Uitsig sits in the Cape Flats, a short drive from Stellenbosch – South Africa’s premier wine region and home to a world-renowned university. And yet life is very different for the children growing up in this community. HIV has taken a terrible toll over the last 30 years in South Africa – still holding the unenviable record of the most number of people living with HIV in the world. Poverty is rife with people finding any way possible to survive. This leads to sex work and high rates of theft. Drugs and alcohol are frequently abused – in fact, the drug dealers make no secret of their trade and the availability of drugs. The frustrations of daily living often manifests itself into domestic violence against partners but also the abuse of children.
Faced with these problems, many children lack the positive family environment and will often not have the opportunity to receive a good education. For many children, solace has been found in a different ‘family’. Gangs have offered the children a sense of belonging and given many of them a purpose. Uitsig is notorious for its gang crime and violence and children who are not provided an education and end up hanging around the streets becomes the perfect recruit. Ultimately, a nurturing and caring environment that we would expect from family and school, does not exist.
Working with the International Children’s Trust, New Life Community Projects is offering a different reality. It is a reality where a child has their education kick-started by providing them with a strong base of learning and warm encouragement. It is a reality where the factors that damage a child’s development (whether it be abuse, neglect or illness) is identified and steps taken to end it. It is a reality where the family are encouraged to be part of the child’s development. Perhaps more importantly, it is a reality where parenting skills are taught and not just assumed to exist. While it can often be easier just to work with a child, this can be worthless if they are simply returning home to the same old problems.
But what is it that really makes New Life different? Their approach is informed by a strong understanding of a child’s psychology and the importance of early childhood development. It is an understanding that all staff learn how to apply to their work. It is an approach that goes beyond the child’s immediate needs and looks to their long term development. While recognising the importance of education for a child (after all, the children are attending an informal school), the project takes (what we call in the development sector) a holistic approach – reflecting the fact that a child’s development is built on physical, social, educational and emotional needs.
But there is also something much simpler that sets New Life apart. Over the years, I have walked into many schools in sub-Saharan Africa and been saddened. Children may want to learn, but with 60 students in a class, no resources and poor teaching methods, the incredible potential of EVERY child is often lost. Walking into the compound that is home to New Life’s container school, you enter a completely different environment. Suddenly you have teachers who actually want to be there. They bring passion, love and dedication to the children. They genuinely care – not only for their children but for the community that they live and work in.
Each year, around 45 children between 4 and 5 years old begin their journey with New Life. For the first year, they will arrive each morning at the ‘Container School’ (old shipping containers that have become a community hub) for their breakfast and some group fun, before walking to their teacher’s home. Within each home, the teacher has created a space for a group of around 7 children who she will work and play with every weekday morning for the next year. Returning to the Container School at lunchtime, the children have the opportunity to have a hot, nutritional meal. Beyond this daily activity, the teachers and key staff will work with family members during visits to family homes and workshop sessions. Families are encouraged to participate in community events, to spend quality time with their children at family outings and events, and to work together as a family to cultivate part of the New Life garden where their efforts are rewarded with produce to take home.
At the end of that year, the intention is for all 45 children to be able to enter into a mainstream school (something that we cannot assume would happen otherwise), while the relationships between the children and their caregivers (whether parents, grandparents, extended family or siblings) will have improved. New Life are achieving these results. But achieving this success does not mean that support can end there. This is still just the start of a child’s journey.
Working with children at an early age provides for a key intervention at a crucial stage of their development, but that needs to be backed up with continual support structures and reinforcement of needs. To that end, the Out of School Club operates in the afternoons at the Container School. This provides a safe environment for children who have previously been through the project to do their homework, learn and play – an inspiring and supportive environment that they often cannot find in their own home. Ultimately, this keeps the child from finding an alternative on the streets and in the gangs. It is this long term approach that is vital in ensuring that the short term gains when a child is 5 years old can be sustained.
Without the International Children’s Trust and New Life, the alternative is disheartening. Today’s children need the opportunity to escape the cycle of poverty that their families and community have found themselves in. There is no quick fix and we cannot guarantee a solution. Ensuring the child can enter into school will mean that they will have better opportunities in the future for employment. They will have the ability to support themselves. Working with the child on their health and general well-being will help to prevent them from dropping out of school in the future and to avoid becoming involved in the gangs and street life that many in their community participate in. By working with families, we are looking to ensure that we are all encouraging the child in the same direction so that all of the children are provided with opportunities that their parents did not receive.
Every child has so much potential within them. It is easy for this potential never to be realised. In Uitsig, you can sense that we are giving them a fighting chance.