If you head out of Mooi River along the Greytown Road past Bruntville, then turn off to Middlerus and trundle along, you eventually get to Weenen.
The drive is magnificent. A good dirt road through bushveld and past rural homesteads. This is tough country and I am always astonished at how people survive in this hot, water less landscape.
There are rivers, but they are pitiful – no doubt due to over extraction upstream. Combined with long periods of no rain, the natural environment and original Zulu inhabitants take real strain.
There is little transport along these back roads. So I stopped for a young man carrying his suitcase determinedly. He mistook my offer of a lift as a request for directions to town. Clearly, most people in these parts don’t stop for pedestrians.
It’s a very small town, set in a verdant valley surrounded by hills. The name derives from old Dutch – meaning ‘to weep’. It was laid out after the Battle of Blood River. One wonders if a town built on an event like this this can ever transcend old divisions and cease weeping?
All along the Bushman’s River there is intensive agriculture pumping water furiously to irrigate potatoes, dairy pastures, cabbages and citrus. There are ploughed fields drying out in the sunshine and abandoned fields overtaken by invasive plants. A fragrance of agro-chemicals lingers in the air. White farmers clearly own the town.
At the big agricultural distribution centre, bakkies from rural areas load up on sacks of potatoes, onions and sugar beans.
The museum is open occasionally, housed in a lovely pioneer building. This history of the town is a classic sad South African tale of displacement and division. Learn more.
There are quite a few beautiful old buildings, and plenty of derelict ones too. I explored the wide roads on foot. As in many small towns, the Kerk is carefully tended to, despite other buildings crumbling.
Muslim merchants must have been there since the late 1800s. There were still a few Indian families residing in the town.
On my first visit, my destination was Weenen Primêre School where I was to interview Hazel and Les Stanley. They no longer live in Weenen, but I share the story written a few years ago anyway. It is timeless because it illustrates how much difference just one person, or a determined couple, can make in the lives of hundreds of people.
“Sir, Sir, put your hat on Sir.” Les Stanley is about to read a story to his Grade 5 class, and they all know he reads best while wearing his Ugandan Leaf hat. Les was a principal in various KZN Schools for 25 years and is now thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to get back in the classroom again. He’s great at it too – the kids at Weenen Primêre are enthralled as he reads today’s sequel,and a dozen eager hands shoot into the air when he asks a question.
Les and his wife Hazel (the principal of Weenen Primêre School at that time) are adamant that reading is an essential skill for success. Many of their pupils travel for 40 kilometres from deep rural Tugela Ferry to attend school. What the Stanley’s particularly love about teaching at this school is the eager responses from children who are hungry to learn. “I think sometimes that teachers lose track of the fact that these are kids who often live under difficult circumstances” says Hazel “They are learning because they want to learn. They are like sponges and when they take books home to read to their Gogos they make the whole family proud.”
In South Africa, grandmothers are most frequently responsible for bringing up children. Supervising homework presents a challenge for a generation that grew up in a different era, with a different sort of school. To help create a culture of reading, Weenen Primêre holds Reading Days to draw the community into the learning process. Mums, Dads, taxi drivers, bigger brothers and grandmothers are all invited to come to school and read to the kids.
Les and Hazel can’t do anything half-heartedly. They recall fondly their first posting to Richmond Primary School where they were often on boarding duties together and would chat for hours about their passion for teaching, sharing ideas and dreaming. “We knew we’d be able to do so much together.” Les is the school handy man and runs the tuck shop too, while Hazel, besides being head, teaches English to Grade 7 and Drama to Grades 4-7 and is very relieved not to have to be school secretary as well – as she was when she first started. “We get energy from the kids” they say!
Weenen is tough territory – there are community conflicts that go back many generations. The school is the second oldest in KZN. Les and Hazel Stanley are not only crafting a superb school, they are also building community. The Dominee’s wife runs the library, one of the local ladies taught the Grade 7’s Volkspele , farmers’ wives attend the monthly tea gardens and Indian themed lunches (all prepared by parents to raise funds), the lady in the colourful house over the road runs wonderful art classes, another local offers piano lessons, and parents help clean up and plant gardens to beautify the school. The community has revamped the swimming pool and coaches swimming. Pupil, Thami Dladla loves swimming. “To teach a person to swim is a hard thing” he says with a grin. “At home I cannot swim in the river because there are crocodiles.”
