Poverty and feeling left out of the dominant culture has seen record numbers of the indigenous San drop out of the formal schooling system in Southern Africa.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) confirms that less than 1 percent of the San people obtain a school leaving certificate and despite attempts in the last two decades to improve their participation in the formal schooling system, San youth continue to drop out.
The San are Southern Africa’s indigenous people and communities of the San are sprawled across the countries: Botswana, Namibia, Angola, and South Africa, with small numbers in Zimbabwe and Zambia. Historically, the San are hunter-gatherers. However, modern-day conservation policies, amongst others, have prevented them from exercising this way of survival and today the San exist in a state of extreme poverty.
According to the website of the human rights activist organization, the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA), the San number approximately 38,000 in Namibia which is about 2 percent of the population. The poverty level among the San is 59.7 percent and the incidence of severe poverty is 39 percent – more than double the national average in that country.
Dr Haaveshe Nekongo-Nielsen, senior lecturer in Education at the University of Namibia explains that the lack of formal schooling has manifested a lack of skills in San communities, thus making it extremely hard for them to earn a living.
Nekongo- Nielsen who presented at last year’s Indigenous Education in a Changing World conference on San education – which was in part hosted by UNESCO – has done some research into the question of the high drop-out rate of San children at formal schools.
“The kids feel like they don’t belong. They feel like their culture is not respected,” she explained.
As a result of the San’s high drop-out rate from school, Nekongo-Nielsen said that their lack of education and thus employable skills in the labor market “has an impact on their living conditions. The areas that they come from are underdeveloped,” Nekongo-Nielsen explained.
OSISA’s Indigenous People's Rights Programme Manager, Delme Cupido believes the reasons for the San people’s lack of participation in the formal schooling system are complex and there are many factors feeding into their dissatisfaction with formal schooling.
“These are very poor communities and poverty is an issue. Parents ask themselves, do I send them (children) to school or do they help me make a living. Schools are based far away from where communities live and they (the children) often have to stay in boarding schools.
“They don’t usually have uniforms. The school experience is very traumatic for the kids. So, there is very little incentive to send kids to school. The older San people say they don’t see the value of sending them to school,” he said.
Cupido’s sense of the San’s marginalisation at schools is shared by Jennifer Hays. Hays is an anthropologist who has been working on San education problems for about 15 years and says that “it continues to be very challenging.“
Hays said that while the statistics paint an alarming picture of the general drop-out rate of San youth from school; “statistics also show that the drop-out rate is especially high among female San learners.”
However, Hays points out that there are some encouraging Namibian interventions in getting San children back into school and them seeing it through.
“There is the Village Schools in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, which is a Mother Tongue education project in which the children go to school in their villages for the first three years, then transfer to the government school in Tsumkwe in Grade 4. In practice, the transfer to the mainstream government schools does not really work, thus many people think the project is not successful. My belief is that the problem is the government school. There is also a school in the Omaheke (Gqaina) which is fairly sympathetic to San students (though not mother tongue), and has good enrollment rates. But when the kids transfer to other schools in grade 3 – mostly they drop out. Other than this – there are NO other ‘best practice’ projects,” she wrote in a written response.
It appears from these best practice schooling models that effective approaches must be community based, and preferably mother tongue learning encouraged as important first steps in creating a welcoming school environment for the San people.