A Visit to Mbopha High School: South Africa

November 17, 2008


            Today, we are going to take a literary field trip to rural Africa.  More specifically, a flight, half way across the globe, to the Province of Kwa Zulu Natal, in the very north-east corner of South Africa. Think of Survivor (in Kenya) or Discovery Channel and Animal Planet documentaries with lions chewing on exotic deer, cheetahs lounging in flat trees, elephants bathing in muddy rivers, and giraffe crossing dirt roads.  We are going to follow one of those dirt roads up into the mountains, where we will find a small collection of mud huts with thatched roofs.  This rural village is named Hlabisa.  The people of Hlabisa are Zulu; just one of 11 South African tribes.  Even though everyone in Hlabisa speaks Zulu, they are now teaching the youth English at the schools.  So we can just ask any school-aged child how to get to our destination:  Mbopha High School.


            It turns out that Mbopha High School is just off the main (and only) dirt road in Hlabisa.  The school is made out of hand-made bricks and has metal roofs.  There is no electricity (so no computers or vending machines!) and the toilets are distant from the school (they are more like our “Porta-Potties”, basically a hole in the ground!)  The school has no library, no gym, no “official” sports’ fields, and no cafeteria.  Students must bring their own lunch, which is usually bread, butter, and fruit.  Mbopha High School Students are supposed to wear a school uniform, but many students come from poor families and cannot afford to buy the uniform. Some students sew their own uniform from scratch and make their own shoes. 


            Hlabisa does not have any school bus services, so all students have to walk to school, sometimes up to 3 miles a day (back and forth) rain or shine.  And they must share text books, because there are not enough books to go around.   In addition to the standard school subjects, English, math, and basic science, Zulu students have to learn Zulu, Afrikaans (another popular South African language in the area), and Life Skills.  Life Skills teaches Zulu adolescents about primary health care, sexual education, a little bit of agriculture and animal husbandry (the main occupation in these parts.)  South African schools do not offer Driver’s Education, so most Zulu teens never learn to drive, unless they can afford to learn when they are adults.  Just like all high school students, following the 12th year of studies, Zulus must take the Matric Exam, which is equivalent to our SAT’s. 


            Depending on the results of the Matric Exam, most Zulu teens strive to get scholarships into a university or a Teknikon.  Teknikons are special vocational schools that teach specific trades in skilled labor such as carpentry, electronics, engineering, computers, plumbing, etc.  It is still rare in these parts that girls go to university, unless it is to study to be a school teacher, administrative assistant, or nurse—but that appears to be changing slowly.  


            So what could an American adolescent possibly have in common with a Zulu teen?  Actually, a lot!  Just like most young people, Zulu teens love sports; the boys favor soccer and volleyball, while the girls like to play netball (which is similar to our basketball.)  When they can afford it, Zulus will choose KFC, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola over their traditional foods of pap (a corn-meal type paste) and chakalaka (a spicy cabbage dish.)  American music, especially hip-hop, house, R & B, and rap, have been a huge success in this little village.  Every Zulu teen knows Snoop Dogg and Eminem, and they love to dance.  And just like American teens, despite their poverty, Zulu teens are very fashion-conscious and dress similar to American teens, even if it means sewing their own outfits.  Zulu teens prefer American movies and television shows, when available.


            Zulu teens and American youth share similar challenges in peer pressure, drug/alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, gangs, college entrance stress, conflict
with authority figures, general teenage angst, sex and the risks involved, dating,
self-esteem issues, crime, and identity formation.  However, Hlabisa Zulu youth have a few unique stressful conditions, aside from poor water systems and poor general living conditions.  One out of two people in Hlabisa is HIV+ and many Zulu teens have lost a parent and/or relatives to AIDS-related diseases.  This means almost 1/3 of Zulu teens are orphans.  A lot of Zulu teens have to abandon school prematurely in order to find work, on a farm or a local shop, to support their younger orphaned siblings and sick or aging relatives.  Most Zulu teens are raised by their grand-mothers, while any remaining parents or adult relatives seek work in the cities.  There are no orphanages, shelters, or youth centers out here.  Usually, neighboring families will help orphaned children.


