(MENAFN- The Post) SEMONKONG – MANY of the children walk barefoot in freezing temperatures. The more fortunate ones are wearing rubber boots as they make their way to school, trudging through bushes and rivers for up to 20 kilometres.
To beat the biting cold, they are clad in blankets and woollen hats on top of their school uniform. At the school, they press against each other for warmth.
The classroom, an old round hut constructed from black and red basalt stones bound together by easily friable loam soil, houses all of the school's classes from grade one up to seven.
Welcome to Molatjeng Primary School in Semonkong, a mountainous rural area that is one of the country's hardest to reach places. Here, attending classes is a pain for pupils.
The school is close to the famous 'Maletsunyane River, which plunges into the 'Maletsunyane Falls, one of Africa's highest waterfalls and a magnet for tourists from all around the world.
Lerato*, a Grade Six pupil at the school, describes the situation at the school as“very painful”.
“I often miss school,” she said, however appreciating that she is at least getting the chance to attend school.
The Ha-Molatjeng traditional leader, Chieftainess 'Mantai Tokiso, whose two children are in grades five and six at the school, said she offered the hut to be a classroom after a government-hired contractor failed to finish building classrooms.
“It was terrible to see children attending lessons in the open,” Chieftainess Tokiso said.
“At first they were attending lessons in a corrugated iron shack which was blown away by the wind five years ago. I had to lend them my hut considering the importance of education,” she said.
Chieftainess Tokiso added that“it is very painful but we do not know what to do anymore”.
“Luckily, my children are nearer to the school, just a five-minute walk from home,” she said.
The principal, 'Mamahooana Kolobe, said the lack of classrooms has severely affected her pupils' progress. Many of the pupils have to repeat classes despite the government's policy of just passing pupils to the next class.
“We have children walking 15 to 20 kilometres on foot to school,” Kolobe said, adding that lessons start at nine o'clock, an hour later than other schools to cater for pupils walking long distances.
The school knocks off at two o'clock to give pupils time to walk back home.
“We don't want any of the pupils to miss classes since some of them walk through forests and cross rivers to reach the school,” she said.
“It is wise for them to leave school earlier so that they do not arrive at their homes late,” she said, raising concerns that many of the children arrive at school already tired.
Semonkong is one of the coldest regions in the country. In winter temperatures drop to below freezing point, forcing barefoot children to navigate icy rivers on their way to school in the morning.
“Worse there is no bridge and they walk on foot in that cold water. I fear that if there is no intervention soon, these children will be affected at some point in their lives,” Kolobe said.
She said teaching all classes in the hut donated by the chieftainess is far from ideal, with teachers taking turns to teach the different classes.
The hut is the collective classroom while another room serves as a storeroom for the school's valuables.
“The children are seriously confused by the teaching arrangement,” said Kolobe.
“Grade one pupils remain in the class even when it is time to teach grade sevens. Out of boredom and unable to make sense of what is being taught they start playing, disturbing others,” she said.
It is the same when the seniors have to endure the boredom of sitting idly while grade one pupils sing letters of the alphabet.
“The situation is unbearable,” said Kolobe.
The school has only two teachers, including the principal, taking care of 53 pupils.
“The pupils easily lose focus,” the principal said, noting the challenges of preparing for classes whose content is vastly different.
“At least there is a link from grade one up to grade three, they can be taught the same things. But grades four, five, six and seven are taught totally different things,” she said.
“It is very difficult to work under these conditions,” she said.
Kolobe said she approached the former Minister of Education, Ntlhoi Motsamai, asking for assistance and she referred her to one 'Mè Thuto who is said to be responsible for building schools.
“I approached her and she always had different answers every time I talked to her,” Kolobe said.
“The most heartbreaking response was beha pelo sekotlong (be patient), there are a lot of people in need of buildings,” Kolobe said.
“I became numb and returned to the minister.”
Kolobe was expecting that the minister would feel a personal responsibility to ensure that classrooms are built at the school.
“I have not gone to the current minister as yet. Rather I went to the Development Planning Minister, Selibe Mochoboroane, who took the initiative to investigate the matter and promised to inform relevant stakeholders,” she said.
The other room that acts as a storeroom is on the brink of collapse and Kolobe fears either snow or the anticipated heavy rains will finish it off.
“I really don't know where I will put the property. I wonder what's going to happen as we are in the rainy season,” she said.
She said it would make a huge difference if the government chipped in to roof the uncompleted classrooms that were abandoned by the contractor.
During times of extreme weather conditions, some children are unable to attend school for an entire week due to overflowing rivers.
“Oele!” she exclaimed in despair.“Can a bridge be built as students often miss classes when 'Maletsunyane overflows”.
“It is saddening because the following week when these other children are able to come to school, they have to repeat the lessons conducted the previous week. As they do this, time goes by and they are unable to complete the syllabus,” she said.
Building of the Molatjeng Primary School started in 2010 under a countrywide schools building programme initiated by the administration of then Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili.
Hopes were high that the children, who had never had any proper buildings for classes, would be able to learn under proper infrastructure like children in other more fortunate parts of the country.
Kolobe said the contractor disappeared without a word even before the walls reached the window level and no one in government has bothered to explain why.
Mochoboroane toured the area recently and learnt of the misery endured by the community, students and their teachers.
He promised the community that he would talk to the Minister of Education to address the situation.
The minister also advised the community to work together and pool resources to complete construction of the school.
“Gather men to help in building the school as the walls are already falling apart,” Mochoboroane told the village chieftainess.
Former 'Maletsunyane MP, Kotiti Diholo, said he did not have any information on why the contractor disappeared without finishing the job although he was the MP at the time.
“I have since asked the Ministry of Education to intervene in this matter and it seemed like it will be addressed but to date nothing has been done,” Diholo said.
Diholo said pupils are stranded and it gets worse when 'Maletsunyane is full.
“It is the only school in the area. Other schools are far away. It's a disaster and the situation compromises the quality of education,” he said.
The Basic Education Principal Secretary, Dr Lira Khama, said officials saw pictures of the school recently and are looking for ways of helping alleviate the situation.
“We are still looking at how we can intervene,” Dr Khama said.
*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the students.
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