Sitting in the departure lounge of Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, these are the three words that I am left with as I reflect on the past few days. I have just concluded an IWitness trip with Daevid, Steven, Tanya, and Xiao, co-workers from IKEA Canada. We were visiting UNICEF education and development projects in remote communities in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. The focus of this trip was on how sport can be used as a tool for education and community development.
In the school we visited, sport and physical education are offered once a week, and we learned that attendance is highest and behaviour issues are less frequent on these particular days. Quite simply, children are more focused on their studies when the promise of joyful activity is present. No studies, no sport.
The majesty of South Africa’s land, topography, and flora and fauna took my breath away. We were privileged to spend our days in and around the small community of Geluksburg, in the shadow of the stunning Drakensberg mountains that skirt the eastern part of the country. It seemed, as we drove from school to school, that we were being watched over by Thintwa, the mountain that stands above this community.
I was also very struck by the spirit of the people of this region. Children and adults, learners and educators alike, were infectious in their energy for life and for learning. We were welcomed with grace and joy no matter where we went. I will remember the hospitality, curiosity, respect, and joy that we experienced. I swapped countless smiles and laughs with perfect strangers, simply excited to meet each other and share a few moments of humanity.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I will remember the determination of the UNICEF South Africa team to make a tangible difference in the quality of education in the country. Access to education is not the problem in South Africa, as over 99% of children attend school regularly. So, to ensure that students are in fact learning when they attend school, UNICEF has adopted a “muddy boots on the table” approach. This means that they work hard to develop innovative projects on the ground in rural communities to demonstrate how results can be improved. They then bring this knowledge to the table to inform policy change to positively affect the education system throughout the country—particularly to benefit children in rural areas.
When I recall my time in South Africa for my colleagues, friends, and family, I will remember its majesty, spirit, and determination.