Big Questions

Grade 12 students completed their final exams in November 2015 and, on January 6th, will learn whether they will graduate (matriculate) from high school.

South African learners take 7 subjects in grade 12. The minimum academic requirements to earn a high school certificate are: 3 subjects including Home/Native language with a minimum grade of 40%, 2 subjects including English or Home language with a minimum grade of 30%, and a 6th subject with a minimum grade of 20%.


Phumlani & Siyabulela

Not surprisingly, these minimum requirements will not qualify a student for entry into college or university. However, the learner will have graduated/matriculated from high school. The 2014 matriculation rate for South Africa was 75.8%. However, only 55% of students who commenced primary school in 2003 (class of 2014) made it to grade 12, for a “real” matriculation rate of only 41.7%. (January 6th update: The matric pass rate for 2015 declined to 70.7%)

This raises the next question we are sometimes asked…

Are we making a difference? Put another way, are your donations making a difference? Along with “How could we do more?” and “Are we doing the right things?”…these are the big questions.


Knysna (township)

Dr. Martin Haberman has devoted over 46 years to teaching urban youth and researching better ways to improve teaching for children living in poverty. His latest book (2005) is entitled Star Teachers of Children in Poverty.


Dr. Martin Haberman

We subscribe to many of Dr. Haberman’s views and trust that they speak to the big questions regarding our initiatives in South Africa. Dr. Haberman writes:

“Many of These kids have no chance but that offered by school and mentors.”

“For children in poverty, success in school is a matter of life and death, and they need mature people who have a great deal of knowledge about their subject matter, but who can also relate to them.”


View towards Knysna (from Indian Ocean)

Dr. Haberman’s findings regarding Star Teachers of children in poverty:

“They tend to be non-judgemental”. “They are not easily shocked”.                             “They don’t really expect schools to change much.”

“They think their primary impact on their students is that they’ve made them more humane or less frustrated, or raised their self-esteem”.

“Stars focus on the effort the learners demonstrate, quitters focus on how far the kid will go in life.” “To stars, school is life and death. Kids must have it, as it is their only hope of a better life and they have no other source of life skills and guidance.”


Some of the guys…

Complicating matters is that much of what we do, in particular Jim, can not be captured in photographs or shared on our blog. Many of the ways we make a difference entail matters which are personal in nature, and respecting the boys’ privacy is key to maintaining their trust.

An interesting pattern is developing. When someone questions whether we are making a difference, or whether the “problem” is simply too big to impact, there is one thing which shifts mindsets in a big way:

Take the person into the township and enable them to meet and question some of the youth whom we tutor or mentor. 

The shift in mindset following first-hand contact with the boys or their families is dramatic. Doubters become financial supporters, and comments like “now I understand why you do what you do” are typical.


“The difference between carbon and diamonds is that diamonds stayed on the job longer” – Thomas Edison

Rest assured, “we” are making a difference. Not in everything we do, but certainly in much of what we do. Your moral support, donations, and feedback on our blog posts makes you an integral part of the “we” which is changing lives. Thank you.

Battling Poverty


Jim posted this blog entry from Canada:

Of the numerous books I have read since returning to Canada in May for our sabbatical (lol), there are two I highly recommend.

The first is I Am Because You Are authored by American Jacob Lief who, 15 years ago at the age of 21, established the Ubuntu Education Fund in a township in South Africa. I LOVED Jacob’s book, and didn’t want it to end.

Some people ask us why we spend so much time in South Africa or “don’t you want to travel to other countries?” Read Jacob’s book and I believe you will understand what it is that has captured our hearts and keeps us returning to South Africa. This book provides important insight into the legacy of apartheid from the perspective of the majority of blacks and Coloureds who still reside in South Africa’s townships.

Jacob was once asked “Billions of dollars are being invested in Africa each year, and it’s no secret that the results are not amazing. With all this aid money why aren’t more leaders being produced, why aren’t more kids in these impoverished areas getting into top universities?”

