Page last updated at 10:14 GMT, Thursday, 27 March 2008

Crocodile crossing for SA pupils

By Alice Lander
BBC News, Kwazulu-Natal

Crossing the crocodile-infested
Tugela River

A South African village is demanding that a bridge be built across a crocodile-infested river to stop children swimming it to get to school.

Students as young as seven have been making the crossing for two months since the community's boat was stolen.

"There are about 70 households on that side of the river but there are no buses and no-one owns a car," a Kwazulu-Natal local councillor said.

To cross safely would require a 20km (12 miles) detour to get to the school.

I worry all the time. There are dangerous animals in there, especially crocodiles,
Headmistress Hlengiwe Mthembu

On school days, 150 children from Sahlumbe village in the heart of rural Zululand swim across the river in their underwear using rubber tyres and buckets to keep afloat and to keep their school uniforms and books dry.

The older ones help the small ones who cling to the tyres.

"I worry all the time. There are dangerous animals in there, especially crocodiles," says Thuthukani Primary School headmistress Hlengiwe Mthembu.

The children, some of whom also attend Mabizela High School, often arrive tired and unable to concentrate, she says.

"They sit in class and shiver because of the cold and they can't study well because they are worrying about how they are going to get home.

"It is very hard for them. After heavy rains the river gets very full. It can take up to 10 minutes to cross."


Local councillor Sibusiso Nbatha says most of the families moved to the area three years ago after being evicted from the land they were on.

Children with a tire used to cross the river in Thuthukani Primary School playground (Photo: Gcina Ndwalane from The Mercury)
Once at school the journey home is on pupils' minds (Pic: Gcina Ndwalane/The Mercury)

He says many parents have no choice but to let their children make the dangerous crossing.

"Not all the children can swim so some ride on the tires or their parents carry them across. The river is too deep for the adults to walk across and not all of them can swim," Mr Nbatha says.

It is not only children who have to face the fast-flowing Tugela River.

The only hospital in the area is also situated on the far bank. In 2003 a pregnant woman battling to reach the opposite bank drowned.

It's very frustrating. You can see the school from the opposite bank but you just can't reach it
Local councillor Sibusiso Nbatha

In 2005, two children from the same family were also taken by the river and drowned.

Mr Nbatha says even the stolen boat was not safe and he wants a bridge built in the area.

"It was old and full of holes. There was only one boat and it was used by the whole community."

He says he has pleaded with the department of transport for five years.

"They just keep us waiting," he says.

"It's very frustrating. You can see the school from the opposite bank but you just can't reach it."

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