The $10 impossible dream: A year of school

Times Staff Writer

The note sent home with the 922 students of Silwanetshe Primary School was clear: Pay up or drop out.

The next morning, about 500 children whose parents couldn’t afford the $10 annual fee were absent. When classes began, 11-year-old Mduduzi Mkhize and his sisters, Precious, 10, and Zinhle, 8, could only press against the wire fence that separates their mud hut from the school grounds.

“I wish I was there,” Mduduzi, a third-grader with a love of arithmetic and penmanship, said as he watched his classmates begin their morning prayers.


Vast numbers of Africa’s children stand with Mduduzi and his sisters -- trapped on the other side of the fence. Many attend school sporadically. Others don’t even start. Of an estimated 115 million children worldwide who have never been to school, nearly 40% live in Africa, according to the World Bank.

These children may have survived disease, war or famine to reach school age. But for want of a few dollars a year, they will never be educated.

Because most Africans get by on less than a dollar a day, school is a luxury they cannot afford. After feeding their children, parents must stretch their pennies to pay for clothes and other basic needs. Even if they manage to set aside some money for school, they may have to choose which of their children to educate.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has promoted education as an antidote to poverty and conflict. The government spends nearly 8% of the nation’s gross domestic product on education -- a higher percentage than the United States or Britain -- and the nation is widely recognized as having the best school system on the continent.

Even so, public schools must charge fees to stay open, which excludes many thousands of children. A third of South Africa’s children don’t make it past fifth grade.

Mduduzi is too young to grasp that a lack of schooling will keep him on society’s lowest rung. For him, it is much simpler. “I miss reading,” he said. “I miss learning to write. But most of all, I miss my friends.”

Louis Mndaweni, principal of the Silwanetshe school, understands. He was once as poor as these children.

“It breaks my heart to have to send the children home,” he said. “But if we don’t enforce the rules, we’ll have no money to run the school. There will be no school to come to.”

Mduduzi’s mother, Eunice, and his father came to Willowfontein, a village in eastern South Africa, a decade ago to escape political violence in their home village a few hundred miles away. It was a time of hope. South Africa was ending white minority rule. Construction workers setting the foundation of the Silwanetshe school were digging through layers of rock and giving the school its name, Zulu for “fighting with stone.”

They settled on a small lot next door so “the children wouldn’t have to walk far to school,” Eunice Mkhize recalled. They built a 15-foot-square hut from twigs and mud.

But the couple soon realized that they could not grow crops or keep livestock on the rocky plot. There was no other work. Three years ago, Mkhize’s husband said he was going to Johannesburg to look for work. He never returned.

Mkhize sought help from her sister, who agreed to take in two of the five children, educate them and raise them as her own. Mkhize had to choose which of her children to send away: the older ones or the younger ones? Sons or daughters?

In the end, she selected her eldest sons, Nkhonzi, 16, and Mtoko, 14.

“I thought that maybe they’ll do good and help me one day,” she said. “The girls usually get married at a young age and go their own way.”

For more than a year, she cared for the three younger children on wages she earned stacking wooden planks at a factory in neighboring Pietermaritzburg, the region’s commercial capital. She could pay for her bus fare to work, send the children to school and buy basic food: maize meal, cooking oil, sugar and vegetables.

But Mkhize was laid off two years ago and has not been able to find another steady job.

Then Mndaweni, the principal, sent the notice demanding fees for the next school year: $10 each for Mduduzi and Precious, and $5 for Zinhle. It would cost an additional $75 to buy uniforms: green dresses for the girls; gray pants, white shirt and black sweater for Mduduzi; and shoes for everyone.

This time, Mkhize couldn’t pay. The total for tuition and uniforms -- $100 -- was hopelessly beyond her reach. It would feed the entire family for months.

“I want my children to go to school, to do better than me,” she said. “But school means nothing if they don’t have food to eat.”

Mkhize met with Mndaweni and told him that her family was surviving on odd jobs and the goodwill of neighbors. Handouts, such as a pot of white rice or bowl of porridge from neighbors, were often their only meal of the day. Mkhize pondered when to serve it -- at lunch or in the evening. If they ate late, she knew, the children wouldn’t go to bed on empty stomachs.

The principal was sympathetic. He told her to try to pay a little something and not to worry about buying uniforms; the children could come to school in their old clothes.

Mkhize said no. The children would be ashamed of their rags, she thought. Besides, even though he preferred to go to school, her son was old enough to work.

The red-brick school building, which is surrounded by dozens of shacks, is the nicest building for miles. It stretches across a hillside, overlooking green hills that undulate to the ocean miles away. Inside, on a linoleum-tile floor, rows of chairs and new tables are pushed against brightly colored walls.

Few South African children study in such comfort. Tens of thousands attend classes in decrepit buildings and open-air farm schools.

The Silwanetshe school receives about $25,000 worth of textbooks, stationery and other supplies from the government each year.

It’s up to the school to come up with an additional $10,000, much of which is spent on security. There is a 24-hour guard, an electronic security system and a 6-foot fence topped with razor wire, without which the building would be stripped clean.

