Report from the Zenzeleni world

By Kathrin Albrecht, September 2021

It is Friday, 13 March 2020, the day my husband Meldt and I are able to visit the Zenzeleni School in Khayelitsha, just outside Cape Town. The day before, when we were checking in at Hanover airport, we were still wondering whether we should even venture on this short trip.

Photo: © Kathrin Albrecht

But since there was only one confirmed case of coronavirus in South Africa at that time, we were encouraged to stick to our travel plans. But already at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, the picture was different: about half of the people were already wearing a mask. Accordingly, our nervousness increased during the onward flight to Cape Town. Would we be allowed to re-enter Europe so easily four days later? What if we were not? Having arrived in Cape Town at night, it turned out that the entire plane was surprisingly healthy, having had its temperature taken at a distance of 1.5 metres. TIA – This is Africa.

In our accommodation, the first bad news from Germany hit us. The schools would be closed from Monday; at least until the Easter holidays, we were still told at the time.

But it was late, we needed sleep and the next morning we were expected at the Zenzeleni School. So we went to bed and put off showering until the next morning. A mistake, because: TIA. Instead of hot coffee and a warm shower, we experienced the first of many power cuts. Cape Town not only has a water problem but also has to be economical with its energy, so districts are disconnected from the power grid at set times.

Genevieve Langenhoven, the communication & development officer of the Centre for Creative Education, met us at our accommodation so that we could follow her in convoy to Khayelitsha just outside Cape Town. Heading towards the Garden Route, the corrugated iron huts nestled up against the fence of the highway; we shared the roadway with many a farm animal. Fire pits and barbecue stands lined up along the side roads, with a wild tangle of power cables and light poles above them.

And then suddenly there was a secured and partially walled property boundary with an electric rolling gate that gave us access to a parallel world. In the middle of the sandy dune hinterland of Khayelitsha, several small, solidly built pitched-roof buildings were lined up in two semicircles around a green grassy area.

Before we were invited into the classrooms of the classes we were sponsoring, Genevieve showed us around the area.

I was particularly touched by the vegetable garden, where the battle against drought was recently lost despite all ingenuity, and an overseas container where a studio had been set up by former Zenzeleni student and current teacher Khanya Fusa.

As is also familiar to us in Germany, pupils are taken out of class during school hours if the need arises and are allowed to wrestle through art with their impediments or blocks in one-to-one care. As we explored the grounds, Genevieve asked me about the motivation for my educational sponsorship. It’s simple: I started a firm specialising in architectural and sustainability communication in February 2020. Sustainability does not stop at the choice of recyclable and resource-saving building materials; rather, it is a holistic approach that takes into account economic, ecological and social aspects. Accordingly, it was important for me as I started my business to enable something of a different future perspective for a less privileged child.

Today, BAUKUNST.PLUS has been around for just under a year, while the child whose education I sponsor is already in class 2.

My enthusiasm for the sponsorship concept infected the teacher and parents of our daughter’s class, so that today’s 4b of the Hannover Maschsee Waldorf School entered into a parallel sponsorship of class 4 of the Zenzeleni School. In our role as “mail carriers” of a package of self-made profiles together with a class photo, we could get to know the African pupils.

They sang us songs, some of which we knew from our children’s English lessons. Even a German “Bruder Jakob” filled the classroom. Although most of the children at this school speak Xhosa at home, we were able to converse well in English. While the children in Hanover wanted to know whether a school uniform is worn at Waldorf schools in South Africa (no!) and whether there is also a kind of individual verse given to each pupil that is recited regularly (yes!), the Zenzeleni pupils were mainly interested in supposedly dangerous animals in Germany.

While we were experiencing all this, France closed its borders and the anxiety about our return journey grew by the hour. On Sunday evening, we made the hop to Johannesburg to fly back to Hanover from there at 11.55 pm via Amsterdam. On Monday, South Africa imposed an entry and exit ban.

We were away from home for only four days and the world turned upside down. The unfortunately all too familiar drastic effects of the pandemic happened everywhere, including in South Africa. There the Zenzeleni Waldorf School, like all other schools, had to close on 18 March 2020. The first nationwide curfew came into effect on 26 March. The school community of our sponsored school was hit particularly hard, as most families live in the township and the parents have no secure income. Besides the lack of school fees, the school had to take another bitter blow: due to the strict curfew, the Zenzeleni School parent body was no longer allowed to have daily night vigils to protect against break-ins. There was looting.

Since our sponsorships started, both our daughter’s class and I have been in regular exchange with the Zenzeleni world. Genevieve taught me the Zulu word “ubuntu” in one of her emails and translated it as “I am who I am because we are”. It denotes solidarity, survival, compassion and respect in just one word. At the same time, it reflects the understanding that every person in South Africa has a duty to help others in the community. Accordingly, “wealthier” suburbs have been paired with “poor” communities, alleviating hunger with soup kitchens. As long as the unemployment rate was not yet at 50 per cent (it is currently at just under 30 per cent), the South African population would pull together, my contact said.

With a German unemployment rate of six percent in April 2021 and our various safety nets, we are in a so much healthier position and should embrace ubuntu. So let us follow the call of the Friends of Waldorf Education and support pupils in Waldorf schools in Africa and Asia, but also in Central and Eastern Europe as well as in Latin America with educational sponsorships.

About the author: Kathrin Albrecht is an entrepreneur and mother of a pupil at the Hannover Maschsee Free Waldorf School


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