January 27, 2008

Paying the bill

I continue to have education on the brain as I help sort out the school fees and uniforms for the Itipini children.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Mkuseli and I went to the primary school to pay the fees for 118 children. As I understand it, the idea is that the government is supposed to give grants to low-income families to help defray school costs but by the time the money arrives, it is needed for other pressing concerns – food, for instance – and doesn’t stretch far enough to cover school. So African Medical Mission, the NGO that runs the Itipini community center, pre-pays the school fees for any parent who requests it in the hope that they will eventually be repaid over time. They rarely are.

It was my first time at the school and it was about what I expected it to be – tremendously overcrowded classrooms, an insufficient number of chairs and desks, a lack of supplies, no bathrooms, and so on and so forth. I didn’t stay long as I couldn’t stand sitting and watching the school official hand write – with agonizing slowness, interrupted for conversation every now and again – 118 receipts. Plus, Mkuseli was more than capable of handling the situation himself. (Incidentally, I gave him the equivalent of five months of his salary in cash to pay the fees and he came back with absolutely every penny accounted for.)

For those of you interested, here’s how the numbers break down.

Grade I – 28 students, ranging in age from 6 to 10.
Grade II – 11 students, ranging in age from 7 to 12.
Grade III – 15 students, ranging in age from 9 to 14.
Grade IV – 20 students, ranging in age from 9 to 14.
Grade V – 12 students, ranging in age from 9 to 18.
Grade VI – 11 students, ranging in age from 11 to 16.
Grade VII – 9 students, ranging in age from 13 to 16.
Grade VIII – 7 students, ranging in age from 14 to 23.
Grade IX – 5 students, ranging in age from 14 to 18.

For grades I to III, it costs 60 rand a year or about 8 U.S. dollars. For the other grades, it is 80 rand or about 11 U.S. dollars.

Later in the week, Mkuseli and I tackled the purchasing of school uniforms. Many children wear hand-me-downs to school but for those that don’t have them and can’t afford them, AMM will purchase them as well. Here’s my estimation on how the prices break down.

Shirt – 20 to 30 rand
Trousers – 60 to 80 rand
Sweater – 60 to 80 rand
Shoes – 110 to 130 rand

That means a full uniform ranges from 250 to 320 rand per student, or about 35 to 45 U.S. dollars. That ends up being pretty steep, particularly the shoes, but given that the student wears the same set of clothes every single day for the whole year, the price per use is quite low.

None of this counts necessary school supplies, like books, paper, pencils, pens, backpacks that I’ve always seen as traditional back-to-school purchases and that are particularly necessary here, given the school’s lack of resources.

Have you ever bought 18 pairs of shoes, 36 shirts, 24 pairs of pants, and more all at once? It can be lot of fun, particularly when you try to pay the bulk of your several-thousand-rand bill with 20-rand notes. Mkuseli sent the store’s employees scurrying to find all the right sizes. He may be tiny but when he is put in charge of a situation, he assumes an authority and credibility that seem to give him another six inches at least. Not for the first time with him, I was happily reduced to the role of chauffeur. I also spent a lot of time in the fitting-room counting cash to see how much more we could afford.

On Friday afternoon, I took the five high-school students shopping for their uniforms. That was quite the experience but deserves its own post. Look for it soon.