30 October 2023
By: Lucille Botha
Amid the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, in an informal settlement where children grow up in bitter poverty and the school curriculum covers only the essentials, farming families are bringing a glimmer of light with the art classes they offer.
When Wynne Smith from Eston in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands drives around the district, she is greeted everywhere by waving, smiling children walking home from school.
“It’s so rewarding for me. It feels like I’m making a difference in children’s lives and I’m privileged to work in those schools,” she says over the phone about the outreach initiative she started in 2020 with Robyn Armstrong.
“I believe love is going to change the world. If we don’t connect with people, we will never see change.”
With about 25 volunteers, all farmers’ wives from the area, Wynne and Robyn offer art classes at four primary schools – Hope Valley, Fairleigh, Thorner and Cosmoore – for 435 children aged 7 to 15. At the same time, the children are taught to keep their environment clean and learn about recycling and the principle of reuse, reduce, recycle.
“It was the first time many of the children had ever attended an art class because art is not part of the national school curriculum. We understand the intrinsic value of art education in stimulating imagination, critical thinking and emotional expression in young people.
“We want to help children learn important life skills and also teach them to use everyday waste products in their homes,” says Wynne, who with her husband, Marc, operates the Evangrass enterprise and a sugarcane and macadamia farm.
“The reason we started the art classes was to encourage children to pick up litter and keep their environment clean.
“When we have a project such as making owls and we need bottle caps for the eyes, we send a message to the schools to let the children know they need to collect them. This way, we show them how to use waste products to create something beautiful.”
Most people in the area work on farms or at the Illovo sugar mill, but there is also a lot of unemployment and poverty in the area. Illegal Eskom connections and sanitation problems are a nightmare because the informal settlements originated on farms, which means the municipality, not owning the land, cannot provide services there.
From food parcels to art
Wynne has wanted to be involved in an outreach initiative for the past 15 years. The opportunity arose during a visit to Eston’s informal settlement to distribute food parcels.
“I serve in Eston’s farmers’ association. When Covid-19 hit us, one of our members suggested distributing food parcels. We reached out to the farmers and collected about R90 000 for this purpose. While we were handing out the food parcels, something touched my heart,” says Wynne, who loves art and paints herself.
She decided to combine it with recycling. As the chairperson of the farmers’ association, she got involved with the Mkhambathini municipality, which started providing a waste removal service to the farmers. Over time, the farmers’ association requested the municipality to set up a recycling facility as well. Educational initiatives about littering were started in the informal settlement.
“I started thinking we should show the children how useful recycling can be, because if we can show them the value of waste we can make a difference.”
At Fairleigh Primary, a farmer built wooden containers where they placed art kits, encouraging the children to bring litter there. “It was full within two weeks! Then we notified the municipality to send a truck to pick it up and take it to the recycling centre,” says Wynne.
“Bev McGladdery, also a farmer’s wife, helps us with the project. She encourages the farm kids by giving them a treat for each bottle they bring her.”
The project linked up with the Illovo sugar mill, which donates additional art supplies, and other local businesses that help with funding and donations.
Robyn says the initiative not only introduces children to art but also teaches them life skills such as teamwork, communication and confidence. “We acknowledge children who do a little extra, like unpacking the material, helping friends, persevering with a difficult project or saying please and thank you.”
Help on a broader front
Wynne relates how the children often say the best part of the art classes is when people tell them their projects are beautiful. “There isn’t a person in South Africa who shouldn’t visit an informal settlement and meet the children. I do what I do to see the happiness and love on the children’s faces.
“They hang their projects in their classrooms because it’s incredibly enjoyable for them to say they have achieved something.”
The outreach project’s actions have spread even wider, leading to numerous donations for the children. This year, during Eston’s agricultural show, the project had its own marquee where local artists were invited to showcase their work. There was also a paint-off between a local artist and a Durban artist, each painting a landscape. That weekend, R42,000 was raised, which they use to buy art supplies or something like a pair of sneakers for a child in need.
Robyn also arranged for the vlogger Mr Beast to donate 1,500 pairs of school shoes to the project. Every child, plus children from two other schools in the community, received shoes and a bag – gifts that brought many children to tears of joy.
“Through the art project, we can easily identify children with wonderful talents, whether it’s dance or athletics. Because I’m at the school, I hear if, for example, they don’t have shoes, and then we can help them,” says Wynne.
“I think life is about relationships, so people can help each other and see change. You can’t believe how it caught fire in our area.
“Everyone has the need to help and give to others, but they don’t necessarily know how or where to start. Everyone in our district is willing to help, some people in their own small way and others in a bigger way.”
It’s a lot of work to offer art classes for 50 children at a time, especially with inadequate facilities. For instance, when they make wooden crocodiles, Wynne and her team have to do all the preparations for 435 children. “It’s overwhelming, but the children thrive and it’s so satisfying.”
For Wynne, the most significant change brought about by the outreach is the fact that there are now relationships between the farming community, schools and the informal settlement.
“I think those of us living on farms are seen as privileged by the local people, and we are. But we also try to run our farms, and we work on getting it right. However, there must be a connection between you and your workers.
“I’ve seen significant changes just on our farm thanks to the outreach project because everyone is involved. For example, our manager will deliver building materials to one of the schools. This way, they can see we are helping and it brings a caring element. They see and know we are not self-centred and we don’t mind helping.
“It’s something very important that has emerged from the project. We are slowly building relationships. Previously, many people didn’t even know the schools existed.”
Sandy la Marque, executive director of Kwanalu, says farmers have a special role in nurturing communities. “Their dedication to the land extends further to their dedication to the people living on it. The art classes demonstrate that dedication and sow seeds of creativity and foster a sense of belonging.
“It is heartening to see how farming communities unite to create a favourable environment for everyone dependent on the industry.”
La Marque encouraged other agricultural enterprises to get involved in the outreach, and Wynne dreams of a large company recognising the outreach and helping them establish libraries at the schools. “There is a great need for it.”
To other regions or farmers’ associations looking to undertake similar projects, she quotes Nike’s slogan: “Just do it … don’t wait for someone else or think it won’t make a difference. It certainly will. There’s no time like the present. Don’t let anything stop you because if you give from your heart, you will be rewarded.”
Inquiries: Wynne Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow Eston Outreach on Facebook and Instagram.