Jacob responded: “Maybe it’s because we’re giving them a cup of soup, a windup computer, and a shipping container for a school.”

As wonderful as it is when large NGO’s distribute malaria nets, provide school shoes, or run soup kitchens, these individual actions will never alleviate poverty. We agree with Jacob that the solution lies in a more holistic approach which includes an ongoing relationship with each child.

This is why we sometimes take a boy to the doctor, the hospital, purchase school shoes or clothes, tutor them after school, make sure they have sufficient food, and continue to mentor them year after year. Short term interventions are unlikely to change a lifetime of poverty.

Jacob’s book reminded me of so many of our experiences working in a disadvantaged community. You will gain a valuable understanding of South Africa upon reading this book.

You may wish to start with an article Jacob Lief wrote for the Huffington Post:

Ending Poverty: The Next Big Idea is To Stay Small


What follows is an excerpt from an email Jim sent to a number of our friends and colleagues in South Africa last week. We thought you may be interested:

“An important component of our mentorship groups is the focus on character. Youth are exposed to 6 core values; Integrity, Accountability, Self-Regulation, Positive Anger Expression, Cause-Effect Goal Setting, and Respect for Girls.

To demonstrate the importance of these 6 core values, I’d like to have guest speakers attend some of our meeting and share how adherence to some of the core values contributed to their success and happiness in life.

I’m hoping you can help me identify some positive male role models who I may contact to determine their level of interest. Our meeting format is casual, and the guest speaker would join us around a table and just chat. Just speak from the heart (in English) about their personal journey in life, as it relates to some of the 6 core values.

I am seeking black and Coloured males, but predominantly black. Please remember that many of the boys lack a positive male role model, and the majority have no father in their life. My goal is to expose the young men to positive male role models from their own race and community, as much as possible.

Doctors, engineers, athletes, musicians, and business people would be great. Equally great would be any black or coloured male who meets the criteria of being a positive male role model. This person might be a parking attendant, a gardener, a painter, a fireman, or a chef. What they do for a living is less important than their character. So long as they demonstrate compassion for their fellow man and are a positive male role model.”


The second book is How Children Succeed by Canadian author Paul Tough. I encourage you to treat yourself to this intelligent, evidence-based work. I read this book for the first time 1 year ago, but wanted to read it again.

The author explores considerable data regarding the impact of chronic stress associated with poverty. Previous research tended to explain cognitive deficits in disadvantaged children as being more the result of poor nutrition, or poor parenting, or not being read to as a child. Paul Tough presents convincing data regarding the physiological, and psychological, impact stemming from the stress of living in poverty.

Township youth worry about insufficient food, no money for school clothes, lack of soap, what happens if their mother loses her job, no money for electricity for cooking or lights to study by, and so on.

One of many encouraging findings in this book, based on the work of Angela Duckworth, is that “…character is at least as important as intellect”. I frequently use this video in our youth mentorship groups. Watch the TED Talk to learn more:

The Key To Success? Grit

Thank you for your continued support, 

Jim & Janet

images Click here…






Township Fire


White Location

On Sunday evening we observed thick black smoke rising from the top of the township. Within minutes, flames were higher than the trees and we heard the sirens of emergency vehicles en route to the fire. While this photograph does not do justice to the extent of the fire damage, Jim was told by an adult male that 17 homes/shacks were destroyed.


White Location

The same adult male told Jim that, upon returning to his girlfriend/wife in Knysna, a man learned that she was cheating on him and he decided to burn down the shack in which she lived. The fire spread quickly to surrounding homes. Fortunately, the home of a 16 year-old member of our original Bulele membership group who lives only 6 houses from the fire site was spared. IMG_2070 Janet and our Canadian friend, Elizabeth, visited a wild cat sanctuary during her stay in Knysna. These are 4 month old lion cubs!


Marlise and Robin

Jim and Robin attended the annual e’Pap luncheon where Robin was invited to speak about his experience with e’Pap. e’Pap is a nutritionally complete porridge developed many years ago by an African social entrepreneur. The e’Pap program in Knysna feeds thousands of disadvantaged preschool to high school-age children each school day. Robin graduated high school 4 months ago and credits much of his academic success to the fact that he ate e’Pap daily through primary and high school. Many youth attend school on an empty stomach and suffer the distraction of hunger on a daily basis.



