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Off-the-Clock: Suzanne Cross (part 2)

This is part 2 of our interview with Suzanne Cross. Click here to read part 1 of the interview.

Suzanne Cross has been a contractor in Endowment and Investment Accounting (EIA) Financial Management since 2003. Suzanne is passionate about education, philanthropy and people. Not only is she a weekly classroom volunteer at Argonne Elementary School in San Francisco, Suzanne is also a benefactor of the Nkomo Primary School in South Africa. She recently completed filming for a documentary about Nkomo School.

Link staff sat down with Suzanne to talk about her time off the clock as well as the brown bag session she’s planning, featuring her friend and deputy principal of Nkomo School, Thanda Myeni. Click here for details on the Sept. 23 brown bag.

Please tell us about the genesis of Nkomo School.

The Nkomo School came about largely from sheer will. It was through Mrs. Nomusa Zikhali’s drive and determination that it came to be. And she is a major force in making the school and its learners (students) flourish.

Nkomo started in 1999 with no buildings. The school was in a field, with just the four trees for shelter. It got its first building in 2001. They just got an outside water faucet this year. They don’t have electricity in any of the classrooms either.

The first year, the community school was located in a field on the other side of a river. The community picked and prepared a spot in a field for the new school and hired Mrs. Zikhali to be the teacher. On the first day of school only ten children showed up. Most of the children stayed home because they didn’t believe that school was really going to start. Within a few days all 60 children were attending school – with classes on woven grass mats on the ground. Some students had to walk several miles to get there.

Mrs. Zikhali woke up at 4:00 a.m. everyday and walked to the river where she met half of the young children. Together they crossed the river in a handmade boat to meet the rest of the children and begin their school day. When the rainy season came, it brought rushing waters, hippos—who are extremely territorial and will kill a human to “defend” their space—along with crocodiles. What had been a manageable crossing of the river in a handmade boat became dangerous.

The community decided to move the school to the side of the river where most of the children lived. The Zulu Chief Gumede and the elders chose an area protected by four trees. Mrs. Zikhali assigned each of the grades one, two and three its own tree, with her office under the fourth tree.

In spite of the desire of many families to keep the children at home so they could help take care of goats and cows and babies, the enrollment grew. With the increased enrollment the community began to recognize the need and decided to support the school by building a small shed to contain the few teaching supplies Mrs. Zikhali had gathered.

Mrs. Zikhali was proud of her growing school but was embarrassed that her school consisted of trees and wanted real classrooms for the children. She realized that she needed to raise the funds to build the school but she had no experience in fund-raising, so she took a correspondence course to learn these skills. Then she enacted a plan.

Zululand is well known for its many game reserves and safari lodges, and nearby Phinda is one of the more famous. Mrs. Zikhali knew that Phinda was dedicated to supporting the local communities as well as the animals in the reserves, so she invited Phinda to visit her school. They immediately became aware of the school’s situation when one learner asked, “Please, sir, remove your car from my classroom.”

Meanwhile the student body had mushroomed to 220. The first two classrooms, basic concrete block structures with no electricity or water, were constructed. But some classes were still held outside under the trees since two classrooms could not accommodate all 220.

Later more classroom buildings were erected to accommodate the swell in enrollment to more than 850 students. They had metal roofs with gutters to divert rainwater into storage barrels. This enabled the children to get drinking water from barrels instead of having to walk to the river and carry drums of water back to the school.

In addition to the daily logistical challenges, Mrs. Zikhali had to deal with the increasing number of orphans and vulnerable children. Sadly, students would show up to school hungry or emotionally upset, and could not concentrate on their studies. Mrs. Zikhali began to visit the children at home to learn of their individual situations so she could help. That was the beginning of Nkomo’s transition from a strictly educational experience to a full service school providing food, shoes, clothing and emotional support to the children.

Can you shed some light on what a “full service school” provides?

The Mnqobokazi community is rural, poor, hungry and beset with health challenges – namely HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and dysentery. Most everyone lives in huts and the closest school besides Nkomo is 25 km (about 15.5 miles). Villagers generally walk everywhere.

HIV/AIDS continues to devastate the community, with parents dying and children forced to live with extended family, neighbors or on their own. Girls have additional risks in these living conditions. Due to misinformation, some men believe that they can cure AIDS by having intercourse with a virgin. Tragically this means they seek out young girls.

Mrs. Zikhali mentored her growing teaching staff to nurture the children, particularly the orphans, in addition to their teaching duties. Because many of the orphans often don’t get enough to eat, the school started providing a hot lunch of samp (dried corn kernels) and beans and on occasion a bit of meat. Imagine feeding as many as 850-900 kids using a kitchen consisting only of cauldrons on three open pit fires.

The Nkomo Primary School has grown into a community hub under the leadership and direction of Mrs. Zikhali. Non-governmental organization (NGO) NOAH’s ARK chose Nkomo School as its location to build a regional center to serve the orphans and vulnerable children. They can get meals, clothing and emotional support.

Did you teach at Nkomo? If so, what subject? How old were the children in your class?

I was invited to teach one of Thanda’s classes in Life Orientation to a class of about 50 students in Grade 7. It was mainly to encourage them to stay in school as long as possible. Their life and career choices are so limited compared to the wide variety of opportunities we have in this country.

You are a classroom volunteer at San Francisco’s Argonne Elementary School. How has your volunteering at Argonne School supported Nkomo School?

Our class at Argonne is actually helping sponsor the Nkomo School. We have an annual read-a-thon. All told, we’ve raised $4,000 for educational supplies and to build classrooms (buildings) at the school.

What plans do you have for Nkomo School?

The future for Nkomo School lies in the hands of the principal, Mrs. Zikhali, and the community. They have come such a long way since 1999 but still have many challenges to address, such as HIV/AIDS and the growing number of children who become orphaned. I am told we bring hope when we visit. Our contributions seem small but we feel so appreciated.

In South Africa, the government is usually unable to fund the building of schools. It’s the community’s responsibility to build them, but once there is a building with learners (students) the government will assign teachers to the school, pay their modest salaries and provide some teaching supplies.

We fund uniforms so the primary school children who need support can continue their education at high school. Without a uniform, they are not allowed to enroll in the high school.

How have you coped with being away from your new friends and pupils?

It’s been hard. We call them and we write. Their language is Zulu, but most speak English as well. And I like to get back every two years. The flexibility of being a contractor really helps me maintain my relationships in South Africa.

What was your best memory of your last trip to South Africa?

That’s a hard one; there are so many! When you see the documentary, you’ll understand. People there don’t ask for anything. And they won’t talk about what they need unless you really know them.

You can see it all in the film. I ask questions and you know they’re talking to a friend. It’s a joy to ask questions from the heart. I got to know them better, got closer to them, by asking questions through the process of creating this documentary.

But it’s difficult to have friends so far away, because I can’t see them as often as I’d like.

  • Click here to view pictures of the Under Four Trees film shoots in KwaZulu, South Africa on Facebook.
  • Click here to view pictures of the Nkomo primary school in KwaZulu, South Africa on Facebook.
  • Click here to ready Suzanne Cross’ San Francisco Examiner blog about her experiences making the Under Four Trees documentary.

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