Every year hundreds of volunteers get together across the country to make a difference. They do this by using their 4x4s to deliver educational material to the most remote and forgotten schools in South Africa. This year we joined the Rally to Read to get a better understanding of the venture
Text: Stephen Smith
“Children are the future, and education gives them hope,” says Brand Pretorius, CEO of the McCarthy group. “But in rural areas the problems are almost overwhelming. These children are forgotten, and are often almost inaccessible.”
This is why McCarthy organised the first Rally to Read in 1998, in a bid to improve the odds for the thousands of children across the country who are schooled in rural areas. The needs of these children and their teachers are immense. They lack both facilities and support.
That first rally, to Nkanhdla in KwaZulu- Natal, was supposed to be a one-off event, but instead it opened the eyes of the organisers and persuaded them that more needed to be done. Their worst fears had been confirmed – they found schools with no water, electricity or even books.
Now, 11 years later, the Rally to Read is firmly entrenched in the 4×4 calendar, and there are nine different rallies across the country, aiming to reach as many communities as possible.
It was before dawn on a cold Saturday morning. We had woken up at 3:30 to meet the 5am meeting time at the Vaal One-Stop service station. There we were greeted by groups of Rally to Read volunteers, mostly chatting about how cold they were. After a warming cup of coffee, it was off in convoy to Reitz in the Free State, where the rally was to kick off .
En route we were treated to a spectacular sunrise – a worthy reward for our early start. Mooigelegen Farm was the initial destination, where more than 50 cars and 150 people had gathered for breakfast and the beginning of the rally.
Before breakfast, though, there was some hard work to do, as each of the cars had to be packed to the brim with educational materials.
The rally works thanks to the sponsors, each of whom donates R20 000 to the cause. R12 000 of this is spent on two wooden box libraries filled with books, and other educational necessities. The remaining R8000 helps to fund a teacher development programme run by the READ educational trust.
Aft er motivating speeches by Pretorius, David Furlonger of the Financial Mail and Riëtte Els from READ, and a good breakfast, the convoys were on their way.
The party had been divided into six groups, each of which would go to three schools during the day to deliver the goods. Our group, led by Pieter Brits of McCarthy, had been allocated Thabang, Arran, and Aasvoëlkrans schools.
Our first stop was Arran, a school that has eight teachers and 236 pupils, set in a dusty patch of ground on the outskirts of a township. The entire school was there to greet us, along with a large number of parents, waiting patiently in the wintry sun.
Speeches were kept short, although Riëtte did a great job in explaining the donations to the children, highlighting the importance of reading, and how to care for the books. Beanies and water bottles had also been donated for each child, as well as netballs and soccer balls for the school, and these were handed out.
It’s not only the children who benefit from the project. The rally also supplies teachers with a kit to help them with their job, as well as the training scheme already mentioned. Often we forget that the teachers must also despair, faced as they are with the uphill battle of teaching without support or facilities, and it was fantastic to see how excited they were to be given recognition and a helping hand.
After the formalities we were treated to songs and dancing by the schoolchildren, and then it was time to hit the road to our second school.
Thabang is a township school, and from the outside it looks much better equipped and organised than Arran. But Riëtte was quick to tell us that the buildings might look good, but the school suffered the same problems of a lack of reading materials and support. The school has 767 pupils, and the educational materials from Rally to Read were greatly appreciated by the school and teachers.
Once again the formalities were dealt with, and then we were entertained. Two children read to us, before different classes performed songs and dances.
To get the most done in the day the visits are kept short, and so it wasn’t long before we were back in our vehicles, heading out to the last school on our itinerary.
Aasvoëlkrans was a revelation to our group. Not only is it situated miles from anywhere, at the end of a long dirt road, but it was the one school that looked forgotten. With just two teachers and classrooms, and 42 pupils, it is tiny. The classrooms are dark and bare, and it was painfully evident that there were no teaching facilities at all.
What seemed like the entire community was there for the ceremony, and once again it was great to see how excited the teachers and children were to be given a helping hand.
With our work done, we headed off to the Golden Gate Hotel where we were staying for the night. But READ’s work will continue in the form of the teacher training, while next year the same schools will probably be visited again.
Riëtte said that the greatest results were visible on the third annual visit, and for this reason they tried to support the schools consistently.
During supper the different groups gave feedback on their experiences, and without fail they had enjoyed the event tremendously, but had also found it emotional and moving. Every member of our group was moved by the struggles the children faced in getting a basic education – something we so often take for granted.
These days one hears that education is being given top priority by government, but what we saw showed that some communities are marginalised, mostly by distance and inaccessibility. Rally to Read doesn’t claim to solve problems, but it does perform an incredibly valuable job in giving children the tools to better themselves.
For those who participate in the rallies it is not only an enjoyable experience but an eye-opener, and an opportunity to make a difference. It’s no wonder that Brand Pretorius considers the project to be the most rewarding part of his job.