Solar Schoolbags Shine Light On Education

Knowledge is often spoken about as a guiding light shining the way to an ideal world. The pursuit of knowledge and education is even more so preached as a moral imperative – a sort of social and honourable duty. Still, what is less discussed in our deification of education are the limits that are placed on some in our society who are furthest from reaching this supposed light. In South Africa, a lot of those who have to navigate more difficult and sometimes, dead-end roads on their way to attaining education are children. Two South African businesswomen are helping bridge this gap through an ingenious initiative for children from rural and urban poor backgrounds.

Repurpose Schoolbags is a green initiative helping children from households without electricity resume learning after the last bell has rung. Plastic shopping bags are recycled and later made into schoolbags equipped with solar panels. These bags are bought by companies then distributed to selected schools. The solar panels in the bags are charged as the children walk to and from school. When the children get home after school, they can use their bags for light to do their homework. In addition to helping them do their homework, the bags also helps the kids be safe from cars on their often dangerous and long treks home through reflective strips sewn on the bags.

Repurpose Schoolbags is revolutionising education through solar schoolbags
Millennial duo, Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane, are the founders of Repurpose Schoolbags, an initiative helping propel African children’s education. Photo: Miora Rajaonary

The children who are given these bags are from homes that use non-electrical alternatives for light like candles. These sources can be dangerous and sometimes the children are banned from using them through the night to study or do school work as the families have limited supply. These families then understandably have to prioritize economic judgment over the benefits of education that are also dependent on social capital they do not have access to.

The revolutionary concept of Repurpose Schoolbags is the brainchild of two millennial women from the North West only in their early twenties. This initiative was started by Thato Kgatlhanye in collaboration with her friend and business partner, Rea Ngwane. Thato, an entrepreneur hailing from Rustenburg in the North West, founded Rethaka, a social start-up business which has provided employment for many women in Rustenburg through initiatives like Repurpose Schoolbags. To date, Rethaka has distributed solar schoolbags to children in 6 countries in Africa.

On their website, the Repurpose Schoolbags team emphasise that the initiative is about choice not charity. It is not about taking the thirsty by the hand and forcing them to drink. It is about helping those who have to navigate a world where education has been made a lifeline but has been hidden or made accessible to only a few.


Sustainability Achieved Through Eco-Friendly School

Sustainability is a principle many in rural South Africa, especially those in the Eastern Cape’s rural Transkei, are very familiar with in their daily lives. Examples of this would the types of houses, transportation  and lifestyles people from these parts maintain. Of course, a lot of this observance of environmentally friendly principles is mostly due to limited access to new technologies rather than a self-denial of them. However, in spite of the harsh economic realities that have helped rural citizens develop alternative strategies to sustain themselves, it seems that their choices, especially in relation to building, are being vindicated outside the continent as important to preserving our world.

The rural Eastern Cape’s mud schools are a continuous subject of public outrage and shame for the South African government. Learners in these schools are exposed to the elements and potentially life-threatening situations because of the easily collapsible nature of the structures.

A school recently built in South America has now shown that children and people in rural areas do not have to suffer or go without to enjoy and partake in things like going to school and having functional facilities. In fact, it has built on concepts of sustainability that are available and used by people in rural areas.

Tagma, a civil society organisation in Uruguay, built an environmentally-friendly, self-sustainable school through a project called “A sustainable school”. The project was done in collaboration with Uruguay’s Ministry of Education and was started after a process of public engagement with the residents of the town of Jaureguiberry.

The school is Latin America’s first sustainable school. From the outside, the building looks like a life-size art project or special building commissioned by  the government for display purposes. As you get closer, you can start noticing the function of the building and the simplicity behind its construction.

The school was designed by Michael Reynolds, a veteran American architect who has been building green homes for more than 45 years, and has involved young adults from 30 different countries (including Uruguay) in its construction process. Approximately 60% of the school was built from recycled materials consisting of car tyres, glass bottles and aluminum cans in some parts of it to replace bricks. The building was built in a speedy 45 days. The internal workings of the building are also eco-friendly with very clever alternatives to electric power. Solar panels provide electricity for the school. The temperature inside is regulated by a natural in-built air conditioner to keep the staff and students comfortable come cold or sunshine.

About 60 children attend the school for their primary education every weekday. The students at the school learn the same subjects children in other schools learn, however environmental themes are highlighted more in the curriculum. The children learn about climate change, recycling and sustainability. They also supplement their lessons with practical environmental education where the kids are given opportunities to grow their own vegetables and care for the environment around them.

Although the context around the building of this Uruguayan sustainable school is quite different to a mud school in the deep Transkei, the concept and ingenuity behind it can be applied to the efforts and lives of people in the Eastern Cape’s vast rural landscape. The Eastern Cape (especially its rural villages) is famed for its colourful artistic and cultural aesthetics and creations – some of which are developed from recycled materials.

With the Tagma project’s sustainability blueprint and rural Eastern Cape’s wealth of experience in resourcefulness and creativity, rewriting the dehumanising history of the mud school into an empowering narrative where the people will lead the way (with some help) is certainly possible.

