Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The $10 impossible dream: A year of school

The LA Times continues its series on 'living with pennies', focusing this time on education. it doesn't go into as much depth and tackles the issue of what happens when you can't afford to pay the fees.

The $10 impossible dream: A year of school

The note sent home with the 922 students of Silwanetshe Primary School was clear: Pay up or drop out.

The next morning, about 500 children whose parents couldn't afford the $10 annual fee were absent. When classes began, 11-year-old Mduduzi Mkhize and his sisters, Precious, 10, and Zinhle, 8, could only press against the wire fence that separates their mud hut from the school grounds.

"I wish I was there," Mduduzi, a third-grader with a love of arithmetic and penmanship, said as he watched his classmates begin their morning prayers.

Vast numbers of Africa's children stand with Mduduzi and his sisters — trapped on the other side of the fence. Many attend school sporadically. Others don't even start. Of an estimated 115 million children worldwide who have never been to school, nearly 40% live in Africa, according to the World Bank.

These children may have survived disease, war or famine to reach school age. But for want of a few dollars a year, they will never be educated.

Because most Africans get by on less than a dollar a day, school is a luxury they cannot afford. After feeding their children, parents must stretch their pennies to pay for clothes and other basic needs. Even if they manage to set aside some money for school, they may have to choose which of their children to educate.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has promoted education as an antidote to poverty and conflict. The government spends nearly 8% of the nation's gross domestic product on education — a higher percentage than the United States or Britain — and the nation is widely recognized as having the best school system on the continent.

Even so, public schools must charge fees to stay open, which excludes many thousands of children. A third of South Africa's children don't make it past fifth grade.

Mduduzi is too young to grasp that a lack of schooling will keep him on society's lowest rung. For him, it is much simpler. "I miss reading," he said. "I miss learning to write. But most of all, I miss my friends."

Louis Mndaweni, principal of the Silwanetshe school, understands. He was once as poor as these children.

"It breaks my heart to have to send the children home," he said. "But if we don't enforce the rules, we'll have no money to run the school. There will be no school to come to."
This is all too common unfortunately throughout the continent. For us living outside the continent, it is not uncommon to deal with the following scenario - send money home for nieces, nephews' school fees, parents can't manage and use the money for food or other necessities (worst case is it's wasted on other things), child doesn't have the $5 to give to teacher, stops attending school, starts work at home (in the best case). A couple of years go by and the child is off the track, lost to the system - then teenage pregnancy for the girls or the boys then a life essentially hustling, selling dog chains and chinese plastic goods at intersections in the road. Its a harsh, brutish and short life that looms.

Tertiary Education is my mum's current portfolio so this remit is part of our daily lives and worries. If one looks at it head on, it's almost too large a problem to confront. And yet the kids show up, proud in their uniforms if they have one, want to go to school, to learn. On that basis, these problems are not insurmountable.

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