Making a real difference

COMMITTED: Gillian Wilkinson. Pic. Munyadziwa Nemutudi. 10/01/08. © Sowetan.
COMMITTED: Gillian Wilkinson. Pic. Munyadziwa Nemutudi. 10/01/08. © Sowetan.

Khanyisile Nkosi

Khanyisile Nkosi

My first interaction with Gillian Wilkinson, the director of community services at Kingsmead College, was very humbling.

The rain was pouring heavily when my colleague and I arrived at the school to interview Wilkinson, who has been teaching there for more than 30 years. While debating whether to wait until the rain subsided or to run to the administration block, Wilkinson emerged with a huge umbrella.

The 62-year-old woman's providence left me speechless. Her generous act confirmed the testimonies I had heard about her.

She has dedicated the past 15 years to imparting her knowledge to teachers and pupils at Soweto schools to help improve the quality of education. She has shared methods and organised workshops encouraging teachers and pupils to free themselves from thoughts and obstacles that hinder their development.

She has earned a special place in the hearts of many people whose lives she has changed for the better.

Ntuthu Mkhefa-Lushozi, a former principal at Sibongile Primary School, says: "She is a truly remarkable woman. She is selfless and does not do things to be noticed, but because they have to be done. She is an example of what ubuntu is all about."

Wilkinson began working with schools in Soweto in 1993 when the African Self Help Association (Asha), a non-profit organisation that provides day care and early childhood development services in Soweto, approached her for help.

The board told her that black parents were battling to enrol their children at Model C schools because they could not speak English. They wanted their children to be taught English and Wilkinson was asked to introduce English to Grade R classes.

"When we started, teachers were so dispirited. They were unhappy and didn't enjoy what they were doing, so I decided to split my Thursday afternoons into two. I used the first part to teach children and the second part to equip teachers with teaching skills," says Wilkinson. It was while she was on a course in London that she realised the effects of "Bantu education".

"The lecturer's one sentence changed my whole view of African education. He said never in recorded history has there been a renaissance in the southern hemisphere.

"It made me think. I asked myself how can I expect teachers and children to have Plato, Shakespeare, even Christianity in their genes, when it is not in the genetic flow of the African heritage? I looked for the best in Africa and the best in my European tradition and gave the children the best of both worlds."

Her visits to Soweto brought her face to face with the difficulties teachers in townships schools were facing.

"Teachers who trained under the 'Bantu education' system were demoralised and they taught with heavy hearts because they didn't believe in their capabilities. 'Bantu education' had destroyed their sense of self."

Wilkinson asked David Boddy, a London-based international motivational speaker to come to South Africa to motivate the teachers.

"His talk lifted the spirit of the teachers a lot. After the talk, David suggested that we start a tree and grass project to upgrade the schools' environment. He returned home to raise funds and 12 schools were beautified with trees, grass and flowers."

Then Wilkinson launched the lunch-box project for high school pupils who came to school hungry. She convinced a local baker to provide sandwiches and fruit. The project has since been taken over by Rotary, an international chariry organisation.

She also campaigned for uniforms for pupils from poor homes and initiated empowerment workshops for hundreds of girls from selected high schools, to boost their self-esteem and prepare them for the outside world.

Quality education and life skills would go a long way in restoring dignity for teachers and pupils, Wilkinson believes. Her concern is the absence of "brilliant teachers" and the lack of dedication by some pupils.

"Many brilliant teachers have left the profession and this contributes to the current crisis at our schools."

Wilkinson wants to see teachers helping and serving each other to improve the standard of education.

"Teachers must serve each other instead of pointing fingers. Individuals must start thinking about what they can do to make a difference and not look at other people to do it for them."