Helena River Steiner School. A Steiner school initiative in Midland, Swan Valley, Perth.
What did you do these holidays?
I travelled through miles of dusty desert to visit a very unique Steiner school.
Where was I?
In Egypt. At Sekem.
The eastern Egyptian deserts are not like our Australian ones. There is no odd clump of spinifex to be found, no solitary tree standing stubborn and proud in the pindan. There are just endless stretches of rocky, dusty, craggy sand, with not a jot of life.
As we approach Sekem, first our eyes fill with mango plantations, then guava, then sweetcorn, pepper, camomile etc. Bright fuchsia bougainvillea line the roads and when we turn in to the centre of Sekem, startling red hibiscuses, pollen-yellow lantana and the sweet blossoms of frangipani burst out of the sandy clay to create a most welcome tropical feel in the relentless heat.
Apart from providing a Steiner-based education -Kindergarten to Year 12- for local students, this massive sanctuary in a remote village east of Cairo has extensive biodynamic farms producing organic fresh produce, dairy, herbal teas that are distributed around the world, organic cotton children’s products (some of which I scooped up and will soon appear in our school shop “Aladdin’s Cave”), a medical clinic and state-of-the art research centre, a technical college for young adults and lastly, an impressive education, care and vocation centre for people with special needs.
For a country of 96 million people, organic farming is quite unknown and a rarity. So too is the education of children in rural areas, as a lot of parents choose to have them working from a young age rather than send them to the largely ineffective local government institutions. In recent years however, since it’s commencement around 20 years ago, families from villages in all directions have recognised the difference of this school, how it teaches their children to think for themselves, think about others and acquire a range of skills that makes almost anything possible for them in the future. So they travel the miles each day in buses to bring their children here.
One of the teachers Rafik (half Egyptian, half German) took several hours out of his schedule over a couple of days to show us what we could manage to see on foot of the farms, factories and various industries.
Of course, it was the school that was of particular interest to me. On one of the days we arranged for our son, Zaki Moss to spend the day in Class 1 while my partner and I examined the schools and other industries in more detail. Fortunately our son speaks fluent Arabic, being half-Egyptian himself, so he was able to settle in easily. Nonetheless, it was comforting to hear the strains of “Morning has come, night is away, rise with the son and welcome the day”, “1,2,3,4,5, once I caught a fish alive…”and other familiar songs drifting out of the classrooms and kindergartens.
The children here are all taught English and German and the classrooms themselves had the same “feel” that Steiner schools all over the world, in whatever context or cultural adaptation, have – the soft and pleasing colours of the walls, the wooden furniture, the examples of students’ impressive art and handicrafts decorating the walls, the use of song and movement in so much of what they do, and the self confidence and ease that comes with that.
During the tour I was able to tiptoe into a quiet, dimmed room in the crèche (for workers’ young children) and witness a row of miniature hammock bundles hanging from the ceiling, some being gently rocked and sung to, and I realised this was where some babies were taking their naps. It seemed like the perfect environment to drift off in!
We saw also the woodworking, pottery and craft workshops, some of the classrooms and then later the technical school for college students in which over the course of 3 years they would learn a trade: mechanics, carpentry, electrical, office work, accounting, sewing, plumbing, engineering etc and even get paid a small amount for doing so, as the practical applications of their learning helped produce products or services for the whole Sekem community and its industries. What was most impressive for me was seeing teenage girls/young women busily engaged in carpentry or electrical work (and for that matter, young men learning the art of hand and industrial sewing). Again, for a rural area, this encouragement to learn something not “gender typical” reflected the way Sekem has influenced the change –and expansion- of usual Egyptian mentality.
When Abouleish, the Egyptian founder, came to this empty desert 40 years ago with a passionate vision for sustainable, organic agriculture and a connected and creative community, inspired by his time in Austria and his Austrian wife, I don’t know if even he would have envisioned the extent to which Sekem has developed today. It now has 1700 employees all over Egypt and his son and daughter-in-law, Helmy and Costanza, and granddaughters continue to evolve the work, along with many others, continually striving to meet the needs of the ever-changing present.
I identified strongly with his vision and passion and how it has the power to transform a sandy desert into a thriving, creative, inspiring, and (most importantly) healthy environment. I feel much the same about our little school in Midland. When we arrived just two years ago, there was a single building and a bare, gravelly block -except for two trees. From sheer the determination of our little community, we have created a beautiful sanctuary and learning environment for our children and as visitors are so often pointing out, we are expanding, improving, changing, growing, beautifying every day. I have no doubt that how we will look in 5 years time, let alone 10 or 20 will be glorious and I enjoy the challenge every day of building and strengthening something new, whilst protecting our children and providing them with what they need today.
Blessings on our school and all those around the world that keep each individual, precious child constantly at the centre of what they do.
Helena River Steiner School