Following the signing of the truce between the 45 boys in the 3 high school gangs, the Police invited the boys and their parents to an evening meeting intended to reinforce the importance of parental involvement in the long term solution to this issue. IMG_1821 The meeting went well and each member of the panel and Jim spoke briefly, after which parents asked questions and offered input. Two youth also provided input.


South African Police Services community meeting

Many of the boys attended the meeting, along with some parents, however it is possible that many parents never received the invitation letter from their sons.


Red Bridge

With only 1 week remaining before we return to Canada, we remain busy with our     youth-related projects and implementing plans to maintain communication with many of the youth during our absence.


L to R: Jim, Dennis, Michael

Preparing to depart also includes saying good bye to the many friends we have met over the years. Last weekend we were invited by Marie and Brian (from Ireland) to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon on their boat. We dropped anchor by scenic Red Bridge.


L to R: Micheal, Brian, Janet

We will certainly miss our friends and the natural beauty of of Knysna… Janet & Jim

Every child deserves a champion



At last week’s Bulele meeting at Percy Mdala, Jim asked the boys “who likes money?”. 16 year-old Siyathemba responded: “I value money, but I do not like money”.



Acona now has a job!!!  Last week Jim & Acona persuaded the owner of a petrol station and car wash to allow Acona to volunteer for 1 day and prove himself. At the end of day one he was asked to work (and be paid) the following day. At the end of day 2 he was permanently hired. He LOVES his new job.


Acona has worked 4 days in a row and yesterday was his first day off. One day a week he will attend an adult literacy program, as he only reads at a grade 1 level. The income Acona earns from his job is VERY needed at home as he is the only member of the family who is employed. He lives with his single mother and siblings.


Nicholas Njozela, Principal of Percy Mdala (at the microphone)

Recently, we were invited to attend an academic year-end function for Percy Mdala High School. Along with 2 other white couples in attendance, we were introduced as “friends of Percy” and thanked for our ongoing support of their learners. Percy has a talented and committed Principal who reiterated his belief that “every child deserves a champion”.


Anna & Ntokozo

Ana is a landscape architect who resides in the UK and recently vacationed in Knysna for 2 weeks. Janet arranged for her to help Ntokozo with his art class assignment and even Ntokozo was impressed with his hidden talent!


Ntokozo and Ana

Ntokozo’s latest art assignment included drawing a self-portrait.


Thiso & Janet

Thiso is a 16 year-old grade 10 learner at Concordia High School (CHS) in the Knysna township. While it was not a particularly hot day (likely 23C), it is typical for the boys to wear full uniforms, regardless of the temperature, which includes a wool jersey (sweater) or sweater vest. Janet in shorts…Thiso in sweater and wool scarf around his neck!


Last week Jim launched 2 new mentorship groups with the assistance of 2 helpful teachers.  Patterned after the first Bulele mentorship group we started 1 year ago, a 2nd Bulele group comprised of grade 9 and 10 boys held its first meeting at Concordia High School. The first meeting of a “Tomorrow’s Fathers” group, comprised of grade 9 boys (ages 14 to 18), was held at Percy Mdala High School. This mentorship group focuses on issues impacting boys growing up with an absent father.

Sadly, a grade 11 student from Percy Mdala was stabbed and killed this past weekend. We never met the boy, however he was a classmate of some of the youth we know. Some teachers had recently seen evidence of the boy striving to turn his life around and follow a better path…

The previous weekend a student from Concordia High School was stabbed in a gang-related incident, but fortunately he survived.


Knysna Correctional Facility

Yesterday, Jim met with the warden of the Knysna correctional facility who showed him around the prison. The purpose of Jim’s visit was to arrange a prison tour for the boys in some of our mentorship programs.

HOT HOT here…Jim &Janet.