TO get to Mkanzini village’s only school one has to climb to the heavens – up and up a winding dirt road. One of the only indications that the building perched at the top of a hill is a school is the explosion of children’s laughter cutting through the air.
At break time more than 100 tiny faces burst through the door of just one classroom at Mkanzini Junior Secondary School.
Their school bags – most just plastic packets containing a book – flap wildly as they scurry down the steep hill to where cows graze. The view is breathtaking – green hills roll on forever. But it is here in the postcard-perfect Eastern Cape where suffering is epitomised.
"Come see,” teacher Boniwe Sobuza said. "You come and see our pigsty.”
About 44 Grade R children and 66 Grade 1 pupils are crammed in a dark, dusty room. There are dangerously high stacks of old books, donated to the school, littered at the back of the class.
The floor resembles a dirt road. "They use the stones to count, and beer tops too,” joked teacher Maureen Nomakhosi Ndabeni.
Typical classrooms for these young little minds are usually a medley of colour but here children are lucky to get a seat on flimsy benches or a cement brick.
Virtually all the children’s parents are unemployed, so owning a toy is just a dream.
"What would you like at our school some day?” Ndabeni asked her class.
A Grade 1 boy smiled coyly: "Desks and chairs, and picture books and work books.”
And a playground and a see-saw and pencils and food and, of course, toys.
The teacher asked a Grade R girl, not much taller than a bedside table, what she wanted. She stared at her tiny feet and her finger slipped into her mouth.
She is only three years old and walks to school alone. The child is not old enough to enrol at the school and learns nothing – she comes to eat.
"The children come to school at this age because this is where they get something to eat,” Sobuza said.
Sometimes the bowl of samp and beans or vegetables and rice served at school is their only meal for the day.
"If I had known then what I know now maybe I wouldn’t have become a teacher. It hurts, it is very painful to see so much suffering,” Sobuza said.
She recalled the day a girl fainted because she was so hungry. The child’s father, a miner, lost his job last year and Sobuza assumed their food cupboard was empty.
"Here crime is not high, but when there are break-ins they steal food. That’s all.”
Sobuza teaches economic management sciences and technology to the seniors, but she decided to stop teaching about computers.
Like the youngster’s dream of owning toys, her pupils dream of computers. But none of them had ever seen one.
"Tell me how am I going to explain what a mouse does? Or a keyboard? How are they going to understand?”
The Grade 7 and 8 pupils have a brick classroom built by the community. It does not have a floor or a ceiling but they manage, except when it is too cold or too warm or when it rains.
When asked what they wanted for their school a boy shouted: "Water!” Not a computer laboratory or a television.
They drink from a nearby river which is also used by livestock and the community to wash clothing and bathe.
The children also listed toilets. They have to endure the indignity of using "the forest” nearby instead of their pit latrines that have not been cleaned in 14 years.
The smell is overpowering, it grabs one at the neck and punctures the lungs before oozing to the stomach.
Principal Zanemvula Jama does not have an office and apologetically sets one up in the shade with a flimsy bench and a wooden crate.
He tried his best to put in words how demotivated he feels when he gets to school every day.
But when he sees the children it reminds him why he is still there. The noise from tractors almost drown out his voice. He said contractors arrived on June 1 to level out a section of land where the school’s new prefabricated classrooms would be erected.
The school struggled for years to get assistance from local authorities after a fire destroyed four classrooms in 2009. Only after the non-profit organisation Equal Education took up their fight in court did the Education Department commit to help.