve what is already carried out in communities. The ‘Happy Living and Learning’ project aims to improve access and the quality of early childhood development services by strengthening the capacity of centres and improving infrastructure to enable them to become registered and qualify for government funding.
Visiting the centres
At one of the centres we were greeted by a little girl wearing a ‘This Girl Can’ sweater. It was a slogan that stuck with me throughout the trip. It encapsulated the ‘can do’ attitude we witnessed, not only from our fellow colleagues in Save the Children, but from community members, all wanting to give children the best possible start in life.
The women in the communities were incredible. They voluntarily opened their homes to provide children, who would otherwise have been roaming the streets, with a space to play, learn and eat. Mrs Banda, the manager of one of the centres for eleven years, would remove the beds from her children’s room every morning to make space for them. Now she looks after 80 children and her staff were trained by Save the Children to help teach in both Zulu and English to set children up for school.
Another amazing centre manager supported 35 children in the backroom of her father’s house with bare walls and evident lack of resources. She explained the importance of community buy-in; involving mothers to mobilise; and engaging parents to be trained as qualified practitioners, with the charity’s support. We walked over to a brand-new build on her father’s farmland funded by Save the Children that will soon cater for 65 children and become a fully registered early childhood development centre.
Migrant Children in South Africa
Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” and there are still many inequalities prevalent in the country. Mr Maharaj, the principle of Victoria Primary School which had Mandela’s words as its motto, explained how huge distances and transport costs in rural areas, lack of parental-engagement, school fees and infrastructure provide huge obstacles. “The cycle of excellence is starting now, being enforced by our schools. But it will take years to level the playing field.”
Providing migrant children with an education is also a challenge in South Africa as they are unable to access provision without formal documentation. In Limpopo we visited the ‘Children on the Move’ project which has already reached almost 200 migrant children aged between 7 – 18 years, from Mozambique and Zimbabwe, who are vulnerable due to lack of identification, family and language. Save the Children supports a bridging school which provides them with basic education until they can access the mainstream system. When we arrived we were greeted with songs, traditional dances which showed their gratitude of the work that the charity carries out.
Health and nutrition are also recognised as essential for children to reach their full potential. We visited an early learning centre where Save the Children is working with early years practitioners, health visitors and local government officials to run a breast-feeding group for the community. The charity provides fridges for the breast milk, weighing scales a well as advising on nutritional guidelines and supports the centre to grow their own veg and fruit so that the children can eat healthily.
So, what food for thought had the trip given me?
I’d been inspired by what I’d seen. The dedication, commitment and resilience of the teachers, practitioners, community members we met was heartening. The children were happy and full of aspiration. I read the Gruffalo story to a group of children from books donated by Save the Children, my Save the Children UK colleagues and I played with them on the yard, we blew bubbles and we were shown around their gardens where they grow their own crops to eat for lunch. Everywhere we went we were welcomed by warm smiles, songs and a positive outlook for the future. Children would tell us they wanted to become teachers, firefighters and doctors when they grew up.
In one creche we were greeted in eleven of the official languages of South Africa by children as young as 5 years-old! We also chatted to inspiring young people benefiting from the charity’s youth empowerment projects to help them seek employment and awareness of social-economic issues facing young people in their communities.
I also drew on the similarities of the work that our colleagues in South Africa do and the work we carry out on the ground here in Wales. In key communities in Wales we also focus on bringing together schools, children’s centres and local governments to make sure children are getting the support they need and to improve the early learning of children growing up in poverty.
The trip was also about what ‘this girl’ can do and how, through my role, I can contribute in raising awareness of the amazing work that Save the Children does to this day, a century on since it was founded in 1919.
Are you feeling inspired by Eurgains story? Find out more about our work in South Africa.
See what we’re doing to support education for children.