Tipperary's Michael Quinlan shares the story of his journey to help educate children in South Africa






Michael Quinlan is pictured with his last class in Rahealty National School where was Principal

Michael Quinlan is pictured with his last class in Rahealty National School where was Principal

Former Principal of Rahealty NS, Michael Quinlan took a leave of absence from his current work in Mary Immaculate College of Education/ University of Limerick to embark on a VSO project in South Africa designed to improve access to good quality primary education for the most disadvantaged.


VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) is an organisation which supports disadvantaged communities throughout the world in 4 main development areas-Health, Education, Participation and Governance and Engineering.


Michael, who has vast experience of the education sector in Ireland worked with young girls who are regularly taken out of school at age ten to be prepared for early motherhood and a life of drudgery and often abuse in South Africa.


This is just part of his story.

You walk in to a classy bar and are immediately struck by  the sight of a beautiful woman sitting at the bar in the mid distance. You approach the counter admiring the carefully made up face atop the sartorial elegance reflected in the large mirror. Waiting for your drink you turn to exchange pleasantries and she looks at you and smiles- revealing a mouthful of decaying teeth. Her name is South Africa and form thence and for all time your first compelling impression will be contaminated by that last striking image.


Jacob Zuma, the current rather oleaginous president of South Africa, has an IQ of 164! But then again Adolf Hitler also had a high IQ which goes to prove, I guess, that while Binet’s measurement of intelligence was a rather crude predictor of future academic achievement it definitely did not indicate how that intelligence might be used.


Surrounding himself with 6 wives and a cabal of fawning obsequious acolytes uncritically acquiescing to his every promptings many of which are merely misguided, self serving  and rhetorical rantings Zuma clings on to power with an iron grip despite being reviled mostly by the more discerning middle class South Africans of all colours and creeds. There are almost weekly demonstrations against the rampant greed, incompetence and nepotism so prevalent in his administration and international opinion of the current state of South African politics is exemplified by the official downgrading of this benighted country’s credit rating to junk status.


To combat disillusionment with his unfulfilled promise he very cleverly introduces often ill conceived poorly thought out tokenistic ego driven proposals such as the restriction on granting and/or renewing of working visas so badly needed by NGOs asking if there were not native South Africans available to do this altruistic work and his recent disastrous simplistic, populist but potentially seriously damaging intention to requisition white lands for redistribution to the poorer black rural communities despite their patent lack of skills to work it profitably not to mention the injustice to the current incumbents. Remember Zimbabwe Jacob???


The WHO has recently announced that 15% of South Africans suffer from drug abuse and the drug of choice here is called Nyaope- a mixture of heroin and cannabis but most worryingly laced with an anti-retro viral drug currently used to fight the HIV epidemic. The vicious cycle is obvious. A powerful weapon used to combat the HIV plague is facilitating its spread. And nor is crime, drug addiction and HIV a predominantly urban problem. One regularly comes across signage in the country side warning you that “you are now entering a high risk area” with crowds loitering menacingly  at crossroads and service stations with nothing to do on the lookout for potential victims and townships replete with sometimes whole families infected with HIV; you won't read a lot about this in “Lonely Planet” and the casual visitor will see a very different picture. This is not a safe place to work or live in.


It is against this backdrop of social dysfunction presided over by a man tending towards megalomania and who treats his more gullible subjects with mild disdain and casual ambiguity that the project “Perform” is being rolled out. It has been a slow and difficult birth given the formidable crippling bureaucracy, endemic corruption, suspicious xenophobia, rampant unprofessionalism, parental ambivalence and profound economic inequality. But there is no shame – more an envigourating challenge -in an honest attempt to alchemise tragedy, poverty, deprivation and educational disadvantage into something better and more uplifting rejuvenated and emboldened despite the odds  while resisting the temptation to succumb to a  more sepulchral dystopian mindset with its concomitant assault on morale.


Progress is now being made and  momentum building. Already focus is switching to the Grade R schools- the equivalent of the Irish pre-school systems for very good reasons.The effectiveness of these schools in improving the readiness of children for primary school is well recognised but here after some officially sponsored research it has been found to be compromised significantly by parental apathy and teacher incompetence and a concerted effort is being made to redress these key problems especially in the Naledi district of the Dr. Ruth Segmotsi Mompati municipality of the vast region of the North Western Province. Vryburg is the main but rather nondescript town in this area and is surrounded by huge cattle ranches producing so much beef it is known as “The Texas of South Africa”. Sadly this year has seen an extensive drought and it is a disheartening sight indeed to see extensive fodder crops rot and die in the arid fields resulting in the necessary culling of animals for want of feed. Morale is not high and the future for the more marginal farmers bleak.


Kamogela is the middle vivacious child of a family of five aged 9 living in a township in Naledi. He is lucky. He was born before his mother was infected by the HIV virus contracted from an imprudent and ambivalent father. He is the type of child immediately noticeable when you enter his classroom. The gleaming smile and bright intelligent eyes are begging for your attention so that he can demonstrate what he knows. But the highlight of his week is his Saturday visit with his mum and grandmother to the Mandela TLC newly resourced by the people of Thurles where he delights in showing them his skills on the computer and steadily improving ability to speak and read in English. It is virtually certain that he will attend a state funded secondary school, matriculate and achieve what every young South African aspires to - a university education and a ticket out of the township and poverty. It would be fatalistic to dwell too much on statistics, roadblocks to progress or on the concept of  “the scheme of things” when discussing a single instance but there is a parable ubiquitous in NGO circles which replies to the cynic.