By Amy West*
WASHINGTON DC | 11 January 2024 (IDN) — Climentine Thupaagale knew she needed a job. As an unemployed 26-year-old from a remote rural area of Northwest province in South Africa, she was at one of the lowest points in her young life and dependent on others to survive.
“I heard about an opening for a Learner Support Agent (LSA) position in Johannesburg and applied for a job that would give me an opportunity to do for these young girls what nobody as able to do for me,” said Thupaagale, now 29-years-old and effusive about her work.
Recognizing that teachers are already stretched thin, South Africa’s Department of Basic Education enlists LSAs to provide additional support to vulnerable learners in schools.
Thupaagale recalls seeing the vacancy posted by a local non-profit organization, the Matthew Goniwe School of Leadership and Governance, and did some research to learn more. She scrolled through Facebook to have an idea of what LSAs were doing and talking about related to their work, and also read anything available through Google searches on the responsibilities of the role and how others approached the job and were having an impact.
“I was not sure what I would do if I didn’t make it but kept a positive mind and prayed that this would be a turning point for me,” shared Thupaagale.
Thupaagale had been nervous. But she also knew she had to be open and honest about her own past if she was going to ask other girls to find healthier ways of coping with the challenges around them.
In the interview, she was direct about her own lived experiences and believed her pain could be transformed into something useful to help others avoid some of the harsher lessons she herself had learned.
“After I received the call and was offered the job, tears fell off my face,” says Thupaagale.
She had not worked long as an LSA in the Johannesburg West District schools before she was invited to an event at a local clinic hosted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and asked to speak about what inspired her in her work. There, in front of others, she shared her experiences again, and how these could be used to change the lives of others.
“We recruited Climentine Thupaagale quickly after meeting her. At the time, she was working as an LSA with an NGO in Gauteng and we had an opening on the USAID DREAMS program for a similar position. When we reached out to the Gauteng Department of Education, her name came out on top.
Everyone who interacted with her knew her as someone who genuinely wanted to make a difference in other people’s lives and had the passion and drive to do so because of how she drew on her past. She walks the walk and talks the talk.
DREAMS and USAID
What is different about her is that her experiences have made her a natural social worker. For her it is a calling, it’s in her heart,” says Olga Rikhotso, DREAMS Linkages Manager.
DREAMS—which stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe—is a partnership program between the South African Department of Basic Education and the U.S. government supporting girls with critical health information, education, and mentorship.
As a dedicated LSA, Thupaagale’s responsibilities entail liaising with local primary and secondary schools, health clinics, and communities to ensure girls have the support they need to stay in school, prevent HIV and gender-based violence, and live healthier lives.
LSAs like Thupaagale work hard, spending long hours at school and in the communities they serve. LSAs provide basic counselling and psychosocial support to the most vulnerable girls in school to reduce incidences of sexual and gender-based violence, or HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, coordinate with community leaders to conduct home visits, and leverage resource supports from individual and private partners for out-of-school girls.
Thupaagale has always been a survivor. Until she reached the age of majority, her world consisted of a small room shared with five to seven other vulnerable children in an under-resourced rural orphanage. She had no siblings. When she arrived at the shelter, she was provided for by the charity of others who donated clothes or toiletries.
“I grew up in a shelter for abused women and children—I grew up without my mom and dad. My mom was working elsewhere as a domestic worker. I didn’t know my dad. Those were the toughest times of my life. So, this job gives me the chance to ensure that girls finish school without any disturbances.”
When Thupaagale left the shelter, she was no longer a child. She was on her own in the world with no guidance, no direction, and little knowledge of where to turn for support. “I was involved in a very abusive relationship. So, me becoming an LSA gave me an opportunity to get out of a very abusive relationship, have a roof over my head, and put food on my table.
“Before I became an LSA, I was going around looking for work to support myself. I used to look for part time jobs washing for people. I was also in one relationship or another. Mostly I would depend on men that I would come across and stay in that relationship—and then look for the next one, especially after [matriculation] when I was out of the shelter and had no one to help me further my Studies,” she said.
Thupaagale believes that schools are vital in determining whether adolescent girls from environments like orphanages, squatter camps or townships will find a way out of poverty, go on to university or training for a job, and make healthier life choices. “Learners are here for long periods of the day and schools provide easier access to services that aren’t easily available elsewhere in the community,” she said.
She gave examples of the trust she earned with most of the 600 adolescent girls she has engaged with in the last few years. “I once had a learner who disclosed to me that she was gang raped, she never told her family and she never received counseling. So I immediately worked on a referral process so she could be linked to the right services, such as social workers, and go for other counseling and health services.
“I [also] had a learner who was absent for a couple of days. We went to her home to do a home visit. She was in a shack house with a family of men. It was very untidy. The learner was then adopted by an NGO, assigned a caregiver, went to the clinic, got medicine for HIV and TB. And now she is doing well.”
Thupaagale works six to seven days in a week some weeks. If adolescent girls in the community need a safe space to gather on Friday afternoons or on the weekend when school is not in session, she is there engaged in activities that help these girls learn to lean on one another as peer supports, strengthening the necessary connection between Life Orientation classes and how to apply this learning in the world around them.
LSAs also become an important part of the fabric of communities and families, helping to support and normalize interactions that are vital to keep young people healthy and safe. “Many parents in our communities don’t know how to start the conversation or what to talk about, what kinds of information to pass on to their children, and they appreciate that there is a Learner Support Agent that can talk about these things in a way that their girl will understand.
“It wasn’t always easy. But parents trust [this work] when we can show USAID support is reducing HIV and AIDS transmission among girls, and teenage pregnancy rates are dropping at school or community level.
Zero learners pregnant
“When I started working at [my] school, teenage pregnancy was high. There were six learners who were pregnant. And today there are zero learners pregnant due to the services we are providing. Parents now come to me and ask if I can help assist their child, realizing they cannot prevent some things, but we can give information and provide other supports.”
Thupaagale’s efforts have helped many girls stay in school and graduate. From there, former DREAMS participants have attended university or technical vocational education and training institutes. She has a lot to be proud of, not least of which is the courage it took to see her own lived experiences as a professional asset. But she shakes off any praise to focus the attention back on the resilience of the girls she serves.
“It inspires me a lot to help young girls. I think the next generation will be an AIDS-free generation, empowered to stand up for themselves and follow their dreams and [know] that they can be anything they want to be without having a man to always depend on.
These girls can become anything they want to be as long as they put their mind to it. They must be allowed DREAMS—to be Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe – and with that support, they will get there.”
Thupaagale’s courage to share her life story has made all the difference in opening opportunities for herself and others. “This work has built my skills so much. I dream too. I will do whatever it takes to further my studies to become a professional social worker. Through this work, I am inspired and now see clearly who I am.”
*Amy West is a principal international technical advisor and co-lead for the adolescent girls’ and young women’s initiative at the Education Development Center (EDC). [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo source: Facebook Learner Support Agent (LSA) Programme
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