“Come quick! Were going to have a sergeant shouting at us!” yells a Grade 4 boy, racing past in his long-sleeved shirt and waistcoat, his school socks pulled up over his pants to make for a great pair of breeches.
“All right you lot, line up! Stand up straight! Look sharp! No giggling!”, commands their Captain, Basil Mills of the National English Literary Museum (NELM), “Its a tough life out here in this new land, so well have no trouble from you!”
On the surface, it all might look like fun and games, but this group of Kingswood pupils was spending a valuable two days away from home at Assegaai Trails, recently.
Organised by the museum, this one-night Pioneer Camp is part of a wider programme educating pupils about South Africas history, with a specific focus on the Eastern Cape and the vast amount of knowledge we owe to the early literary pioneers of the period.
Thomas Pringle, Sophia Pigot, Percy Fitzpatrick and Olive Schreiner are just some of the authors on whom Basil Mills and Jeremy Fogg, Head of Education at the museum, focus in order to raise historical and literary awareness about South Africa.
Fogg and Mills have been running these Pioneer Camps for the past 21 years all over South Africa, educating young minds in a hands-on way. “Its a lovely way of teaching the children through having fun,” said Mills.
“We know the children enjoy it. Parents have approached us years down the line and told us how their children have returned from the camps brimming with enthusiasm and interest in their countrys history,” said Fogg.
With this year marking Grahamstowns 200-year birthday, Mills believes it is even more important for the children to learn about the towns fascinating background. “We all know that our history has happy, sad, and violent periods. That doesnt make it any less important to know,” he said.
“We make sure that the history we cover is from all angles and the children understand everyones views, not just the Settlers but also the Khoikhoi, the Boers and the San Bushmen as well.”
Over the past few weeks, the children have learned about South Africas early history through field trips with the National English Literary Museum to various museums and Grahamstown landmarks, such as the Anglo-Boer war trenches near the golf course.
“The children have learned what it was like to be a citizen in Grahamstown during those war times. Sadly the current school history curriculum doesnt include courses like this, if it werent for activities like the Pioneer Camp they would never learn about historical figures such as Napoleon,” said Fogg.
“We are extremely lucky to be based right at the location of all these highly important historical happenings. South Africa might be the Rainbow Nation, but the Eastern Cape is where you find the pot of gold,” said Mills.
And it is a pot of gold the children have definitely found. Over the course of the camp, they read texts from the early authors, learned to make their own ink like the settlers did and write their own diaries using quills.
Mills gave a Zulu spear demonstration and took them on a nature walk, where they learned about early bush craft and got to experience what early, undeveloped South Africa was like to explore. “Its fun being a settler! Weve been playing games and learning new things about them like how they used to write with a feather and ink,” said nine-year-old Kayla Van Starden.
“I felt sorry for them and the captured slaves on those cramped boats they had to sail on for so long. When they got here, they wore such hot clothes and met lions and big Boers!” commented nine-year-old Lukho Mbenyana.
And the childrens favourite part of the weekend? A unanimous agreement - watching the soldiers throw any naughty pioneers into the swimming pool...