Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

A recent article in Business Live states that according to UNICEF, there are no books in 43% of households with young children. And that a study by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2021 found that 81% of Grade 4 children in South Africa cannot read with understanding. 

With these alarming statistics, it’s little wonder that the state of education is in such a shambles. A statistic that can have us just throw up our hands in despair and just walk away with a ‘it’s not my problem’ attitude, or as in the case of the Cavern‘s Megan Carte Bedingham and her team, draw a line in the sand and say, ‘not on our watch’.

We have likely all heard the quote, ‘People perish for lack of vision’, in various contexts. But as the Big5Hike wrapped up with speeches and celebratory toasts, Georgie Carter, Royal Drakensberg Primary School (RDPS) board member, shared in her speech that it was this quote that caught her attention on a podcast by clinical psychologist, Dr. Jordon Peterson (on the Jo Rogan Experience on Spotify).

Additionally, Dr. Peterson spoke of the influence of narratives in shaping society throughout history. These narratives, conveyed by various sources such as parents, teachers, media, and our selves (that little voice in our heads), can be perilous if blindly accepted without critical thinking. Engaging too much with social and mainstream media can lead to a hopeless and fearful outlook. So, in Georgie’s opinion it is crucial to periodically reflect and detach from our daily routines to gain perspective on the beliefs and stories that shape our identities. Georgie went on to say, “sometimes we need to challenge ourselves physically or mentally to do difficult things and in so doing find our resilience and courage. This is what Big5hike allows me to do”.

“Secondly, it allows us to participate in a fundraising initiative that is genuine, relevant, effective and transformative. The narrative that is Royal Drakensberg Primary School is one that really makes a difference to little people’s lives. It allows them to build a future and have an opportunity to attain work or even achieve something brilliant. It enables little people to learn to read in a meaningful way, it provides a meal for the children, and it provides a place where they can be nurtured, appreciated, and protected such that they can grow in confidence and maturity”.

She went on to thank Megan Carte Bedingham and Loretta Mecklenborg (board member and co-founder of the RDPS) for “giving us a Vision in Royal Drakensberg Primary School and the education projects that extend into the amaZizi Valley”.  And it is this passion and exemplary vision that provides the reason to gather at The Cavern each year, “to raise funds and be a part of their vision of transforming rural communities through quality education”. And in that process, they can learn2read so that they can read2learn.

“This change”, Megan says, “begins in the first 1000 days where we stimulate neurological pathways through our BabyBoost programme. We grow and develop young children in our ECD, Khanyisela Project which supports 750 children and 50 practitioners and this all happens out of Royal Drakensberg, our hub and our heart… which incidentally has 103 little people enrolled in 2023. And our mission at Royal Drakensberg is that children learn2read so that they can read2learn”.

BabyBoost carer and baby programme

BabyBoost is a program designed to support caregivers and babies during the crucial first 1000 days of a child’s life. Research shows that responsive interactions and stimulating care during this period greatly contribute to a child’s development. However, many caregivers lack awareness and resources to engage and nurture their babies effectively.

To address this need, BabyBoost was established in 2017. The program has evolved over time and now consists of a comprehensive programme that lasts approximately six months. Caregivers participate in structured workshops where they learn how to talk, read, play, sing, cuddle, and respond to their babies aged 4-18 months. Home visits provide opportunities for caregivers to apply what they have learned, while playgroups offer social interaction and practice. Additionally, toy and book libraries allow caregivers to borrow age-appropriate resources.

BabyBoost recognizes that caregivers, with the right knowledge and support, can profoundly impact their babies’ development. Therefore, the program aims to empower caregivers through trained local facilitators who provide guidance and assistance. Since its inception, BabyBoost has successfully implemented 13 programs in 11 locations, witnessing caregivers’ growth in confidence and knowledge.

The coaching groups are both enjoyable and informative, promoting and practicing key messages. Home visits enable caregivers to gain confidence within their own environment and receive personalised learning opportunities. Playgroups offer a variety of educational toys and ample support for demonstrating and assistance. The toy and book libraries provide caregivers with essential resources to engage in talking, reading, and playing activities with their babies.

“Through BabyBoost,” says Megan, “we have found a way to make a difference to the youngest members of our community in this rural part of the Drakensberg Mountains KZN and via our fantastic BabyBoost Team and our great network of support we are creating waves of positive change. We believe that by focusing on early childhood development, we contribute to the wider impact: transforming not just the lives of children, but their communities, and ultimately their countries, making them healthier and more competitive in the global economy”.

The BabyBoost programme enables local mentors to teach mothers and carers six key messages. These messages help them to interact with their babies in ways that boost their learning and communication development:

  • Talk to your baby.
  • Cuddle your baby.
  • Sing to your baby.
  • Read to your baby.
  • Respond to your baby.
  • Play with your baby.

Khanyisela Project

The Northern Drakensberg Khanyisela Project has several aims. Firstly, it strives to establish a network of educational facilities that meet national and international standards. This helps provide learners with a strong foundation for lifelong learning, fostering a community that embodies self-respect and empowerment. Additionally, the project aims to stimulate the local economy by engaging small businesses and individuals from the community to fulfil its service requirements. Through the support of donors and funding agencies, this non-profit organization can make a positive contribution to the development of the area and the country as a whole.

