Sustainable Lights up the Zama Montessori Centre

before and after

The Zama Montessori Centre in Putfontein, Benoni is an educational oasis for underprivileged children in the area, providing them with the best education available based the Montessori teaching philosophy.

Situated on a small holding in the area the centre currently provides educational and day care services for around 80 children ranging from 2 years to 12 years of age. Around 65% of the children pay school fees while the remaining 35% are supported by the school with regular clothing and food parcels. While at school all the children are also fed via an in-house feeding scheme. The school also offers regular parent education workshops through which young parents can learn child rearing methods as well as being introduced to the Montessori philosophy. Until recently the centre did all of this with no regular access to running water or electricity. As part of our Mandela Day 67 hour project we donated a BettaLight : BettaFour Mini Solar Kit, providing the school with much needed light in a number of classrooms. We caught up with Ntombi Selema, project manager in charge of renovating the centre, to find out more about the school and the impact that the solar kit has made.

This whole journey (from an informal play group to a school) seems to have started almost by accident. Could you tell us a bit more about it?

The school was founded by my mother, Bukelwa Selema. She is a qualified nurse, and was on study leave for a psychiatric nursing diploma at the time. She also had a young daughter that she needed to keep occupied while she was busy with her studies. She organised play groups with her friends in the neighbourhood - these turned into more educational type of play groups. At the same time, there was a lot of political turmoil and unrest in the country, which affected education and the safety of children going to school. Her neighbours, seeing how the little playgroup that she had started was actually also learning, asked her to help their children with homework - at one point, the "school" was called Zama Aftercare Centre. The after care centre was then formalised into a day care centre and finally into a Montessori school.

What inspired the school to follow the Montessori model of education?

When we wanted to start the preschool we visited many schools and were impressed by what we saw at the Inanda Montessori Centre, the peaceful atmosphere, the maturity and confidence of the children and the development of academic skills

You’ve got an extensive feeding program at the school that includes quite a large vegetable garden. How involved are the children in growing their own food?

The children are very much involved in the garden. The Montessori curriculum has a section called Practical Life and one of its components is looking after the environment. I am personally overseeing the garden project and am sometimes overwhelmed by their enthusiastic participation in the garden (and their inability to differentiate weeds from the seedlings!). The children enjoy watching and participating in the whole process of preparing the soil, to planting, then harvesting and eventually eating the produce.

Based on your experience, what are the challenges that a school may face in growing and harvesting their own vegetable garden? Also, apart from the harvest, what other benefits and educational lessons does a school garden provide?

Our new vegetable garden is going to be very big - the space we've allocated for it is 35mx35m and there is still room for further expansion. Our main challenge at the moment is increasingly security, because we are on a 12 acre plot that is not fenced. At the moment we have managed to secure the basics of what is needed for planting (fertilisers, irrigation system and seedlings), but are far from acquiring what is needed for the entire plan as it is set out. I have taken to eating this elephant bite per bite and will just try to ensure that I meet the needs of the garden as we go along. Labour is also an issue, because the children have lessons and participating in the garden is only a fraction of their learning in the school. At the moment only myself and one gentleman are working in the garden. Farming equipment such as a tilling machine could go a long way in reducing the amount of labour exhausted in the garden and will enable us to expand it. Our children do a very comprehensive study of plants from preschool upwards. A garden affords them the opportunity for hands on learning about plants, growing things, life cycles, seasons, ecosystems etc. They also learn about conservation, food production that is not harmful to the environment, and good farming methods like earthworm farms.

You mentioned that you had a problem in terms of getting consistent water and electricity supplies?

The school has been operating without municipal water and electricity for close to 6 years now. This is due to a billing dispute with the municipality which has led to the school being cut off from municipal water and energy supply. We are using water from our borehole which is being pumped by a windmill. Now that the school has a solar panel system could you describe how it’s changed the way the school operates? A large section of the school building is a converted animal shed that was built at least 80 years ago. Newer structures were added onto it when we extended the school, but the central part which was the shed, was dark - even during the daytime because it has no windows. The solar panel was installed to provide lighting for this section of the building. It has made a huge difference just in the attitude of the children in the preschool who are using that section. The guys from Randburg Montessori School also painted the section in bright colours and decorated it, and it just lifted the whole mood of that section. We can now also all charge our phones and don't have to go outside the school to do so.

From your experience in education, how aware are children about where energy comes from and what the difference is between renewable and non-renewable energy sources?

‎The older children are more aware, especially since we started using solar power (house and school) and the windmill. Attending the children's conferences on conservation and sustainability has also enhanced this understanding. This year's delegates came back very proud that theirs was the only school at the conference with a windmill. The conference was held in Durban in September.

You’ve got around 80 pupils now, what are your plans for expansion in the future?

We have a vision of the school as a self sustaining entity - using our natural resources and the vast piece of land we have, to achieve this.

What would you need to make this expansion possible?

We would need people who understand our vision of using the grounds, our borehole and solar energy, and garden to sustain ourselves - mentors and partners to help us polish these ideas and to turn them into a successful reality. We would also need the equipment to make all of this possible. Anyone interested in becoming involved and/or donating equipment to the Zama Montessori School can call Ntombi Gelosi on 074 726 0050 or send her an email at