For Disadvantaged South African Girls, A STEM Alternative

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—As the Lego robot started driving around the classroom, 12-year-old Likhona Maginindare, who wants to be a transplant surgeon when she grows up, started jumping up and down with excitement. But when the robot’s shovel-like mechanism at the front did not lift up and move like it was supposed to Ms. Maginindare and the four other pre-teen girls in her after school science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) group were told by their teacher to go back to the board where the instructions were posted to find what they had done wrong with their coding. After a lot of concentration, conversation and giggles, the girls recoded the robot and –viola—the robot’s front end lifted up. Theirs joined the other three robots, programmed by their fellow classmates, in revving around the room bumping into each other as the girls looked on with enthusiasm.

While STEM after school programs in other parts of the world— or even in affluent neighborhoods in Cape Town— may not be unique, this particular program in the poor and crime-ridden township of Khayelitsha is special not only because of where it is located but that its focus is on pre-teen girls. Started by the Thope Foundation, a Cape Town-based non-profit organization focused on supporting girls’ education, over 1000 children have gone through the program since it started in 2013. On January 17 Thope, which means “girl” in the Sesotho language and was started by firebrand social worker Rethabile Mashale Sonibare, will be expanding their scope by inaugurating an all-girls STEM school in what is Cape Town’s largest township.

That school, called Molo Mhlaba (“hello world” in isiXhosa), will start with a first cohort of underprivileged girls aged between three and five. Next January (when the South African school year starts) this first cohort will enter R (reception) Grade—the equivalent of American kindergarten— while another group of girls will begin in the pre-school program. This first cohort of girls each year will start a new grade in the school, going all the way to Grade Seven, the last year of primary school in the country. By the time they finish, there will be a full nursery and primary school that has developed. Ms. Mashale Sonibare told’s Ginanne Brownell Mitic that the long-term plan is to have 10 schools in five provinces across South Africa over the next five years. “While there are other girls’ schools in the country, no other one focuses specifically on STEM,” she said as she drove around Khayelitsha pointing out some of the dire living conditions where her students live. EXCERPTS:

BROWNELL MITIC—First, tell me a bit about why you started the Thope Foundation.
MASHALE SONIBARE—I cannot tell the story of Thope without telling the story of myself. When they desegregated schools in South Africa after Apartheid, I was one of the first black students to go to a predominately white school. That created so many opportunities for me to connect between those two worlds. Every morning I would head off on [public transport] to school and the reality there was completely different. Everyone was white; they had large cars, large homes, these Western nuclear families. And in the afternoon I would have to come back and be in Khayelitsha with my family. I was able to go to university on scholarship, to the University of Cape Town, another historically white institution, where I studied social work and got my Masters. After school I worked for a decade on issues like HIV/AIDS and youth development. But I realized that none of [these projects] was targeting primary schools in the most effective way and there was this missing gap between Grade One and Grade Five. So I decided I wanted to try and tackle that in my community.

Why did you want to focus on girls’ education specifically?
I had my daughter and I did not want her to have same experience that I did of being carted between places. That, however, is the reality for a lot of families who have a bit of money; they feel they must send their children to private schools outside of Khayelitsha if they can afford it because they do not perceive public schools in the community as producing quality. And schools themselves produce evidence that confirms that belief—so there is lots of gang violence, lots of attrition, learners drop out, schools are under resourced, teachers are burdened. Increasingly across the globe, there is interest in girls’ education. But what happens is there is a policy address, then an implementation gap and the lived experience that exists between the two. In 2013 we did a three-school study. We got girls to do questionnaires and we also had focus groups where we asked them what their experiences were in school, what makes them safe in school and how they would like those [issues] addressed. We also looked at how family issues impact how they experience schooling. It is one thing to work with children in a direct and empowering way at school but then they go home and they are not getting the same messaging.

And why create the after school STEM program?
It is something to do educational support but how do you link it directly to a career field? What can you do with maths? What can you do with science? Being bilingual or trilingual? We also realized that a lot of kids did not know how to use computers, so how do you access information if you do not even have those tools? I was always interested in science but the career advice I got in school was that I could be a social worker or a teacher. No one ever said I could do ICT for development, no one linked it to what I was passionate about, which was addressing inequality. So we started as an idea and we were fortunate to get a school that supported the idea.  Lots of children who come from these communities have had generational hopelessness that gets handed down. Those who do finish school still go into menial labor; they seldom break into formal economy. So their links are that public schooling in townships equates to joblessness and then it becomes generational poverty. So there is not much aspiration to support what is happening in school but there is also not a lot of quality coming out of schools. So how do we reimagine that space?

So Molo Mhlaba will be targeting girls from some of the poorest and disadvantaged backgrounds in your community?
Lots of kids come from stunted backgrounds, they do not have access to reading materials so their vocabulary is low and then they have to go to school. So we will manage the whole process. We will be the only girls’ school in Khalitshaya as all others are co-ed.  We are working through community structures and especially recruiting girls who are not in early childhood development centers. I have been working through some of our partners here and I have been walking round asking girls I see, “why aren’t you in school?”

Aside from being the only girls’ school in the township, what also makes the program unique?
We are going to pilot a new model of schooling in underserved communities so you have extended school days. So girls arrive at 7 a.m. and get breakfast. School starts at 8 a.m. and then they are taught for four and a half hours, which is mandated by government for that age group. And then after, they will have an after school program where they get to do robotics, art, woodwork, pottery, home economics— all the things they do not have access to in underserved communities. The long-term idea is to do 10 schools in 12 years in five provinces. Our target is for 60 girls in each cohort.

That’s impressive but how can you achieve this?
Cape Town is ideal because that is where we have been based and we have a large network and support here. Next would be the Eastern Cape, but we do not know what we will find. A girls’ school may not be what they need because there are different challenges for a peri-urban areas so could be long distances between schools and communities that they serve. They will all subscribe to the South Africa curriculum because we have to graduate them to high school.

Isn’t there a concern though that focusing just on girls could create animosity that boys are not getting the support they need for their education?
There is concern about that but the thing about opportunity is that in a developing country, often it is gendered and so boys have more access to after school programs;  there are more soccer teams, anti-gang violence programs target at them directly. And sport for development programs are focused on violence prevention because [males] are the perpetrators so therefore we must address young boys because they become men. So very little done is done for girls. But also in schooling, there is lots of evidence to suggest that it is even more important for girls and boys to be separate because they learn confidence and self-esteem without having to wait for others.

What facilities will you have aside from classrooms and a cafeteria?
There is a sports field nearby that does not get used during the day, so we can use that for physical education. We will have a yoga studio because we are fanatics about mindfulness. One of the things I am obsessed with is how do you retain behavior and get kids started calmly when they come home after a night of parents drinking, being abusive and violent with each other, then come on [to school] flustered. How do you calm them down? Our afterschool will continue as an extension of the school as well.

Photo credits: 1st and 2nd, Ginanne Brownell Mitic; 3rd, view township from Shutterstock; 4th, new classroom by Rethabile Mashale Sonibare


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