Our 10-person Rotary Friendship Exchange party from District 9800 to District 9320 South Africa spent May 23 visiting operations of the Ready 4  Life charity group at Port Elizabeth on the south coast.
Outer suburbs include swathes of black townships, thousands of tiny houses with rudimentary sanitation and electricity, and populations bedevilled by a 40% unemployment rate. Most tragically, bare fields around are churned up from the roadside to far into the distance. By what? By new-dug graves for AIDS victims. We were told that one such field was barely 18 months old.
Our first visit was to a high school to see a class where about 30 unemployed  people aged from 18 to 40 were being given skills in elementary computer operations, personal development and administration-style English.  Our host was Ready 4 Life rep Jacco Wolters, a Dutch specialist in finance and IT.
The goal was to make these students ready to apply for clerical jobs. Without computer skills, they would be back of the queue.
The lesson that day was on word processing – how to cut, paste, save and lay out their work, add pictures, and insert bullet point lists. There was only one laptop in the class but it was connected to a projector so everyone could follow the lesson on-screen.
In fact, there are half a dozen laptops forthe class, which are taken home at the end of each day. The reason relates to another issue: this school is barricaded like a fortress against thieves. Doors  and windows incorporate heavy steel screens, and  there is a formidable perimeter fence. Nonetheless if any valuable gear such as desktop PCs were left in the school overnight, break-ins would occur.
We were impressed by the eagerness of the adult class to learn. Everyone was well-dressed for study and their faces shone with enthusiasm.  There seemed equal numbers of men and women, and average age looked like about 20-25.

From there our mini-bus took us to another Ready for Life operation at a nearby primary school. Here the fortress-like ambience was even more pronounced. In fact the school seemed more like a high –security gaol than an education place. Steel roller doors were up to 5cm thick and internally the school was chopped into segments each with its own security doors and access.
Here the Ready 4  Life operation has the goal of detecting children aged 6-13 who have ‘dropped out’ of class for a week or two. Workers then track down the homes of the parents and try to discover why the children are missing class and what can be done about it. Reasons could be family illness, family poverty, family disfunction (addictions etc), demoralisation through hunger, or someone’s decision that the child would be better employed as a beggar than a student.
Workers told us that after a fortnight’s absence from school, there is  a ‘tipping point’ where the children are unlikely ever to return to classes. This child would then join the ranks of youth unemployed and move on to a dysfunctional life.
Ready 4  Life workers are hardly able to effect any large-scale cures but are happy to achieve some local and individual successes in returning children to school. Workers themselves live  in the townships and know well what home circumstances are like there. Often the primary carer is a grandmother who struggles to cope.
Children’s hunger is  a serious problem. Many come to class unfed and incapable of learning. Previously the government provided funds  for meals at the school – often the only meal that a child might get that day. However, this aid was removed and funding for meals now derives only from charity and the equivalent of cake stalls. The school administration is severely stressed financially on every front. Parents are meant to pay a small annual fee for their children but 80% do not. This cuts deeply into the school’s ability to provide classroom materials and supplementary teachers. Meals for children are just one of many competing calls on the school budget.
As one of the Ready 4 Life workers outlined the situation, the problems and his valiant struggle to make some headway against these appalling handicaps, we all felt humbled and tearful. Outside the classroom is a small vege patch, not much bigger than a Melbourne home gardener would look after. The plan is that when the little seedlings mature, they will  be ‘harvested’ and turned into soup. A different take on the cliché about ‘planting a seed’.
Footnote: Ready 4 Life was founded by Dutch development expert Marieke Robers, who has 18 years of experience in development aid through her work for 'Doctors without Borders'. Marieke and Jacco Wolters report to a board of two members, both South African: Linda Jones (businesswoman) and Kas Kasongo (pathologist and Aids-expert). Contact: www.ready4life.nl