Seliba Sa Boithuto: A Place of Learning that is Not a School
Gerard Mathot is a Dutchman who worked in conventional education in Lesotho for 30 years before developing an alternative. Over the years he became more and more irritated by the dictatorial schooling system. He saw that it destroyed the natural curiosity of the students and made learning disagreable and difficult. As a result he began looking for "ways to return the responsibility for learning to the learners", as he puts it. By this he meant making it possible for learners, whatever their age, to make four decisions for themselves: what to learn, how to learn it, when to learn it and how much they had needed to learn.
With a number of like-minded Basotho (citizens of Lesotho) he registered a non-profit making society, which in 1992 started Seliba Sa Boithuto, as self-study centre. It provides learners with a quiet, comfortable place to learn, materials such as books, pamphlets, computers and videos, and tutors for advice and help. It offers no courses. The tutors do not teach. Instead but they encourage students to learn together when they share an interest and to learn from each other as much as possible
Up till 2004 the centre was housed in a building belonging to The Sisters of Good Shepherd who provide facilities at nominal rent. The space is big enough for up to thirty students at any one time.
View from Below
Before students use the centre they have to become a members. Membership costs fifty Maloti (about four pounds) per year, and three Maloti (25 pence) for each day of attendance. This is just enough to cover the running costs. The fixed assets – books, computers, furniture, etc. – have been provided by donors.
Initially there was not much interest. The local people had acquired from their colonial and neo-colonial past the belief that it is impossible to learn without being taught. Later the success of some of the students led to a change in this belief and until it acquired its own facilities there were often too many learners for the available space.
Most of the learners are young people who cannot go to school, either because of lack of funds or because they depend on casual employment, but there are also adults taking correspondence courses, secretaries who wish to obtain computer skills, and people who wish to improve their English. There is an average of 70 learners per day, and sometimes there are as many as 90, which makes things very crowded. Even so there are no discipline problems; it is not like it is in the regular schools, where teachers have to be policemen for half the time. There is just the quiet talk of small peer-learning groups and learners inconspicuously moving in or out.
Over the years the opening times have developed, so that it is now open every day: on weekdays from 9 am to 6 pm, on Saturday from 9 am to 4 pm and on Sunday from 9 am to 1 pm. Seliba Sa Boithuto doesn't offer examinations or certificates, but learners are helped to register for external examinations, if they wish. On their own initiative members have organised activities, such as debating, poetry, drama and dancing clubs and excursions.
The learners are not only responsible for their own learning, they are also responsible for the body which helps them with it. Seliba Sa Boithuto is a democratic, non-profit-making society, of which the learners are the members and influence decision-making through the Annual General Meeting, where they elect a Steering Committee and their own representative on the Steering Committee.
It had become clear that Seliba Sa Boithuto needed to have its own building and after two years of negotiations and administrative red tape a newly registered Seliba Sa Boithuto Trust acquired a site situated near the centre of Maseru, close to a main road, but on a mountain. The site is a quiet place and has an undisturbed view over the town. It is on two levels: a flat area above, where the main building is situated and a rocky triangular area below, where in future rondavels can be built for small group learning and activities (the rondavel is the traditional circular Sotho dwelling made from sandstone with a thatched roof). Because of the vegetation on the lower area, it will also be also a pleasant place for out-door studies and meetings.
It can be reached easily on foot or by car. All the buildings have been designed with ecological principles in mind, with double insulated walls and glazing as well as Trombe Walls behind large windows to collect the solar heat during the cold winter months. The SSB Trust has raised enough money from relatives, friends and organizations in Holland to pay for the site, fencing, a footpath and the erection of the main building and a dry-toilet block, and hopes that further funds will be found to build a hall and 7 rondavels on the lower part of the site.
On 28th January 2005 the new building was opened officially by the Minister of Education and Training, who expressed his support to Seliba Sa Boithuto, as it provides further access to education. The centre is self-governing and non-authoritarian, it offers opportunities rather than making demands, it encourages co-operation and self-motivated learning. This is a new model for an educational centre. Is there any hope that our schools may one day be allowed to develop along the same lines, or will our anxious government always insist on children being dressed in uniforms as if they were prisoners, and submit them to mass instruction in ugly buildings where most of the doors are locked?