Edna Dirks goes back to school at 60

Edna Dirks, 60, from Beacon Valley; was honoured by her staff and colleagues. She got an opportunity to go back to school at the age of 60.

When many people are preparing for their retirement, Beacon Valley resident Edna Dirks returned to school to get the education she had not been able to afford when she was younger.

When Ms Dirks celebrated her 60th birthday earlier this year, the students and staff of Groote Schuur residence at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the staff of Metro Cleaning Services organised her a surprise birthday party at the residence.

It was around this time that the warden at Groote Schuur residence and manager of student housing, Glenn Von Zeil asked her colleague Blessing Mabentsela, whom Ms Dirks had worked with for 18 years, what her heart’s desires were.

Mr Mabentsela’s answer was simple: Ms Dirks wanted to go back to school to learn to read and write.

“It was very good seeing that someone at her age could have the opportunity to go to school for the first time. She was telling me for a long time and was very eager to get an education,” he said.

Ms Dirks added: “Growing up I did not live with my parents. I had to live on the streets and that was really hard for me. At the age of 16 I got married to my late husband who passed away in 2014. I was never given an opportunity to go to school from the people I resided at. I had to be ready for whatever was asked of me.”

At Christmas, in 1999, she prayed for a job and when she visited her family in Delft, a woman came by looking for two cleaners. And that’s how she came to be working for Metro Cleaning Services at UCT.

Mr Von Zeil explained that former public protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela funded Ms Dirks’ studies this year and that she was also being supported by other organisations.

Speaking of how it felt to have picked up her schooling, which she started at Portland High School in July, she said: “The experience is difficult but exciting to be in a classroom. I am looking forward to this journey.”

Back at home, Ms Dirks loves being in the kitchen behind a stove and her next goal is to open her own food business

“I do not follow the recipes I follow my own recipes, I make them with love,” said told the Plainsman.

Mr Von Zeil said: “She wanted at the age of 60 to write from her heart. How do you give back to someone that had nothing to start with? Edna has helped the students for many years and they never knew that she could not read nor write. I am very proud of the students, staff and residents who were involved in making her birthday special.”

Groote Schuur sub-warden and student, Xiwela Mashele, added: “She plays a huge role into making sure that we do what we came to do at UCT.”

Shaunelle Adams, residence facilities officer, said: “I was very happy for Edna, going to school. Not everyone has an opportunity like this. Every day she would come back with a new word she learned at school and we would all help her find more words to work with. She is a remarkable woman and the Elephants, the students at Groote Schuur residence, are so proud of her.”

Ms Dirks said: “For these few months I have learned a lot. This is my first words I am able to write out of my head without looking on a paper. But it is not easy, it is very tough for a person at this age who has never been at school before and in a classroom. It is so exciting, I can feel how it should have been as a child to be at school. I never had that opportunity, maybe it was not meant to be then but everything happens for a reason.

Ms Dirks encouraged those who cannot read or write to come forward and not be shy about their situation. “Not being able to read or write stops us from achieving our goals and dreams. Many people will think, why at this age am I going back to school, but so many doors have opened for me to learn because of it. I would like to read on my own and not have people read to me. I can write a few words and that is only the beginning of my journey with education.”

If you would like to help Ms Dirks further her education, contact glenn.vonzeil@uct.ac.za for more information.