Bright future: University students Andile Ngobeni (left) and Thandeka Msimango are both beneficiaries of the Rally to Read programme. They posed for a photograph at a bookstore at Wits University. picture: Sebabatso Mosamo/Sunday Times
Bright future: University students Andile Ngobeni (left) and Thandeka Msimango are both beneficiaries of the Rally to Read programme. They posed for a photograph at a bookstore at Wits University. picture: Sebabatso Mosamo/Sunday Times

Andile Ngobeni’s middle name is Fortunate. It couldn’t better sum up her experience of the past few years. Ngobeni’s local primary school, in an impoverished community in rural Mpumalanga, was typical of many in the remote corners of SA: underresourced and struggling to provide a proper education.

At the age when they are due to progress to high school, the average 14-year-old child in such a school has a reading age of seven. Their education is effectively over.

Then Rally to Read came calling. The programme, which has been reviving rural primary schools since 1998, chose Ngobeni’s.

For three years, sponsors supplied reading books and stationery, teachers were retrained and the Read Educational Trust (Read), SA’s leading education NGO, monitored literacy progress.

Ngobeni showed particular promise, and was the beneficiary of a bursary scheme sponsored by Rally to Read co-founder Brand Pretorius and his wife Tillie. She was placed at a reputable high school, where all her expenses were paid for five years.

It was money well spent. Ngobeni aced her matric exams at the end of last year, earning seven distinctions, including 98% in accounting and 95% in maths. She is now starting a degree in actuarial science at Wits University, supported by a Sasol scholarship.

Across the road, at the University of Johannesburg, another Mpumalanga bursary recipient, Thandeka Msimango, is beginning her degree in sports science after passing matric with flying colours.

"I remember the day Rally to Read came to my school in 2014," she says. "It changed my life. Now I want to succeed so I can change the lives of others and be an inspiration to people where I grew up."

The stories of Ngobeni and Msimango — and there have been many other successes down the years — underline Rally to Read’s view that SA’s failing rural education system hurts not only the children directly affected but also SA as a whole.

By condemning millions to illiteracy, the country loses out on an immeasurable wealth of talent that could transform society.

Read trainer Ellen Dlamini, who acted as guardian to Ngobeni and Msimango at high school, says Rally to Read, in which the FM is an organising partner, enables children to "participate effectively in the socioeconomic development of SA".

She adds: "I feel proud because this dream is being fulfilled."

What makes Ngobeni and Msimango’s achievements even more remarkable is that the most recent part — their matric performance — was accomplished despite the chaos caused to education by Covid-19.

This chaos has also affected the Rally to Read programme.

Traditionally, sponsors deliver their educational goods in person to schools. Weekends are spent traversing far-flung rural areas not on tourist maps. Portable classroom libraries, stationery, sports equipment and other items are delivered against a backdrop of singing, dancing, speeches and reading demonstrations. Families and community members can swell waiting crowds into hundreds.

For many sponsors, it’s their first direct contact with rural life. Those that support the same school over the full three-year intervention are able to witness not only dramatic improvements in reading and writing skills, but also to see children develop confidence and a sense of self-worth. This unique personal experience has persuaded many sponsors to stay with the programme for years.

Covid-19 halted these visits in 2020. In February, Mpumalanga rally sponsor Ford delivered goods without guests. It’s too early to say if the same will happen later this year with rallies in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal.

What is certain is that Rally to Read needs the continued support of FM readers and others. It may not be as visible for now, but the programme will this year uplift education standards at dozens of primary schools and provide the only hope of a proper education for thousands of children.

Since 1998, Rally to Read has offered more than 300,000 children the chance to transform their lives by learning to read and write. We’re not going to stop, as long as the education system continues to fail those it is supposed to help.

Supporting the programme

A full Rally to Read sponsorship costs R36,000. That pays for two classroom libraries and a year of teacher training for one school. Once school visits resume, it will also include a guided weekend trip for four people to deliver goods in person, accompanied by fellow sponsors. Trips may be one or two days, depending on the distances travelled.

An R18,000 sponsorship entitles two people to travel. However, all sponsorships, of whatever size, are welcome.

To become a sponsor, or to learn more about the literacy programme, visit rallytoread.org.za.

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