Thami (along with 50 other children this year) has also participated in the after-school Learning Centre – Sam-Lyn Edu Centre – which focuses on upgrading English literacy – which the Stanley’s created in their back garden. In order to attend sessions, some of the kids add an extra eight kilometres to their daily walk. Others bring along little brothers and sisters who are not able to walk home alone. The Stanleys’ dogs just love them, and cuddle up to the kids during story time. Hazel smiles “I think it is a safe haven, a respite from the challenges of daily life.” Besides the reading component of the programme, there are puzzles, scrabble, and chess – all developmental elements and great fun for those who do not usually have access to games and toys. Hazel is adamant that these basic learning foundations make a positive impact throughout their school career.“We felt compelled to get involved with rural education.” Les recalls that one night (when the money was running low), “We sat bolt upright in bed, our heads spinning with ideas and spent the rest of the night making plans at the dining table. We decided we were going to develop this centre and simply started.”
Weenen has been just one chapter of an incredible learning and teaching journey. With their experience, dedication, passion, and love, the Stanley’s have been inspiring people and transforming lives for many years.
“A 100 years from now it won’t matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in or the car I drove. But the world may be a different place because I was important in the life of a child.” concludes Les.
On another occasion, I returned to write a story about Yolande Sibisi, who has grown up in Weenen.
“When young people ask me how I got the job I have now, I always tell them to start by volunteering,” advises Yolanda, “you need to grab opportunities that come along and make the most of them.” Yolanda has certainly done this.
Growing up in Ezitendeni township in Weenen, she was shy and mostly watched the other children playing from the side lines. When she did participate, amagendo was one of her favourite games. “We put 10 peach pips in a hollow in the ground, threw one in the air and before it landed, had to take another out of the hole, until they were all on the side. It was a Maths game really, teaching us counting.”
She felt fortunate to attend Weenen Primêre where English was taught as the first language. “This really helped a lot, because with good English you can connect with others in the community.” As was the case for many of her peers, financial issues made it impossible to study as a teacher, despite her wishes. So, when she heard that veteran educationist Les Stanley was running a course for those interested in teaching, she didn’t hesitate. Yolanda participated with enthusiasm and was soon volunteering in local schools. Her willingness to assist had been noticed and when an opportunity (with a small stipend) came up as a teacher’s aide at Weenen Primêre , she was the ideal candidate. Her ability to deal with children with difficulties and respectfully enforce discipline meant she was soon assisting in the Foundation Phase – which is her real passion.
When the Stanleys, who were firm friends by now, opened Sam-Lyn Edu Centre to assist local learners improve English and computer skills. Yolanda volunteered to help. “Yolanda’s dedication, love of children and delightful sense of humour means she is adored by all who know her,” smiles Hazel Stanley, “She has never missed a beat.”
Now, not only does Yolanda ensure Sam-Lyn runs smoothly in the afternoons, she also assists at the Paddock Pre-School during the mornings. In 2017, Yolanda enrolled for a formal ECD teaching qualification. Her commitment illustrated by the fact that on Saturdays, when she needed to attend classes in Pietermaritzburg, she made a plan to catch a 4 am lift with the newspaper delivery man to get there on time!
Yolanda is determined to open her own pre-school in Ezitendeni, so that little children can walk to school rather than use expensive transport. Her patient and kind mum works at a local creche, so together they would be a formidable team offering good early childhood development in the township. No doubt their classes will incorporate traditional games like amagendo, umasgalobhe and clapping that teach hand-eye coordination, as well the things she has learnt at Sam-Lyn, Paddock Pre-Primary and through her diploma.
Construction of her little pre-school started in November 2019. Her dream is coming true. Yolanda wants a bubbly, fizzy name for the school, so is taking her time to think up the perfect name before she opens for business in 2020.
“I’m just Weenen,” she laughs, “I love the quiet, the community, I’m not leaving.” Weenen is where Yolanda’s heart is and where she is determined to make a difference.
Weenen probably captures the hearts of many who visit. Despite the deep divisions evident in the community, there are many small stories of reconciliation and most people just get on with their lives as best they can. Should you ever find yourself in the area, definitely do slow down and explore.
Note: Samlyn Edu-Centre does not operate any more and Weenen Premiere School has new management.