Unearthing bright minds in rural Limpopo for transformative education – Sumbandila’s Leigh Bristow

In the Vhembe district of Limpopo, one of South Africa’s poorest provinces, a non-profit organisation named Sumbandila Scholarship Trust was established with a mission to identify children who are exceptionally bright, particularly in maths and English, from poor rural homes. Many of them were slipping through the cracks of South Africa’s struggling educational system. The trust provides three programs, including Saturday and holiday school programs, full bursaries for independent or Model C schools, and comprehensive support for university education and beyond. Sumbandila, which means “Show the Way,” serves as a model of what can be achieved when bright students receive the right support and encouragement. In an interview, Leigh Bristow, the Founder and Executive Director of Sumbandila, shared the success stories of some of her intelligent and determined pupils. One of her former pupils is now a teacher at St Stithians College in Johannesburg, and an orphan now works in Risk Management at Investec. Bristow says what makes the program so successful is that it operates like a family, there is wrap-around support at university level and beyond. Sumbandila is currently developing a prototype of a hub that would enable children to self-learn. “Children have a remarkable ability to teach themselves given the right set of tools,” she said. Bristow says she also has a vision for an alumni program to guide former students in financial literacy, home ownership, wellness and voting. – Linda van Tilburg

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Edited excerpts from the interview

Wraparound support for extraordinary children 

Sumbandila is an organisation that seeks out extraordinary children who are exceptionally bright, particularly in maths and English. These children usually pursue fields such as science, engineering, and technology. They come from incredibly poor rural homes or economically disadvantaged rural homes. We enrol them in one of three programs. They either continue in rural schools while attending a Saturday and holiday school program, or they receive full bursaries and scholarships to attend an independent or a Model C school.

Those who have the full residential program, obviously get everything. They stay in the hostel but we try to keep them tightly connected with their community. So, they do go home on weekends if there’s not something urgent at school. But the children are on our Saturday school program. 

We’ve got just over a hundred students on our Saturday school program. We pay for them to come to Saturday school. They have academic support. They get fed, they get their transport to and from their homes.  We’ve got about 130 secondary students in that program and then they go on to the tertiary program. There’s support and a tremendous effort to keep them rooted in their communities.

The real success of our approach lies in the tremendous wraparound support we provide, both academically and psychosocially. We assist them in applying for university bursaries and gaining admission to universities, and the wraparound support continues throughout their university education. For some, this support extends into the workplace as we help them connect with graduate programs, jobs, etc. We assist with CVs, interviews, a driver’s licence, and all other necessities you can imagine they would need.

Challenging circumstances of children accepted, present fathers are rare

The majority of the children are Venda, although some speak Tsonga. We usually only have children on the SASSA grant, which means they receive government grants. They live on either their grandparents’ pension or a government grant, which is less than R2000.. There are a few exceptions, such as children of domestic workers or waiters, or those whose parents have their own small businesses, like an electrician service. Some of them live in one-room houses. 

We have one extraordinary boy who’s going to Stellenbosch for engineering next year. He lived in a one-roomed house with no windows. Some of the houses are better resourced. In some families, there are both grandparents. It’s very rare to have a present father, and some of them are orphans. The ones who get full scholarships live in a hostel that we have, particularly the orphans because it’s extremely difficult if you don’t have Wi-Fi, electricity, running water, etc. So, they vary; some of them do have running water, but it ranges from one extreme to the other.

Emphasis on maths and english, supporting growth

Previously, we accepted children as young as 12. Now, our youngest students are 13 or 14 years old. This is because we’ve shifted our selection process from primary school to high school. We found that we weren’t getting enough boys when we only selected from primary schools, as boys tend to develop later. Moreover, selecting students after their first year of high school provides a better indicator of their potential.

Our philosophy is that if children from these kinds of economic backgrounds have managed to succeed, we want to further support their growth. We conduct tests on maths and English in rural areas, making it accessible even for those who have to walk. Upon arrival, they’re provided with food and transport money. After the English and maths tests, we carry out a thorough investigation into their circumstances. Our philosophy is simple: if we see a face, we don’t turn them away. We then invite 30 to 40 children for interviews. Some are accepted into the full program. If they aren’t, they join the Saturday school program. Once we’ve seen a face, we commit to the child. 

‘These children are stars’ –  A Teacher at St. Stithians College, an Investec analyst

As of January 2023, we have 145 students at top universities in South Africa and 132 graduates. Bear in mind that our main focus is on engineers, teachers, doctors, nurses, and computer scientists. These are our main fields because that’s our greatest need in the country. Of the 132 graduates, 53 have either completed or are currently pursuing postgraduate studies. This is an amazing achievement for kids from this background. We also have an 89% university pass rate. So very, very few of our kids don’t finish university.

We’ve got a maths and science teacher at St Stithians College, and as you can imagine, that’s amazing. She’s from a local village to a top school in South Africa. So, we’re proud of our students who are teachers, but we’ve also got doctors who work in rural hospitals, nurses, midwives, and quite a large bias towards engineering, which we’re often criticised for, but we need engineers.

One of our extraordinary stories is about a little orphan girl whom we selected in 2007. She now works in risk management and invests in Johannesburg. We have children with very similar backgrounds who are now Chartered Accountants.

One of our medical students lives in a two-room house in a nearby village. She’s in her fifth year of medicine and nearly failed during COVID simply because she had no space in her house to study. Stellenbosch University was amazing. They sent her airtime, etc. But what do you do with airtime if you’ve got no electricity? You can’t charge your phone and there’s nowhere to sit and study. So, we brought all our students into safe houses. We have two houses in Pretoria and one here. We then provided them with all the things they needed to get through COVID. A lot of these children fell out during COVID. So, it’s that kind of essential support. She’s in her fifth year of medicine now. But there are so many of these stories. I have a biomedical engineer whose father works in a hardware store and his mother doesn’t work at all. I can go on and on.

I’d like to reiterate that these children are stars. They probably would have made it to university anyway, not all of them, but most of them. However, there are so many things that could have hindered their progress along the way. Many of them drop out in the first or second year, and then their bursaries stop paying, leaving them without a way to return. We help a lot of kids in that situation as well as our kids. 

Future Plans: An Online hub and alumni network

So, what we’re trying to do now is develop a prototype. We’re currently calling it a hub, but we want to change the name. We’re asking ourselves, what are the minimum requirements in terms of hardware to let children self-learn, to teach themselves and what are the minimum requirements, with the advent of AI and online learning? So, next year we’re trying to develop a prototype, whereby we can reduce the cost of this and have children learning and self-driving their education. There’s enough available on the internet. It’s just access to the internet that is the problem.

We don’t want to invest in capital development. We want to invest in allowing children to self-drive their education. You always need a teacher, at least one, who understands IT at least, but children have a remarkable ability to teach themselves, given the right set of tools.

Another dream would be our alumni. We’ve got all these amazing alumni out there now in the workplace. I’d love to develop an alumni program where they are taught about how to invest, how to buy houses, and how to vote. They should be voting. We don’t have enough of our students registered to vote. Wellness, mental wellness, physical wellness, how to be great parents. An alumni program, in other words to take that last step of our program. But it’s a lot of work and a lot of funding. We are trying to organise a think tank with our alumni, trying to see how we can do that because it doesn’t come naturally from their backgrounds.

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