One of the primary focuses of the project is teacher mentoring and training. While infrastructure is crucial, the project recognizes that the learning that takes place in the pre-schools on a daily basis is what truly transforms futures. With the assistance of corporate sponsorship, teaching practitioners have completed recognized qualifications in Early Childhood Development.

A mentoring program is in place to help with the practical implementation of the acquired knowledge. Three local teachers have been identified to mentor in the greater amaZizi Village: Sibonenelo Dlamini from Royal Drakensberg Primary School, Fikile Nene from Hlelokuhle Pre-School, and Mantombi Khoza from Sibusisiwe Pre-School. As mentors they provide guidance within classrooms, making learning both meaningful and enjoyable. Development plans, workshops, and collaborative efforts aim to improve teaching practices and provide necessary resources.

The project also contributes to upgrading facilities and ensuring ongoing maintenance at the 18 schools involved. Security upgrades, repairs, and refurbishments are carried out to ensure safe and hygienic learning environments. The provision of daily fortified porridge, in partnership with Retford Rotary from the UK, addresses the nutritional needs of the children, enabling their active engagement and stimulation.

Donations of knitwear, jumble items, books, and resources for early learning are accepted and sorted for distribution within the community. Lightly used jumble items are sold at reasonable prices, and the generated funds are reinvested in the projects. The project also promotes book sharing and community reading through the initiative of RDPS teachers visiting the community to read stories and distribute books to children, fostering a culture of reading from a young age and combating illiteracy. An ethos of learn2read so that they can read2learn.

Through these various initiatives and partnerships, the Northern Drakensberg Khanyisela Project strives to bring about meaningful change and improvement in education, infrastructure, nutrition, and literacy within the community it serves.

The Royal Drakensberg Primary School

Recognizing the need for high-quality holistic education in the area, where resources and infrastructure are lacking, the establishment of an independent school became crucial. So in 2007, the Royal Drakensberg Primary School (RDPS) was founded to address this need. The school is located at the entrance to The Cavern, and as Loretta says, “was founded by much passion and the incredible grace of God”.

RDPS offers education from Grade 000 up to Grade 3 – with the possibility of adding a Grade 4 class in 2024. The school caters to a diverse range of backgrounds and abilities, reflecting the broader South African society, and its mission is to provide opportunities for every child to realize their potential, grow in confidence and empower them to take steps to act on what they have learnt. Through a strong academic program, a beautiful natural environment, and a dedicated team of staff, the school aims to provide a solid foundation for children to thrive. And a space where they can learn2read so that they can read2learn.

“We believe that there is a great need for holistic education of a world class standard in our area”, says Megan. “Conditions in these rural areas are poor and the teachers lack resources and infrastructure. We feel that an established independent school, which is properly staffed and managed, will go a long way to giving children the necessary grounding to reach their maximum potential”.

Spending some time walking through the school and interacting with Mam-Idah, and Teacher Thoba, one recognises the passion and commitment of each, and every person involved in the journey of this remarkable school, and the community projects that have grown from it, that continues to make a positive impact on the lives of its students.

In conclusion Georgie sums up what the Big5Hike fundraising weekend is all about…

“By being a contributor to Big5hike and thus to RDPS and the projects within amaZizi, allows us all, for a brief moment, to change our narrative particularly as it relates to us as South Africans, from one that can be pessimistic to opportunistic, from despondent to hopeful, from dark to light, from fearful to exciting, from depressing to joyful”.

Meet Thobani Ndlovu, aka Teacher Thoba and Head of School and Project Co-ordinator:

Thoba arrived in July 2022, and he’s been instrumental in lifting the spirits of both teachers and learners alike. He loves finding new and innovative ways of driving people forward and has a comprehensive understanding of the foundation phase of education. His favourite part of being a teacher is creating a safe space for children to thrive in being fully themselves – one of his favourite memories is singing in his grade R class. “I felt so free and uninhibited. It felt affirming to share the best parts of me without worry or care of how well I did or did not do”.

Thoba’s favourite number is 33, which is the age he turned in 2022, and had been looking forward to it for a long time! “It being the age that Jesus fulfilled his purpose on earth, and this made me aspire to the same. I had an idea that by this age I would realise and begin to actualise my purpose in life, which would lead to inner joy and peace. This has actually happened as the work I do now feels like such important work and that I am actually at the foot of my purpose! I am humbled by both the number and the age for the significance that it holds”.

Meet Mam-Idah Radebe, Grade R teacher and ‘mom’ to all:

Idah began her journey in the Cavern’s playroom. Her enthusiasm, energy and genuine love of the children resulted in her moving to Royal Drakensberg in 2007 when the school started. She helped out, lent a hand, and began studies in early childhood development and later completed her Grade R certificate through UNISA. Idah is a pillar in the school and has been there through each chapter. She has seen the children grow, she has celebrated their achievements and is an important connection to the amaZizi community. Idah has helped to increase the school’s reach into amaZizi by welcoming Khanyisela practitioners into her classroom and sharing ideas and helping improve teaching in the region. “She has more energy than anyone we know and her enthusiasm at the Wednesday amaZizi reading afternoons is palpable!”

Read the story in Responsible Taveller digital mag HERE