Project Canterbury

Dawn in Swaziland

By Christopher Charles Watts, M.A.
Archdeacon of Swaziland

London: The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1922.

Chapter VIII. St. Mark's School, Mbabane

ONE difficulty that a European in a pioneer country has to face is the education of his children. When they first go to the country most men are unmarried, or, at any rate, their wives and children are living in other places. But as things settle down and the European population becomes larger, family life in the country begins. To bring up a family well on some isolated farm many miles from a white neighbour, or even in some little settlement, is no easy matter. The children are brought into daily and constant contact with heathen natives, are usually nursed by little native boys, and, as a result, often learn the native language before they know their own. Now the talk and ideas of the natives are low and foul beyond description, and the atmosphere is in consequence a very bad one for young children to grow up in. This causes parents much anxious thought. Soon the children must be sent to school, and the question is where are they to be sent? The expense of sending them to a settled place in the older parts of the country is great, and cannot be faced by men who are struggling hard to win a bare living. The children cannot travel alone, and the return journey might easily take the parent a fortnight. A boarding school of their own in some central place is the only thing which can meet the need. Education is a necessary part of the equipment of a European if he is to maintain his position in a country where the native is rapidly forging ahead, and the education provided must be good. A secondary school which will carry the children on to the Cape Matriculation is required. This examination is the standard one for South Africa, and opens the door to all the professions. The boarding arrangements of such a school must be good, and those responsible must be prepared to act as out-fitters and general agents for the parents. Many of the poorer children come from fever districts, and have been fed on unsuitable food. The schoolmaster must not only teach his pupils, but must strengthen them by good food and careful treatment. Their whole outlook must be widened, and many of their habits changed.

In one of those charming little essays which will keep his memory green wherever English is read, Charles Lamb deals with the character and work of the schoolmaster. Travelling in an old-fashioned omnibus from the city to his home at Edmonton, he observed an elderly man seated in the corner of the conveyance. The man was soberly but neatly dressed, his manner reserved and self-contained, and his face happy with a quiet kindliness that appealed to the observer. Lamb, having little at the time to occupy his mind, fell to wondering to what profession the man belonged, and what was his way of life. At one of the stopping-places a youth of about seventeen years entered the omnibus. He greeted the elderly man with real pleasure, his whole face lighting up with affection, and yet his manner showed the greatest respect. At once the riddle was solved. The stranger was a schoolmaster, and this was one of his old pupils. In their greeting of each other the relationship stood apparent; and taking that relationship as his text, Lamb deals sympathetically and with real understanding with much that the profession of schoolmaster means.

Plato, writing of the soldier class in his Republic, says: "If only he were allowed to nurture them from babyhood in clean and healthy habits, and to write their songs for them, and play their games, and feed them with all pleasant sights in wholesome places through youth, then he need lay down no rules for conduct. They would create these for themselves. He could leave them to determine everything--how elders should behave to the younger, and how the young should treat their elders, and what plays were good, and what poetry was bad, and all the decencies and proprieties and customs of daily intercourse. They would be sure to settle them right, if only you have endowed them through education with true character."

More than three hundred years ago one of the wisest of men said, "The desk of the schoolmaster is the throne of the world," and as Bishop Fraser adds, "There is no such power in the world as that of a good religious education. A knowledge of God and the propagation of the Gospel was the noblest work that could be done among men."

But not only is the work great in the abstract; it is the human relationship between the teacher and the taught that makes the salt of the schoolmaster's life. Here a man is at work down on the very foundations--clearing away the rubbish; digging till he is on the solid rock; squaring and cutting the stones that are to be used; setting them slowly and painfully in place, but still setting them fair and square, and so deeply that all the fierce storms of life will dash against them in vain, even if the super structure should fall; laying a foundation upon which others may build some fair building, fair beyond the labourer's imagination, and yet one that could never have been erected but for his lowly and incessant toil. He is down in the dirt and mud, labouring at the beginning of that which will grow into a temple meet for God. In the pulpit the eloquence and fervour of the preacher often pass over the heads of a congregation, who sit either with minds atrophied by constant practice, thinking with impatience of the heat of the building or of the flies teasing the horses without, or perhaps fitting the words and exhortation to some neighbour seated near. But in the school the struggle is real, no merely mental exercise or masterly composition of English--there is the liar to be made truthful, the bully to be restrained by himself experiencing the power of a stronger arm, the timid to be encouraged, the lazy to be made to work, the foul-minded to be taught the strength of purity--all the wonderful list of virtues given us by St. Paul shown to be possible by the power of Christ.

In 1909 the four children who gathered in the ten by ten foot room of the priest in charge of Mbabane formed the nucleus of what is now a large and flourishing boarding school, with over eighty pupils, a staff of five teachers, a large building, and with several successes in the Cape Matriculation Examination to its credit. In 1922 one of the pupils obtained second-class honours in a year when no first-class honours were granted, and a Swaziland boy stood out as one of eight in the whole of the Union of South Africa and Rhodesia, amidst an entry of several thousand candidates.

In 1909 there were no desks or forms, no slates, no school books; everything had to be improvised as the work proceeded. The children seated on the mud floor of the room did their work on the seats of chairs borrowed from the little church. Within a few months the four scholars had increased to eighteen, and a little house in the place had been hired in which they were boarded. Now, with the generous help of the Swaziland Government, and of the Europeans of the country, good school buildings have been erected on a prominent and healthy site, and proper apparatus has been bought. The rule of the school was that no fixed fees should be charged and that no child should be deprived of a good education on account of the poverty, or even the idleness, of the parent. Those parents who could afford it paid well, those who could afford little paid little, while for the very poor education and even clothing and necessary transport were free. The system worked easily, as there are few social distinctions in Swaziland, and all children, whether British or Boer, rich or poor, were treated in exactly the same way. The school became a home as well as a school, and an orphanage in case of need. The necessary money was found partly by the Government, and partly by private subscriptions.