When he was still allowed on the other side of the fence, Mduduzi wanted to be a teacher like “Mr. Mndaweni,” or a social worker, like the one who sometimes brings his family some maize meal and sugar. He was fascinated with forming capital letters. He still shows off a torn exercise book with stacks of capital letters spelling his name.

Now, Mduduzi fetches water from a public faucet or uses a borrowed wheelbarrow to collect mud, which he plasters on neighbors’ houses for spare change. He thinks that he could make a living building huts for other poor people.

“I think I could build an entire house,” he said. “It’s easy. All you need is mud, sticks and to know what to do. I know how.”

The only shirt he owns is on his back -- and he’s wearing it wrong side out because it’s filthy. His former classmates, who might have only two pairs of pants and shirts each, tease him about his shirt and bare feet.

“When I cry, they don’t stop,” he said. “Precious and Zinhle don’t cry. They are brave.”

They all would rather be in school. So in the morning sun, Mduduzi and his sisters lock their fingers around the wire mesh just below the razor wire and listen for the distant hum of young voices in prayer.

Then, the singing begins. The children’s high voices blend in a sad and sweet Zulu harmony that asks God to guide their lives.

Through the fence, they also see the principal, dressed in a dark suit, starched white shirt, red tie and shiny black shoes, smiling at the students like a general pleased with his troops. As the song dies away, the little uniformed soldiers stand for a moment, then shuffle off to their classrooms.

Some have toes poking through holes in their shoes. Others have no shoes at all.

“That was me,” Mndaweni said.

Mndaweni had no shoes when he attended elementary school. He also knows about dashed hopes. After his father, an itinerant preacher, lost his support from Church of Christ benefactors in the United States, and his mother lost her nursing job, his family had no income.

“My dad would say that he had no cows to leave for us, or no riches for us to inherit, but he said he would go without food to make sure we all got a good education,” Mndaweni said.

As a boy, Mndaweni dreamed of being a pharmacist. Stellar high school grades won him a place at the University of Natal, but he couldn’t afford the tuition and dropped out after a year. Mndaweni settled for his second choice: a government grant to attend a teachers college.

He understands that a graduate of his school may still end up without a job. Even many of those who go on to finish high school are unemployed, like an estimated 30% to 40% of South Africa’s workforce. But Mndaweni thinks that children should at least have a chance. That’s why it hurts him when he has to ask for fees from people who can’t afford to pay.

The principal opened his attendance book to the list of students and the tuition they had paid. He often is willing to offer parents a break on the tuition. Some accept. Others, like Mkhize, turn him down.

“If we enforced the rules, 80% of them would not be here,” he said, running his fingers down the list. “Many of them go to bed two nights in a row without having a plate of food.”

Teachers recently decided to donate $1 each from their monthly salary so students could get lunches of maize meal, soup, beans and vegetables, served from large, colorful plastic buckets. Some weeks, Mndaweni uses his own money to feed the children.

On the other side of the school fence, Mduduzi and his sisters try to help feed themselves. Mduduzi places a handful of maize seeds near a rubber sling fashioned from a bicycle tube.

Small yellow birds come to peck the seeds and are catapulted when they trip the sling.

Mduduzi and his sisters grab the injured birds, tear off their feathers and roast them over charcoal. Field mice suffer a similar fate, except their skins are saved as trophies.

The children pass the rest of the day playing in their frontyard.

Mduduzi takes a dry stick and, using it like a piece of chalk, works out some arithmetic problems in the sand. “Five plus four equals nine,” he chants to no one in particular. He writes P-R-E-C-I-O-U-S in the dirt.

Later, he and his sisters pretend they are on “Star Search,” a favorite neighborhood game. Mduduzi performs the song of a Zulu hip-hop musician. Precious pretends she is a queen. Zinhle, the lone member of the audience, watches in awe.

When the school bell rings in the afternoon, they all rush to the fence to watch their classmates leave another day of school behind them.


About this series

The number of people in sub-Saharan Africa living in dire poverty has nearly doubled in the last two decades. Times staff writer Davan Maharaj and photographer Francine Orr traveled the continent over nearly two years to chronicle the continual struggle to survive on less than a dollar a day. The six articles in the series:

PART 1: July 11 -- Eking out an income.

PART 2: July 12 -- Staving off hunger.

PART 3: Wednesday -- Settling for castoff clothes.

PART 4: Friday -- Living in 100 square feet.

PART 5: Today -- Locked out of school.

Coming later:

PART 6: Surviving AIDS.

On the Web:

More photos, narrated reports by the reporter and photographer, previous articles in the series and information on how to help can be found on the Times website at:




Millions of African children never go to school. Others attend only sporadically. Of 120 million children worldwide who were not in school in 2002, more than a third lived in sub-Saharan Africa.

Children not enrolled (In millions) Sub-Saharan Africa 45.2 South Asia 42.8 East Asia/Pacific 13.4 Middle East/North Africa 10.3 Central Europe/Baltic 3.8 All other areas 5.7

If they do reach school, children in Africa face the most crowded classrooms.

Median number of students per teacher Sub-Saharan Africa 42.6 South Asia 39.7 East Asia/Pacific 28.6 Latin America/Caribbean 23.9 Middle East/North Africa 23.7

Sources: World Bank, UNICEF. Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken