There is nothing miserable as an unguided journey, devoid of purpose, with no footprints to show you the way to go. This is the lived experience of most San children who dare to go to school.
For the past 28 years, the ‘rest’ of the country has somewhat strived to pull in one direction but only a small margin of members of the San community have bothered to be participate. This is a community described as nomadic but to date there have been minimal, though laudable attempts to bring the children of this society to the world of the ‘civilized’.
Not only this, but the general stigma attached to members of the San community has’nt made it easy in welcoming these marginalized progeny of the soil. The name-calling, discrimination, and with little-to-no interests from their parents to send them to school, these are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the challenges Helena Afrikaaner, of San heritage had to go face.
The University of Namibia had a standing ovation last week as Afrikaaner walked up to collect her Diploma in Accounting and Auditing, finally validating the combined efforts of government, community and an individual who has set her mind on rising to the occasion and to prove her intellectual mettle.
Hers is a unique journey, a call for a change in attitude and the need to normalize tertiary education as a norm for the San child.
“I wanted to prove a point to society. I wanted to show fellow young people from my community that we can also do it. I just wanted to show the society that the days of us belonging in the bush are over,” said a jubilant Afrikaaner.
Afrikaaner grew up in the poverty stricken streets of the Drimiopsis resettlement camp in the Omaheke region. Born to a mother and a father who were both addicted to traditional brew, schooling or education for that matter was not a priority which enjoyed great importance or attention. This, was no strange phenomenon and this summarized the totality of the experience for most children in that community.
She started school at Drimiopsis Primary School and all Afrikaaner remembers is a never ending list of challenges, which placed a humongous limitation on her colleagues dreams. “There was no food, no clothing even in winter. No soap to take a decent shower. Only after three months would the government send drought relief food. And even when there was food at home, you would come from school and still have to cook because mommy and daddy are out on a drinking spree,” Afrikaaner reminisces as she draws us into her early days.
She said hers was a dead end from all sides. There was no one to look up as a role model. Her parents did not understand the value of education hence there was no push from home. If it wasn’t because of merely jumping on the bandwagon, her daily routine would’ve been nothing different from many of her peers.
Her mother would say ‘My daughter, I do not care if I’m not educated as long as I’m alive – then I’m fine.’
“I grew up in a society where when a 12 year old girl falls pregnant, the elders see nothing wrong with it. In fact, she is taken in and treated like an adult going forward. As a child, you are surrounded by people who have no interest in your growth and even on days when you do not feel like going to school, they will not bother to ask. You suffer emotionally and ultimately you are not allowed to have dreams of anything outside your reality,” she said.
“At school, other children look at us differently. It is very difficult to come out and be proud of your roots because to them, we are the lowest level of mankind. The teachers would say there is no hope for us because we belong in the bush.”
What she says saved her was the wisdom from her high school principal who disciplined and guided her like his own. She said the headmaster would personally make sure that she was at school and if she wasn’t, he would send someone for her.
In 2005, Afrikaaner completed her grade 12 at Johannes Dohren High School, but only managed to achieve 10 points. In a society where she has come as far as grade 12, this would be the dead end to an educational journey for many. But not to the young San girl.
Through the help of the principal’s family, Helena was brought to Windhoek to continue her schooling through Namcol. This was groundbreaking in the young girl’s life who is used to nothing but the dusty grounds of her resettlement camp.
“All of a sudden there were lights everywhere. I got new friends and they were just different. One wants to go out to have kapana and KFC, these things are not part of the resettlement. I had to do all of it and more just to fit in and be normal like other girls,” narrated Afrikaaner.
This same year she was doing Namcol, she had recorded no improvements in her subject besides the blessings of an unplanned pregnancy.
“I failed in staggering fashion that year. But I went back. I changed to the commerce field. The second year I did well by taking two subjects every year until I made it to six and qualified for Unam entry points. So I did Namcol for four years to be exact and I never gave up.”
Her first year at Unam was like a dream-come-true, saying she felt like a boss. But this was no comfort zone for Afrikaaner as the discrimination was still the daily impediment to overcome. Subsequently, she did not want to fail a module because this would qualify public perceptions that the San are not made for school.
Her four years at university was a journey of more downs than the determined ups. From maneuvering difficult modules to being the only reference for San people on campus, this association often became challenging. While her classmates graduated last year, she had to bolster two modules that she had not overcome the previous years’ just book her spot up that graduation stage.
“The graduation was more to prove a point than it was for myself. I wanted to prove a point that no matter where you come from, you can still do it. I wanted to show the children of Drimiopsis that it can be done. Similarly, I want to show the San parents that their children should go to school.”
“I’m continuing with my Accounting Bachelor and I will not stop until I get that masters representing the San people of Omaheke Region. Yes, before, we belonged in the bush. But now we are out. My society needs to see difference and I need to take the lead. If other people can do it, we can also do it,” said the 30 year old graduate.