Yoga Programme Helps Young Men Tackle Anger

Boys and young men from poor urban backgrounds are one of the most vulnerable demographics when it comes to deadly run-ins with the police. Often depicted as abnormally violent and criminally-minded, these boys are seldom given a fair chance to be themselves and make mistakes like everyone else. These biases coupled with their less than inspiring circumstances cultivate a self-fulfilling prophecy where the young men internalise and perform their expected roles.

This state of affairs – the negative judgments and the fact that no one wants to hear them out or see them as people – causes anxiety and depression which are most often dealt with in destructive ways.

Boys from the US’s Baltimore inner city have found an unexpected helper to assist them survive in the world. A policeman from Baltimore started a programme to help African American boys from the inner city to escape this cycle by dealing with anger and other negative emotions heightened by their environment.

Project Pneuma started by Damion Cooper in 2014 is a warrior training programme designed to help inner city boys develop strategies to manage anxiety, anger and stress so they can focus on important things like school and being young. Pneuma is an ancient Greek word meaning breath/breathe.

Project Pneuma yoga programme for young men
Project Pneuma helps boys and young men from urban poor backgrounds deal with anger and anxiety through yoga. Photo: Baltimore Sun

The boys are given a chance to do something that often eludes them in day-to-day survival – taking a breath. Pneuma teaches the participants forgiveness, conflict resolution, self-control and discipline through yoga, meditation, warrior martial arts training and reading.

Most of the participants at Pneuma did not go of their own volition but were sent due to behaviour issues at school. Some have even been suspended. Pneuma is a safe space for the boys. The group gathers two times a week at the Baltimore Police Academy to do activities and affirm each other. The boys who have participated in the programme have improved in school and none of them have been suspended.

Mr Cooper’s efforts with the Baltimore young men are commendable for reasons beyond simple mentoring and keeping vulnerable youth off the streets. Project Pneuma teaches adults to start taking responsibility for the ways we raise, judge and even neglect children in our proximity. By being responsible for what influences and behaviours we expose the kids to and displaying positive, practical examples, we can lessen the burden many judged and disadvantaged children face and in turn allow them the freedom to aspire to light and positivity.

Inyathelo Is Stamping SA’s Developmental Heritage

South Africa has a beautiful heritage of civil society movements and organisations established for the purposes of social change that have shaped our democracy. Movements that sprang up from mobilisation around the South African people’s capacity for equality, self-determination, community and the overstated but doggedly South African concept of Ubuntu. Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement is one of the organisations that have been helping guide South African democracy through supporting development initiatives.

Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement & SA's Development Heritage
Inyathelo is helping preserve SA’s heritage of responsive, change-driven development. Poster: Inyathelo

Inyathelo is a non-profit Trust established in 2002 with the aim of supporting South African organisations and institutions to cultivate a balanced, involved and self-determined citizenry. Inyathelo operates as hub for grant-seeking and grant-making civil society organisations. Their scope goes beyond the attainment of funds. They also provide useful information, courses and awards for development practitioners. Details like compliance, awareness-raising and capacity building are all covered. Inyathelo has a focus on capacity development in both the higher education and non-profit sectors in SA and the continent.

In a sector that has experienced significant funding cuts, Inyathelo is encouraging and grooming more individual social giving to supplement private funds. This is done through promoting dialogue, sharing information and providing support services to existing initiatives and those that need a hand up to help ensure their sustainability.

Inyathelo has developed a practice of Advancement. “Advancement” works as a system of getting organisations and institutions to engage with the “outside world”, that is to say, real-life, everyday environments to build meaningful relationships with stakeholders and beneficiaries and build a credible base to attract funders. Through this practice, Inyathelo has contributed to responsive, sustainable development in the sector. Advancement is an ongoing process of building, cultivating and sustaining crucial resources for organisations and institutions.

Through Advancement and a host of other archived non-profit informational resources, Inyathelo is also preserving the heritage many SA development pioneers cultivated for us throughout the years.

Grannies Destigmatising Mental Illness in Zimbabwe

Mental illness is extremely misunderstood and carries a heavy social and personal burden for those suffering from it in our society. People from poor backgrounds suffer disproportionately more from depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses compared to class-privileged people, yet they are the least attended to when it comes treatment and awareness.

The Friendship Bench Project, a project headed by grandmothers in Zimbabwe, is addressing this treatment gap and is destigmatising mental illness in Africa.

Doctors in Zimbabwe say there are only 12 psychiatrists for the country’s 16 million people. Added to this, people suffering from mental illnesses seldom seek help as there is still a lot of shame and superstition attached to mental illness.

Local grandmothers employed by the city health authorities of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, are helping to treat and empower Zimbabweans with mental illnesses through strategically placed Friendship Benches. These Friendship Benches are placed outside state-run health centres and are open to the public during business hours. The grandmothers are equipped with a few weeks training on how to counsel the clients. This is something they already do for their families and communities and therefore provides a sustainable and safe option for those going for the treatment.

The treatment is basic problem-solving therapy centred on empowering the clients through their day-to-day struggles with mental illness. The grannies have helped people who have been isolated because from loved ones because of their mental illness, failed marriages, women who have been thrown out by in-laws because of dead husbands, people with suicide ideations and other social problems that exacerbate mental illness.

Since the project started, more than 27 000 people have sat on the friendship benches.

This project has also been beneficial for other reasons. The grandmothers who run them say they prize it because it makes them feel needed and useful in a world that discards old people as soon as they start collecting their pensions.