At the end of May 2016, our parter, Vodacom Lesotho Foundation, sponsored our most senior class and three staff to enter the Malealea Monster in Lesotho's mountains.
The three-day event included a 3km night run, a 25km mountain bike race and an 8km trail run. The event was also a great opportunity for us to get away together for a concentrated period of character development.
Our themes for the event were endurance and integrity. The goal of Sepheo has always been Excellence out of Poverty and we spend a lot of time growing traits that will set our kids up for long-term success. Endurance was particularly relevant. Before the bike race, we spent time talking about the internal voice that wills us to give up and how to overcome it. No-one was an experienced cyclist, but we all determined that we would finish the very technical and challenging bike race. The route included a gruelling 700m climb in elevation right in the middle of the race.
Not only did everyone finish, but three of our team was in the top ten - 4th, 7th and 8th. We had a debrief after the race to draw out some of the lessons on endurance. I asked them why they kept going and they told me they wanted to win. Why didn't they give up when they saw the imposing and intimidating mountain climb? They were too far along to turn back and they knew they could do it. That doesn't sound too remarkable for your average teenager, but I marvelled, knowing where they came from. These are boys who were once sitting hopelessly on the streets high on glue. These are boys who were once destined for an early death or jail. They only knew quitting and now they tasted achievement.
Only a few weeks before, one of our staff members was talking with them about the voices around them on a daily basis. Even though they have turned their lives around, the boys are surrounded by negativity, sabotage and hatred by the adults in their world who are determined to strip them down to nothing.. Saddest of all, our boys all said that those people were right.
I asked them if any of the haters in their village could complete a ride like that. They laughed and said of course not. For the first time, they saw themselves as separate from what people say about them. It's a new confidence, "I can do anything."
One of our students, now 18, came to Sepheo School full of anger and violence. People in his village were scared of this boy; the thought of killing was nothing to him. I remember he used to give up so easily and it seemed like I was having serious confrontations with him every second day. Over time, that identity left him. He came 4th in a field of experienced cyclists. Some members of a professional cycling team took notice of him and offered him a chance to join them.
After the race he asked me to print photos so he could show one of his haters. His adult neighbour says he only goes to school for food. He wanted to go home with a photo to prove him wrong.
The last day of the event was an 8km trail run. This was more in our boys' comfort zone. At Sepheo School, we run. We had four in the top ten - 1st, 2nd, 6th and 7th. Unfortunately, two of our students who were initially leading the race by quite a distance took a turn off the course. When they found their way again, they saw another competitor on the ground with cramps. They stopped, massaged his cramp out and ran with him all the way back.
I was determined that we would all leave Malealea different. Before we left, each of our students made written declarations about endurance and integrity. I asked them think about things they used to give up on and to declare, "I'm not tapping out on..." and "I will show integrity in..." They all made different commitments, but all of them said they would not tap out on school. This year, they sit their final exam, which will determine what they can do with the rest of their lives. They're serious. They're not giving up.