It was an amusing sight at the beginning of each term to see the headmaster arrive at the tail of a commando of children whom he had gone out to collect; some were mounted on donkeys, others on mules and horses, and they were followed by a small army of natives bearing their packages. Some of the pupils rode seventy miles and crossed a river to come to school, and at one time the principal commando from the northern district of the country consisted of twenty-two children, riding on animals of very varying condition and age. As the school became better known, children from the Eastern Transvaal, from Piet Retief, and even from Vryheid and Durban, began to arrive. The fame of Mbabane as an educational centre soon spread, and extra post-carts had to be put on the road at the beginning and end of each term. The school became a great asset to the territory.

Founded as a missionary institution in every sense of the word, and carried on as such, the aim of the teachers has always been that everything should be built on the foundation of all life, character, and knowledge, Jesus Christ our Lord. The services in the little church of Mbabane were the centre around which all revolved. And so in 1911 the Government Inspector of Schools for the Crown Colonies of South Africa was able to report: "It is evident that the children receive a really excellent education and training, likely to exercise an enormous influence on the future career of each individual scholar," and to follow this by many good reports of a similar nature.

But it is the parents of the children who are best able to appreciate the value of a school. In 1919 a parent wrote from the Transvaal: "My son, at one time scholar and hoarder a St. Mark's, has made no appreciable progress in his studies since he left it, and in character development he has certainly shown a deterioration. I should be extremely glad if he is allowed to return." From Durban: "I am sending my boy back to you. He says that St. Mark's School is the only one where he has been made to work. We offered him St. John's, Johannesburg, or Michaelhouse, but he said that he should run back by road if not sent to you." From the Bishop at Kwamagwaza: "Miss (ex-pupil) is just the sort of person we want here." Colonial girls do not, as a rule, go to help in native Mission schools. From a parent: "The children often speak of St. Mark's most kindly, and wish they were back in Mbabane, as, indeed, do I." From an ex-pupil: "I cannot thank St. Mark's enough for all it did for me and for the members of my family while we were at school. I appreciate it more and more as time goes on, and I understand better." From another ex-pupil to the headmaster: "I cried with excitement when I got your letter. It brought back to me the memory of such happy times." "The boys are the best in the regiment, they are reliable, and know how to obey," wrote an officer at the Front. A Wesleyan missionary, working in the country, wrote: "I must thank St. Mark's for all it has done for Russell and David. St. Mark's has been a boon to us indeed. The training has done much to prepare them for their future life. Whatever they may rise to, we and they will always gratefully remember and acknowledge what St. Mark's has done for them."

Here is one written by a Dutch boy, whose parents live in a miserable hovel. He came to St. Mark's puny and sick with fever, "a poor white" of the lowest description. He is now physically fit and strong and a qualified fitter on one of the mines. "Where I am now I am proud that I am learning a trade. I am quite satisfied with the work here, and the trade. There is quite a good deal to learn. The only drawback to the place is that they have no church here. I think that every man should look forward to the place where he worships. It is some thing that stands as the greatest part in everybody's life, and I sincerely hope it will be something I can grasp and carry out in my life, in honour of my teaching at St. Mark's School."

The headmaster on one occasion was visiting one of the cattle ranches in the bushveld, far away from any civilised place. There he met the manager and some young men looking after the herds of cattle. The temptations for young men in such circumstances are very great, and they need all the spiritual help that can be given. An old boy of the school was working there. He asked for a celebration of the Holy Communion early next morning. Six of the young men came, some having ridden for miles to attend. The manager said: "In all the time I have been doing this class of work I have never known young men to live as cleanly and honestly as those young men do, and their leader is your boy from St. Mark's. I should be glad to get as many as possible of the same kind." It was from this ranch that a young man walked seventy miles to Mbabane to be confirmed, sleeping two nights at kraals en route. He gave his life in the Great War.

We quote one more tribute to the value of the school, rendered by a Boer parent whose son arrived at the school without shoes and stockings, but is now in a good p in the National Bank of South Africa. In 1920 there was some talk of the school ceasing to be under the management of the Anglican Church, and being handed to the Government, owing to financial difficulties. This man had complained before that his son had become a "khaki" or "Britisher" at the school, and had volunteered for the Front, and held many opinions which were quite different from those of his father. Now he wrote (in his case, no small labour) asking that the management of the school might remain in Church hands, "for he had seen what the Church and religion had done for his children." The writer was once spending the night at the shanty of an old European--a generous, kindly old man educated at one of the best of the English public schools, but one who had made a sad mess of his own life. "Don't talk to me of England and old days", he said, "it is rather painful to me. But I will tell you something that will please you. You know------" (naming a family of poor Boer whites about twenty miles away), "well, they have improved, and are now decent people. No predikant or minister can ever come near them. They cannot read. But their children have taught them to be Christians, and they have improved their whole method of living. The parents do not like the children to see their home poorer and worse than the school, and have made great efforts. In the evenings the children tell them about God, and it has made all the difference. It has also brought old memories back to my mind. Preach me the sermon you are going to give next Sunday." And so, sitting by the fire outside the little shanty, in the heart of the bush country, the old man and the priest talked far into the night of the great matters of the soul.

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