To the northwest corner of Durban, South Africa sits the Ethembeni School, a boarding school that caters to physically disabled and visually impaired children from all over Kwa-Zulu Natal, Kingdom of the Zulu. Established in 1984, the name Ethembeni means “Place of Hope” and the motto Phila Ufunde means “Live and Learn.” The school has continued to grow with the help of many people and partners over the years, and now serves over 300 students. The staff at the Ethembeni School, led by Headmaster, Braam Mountain, are driven to create highly educated members of society who are proactive, ready and able to be the difference in South Africa.
For the past 15 years, Balega has been a proud partner of the Ethembeni School as a way to honor the culture and country that is so much a part of the Balega identity. Through Balega’s Lesedi Project , Balega has supported the Ethembeni School by raising money for student scholarships, aiding in the funding of a therapy playground and swimming pool, and purchasing a wheelchair accessible school bus. Through the Lesedi Bead Project, students at the Ethembeni School handmake colorful beaded bracelets that are then sold next to Balega socks in specialty retail stores in the United States. All of the profits made from the bracelets go back to the school to help fund new developments at the Ethembeni School.
Earlier this year, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Braam Mouton, the school’s headmaster, to give us an inside look into the school.
What is your role at the Ethembeni School?
I am the Headmaster of the School. I started in 1993 as the deputy principal of the school, but since 1997, I have been the Headmaster.
Can you provide a brief overview of the Ethembeni School?
The school started 34 years ago in 1984. The school began as just serving the physically disabled, and then in the early 1990s, the school took over serving visually impaired and blind students from another local school.
The Ethembeni School functions as a “normal school” with a typical curriculum like you’d see at any able-bodied school. These kids, however, all have disabilities and cannot attend regular schools. We have an application process to bring the students to Ethembeni. Our school has physical and occupational therapists and nurses on staff. We start with five- and six-year-old students and keep them up until grade 7. After that, we are a feeder school for senior schools or offer a skills development program for the students who cannot go to senior school, in which we develop their beadwork or soup making skills until they reach age 18.
How did you get started with the Ethembeni School?
In the early 1990’s, I was offered a role at the school. Prior to Ethembeni, I had been involved with the visually impared and did studies with the hearing impaired. It wasn’t until I came to Ethembeni that I started working with the physical disabled as well. I am very happy that I made the move many years ago, I very much enjoy working with all of the students.
Can you describe the Balega Lesedi Bead Project in your own words?
I see the whole Balega Lesedi Bead Project as a big circle. Our students make the bracelets and do the bead work and then ship them to the U.S., and then to individual Run Specialty stores and finally, the funds come back to the school -- it’s all a big circle. It brings together a huge community of people from the United States and the South Africa side, everyone getting involved with the project.
Can you elaborate on your dedication to the running community and connection with the New York City Marathon?
I have always been involved with sport. I realized early on that we can use sport to overcome disability and motivate people. It’s a passion for me to help disabled people get involved in more inclusive sport events and to make able body people aware that disabled people can participate in the same events that they race.
Therefore, running is one of the activities that we prioritize at the school. The kids all love running on the track as well as road running. It’s one of their main passions, and we are very keen to help them run regardless of their disability. Whether it’s taking part in a 5k or 10k, the kids just love it.
Our connection with the New York City Marathon began back in 1998 when the Achilles International founder visited us in South Africa and after his trip, invited myself and two students to go to New York and run the race. Soon after that I was asked to start an Achilles International chapter in South Africa. There are now three Achilles chapters in South Africa.
Every year since 1999, we have helped train and bring one of our students over to the New York City Marathon to race in partnership with Achilles International. To qualify, the student we choose needs to be 18-years-old, and some years we don’t have students old enough. However, next year, we have a few kids that are old enough who can go.
Can you tell me about the student who participated in the New York Marathon last year?
Last year, Nhati Masondo was the student we took, and this was his second year racing at the NYC Marathon. He did very well, he’s a very good student and a very good runner. He was a great ambassador for the Ethembeni School and the South Africa community. He finished with a time of 5 hours and 42 seconds, which was amazing (the previous year he ran the race in over 6 hours). One reason for his faster race time is due to the fact that he had a cataract operation last year to improve his eyesight.
What I remember most about last year was watching Nhati cross the finish line and receiving his medal. I could see it in his eyes that he was realizing that although he has a disability, he just achieved something amazing and truly overcame his disability.
Coming to NYC last year was extra special for Nhati, since two years ago he was mostly blind. Coming back this year being able to partially see was a whole new NYC experience for him from a visual standpoint. However, I was amazed by his memory from his first trip to the city. One afternoon last year when we were walking down 38th street, I asked him to, “take us home” and his observations were so good that he could remember where our apartment was from the previous year, without any sight.
What’s next for Nhati?
Nhati finished his studies at the Ethembeni School and is now doing an internship in the catering food business, which makes him the first disabled person to be appointed to work at the Ethembeni kitchen after graduating. He received a scholarship to fund his internship to develop his management skills and to study cooking.
What's next for the Ethembeni School and its students?
There’s a lot coming in 2019. The first 24-hour hand cycling marathon fundraiser is in the works. Additionally, Nhati will be going into a program to run the Comrades Marathon in South Africa in 2020. We are also working on getting Achilles International incorporated with the Comrades Marathon (an ultramarathon with a course that runs by the Ethembeni School) so that we can have people with disabilities run this local race, similar to what has been created for the NYC Marathon.
Thank you, Braam, for taking the time to provide us with more information about the Ethembeni School and its students! We are excited to continue to tell the Ethembeni story throughout the year, so stay tuned for future blog posts on what the school and Braam are up to. Additionally, if you feel moved by the good work that the Ethembeni School is doing, there are two fundraisers going that are raising money to help sponsor scholarships for students to attend the school. These fundraisers are being run by Balega reps who are headed to Comrades later this year to run the ultramarathon. You can check out their fundraiser pages and donate here and here.