No single person will solve all the problems of South Africa in one magnificent act. Each of us, though, has some power to reshape our world for the better. Furthermore, we have the responsibility to do so! I was inspired by the Five Plus Project to identify an organization to which I would send five percent of my income each month. I decided on the South African Education and Environment Project because I believe programs that target early childhood development make a disproportionate impact on the future. For the week of Nelson Mandela’s birthday, SAEP invited its “Angel” contributors to join them in a drive over to the “New Born Educare Centre” in the Philippi Township. I swallowed my nervousness about the neighborhood and signed up for the visit.
We gathered at the offices of SAEP, within walking distance from the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences. I met a couple of other contributors, one of whom served on the board for SAEP. While I greedily gobbled a plate of frosted cookies, the coordinator for Early Childhood Development explained their programs. Their educational emphasis splits into the Foundation Phase (early childhood development and primary school), High School (grades 8-12 and Arts), and Post-Matric (assisting high school graduates in being ready for college and for staying in college through graduation). I, of course, was hung up on the side details: why was the abbreviation SAEP rather than SAEEP (“and environment”)? Their explanation was very practical. Environmental responsibility is taught throughout the education programs, though SAEP’s emphasis is teaching rather than tree-planting. In practice, changing the name of a non-profit takes considerable paperwork, so the name stays as it was at the organization’s founding in 1994.
In very little time, we had been parcelled into cars for the drive to Philippi. I tried not to think about the crime reports from the township. Jane, the director of SAEP, was my driver. She reported that the early childhood development centers usually had few problems with crime before non-profit organizations help them, but theft became more common after the centers had something worthwhile to take. We drove past a street light, dangling wires down its pole. People living in informal settlements have attempted to connect their homes to the electrical grid, sometimes at the cost of their lives. We passed an old cement factory that has been considered for ambitious future plans. We were near an area called Browns Farm, and all around us we could see informal housing; shipping containers were very common for housing, but plenty of structures had been built rather than lashed together. As we neared our destination, the road signs were increasingly absent, and roads became were bouncy, twisty warrens without clear direction. We pulled to the side of the road and parked next to a set of shipping containers and lightly built structures; we had arrived!
Jubilant music filled the air. SAEP contributes an Arts Outreach program for area high schools, and a group of marimba players were setting a lively tone for us. Given that my only prior experience of a shipping container was to see my household goods arriving in one, I walked into the one appearing to the right of the picture above. It had been extensively converted and now served as a kitchen. When I asked Jane about the use of containers for housing, she said that early enthusiasm for the idea had diminished as people realized how expensive it can be to convert a container into housing. Furthermore, the summers in South Africa can become quite hot. These containers seem to magnify the heat for their inhabitants.
Our visit to the centre was intended to show that SAEP fosters “places of safety, but also of learning.” The activities had been designed for the Angels to interact with the children of the school. The first room had been visited by a face painter. The boys had all received arrays of dots on their foreheads, and the girls had wave patterns crossing between their eyes. I was asked if I wanted to have mine painted, too! The artist decided to replace my spectacles with her design.
From there, the kids each received playdough, and so we began sculpturing around their tables. We used some squeezers to produce noodles and other shapes, but mostly we just pinched pots together and rolled out objects. I realized that most of the children spoke essentially no English; their first language is often isiXhosa in this part of the country. We hadn’t played for long when a note sounded to let us know it was time to move to the next station.
The next room was for physical education. We started with an obstacle course, hopping through ladders, balancing on a beam, and crawling through a fabric tunnel. I did okay until I hit the tunnel, but I’m a little bigger than most of the kids who rocketed through! After that we played a fun game of parachute tag; a child atop the parachute tried to tag another who was hidden beneath it while the other children waved the parachute up and down. I was tagged pretty easily. After that we formed a ring to play a kind of ball tag. When a person had the ball, he or she rolled it toward another person in the ring. If the ball went between their legs, they were out of the circle. The volunteers from African Impact really kept the activity moving along smoothly. Note that I have blurred faces because I need to protect privacy.
The next activity was one any child in the United States would recognize as “musical chairs.” The marimba players would sound their music, and in response the children rose from their seats and walked in a circle around the chairs. When the music stopped, a volunteer had removed two chairs, so two kids would not have seats. They had a blast. I have to say that the marimba players had tremendous energy and style. Their favorite seemed to be “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” but they added in a “Bobolo” and even the call from “Shoshaloza.” It seems that South Africans have music in their bones!
The final room engaged the students in art. Each child had a paper template of a pizza slice, and the kids picked out the toppings they wanted to draw and color. The pizza slices from each child were combined into an “Expression Pizza” hung on the wall of the room. The kids had great skills! I took a moment to reflect that the kids showed all the signs of care, with clothing in bright colors and with good warmth to protect them from the chill of the winter. I felt a drip on my head, and I looked up. I was surprised to be looking at the sky through a corroded hole in the metal roof. A banner for a church had been hung against the inside of the roof to prevent these drips in other parts of the room. A tub in the room held a “Pre Grade R isiXhosa kit,” and posters on the walls (as in other rooms of the school) featured shapes, letters, numbers, and foods with the corresponding English word. These kids are going places!
All of us together came outside for lunch of butternut squash soup and bread. Jane and centre principal Lilian Kunjunzwa gave a few words of thanks for all who had contributed to the day. Cape Town city councillor Xolile Gwangxu had also come to the event. His speech reminded us that all the different populations within South Africa will reach the future together. A child playing musical chairs today will be the doctor or the lawyer of the future, if he or she gets the needed opportunities. It was an encouraging vision to end our Nelson Mandela birthday together.