            Zulus adolescents also have to participate in traditional rituals such as the Virginity Testing Ceremony (for girls) and the Circumcision Ritual (for boys.)  In Zulu culture, the ability for a Zulu girl to remain a virgin until marriage is highly praised.  In order to prove one’s virginity, a girl must participate in the Virginity Testing Ceremony, where she will be “tested” by local elderly women in front of everyone!  This annual ceremony is conducted in front of the Zulu King, all his staff, and local community members.  Once a girl is declared a virgin, she is celebrated in her village.  This improves her chances of finding a husband.  Zulu girls may marry as young as 15 years old!


            Boys used to have to go “out in the bush” and learn to survive for weeks on their own.  Upon return, the local Sangoma, or Traditional Healer, circumcises them–without painkillers, OUCH!  This ritual celebrates the transition of a boy into a man.  However, over the past few years, this ritual has become less and less popular, but some Hlabisa boys still have to participate. 


            Now, due to more exposure to American and European media, western culture is having a visible influence on Zulu youth.  And of course, Zulu parents do not always approve of their children’s “American” ways.  Despite the obvious differences in cultures, living and schooling conditions, Zulu teens and American adolescents would have a lot to talk about, starting with why parents always say “No!”





31 Responses to “A Visit to Mbopha High School: South Africa”

  1. hloni Says:

    hi…im a young lady from hlabisa. hlabisa is nt the kind of place u r explainin here. yes its a rural area. bt its civilised most of us do nt live in mud huts, wel ive never seen one in my area. wel my house is roofed with tiles, i take a hot shower or bath if i want 2. and then mbopha high school i actualy finished my matric in that school. it has electricity, library, computers and the toilets are the modern and are actually jst near the science lab, wel we have that too. another thing is zulu boys never gets circumsised, its nt even in our culture. some people r poor and some afford good life. yes its the fact that kids walk long distance to school. u have painted a very much different picture about hlabisa, wel nt al of us afford good lifes. we have very educated people in our area, u said we only study 2 be teachers an nurses, thats is so nt true… chat 2 u later im suppose to be studying 4 my exams and by the way im in unirversity nt doing teaching or nursing im doing financial account. im so proud of my little town. i don mean 2 disrespect im jst nt happy

    • Ngiyabonga for writing me, Hloni… this piece was actually written in 2003, so perhaps things have changed. But I, too, lived in Hlabisa for 5 years, worked at the hospital and in the community–people should know my name “Kelly Patterson”– and the point of my essay was not to disrespect Zulus or Hlabisa, but to demonstrate that ALL YOUTH (of all cultures) have the SAME issues/problems. I regret you misunderstand the point of the article. Umuntu umnuntu, ngabantu.

      Kelly N Patterson

  2. hloni Says:

    Pls notify me on my comment

  3. phumzile Says:

    iwas complited at mbopha high school 2004 iwas gaining more knowlegde and skills and it was great to be learner of mbopha high school

    • Ngiyabonga, Phumzile, for writing! Are you still living in Hlabisa? What did you do after you completed High School? The point of this article was to show teens around the world, that ALL teens have the same issues, no matter where you live. I would love to learn more about you and know how all are doing in Hlabisa!

      Kelly N Patterson

  4. NOMZAMO Says:

    Hi my name is nomzamo en i grew up at hlabisa too I studied there en now im doing my final year in electrical engineering @MUT you article does not sound like your excuses about things u said about Hlabisa,please visit Hlabisa again en i’ll be gratefull to see you en show you the different side of Hlabisa coz Mbopha high is doin so gooood actualy en tha passing rates are so high.

  5. k.g Says:

    well hlabisa is nt dat bad,i”ve been there several times.intuthuko ihamba kancane,as for schools cha kuyabheda ngempela.kmele bathole an institution endaweni bangaze beze e durban or mpangeni for further education.

