Imagine you are the Ju|’hoan parent of a school-age child. If you are lucky enough to live in one of the six settlements that has a Village School, your child will have been receiving a basic education in literacy and numeracy in your mother-tongue, until Grade 4 (aged 11, ideally.) While the (usually) lone teacher works largely to the national Namibian curriculum, the teaching is culturally appropriate, so your child is never singled out for punishment or praise (there are no tall poppies in a San field) and work is done collaboratively wherever possible. (The San are renowned peer-educators.) The teacher understands that part of your child’s education must, of necessity, involve learning bush survival skills, so when you all take off in Mangetti season to harvest this sustaining fruit from a faraway dune area, or on rare occasions, to skin and butcher a donated carcass at a distant trophy hunting camp, there is no retribution.
More often than you would like, the teacher is absent from school – he has to collect his salary from the nearest big town, Grootfontein, more than 400 km away; he has no transport so must sit beside the ‘Great White Way’ until he can get a lift. This can take days, but apparently, there’s no other payment method. Consequently your child misses out on many teaching days so her progress is slower than expected by the education authorities. But eventually, she is ready for high school.
The only high school is in Tsumkwe, so your child will have to board in the hostel. You will miss curling your body around hers in the family hut on cold nights, but she will have a nice new blanket from the government to keep her warm. And a regular supply of maize meal, thanks to the government’s Food Allocation Programme*. That’s more than you can provide for her at home with bush food so scarce.
Little Be worries that she won’t understand anything because the teaching medium is English, but you stress that it will get easier if she just sits quietly and does what she sees the other children doing.
You are surprised when after just two weeks your studious child turns up outside your hut one evening. She explains that she does not wish to return to the high school; her reason – she does not like being beaten.
You are shocked; why would anyone beat a child? Turns out she was found sleeping in the bed of Di||xao, her cousin. N!unkxa, another girl from the village, was sleeping under the same blanket too.
You wonder why this is punishable; Di||xao and Be have slept together, in the family hut, under the same blanket, since Di||xao’s mother died in 2011. And N!unkxa is like family.
“What happened to your government blanket?” you ask her.
“The big boys took it when they mocked me.”
The big boys are the Herero, Ovambo or perhaps Kavango children at the high school. They are bigger people and you have heard some make sport from insulting the San.
“Did you tell your teacher?”
“Yes, but he is the one who beat me.”
The above scenario is based on current facts.
In 2016 there was only one student registered as San in the higher grades (Grade 10) at Tsumkwe Secondary school. Five years ago UNICEF reported that “the ‘survival rate’ for San students past Grade 7 remains very low compared to the national average… Despite Namibia’s progressive policies, and concern for educationally marginalized children, existing statistics all point to a very low participation by San children in the mainstream education system, especially from the upper primary school onwards.” (Hays, 2016. pp 118-11 **)
It is widely documented that poverty, stigmatization, bullying, corporal punishment and even instances of sexual abuse are the reasons for low attendance. Anthropologist, Jennifer Hays (2016: 224) suggests that one must also consider that the lack of participation (in formal education) is in fact a form of resistance. Parents and children are unlikely to subscribe to a system that does not respect their culture.
And then there is the problem of employment. There are no jobs to be had in Tsumkwe, educational level notwithstanding. So it would not be surprising if parents prioritized bush learning (tracking, trapping, foraging, traditional crafts which can be sold) over school learning (literacy and numeracy). Yet, they don’t. Every Ju|’hoan adult I spoke to either expressed regret at their own lack of formal education, or at the fact that their children could not be persuaded to continue with secondary education. (Children's rights are respected in this culture. Children are never coerced into doing anything.)
Again and again I heard people express the wish for the Village School Project (more about that in the next posting) with its culturally-mediated system to be extended beyond Grade 4; or for there to be a San-only high school in Tsumkwe. But the Namibian government is committed to uniting the disparate ethnic groups in the country so the chances for that seem slim.
* The Namibian government allocates some food and a blanket for all children in need. Most Ju|’hoan children are registered “In Need”. Despite this policy, the food sometimes doesn’t make it as far as Tsumkwe.
** Hays, J. Owners of Learning: The Nyae Nyae Village Schools over Twenty Five Years . Switzerland: 2016. Basler Afrika Bibliographien
African novelist, writing tutor and UK academic.