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Published: September 25th 2015
Don't you find it frustrating when you get to a place and find Bob Geldoff has beaten you to it? Fortunately there were no strains of "Do they Know its Christmas?" Bob's work in Imizamo Yethu was much more understated. The name of this place is a Xhosa phrase which roughly translates as "collective struggle". The locals call it "Mandela Park" and are proud of the times the great man wandered their streets to understand their struggles.
The Blue Tour bus dropped us off at a roundabout near the entrance to the settlement where we were greeted by Thando (Xhosa for "love") a cheerful, fun-loving young man with a huge smile. We immediately enjoyed his company and we were sad to say goodbye when he introduced us to Kenny, our guide for the tour.
Kenny was a real presence who everyone in the town seemed to know. His drive, determination and optimism were inspiring. He obviously has a deep love for his community and wants to make it better for everyone. Kenny has led tours of the township for 10 years, leading Geldoff, Mandela and countless other people through its streets and into its buildings. When an Irish philanthropist,
Niall Mellon, visited, Kenny was selected by the community to return with him to Ireland to meet their Prime Minister. He was also chosen for a similar visit to Canada. We were told that 33,000 people live in Imizamo and they are from 15 different countries. Kenny repeatedly told us that the people of the community smile because they have hope that tomorrow will be better.
The first thing we saw was the "Real Shop", a local supermarket which was approached by a steep set of steps. On the steps half a dozen young lads were hanging around listlessly. Next door to the supermarket was a shack where someone was living with her child of about 2 years old. The little girl looked up at us with the largest smile I've ever seen.
We walked up the street and were shown a fenced off area where the local children had been working on an art project. The wall was brightly coloured and standing next to it was an almost life-sized papier mâché elephant. This was obviously a real focal point for the community and something they were proud of.
Further up the hill Kenny led us into
a little tin shack with mud for a floor. The occupant of this home was sitting on a couch watching TV as we squeezed past her. She had electricity and many of the appliances we take for granted at home, including a washing machine, were squeezed into this small hut. The house's plumbing did not stretch to sewage disposal so, like many people, they had to use a communal toilet facility up the road. Apart from the darkness inside (there were no windows) the most obvious thing was the flies buzzing around. Life for this lady and her several children must have been unpleasant.
We said goodbye to the woman and Kenny led us into the next home. This had been donated by the Mellon Foundation and was much more spacious. It was a concrete house with several windows, similar in size to a London flat and with every modern convenience. Apart from the fact six people lived here, life could be quite pleasant in this building. Sadly, only about a quarter of the 4,600 families in Mandella Park are housed in such accommodation.
We walked up the main street which was congested with cars. Kenny pointed out
to us barbers' shops, convenience stores, takeaways and even a carpenter's workshop in converted shipping containers.
The next place of note was the shebeen, or pub. Stacked outside were crates of empty beer and brandy bottles: business appeared to be good. Inside were half a dozen men. Two playing pool at a black pool table and the rest sitting talking. There was a serving hatch behind security bars to protect the stock and takings. On the wall were various posters, including public health campaigns and prohibitions against weapons in the pub.
Kenny was keen to point out to us that there were education facilities within the township, though not enough. He took us into a brightly coloured pre-school behind a steel fence and razor wire. As the door opened, all of the children, who had been napping on the floor, woke up. The walls of the pre-school were decorated with numbers and months in both Xhosa and English. There were sixty children crammed into two class rooms... I can imagine it's quite hectic when it's not nap time. The teacher was doing an amazing job of keeping control.
After the school, Kenny took us to see some
of the other facilities of the town; a library - complete with a full set of Encyclopaedia Britanica; a computer room sponsored by Gartner; a community centre where the local ladies danced and sang and local artists displayed their wares; and a small wooden Methodist church. A few times Kenny told us that "a country that wins is a country that reads". He took pride in the fact that the community had access to reading materials, understood their value and were slowly developing out of their poverty.
The final thing we saw inside the township was the old fire station which had been converted to a leisure centre. Unfortunately, one day the city removed the security guards from it and over night it was ransacked for building materials. The magnitude of the collective loss for the community was evident on Kenny's face. He was visibly upset by this but was also determined that the community would rebuild the centre which has now been secured again thanks to him marching down to city hall and demanding to be seen without an appointment. He compared the task of rebuilding to eating an elephant but he was confident that the community would
do it, one bite at a time.
Our tour was over, and we walked back down the main road with many different emotions. There was one further thing for us to do before we caught the bus back into town and that was to visit the tea bag factory. I was somewhat skeptical about this - how can value be found in used tea bags? However I was proven very wrong. This is an amazing venture between a woman from England and locals who she has trained to be artists. They collect and dry tea bags and then paint them. The decorated bags are then incorporated into products like handbags, coasters and cards and sold. They have a shop at the factory and one at the Waterfront. Additionally they sell their products all over the world; even Hillary Clinton has one of their handbags. The artistry was fantastic and the ingenuity of the products incredible. The factory shop was really uplifting and showed what a community can do and how lives can be changed with a little help and a bit of inspiration. Projects like these are giving desperate people real hope, helping them to buy their own homes
and causing them to walk taller. I'm no longer a skeptic!
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