  6. naledi Says:

    hlabisa is not bad at all. people are able to make a life there it is just that hlabisa is a rural area. i was born there,, went to school there and am doing well in my studies am nt doind nursind or teaching.people who know naledi will tell you or who know hlabisa that tou can makke a life in hlaisa

  7. naledi Says:

    mboph high school is one of the best schools in hlabisa and have achieved amazing natric results these past few year. i personally think that if there is a school wich does this good hlabisa shoukd not be recognised a bad pplace sfter all. i did ma matic there and i pass so there is a life in hlabisa trust me on that one

  8. Ntombi hlabisa Says:

    Siyabonga ukusidelela kwakho yezwa ntombazane,i grew up lapho kahlabisa i mtrcltd embopha too,now m a student nurse soon to graduate on my 4 yr cz and azange ngideleleke kanje in my lyf ugcine nin kahlabisa?ungcono ngaliphi nje?ya tlkng about ,electrycty,muddy houses,water and alot of staff bt ya bluffing bheka amazulu akwahlabisa zangingiwabone esokwa,amantombazane asalandela ukuhlowla ayenzelwa i privacy hhay lodot owushoyo sqhazandin uyin wena?

  9. fanele ntombela Says:

    fine im not from hlabisa but i am from mtuba which is not that geographical far from hlabisa.hlabisa is not dat bad and if u can look at it now many talented people are from it ,we have u dj o popular oqhamuka khona. if uthi der are no educated people from hlabisa i will prove u wrong ,i am doing electrical engineering at ukzn .

    • Congratulations on procuring your electrical engineering degree. I suspect you, and others, have misunderstood my article–I was trying to show that high schools in rural Africa have the SAME issues/problems as high schools in the United States, Europe and Asia. I was trying to demonstrate that youth issues are global and NOT just in developing countries but IN ALL COUNTRIES. And there is nothing in my article which questions the mental aptitude of Hlabisa students. Please carefully re-read my article and hopefully, you will see that I am showing that we ALL have these issues in our high schools–no matter where you are in the world. By the way, if you know the teacher Sqoks–tell him Kelly says Sawubona!

  10. k.g Says:

    kelly, dnt knw what 2 say.intuthuko yona cha angyboni,bangasho bathi they r educated bt bakhuluma nge nursing to them its lyk uwu mongameli if wenza i nursing,kodwa ubugebengu osebukhona buyathusa.kubulawa umuntu kufane nokuthi akwenzekangalutho.they were beta bt nw ba worse

  11. fanele Says:

    okay kelly maybe if amabursaries enganda it will be much better. ngikhumbula mai self at high school i was used 2 learn even on saturdays 2 improve mai result and i did got a bursary. then 4 all people around hlabisa if u can stood up and fight 4 wat u desrve dan in 2 yrs 2 cm hlabisa will be a popular place. student 4rm imbopha fanelesibonge ntombela luv u coz kunento enhle enimgcinele yona bt i wnt g int dtls wit dat .

  12. d.u Says:

    hey pps hud at hlabisa?tnx guys 4 yo comment i rly appreciate it. dat means u r proud wth yo place lv u guys.

  13. d.ujele Says:

    hey guys im d.u frm hlabisa at macekeni.MBOPHA HIGH SCHOOL is not a bad school ,i finished my matriculant last year and i learned more things ko thisha and ngithanda ukuba ncoma ngendlela abazikhandla ngayo ukuthi siphumelele .and i wish all d best 2 grade 12 learnerS bakulonyaka ,sengathi inkocy ingaba sikelela be tholu 100 percent dic year.lastly lky 2 hala 2 ma fwnd nokubonga,mapule,gaxa,nd phumzile mic u guys sesidlu mgosi LOL.AYEYE HLABISA AYEYE

  14. d.ujele Says:

    .MBOPHA HIGH SCHOOL is not a bad school ,i finished my matriculant last year and i learned more things ko thisha and ngithanda ukuba ncoma ngendlela abazikhandla ngayo ukuthi siphumelele .and i wish all d best 2 grade 12 learnerS bakulonyaka ,sengathi inkocy ingaba sikelela be tholu 100 percent dic year.lastly lky 2 hala 2 ma fwnd nokubonga,mapule,gaxa,nd phumzile mic u guys sesidlu mgosi LOL.AYEYE HLABISA AYEYE

