Opening a door in South Africa

Md. donors help pay for youth's schooling


December 16, 2007|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun Foreign Reporter

DIEPSLOOT, South Africa -- Joshua Masekwameng stood outside his mother's shack absorbing the good news: His tuition for hotel management school next year would be paid in full, thanks to some generous strangers 8,000 miles away in Baltimore.

Two weeks ago, the 260 middle school students at St. Paul's School for Boys raised $1,573 for his education. That sum, coupled with contributions from individuals who had earlier read about him, will more than cover the $2,600 cost for the second year of his two-year diploma program.

"I won't make them regret what they've done for me," Joshua told me with a smile as bright as the morning sunshine. "I will work hard, and I will pass to make them proud."

It was outside this two-room shack that I first met Joshua two years ago while on assignment. He was living with his mother, a domestic worker in ill health, and relatives in this sprawling shantytown. Diepsloot began as a temporary "informal settlement," but with South Africa's dire housing shortage and poverty, it has taken on a rickety, squalid permanence.

Lacking electricity, Joshua used to study by candlelight, determined to pass the crucial 12th-grade nationwide exams. He did pass one year ago and is now midway through Rosebank College's hotel management course in Pretoria. At the moment he's keen on culinary studies and is thinking of training to become a chef.

Today's South Africa offers considerable opportunities for its black youth. Finding the money to capitalize on them can be a challenge, though. Joshua's uncle, Johannes Malahlela, is a big believer in education. He initially took on the burden of paying the Rosebank tab and has hosted Joshua during the school year. But he is also putting his late sister's daughter through school, and his clerk's salary is stretched to the limit.

"It's really been a struggle," he told me.

After I wrote an update on Joshua in April, several Sun readers contributed to his schooling. Before long, his first year's tuition was paid. The 2007 school year recently ended, and Joshua is now visiting Diepsloot, outside Johannesburg, for the holidays. He'll get his grades this week and feels sure he excelled.

His uncle told me one teacher called to praise his nephew's performance. The teacher wondered aloud why Joshua had done so well. "Through hard work," Malahlela said he quickly replied.

Among those moved by Joshua's story in April was Dorothy Scanlan, middle school librarian at St. Paul's. Her first thought was, where can I send a check? Her second was: "I work at a boys school where we all have so much. What a great thing it would be to have the boys raise money to help this one student who understands the value of what an education can do for him."

On Nov. 30, the middle school held a dress-down day where students got to leave their uniforms at home for a minimum donation of $2. They knew every penny would help Joshua, having heard a presentation about him from Scanlan.

Most boys gave $5 or more, and two gave $100. One of the big donors used $50 of his own money and borrowed the rest from his parents with a promise to work it off. The fundraiser brought in several hundred dollars more than the tuition tab, and Scanlan says Joshua should use that money for expenses such as transportation or perhaps to help buy a computer.

To Scanlan, the experience offers many valuable lessons: the importance of generosity; the benefits of connecting with others across vast distances and cultural divides, and the need for people to learn more about the world through the stories of individuals like Joshua.

"That kind of thing brings out the best in human beings," she said by phone last week. "He sounds like the kind of person who will, if he ever gets the chance, do something for someone else. It's got that ripple effect."

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