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Nurseries around the world – South Africa

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By Hendrik de BruinHead of the Umgungundlovu District’s Psychological Support Services of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, South Africa

In the first of our six-part series visiting nurseries around the world, our first stop is South Africa

In the green foothills of Kwazulu-Natal’s magnificent Drakensberg Mountains, a Zulu community strives to develop and educate its children. The preschool children already know the veld; all the cattle in the valley; and the domestic duties that the girls are required to perform. However, the thatched huts that are their homes seldom have books in them as their parents were never taught to read. The hard-won nursery section, built to prepare infants for formal schooling, has now been running for four years, despite the initial lack of funding, overcrowding and the reluctance of some parents to let their children attend school.

Meet Siyabonga

When Principal Mthembu was unable to employ a trained nursery teacher due to staffing issues, her thoughts turned to Siyabonga. He was a fine product of her school who, having lost his own parents at a very early age, had developed a surprising empathy with preschool children. Principal Mthembu had witnessed this handsome Zulu man robustly competing with his peers in his imposing traditional dress, and had also seen him comfort infant tears. Traditional Zulu men are seldom seen tending to small children.

Under the close supervision of Principal Mthemba, Siyabonga has acquired skills and insights that usually come with years of nursery teacher training. The school does not charge any fees and the state provides relatively meagre financial support, so there is little money to pay for many of the essential facilities. The school is fortunate to have a tap providing portable water, electricity and simple pit toilets.

Siyabonga and the children

However, Siyabonga has created a nursery like no other. His clever hands have made many of the learning and teaching materials that his classroom needs. Many of his 22 scruffy charges walk miles to enjoy his songs and stories and play with the scrap cardboard aircrafts that he has made. The children love to hear Siyabonga’s stories full of the creatures of the veld and Zulu folklore. The story sessions are very animated. Wide-eyed, the children listen to the wise old tortoise (Siyabonga) as he tells of the naughty monkeys, the grumpy hippopotamus and the sly crocodile. They squirm a little when they hear about the crocodile as there are always rumours of crocodiles waiting in the river where they collect water for their homes each day.

Siyabonga is aware of the value of encouraging the children to be creative. They enjoy painting, but he does not always have money for expensive brushes and paints. He makes paintbrushes by fraying the end of a stick cut from a pine tree. His coloured paints are:

  • red – flour or fine soil mixed with water in which he has boiled beetroot
  • brown – strong tea mixed with flour or brown mud
  • black – charcoal
  • grey – ash
  • blue and green – food colourant mixed with flour.

The children love the mock television set, which they take turns to stand in to teach each other about shapes, sizes and colours.

Siyabonga has made much of the classroom furniture from papier mâché. In the fantasy play corner, the ‘ladies’ sit on his constructed chairs around a similar table serving each other imaginary tea and cakes. They talk of their adult chores, such as laundry at the river, and collecting wood for the fire that warms their hut and cooks their food. ‘I must get on with the ironing,’ says Nonhlanhla, a little boy who is watching them. He tests the temperature of the papier-mâché iron that has been heated on the toy stove. His mother is a domestic servant at a local farm. She would recognise her own ironing mannerisms and her song which Nonhlanhla sings as he smooths a doll’s dress.

‘Perhaps a woman teacher would give more attention to those untidy noses,’ Principal Mthembu wonders as she hears the children singing harmoniously while they file past for the daily plate of nutritious traditional food that the school provides. ‘But would she rough and tumble on the lawn with the boys the way that Siyabonga does? He is such a wholesome father figure.’

Casting her eyes to the heavens, she sighs, ‘Siyabonga’ – the isiZulu for ‘thank you’!

  • For more pictures of the South African nursery see our interactive photo album