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Schools as Community Learning Centres

SANDY GRANT
The timing of the remark was quite remarkable. Herman Spitz of the European Union addressing the recent National Education Pitso in Maun noted that ‘beyond teaching students, schools could become a centre of learning for the whole village, both young and old, and they could be more open for exchanges with the neighbouring community to a higher extent than is the case today.’ (Botswana Guardian June 16).

But then it was not just Spitz’s remarkable if unintentional timing, it was the supreme irony that such advice should have been given so soon after Patrick van Rensburg’s death. It is possible if not probable that Spitz, as with a great many others, will not have heard of van Rensburg.

The past is rapidly forgotten, especially if it is inconvenient or uncomfortable, and the emphasis now is very much on today and tomorrow. Van who, you may ask? Just another Boer, presumably, who came here with all the familiar attitudes? Quite so. But how extraordinary it was that someone should have emerged from that warped society to try and up-end the conventional education system that prevailed here in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Since his passing, a great deal has been written and published about him. There is no need, to duplicate these tributes. But there is a need, however, to come to grips with the simple fact that he tried to transform education here and failed. As far as I know, no one has yet attempted to chronicle and analyse the multiple facts involved in the spectacular rise and subsequent collapse of this quite extraordinary attempt. 

Until this is done, and we have a better understanding of the long established attitudes in the government towards education, there will be other people like Spitz who will, with the very best of intentions, recommend what could (and should) be done. Because Spitz’s counsel was cautiously expressed by his use of the word ‘could’ rather than ‘should’ indicating his awareness that what may be desirable may not also be possible. ‘Could’ of course being an-opt-out word. But then Spitz will be far too experienced to start telling others what they should be doing.

So, he carefully sticks to notions of what is possible, and desirable whilst accepting that they may not be so realistic. I sent the various tributes on PvR to the founder of the Odi Weavers, Peder Gowenius, in Sweden. He responded by suggesting that he (PvR) was a man trying, wanted to do good. Like so many of us, his ambitions was not always connected with reality.’ You see, how that word ‘reality’ again recurs!

But then there were other attempts in addition to those of

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PvR which attempted to put Spitz’s recommendations into practice.

Probably, the most remarkable was the establishment of the once famed Odi Weavers by Gowenius and his wife Ulla in the five-year period between1973 and 1978.

The objective of this most unusual project was to generate outward spreading education by giving people a tool, weaving, which would enable them to communicate with others.

Generally, people outside the three participating villages found it difficult to come to terms with such an objective. It was understood instead that the project was designed to create employment.

Bit by bit, the ambition and purpose was reduced, the project turned in one itself, and indeed became little more than a means of employing those who worked there. It too failed.

There was a small chance that the newly established Odi College of Arts and Design could have tried to become ‘ a centre of learning for the whole village.’ Most obviously by adopting or at least relating to the Weavers past achievements and to Gowenius an educator par excellence and as he was described in his cv, ‘a genius at village development’. What more could be wished by the new College? Alas. I was informed by its first Principal that this is not how government works.

Indeed it doesn’t. So we have this important new College whose relationship with its accommodating village is limited to the employment of a few cleaners.

Then in Mochudi, there was first the Community Centre and then the Phuthadikobo Museum, which approached the same general goal but from a different base and angle.

A school could be a community centre is, I believe, what Spitz was saying. But then a community museum can also function in the same way, as indeed Phuthadikobo did. But these attempts also failed with the repeated echo of that deadening comment, ‘we are government and you are not’. 

There were all sorts of reasons to explain why it was difficult to inter-lock government with non-government. Patrick was a communist, Gowenius was obviously a baddie having been kicked out of Lesotho by Leabua Jonathan.

What really needs to be noted is that these four very different projects, were started with the backing, not of the government but of dikgosi. But in the end we are left only with realism!



Etcetera II

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