Coming from a poor background did not stop Alfred Qupha (36) from becoming the principal of the Hermann Gmeiner Primary School in Umtata (Mthatha).
Alfred was just eleven years old when his parents separated and he began being cared for by his grandmother. Due to the trauma of losing his parents and having to change schools during the middle of the year in grade four, he failed. He was very affected by the lack of stability and security he felt. Little by little he began to settle down and started to excel at school once again. Unfortunately, a few years later his grandmother died; his mother came to fetch him and they moved again. "My mother worked in kitchens in Kwa Zulu Natal and during that time we (Alfred and his six siblings) lived alone. Mother used to send a little money. Normally we got about R80 (USD 13) every month and with that we had to pay school fees, buy groceries and whatever else we could. When I was in grade six, I got used to not eating in the morning because there was no food for breakfast. I just went to school and then ate when I came back. Often we had nothing to eat and we would have to go to the neighbours to ask them for food. Sometimes we had to wait maybe two or three months before we got money from our mother. So, that's how we grew up," stated Alfred.
"When I reached Matric (grade twelve) my mother was not working anymore and so I had to depend on my elder brother who was working in the mines to pay my school fees. The problem came when I finished Matric and wanted to go to tertiary level. By then my brother was not working in the mines anymore because of the 1990s war in the mines and so there was no money," remembered Alfred. Fortunately for Alfred there was a kind-hearted teacher who recognised his potential and agreed to pay his tertiary fees. "Mr Browns was from Ghana and he taught us English and Agriculture. He paid my fees. He didn't want me to pay him back," said an amazed Alfred.
When Alfred had completed his teacher's diploma from Cicira College of Education in Umtata (Mthatha), he joined a school in Umtata as a teacher on a temporary basis. He also continued his studies part time while working and completed a Bachelor of Education in Maths and Science. While Alfred was teaching at a private school, his father passed away and he had to make funeral arrangements, collect his father's body, and bring it back to the rural homelands near Port St Johns where he was born. After the funeral and necessary cultural and religious observances, Alfred returned to Umtata and joined the Hermann Gmeiner Primary School in January 2001 as a teacher specialising in Maths and Science. Fast-tracking because of his sense of responsibility and popularity among his peers, Alfred filled the vacancy of principal in December 2001.
"What I like most about being a principal, and I think it helps that I come from a poor background, is to interact with people. That's when you see how you are helping people. I feel great then. I don't only see myself as a leader but also a community developer and that's what being at SOS is all about." Resulting in part from Alfred's desire to help children, the Hermann Gmeiner Primary School's scholarship programme has grown by over 100% in the last year. In 2004, the school had a total of 76 scholarship children and following a successful door-to-door campaign in 2005, the number increased to 153. The school also offers computer classes, home economics and art classes to the disadvantaged community. The computer class currently has 28 computers with plans in the pipeline for the purchase of seven more, as there are 35 students per class. The school has also made an offer to other schools to come and observe their programmes because these are known to be of a high standard.
When Alfred is not at school, he likes to spend his time with his wife and friends. He also has ambitions to do an Honours degree in School Management. Alfred still keeps in contact with Mr Browns, who is still a teacher at Ntafufu Secondary School and very proud of his protégé.