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Christel House and Beyond

During this 14-month circumnavigation the crew of the Picton Castle have visited friendly remote islands, swam in cascading waterfalls, snorkelled on coral reefs, watched dolphins play off our bowsprit, sweated out airless passages under power, climbed active volcanoes, sailed in perfect tradewind conditions with stuns’ls set, explored bustling metropolitan centres in Panama, Fiji, Bali and South Africa, dined with chiefs and chefs, surfed sand dunes and waves alike… and yet one of the biggest highlights for the crew is when we visit the local schools. Perhaps it is the innocence and the curiosity inherent in every child the world over. As we sail the world and discover how large it actually is (and how small) and how many differences (but mostly similarities) there are between cultures, children seem pretty much the same – not all of them have the same shot at life though.

When we visit schools we usually bring with us much needed school supplies. These school supplies, generously donated by school children and communities in Nova Scotia in particular and the East Coast in general, provide needed materials for schools in remote and/or poverty stricken areas who have very little access to a resource we too often take for granted: knowledge. Paper, pencils, crayons, pens, rulers, black boards, chalk are extremely well recieved.Then reference books such as encyclopedias, dictionaries are highly sought after. And anything reasonable to read, novels and other books as well as text books. Thank you all for your generous gift. It has been an absolute pleasure to see the gratitude and excitement in the eyes of children when we deliver books to their schools and perhaps even more satisfying to invite the children back to our ship and see their curious minds explore the possibilities. A life at sea? Who knows? But certainly coming down and spending a day on the ship opens eyes to possiblities anyway.

The Picton Castle has a long-standing relationship with Christel House, South Africa. Opened in Cape Town in 2002 by Christel DeHaan, Christel House believes in more than just quality education. It believes in breaking the cycle of poverty through a combined effort of community outreach programs, social programs and access to education for the very poorest of the poor.

At 9am on February 9th a bus arrived to take us to visit Christel House. Forming a human chain we stacked the mountain of books into the carriage and piled onto the bus. The school is located quite close to downtown Cape Town (and yet worlds away by other standards) on a large plot of land. Table Mountain dominates the horizon on one side, sprawling townships, the other. This facility is quite new. When the Picton Castle visited Christel House five years ago they were located in a rented building with little outdoor space for the children to play sports or run around in. This new land was recently donated by the city of Cape Town and was an attestation to the good work that Christel House is already doing for and with the local communities.

When we arrived we were greeted by Principals Midge Hilton-Green and Ronald Fortune along with Sharon Williams, the head of public relations, and a few teachers and social workers. With the help of some of the school children we unloaded the books into the lobby of the school and were led onto the field to meet and greet. Ever curious and ever affectionate they approached us with huge smiles and open arms. The older children asked what we did and who we were and wanted to tell us about their studies and lives. Amazingly some of them remembered us from our last visit – and of course, asked about Chibley the cat! The younger children ran up to us and invited us to play soccer, climb on the jungle gym, swing with them or play in the sandbox.

While the children were ushered off into their classrooms to take their exams we were escorted to the lounge. After speaking with some of the teachers and social workers we were shown a video about some of the students attending the school. It is almost impossible not to be moved when you realize what some of these children have gone through in their short lives and to witness how genuinely thrilled they are to be in school. Most speak four languages and are well-spoken and incredibly well-behaved and polite.

Christel House has become such a positive and regular presence in these communities that their school buses can go into areas where visitors are often not allowed. It is not an easy thing to understand poverty and the culture that poverty creates – let alone attempting to break the cycle of poverty. The school believes that an integral part of the tour is a trip to the townships and into the communities and houses where the students live. The townships are just as much a part of Cape Town as the ritzy, upscale Victoria Wharf area or trendy Long Street and yet few people venture here. There is indeed a lot of gang violence and yet these communities can also be vibrant, caring spaces. The school offers support to the communities and families (the way many of the gangs do, with a dire cost) with no stings attached.

It was still quite eye opening for those of us from Canada, USA, Europe and New Zealand to witness this level of poverty and to know that only the poorest from the townships are chosen to attend Christel House. We were all greeted with friendly, albeit curious, smiles and we found the homes to be small, made of tin and clap-board and sometimes cardboard – essentially materials found on hand. The insides were often bare but some were decorated with newspaper clippings and creative, resourceful decorative touches. You cannot help but begin to reassess your own life – no matter how simple – after you leave townships like Phulam Village and Jim Se Bos. And after visiting Christel House you also realize that one child can make a difference. One more voice and one more smile in what I have every faith will be a brilliant Rainbow Nation.

We still had quite a few books left after our donation to Christel House. After touring their new facilities, including their new library and computer centre, we knew that these other books may be more needed elsewhere. The Captain got in touch with two good friends to help in our quest for another school. Melvin King and Peter Flanders have both been involved with Christel House in the past. Melvin King is still working in education and Peter Flanders has gone on to work for another worthy organization. He was able to organize the delivery of the rest of our school supplies to St. John Primary School in the community of Bufflejagsrivier.

This is what they had to say to us after the delivery arrived:

“You made very happy people and children in South Africa! Peter rocked up with a bakkie and trailer full of school material to be donated to the rural primary school St John in Buffeljagsrivier near Swellendam. Thank you very very much! I made some photos and video footage that I still have to mount. I will do this next weekend. Again thanks for you so beautiful gesture. Best Regards, Carlo”

We also invited 150 of the children of Christel House to the ship for a morning and afternoon. The Captain and Mates created different stations for the children so that they could learn something and have fun – while exploring life as a ‘pirate’. They took turns on the windlass, set the mizzen stays’l, had a block and tackle tug of war, took turns taking rides in the skiff – for all their first and very exciting time in a boat on the water; ‘steering the helm’ and boxing the compass. This activity we followed up with a huge pasta lunch a la dream team of Sophie, Dave and Niko. A good time had by all!

Ali makes friends with Christel House students in the sandbox
Christel House students on the quarterdeck
loading books for Christel House on to the bus
Rebecca and Christel House students set the mizzen stays l
touring townships with Christel House staff

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