Shining Bright, Dancing Light – In a town of railway junctions and power lines, children are finding their voice, rhythm and strength – thanks to the Karoo Eisteddfod Trust…
Words: Julienne du Toit
Pictures: Chris Marais
On the face of it, De Aar seems the last place that anything as frivolous as art and dance could flourish. This has traditionally been a muscular, workmanlike town, geared originally for service to steam and then diesel and electric trains, before sliding into a slow downward spiral as the railway system gradually ground down after the 1980s.
For a while the most persistent soundtrack was the dispiriting whine of angle grinders chopping up the grand old steam locos for scrap. But drive into town today and you can see renewable energy is the new upcoming industry, with a sea of solar photovoltaic panels visible from the Philipstown road.
Apart from that, there is the old Railway Hotel, high palm trees, sturdy old spoorweg (railway) houses from the 1970s, the Speedway Tune-Up Centre, Madeira Supermarket and the Boerewors Koning.
The magic happens in an unremarkable-looking church hall a few blocks from the main road. Called Khazimla – Centre of Excellence, it is a place of joy, hope and grace for the less-privileged schoolchildren of De Aar. The centre, and the Karoo Eisteddfod Trust (KET), is the brainchild of artist, social and environmental activist and farmer’s wife Katie Barnard du Toit.
For years, she’d felt wrenched that the children growing up in De Aar were exposed to so little beauty around them, and had so little chance for creative expression. In 2009, inspired by the three women who started the Hantam Community Education Trust in Colesberg, Katie began exploring ways to help De Aar children. Three years later she and two friends, Marie Visser and Frankie Sequiera, established the Karoo Eisteddfod Trust.
Katie explains that very few learners in De Aar and the surrounding towns of Prieska, Douglas, Hopetown, Petrusville, Orania, Norvalspont, Noupoort, Victoria West, Richmond and Britstown have opportunities to develop artistic expression. “With an unacceptably high drop-out rate, children desperately need support and academic help to get through to Grade 12. Add to that the fact that there is so little awareness of the historic value and heritage of the area. And there has been no platform to showcase their products or skills.”
But how to expose the children to art, drama, dance and music? These are not things the children of De Aar routinely experience.
For years, the Karoo Eisteddfod Trust tried using school buildings in the afternoons, but it wasn’t ideal. Then one day Katie, Marie and Frankie chanced upon a disused NGK hall, still in good condition, and very spacious. The hall, now the headquarters of Khazimla, looks unremarkable from the outside. But every afternoon it is transformed by music, dance, drums and laughter.
Children arrive in waves of age groups and they clearly love all of it – this is their happy place. Standing before Susan Viljoen, and the CD player with its catchy music, they shadow her moves, learning step by step. In the art class, Gesina Human is busy teaching them to draw animal faces – mostly of creatures they know well, like sheep and jackals.
They also adore books. “You can hear the oohs and aahs from the reading room when stories are read aloud to them. There is great excitement when new books arrive from one of our sponsors, Qualibooks,” says Katie. There are swimming and tennis lessons and, on certain days of the week, they have Sam Mooi, a drummer who makes his own instruments using Nguni skins. He teaches the children rhythm with djembe drums and marimbas.
Katie tells me of one of her conversations with him. “I said to him, ‘Sam, we need a vision. Actually, we need a wild dream. We’re going to have a percussion orchestra and play in Carnegie Hall!’ He said ‘Great! Let’s do it. But my passport expires in 2020’.”
The youngsters are supposed to attend only on certain days, so that the classes can be spread among many, but they are so popular that some children just keep sneaking back, day after day. The number of youngsters participating in the annual Karoo Eisteddfod has grown steadily, with close to 2 000 entries in 2015 and 29 schools participating from across the Karoo – from Beaufort West to Graaff-Reinet, Douglas and Victoria West.
Dancing, art and music have benefited the children in unforeseen ways. “We have tracked an average
14 per cent improvement in academic marks since Khazimla – Centre of Excellence started,” says Katie. “The children have more confidence. They realise they are important, their self-worth and self-esteem grow, and they
can set goals and reach them. They say, ‘I can do it’. It takes so little to add value to a vulnerable child’s life – just a safe place to come to in the afternoon. Learning to swim or dance or having a quiet space in which to learn makes all the difference. It all boils down to sharing the skills that I have with those who have so little.”
Khazimla’s support doesn’t stop when the children leave school. More than 2 000 students make use of a free service offered by the Karoo Eisteddfod Trust that helps children and parents find bursaries and ways to enter the right college or university.
For the first time in 2015, in co-operation with the University of Cape Town, the Karoo Eisteddfod Trust opened the first National Benchmark Test Centre in the Pixley Ka Seme district of the Northern Cape. These are exams that assess the academic readiness of prospective first-year university students.
“Khazimla means ‘to shine’ in Xhosa and the motto of our school is ‘Where every star shines brightly’,” says Katie.
“We believe the true stars of the Karoo are the people, and especially the children. They just need opportunities
to reach their full potential and that is what we offer.”