  15. CNEH Says:

    hellow pps.Hlabisa is nt bad at all,I grew up there n i have seen lot of improvements n we are much sivilised then before n whats makes me happy is that many people who studied at MBOPHA HIGH SCHOOL nw are well educated and hve achieved their goals successfully,those who are talking about nursing i wonder ukuthi abalutholi yin usizo 4rm ama nurse coz what u doing u are just discouraging people in their career choices.since i was born i never had bad things about MBOPHA HIGH what i like about that school is that their passing rate/parcentage is very high n it amazing,you people you should know that what is important thats all.THANK YOU.

  16. jacob Says:

    hey hey lky 2 comment abwt improvement engiyibona kwa nhl cha yona ikhona noma ke nje ingekho kahle.d problem eyenza lokho abantu bakhona kwa nhl bazishaya ukuthi basile kunabantu abafuna ukuthi kuphumelele bona bodwa khona lokho kubanga iscefe.bese kuba abantu abasebenza komaspala basincisha ma bursary beniki hlobo zabo bayakhohlwa ukuthi izindla ziyageza tnx

  17. fah Says:

    cha uqinisile jacob

  18. sanele Says:

    hey wat happening at mbopha ngobi strike sinjena nje ngiyazisa ngayngane zabantu.

  19. naledi&lydia Says:

    koda sanele bakithi ubungeke nje uth uzikwehla uye ekhaya uyosiza izingane ezixakekile. guys please do something to help ama-students.

  20. FANELE Says:

    wow i am glad that there is smthng i did for students since there was i strike guys it will be my pleasure if u can do so 2.

  21. fanelesibonge mahlobo Says:

    to all of those who intend to help me i am having a friend whose background is not well.last year she was doing grade 12 at nomathiya high and obtained bachelor degree ,so by now she is staying at home because of financial problems.she would like to do nursing or social work.so please help us, your help will play an important role to us.if wishing to help you can call at 0725182191.

    • sizakele Says:

      i know its a little bit late but what your friend must is apply to the ukzn and tick where they ask you if you want fancial assistanse. if you do that early you would get funding. or get a number to linda sbiya’s office at the beinging of the yaer they will help you. but only if she applyed

  22. sibuyiselwe Says:

    i am 1 of the people who went to mbopha high school n dat school is not bad as u have siad abt it. it a nice school dat every growng child wana be in, high education,very high respect btwn student to student and to their teachers as well. i cmpleted ma matric last year, with B. bt it a shame dat our mostly loved principal has left the school to the other, it was nice with u mr nxumalo will mc u

  23. Sisi Says:

    May b it nice what kelly did,who knows? what I want to know is how did da article help Hlabisa 2 improve whatever it was bc I believe that her action was gonna b nice than disclosing information for funny.I matriculated @ Mbopha with a respectable symbol accompanied by a couple of A’s,Oh by the way students who want to do health science corses should communicate with Hlabisa hospital(HR DEPARTMENT, KZN bursary and a shoolarship scheme are available but apply early pls.TWO INGREDIENT OF SUCCESS Z KNOWING GOD AND WORKING HAAAAAAARD.

  24. guyz i am impressed 4 stood up n prove that mbopha is nt lyk dat i also matriculated 2 dat school n hv studied 4 electrical engineering so i will say 2 u kelly take a tour n make a proper research. After dat u cn make comparison. Guyz we going 2 prove to da whole world dat we r wat we r galla dance is cuming dis yr. Catch us on fb type mbopha re-united or u cn send me an email leader@webmail.co.za

  25. Mabongi Says:

    Guys this is Mabongi am frm hlabisa, i’ll tel yu one thing there are a million poor places out there in the world. however, we can regard hlabisa as a developing place nothing happens over nite theres a diffrence if yu look at hlabisa now as it was five years ago “infrastructure” rate of young stars who are highly educated. It is growing to being a better place. Either than writting things about nhl ok help out

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