When idle hands changed the future for half a million children

Review: Vivien Horler

A Path Unexpected – A memoir, by Jane Evans (Jonathan Ball)

Jane Klein was the women’s page editor of the Rand Daily Mail when she met Anthony Evans at a party in Joburg.

They clicked immediately and within months were talking of marriage. There was a snag though – Jane was a nice Jewish city girl, and Anthony was an Anglican cattle farmer based near Viljoenskroon, a tiny town in the Free State.

Her father told her: “Don’t get too excited. Men like Anthony don’t marry Jews.”

He did, though, and soon Jane had resigned her job and gone to the farm Huntersvlei with him. They settled in a cottage on the farm, while Anthony’s widowed mother, Sybil, elegantly coifed and immaculate, lived in the main house.

On the first day after their honeymoon, Anthony immersed himself in work. Sybil had her chores, and Jane was at a loose end. She had no idea what she was going to do.

Not long after, Jane watched as Sybil and her workers made long strings of sausages from meat raised on the farm. It was a quite a feat, and Jane wondered why they didn’t just buy their sausages. That did not go down well.

Then there was butter-making day. That didn’t go well either. Meeting the Viljoenskroon Rotary Anns was a revelation, and not a pleasant one. But Jane was struck by the decorative lavatory covers that festooned all the loos she saw in the town. Maybe she could get some of the farm workers to help her make these and sell them in Johannesburg. But Joburg wasn’t buying.

Then came June 16, 1976. All was calm in Viljoenskroon, but people in the town and the township were profoundly shaken. The next day, during a visit to the Huntersvlei farm school, Jane noticed a couple of very young children sitting on the ground, drawing pictures in the dust.

Why weren’t they at nursery school, she asked the school principal. He was surprised. “There are no nursery schools for farmworkers’ children. Now that you ask me, I don’t know of nursery schools anywhere in the rural areas, not for black children.”

And that was the beginning of Ntataise, a non-profit organisation for early childhood development and advocacy for training women in rural communities to become ECD teachers. Jane had found her calling.

In her prologue, she writes that Ntataise, Sesotho for “to lead a young child by the hand”, is today an independent not-for-profit organisation that has empowered thousands of women, who in turn have touched the lives of more than half a million children in some of the poorest areas in South Africa.

They started small, in Die Stad, home of the Huntersvlei workers, but it wasn’t easy. Jane at 28 had no training as a teacher, and there were no Sesotho pre-school teachers available in Viljoenskroon – and probably not the Free State either. When she suggested to farmworker Rebecca Sothoane that the children’s mothers could fill the role of teachers, Sothoane was aghast: “Most of them can’t read or write!”

They didn’t speak English either, and Jane didn’t speak Sesotho. When she called a meeting of the Huntersvlei mothers and put her idea to them, they were dubious. They had heard of crèches they said. Would this be a crèche? No, it would not, said Jane firmly. The point was not to look after the children but to give them a better foundation in life.

Would there be food? Yes. Where would the teachers come from?

And that was the crux. Jane had consulted the African Self-Help Association in Johannesburg and been told: “The quality of teaching and learning offered to [young children] is what turns a nursery school from a place of care to a place of early learning. The children are not the challenge, finding teachers and getting parents to understand about early learning will be your greatest challenge.”

Bertha Serapelo, the Evans’s cook, and Maria Thekiso, a farmworker who had grown up on the farm and gone to high school in QwaQwa, would be the teachers. The criteria, they agreed, were that the teachers should be able to read, write and speak Sesotho, live on the farm and like the idea of working with children.

Jane writes: “A journalist, a cook and a farmworker. Little did any of us know that between us we would take early learning and preschool education to places it had never been before. The ripples from that informal meeting on Huntersvlei would reach deep into some of the poorest rural communities in South Africa.”

This is the story of that extraordinary achievement, but it is also the story of a farmer and his wife and their children, of a small Afrikaans town in apartheid South Africa that slowly changed, and of a city woman learning to adapt to the mores of a very different life and going on to make meaningful change in many people’s lives.

It’s a most rewarding and inspiring read.


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