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February 2019

Soweto love

19 February 2019

I have recently returned from an incredible trip to South Africa with my brother. We spent most of our time in Soweto, in particular in the informal settlement of Kliptown, where we met so many incredible people.

Photos by the wonderful Ilan Ossendryver

We were fortunate to work with Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY), founded by Bob Nameng, which aims to address some of the community’s challenges.

Meeting Bob Nameng, Founder of SKY, for the first time at his home in Kliptown

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Kliptown is what is called an ‘informal settlement’, where shacks have been erected from a patchwork of materials. There is no sewerage system (portaloos service the community and are emptied twice a week) or electricity (illegal electricity, with all its many dangers, has been rigged up). Communal taps are used for washing, cooking and cleaning.

Top: The generator which services this part of Kliptown, with illegal cables patched into it. Bottom: Electricity cables lying on the ground. Right: Ducking under cables (with exposed wire) at head height.

Kliptown also has 73 per cent unemployment. So educating the next generation is key to helping them escape poverty. On our first day we happened to meet these three young men who have come through SKY. They are now respectively studying engineering, social work and architecture. Poster boys, indeed, for the success of SKY’s programs. They even shared their breakfast with me, a sweet, pink porridge called morvitte.

A highlight of the trip was delivering a suitcase full of new books to the SKY kids. Before I left I asked a few of my author friends if they’d like to donate books to the SKY library. The response was so overwhelming that I received over 100 books, and had to turn down offers of more as my luggage was pretty much books and a toothbrush! Thankfully Qantas came on board to sponsor extra luggage.

Left: Before I left with the donated tower of books. Right: In SKY’s library with some of the donated books held by two of my favourite SKY kids and the librarian and teacher extraordinaire, Amokelani Khosa.

Watching the kids’ excitement as they opened the suitcase was wonderful (below left), but what happened next was even more wonderful. They all quickly found a spot and settled in to read. The bliss of new books!

My thanks again to all the authors who so generously sent me books. (What a delight it was to receive parcel after parcel in the mail every day in the lead up to my departure.) And to James Redden at Harry Hartog for donating much-needed dictionaries.

Another highlight was taking the SKY kids to the swimming pool (not hard to spot my brother in the pic below). They only get an outing like this one or twice a year, so it was wonderful to be able to give them this experience. Some of them didn’t leave the water for five hours! Much joy and excitement and fun was had.

I was also invited to run a writing workshop and it was nothing like any other workshop I have given. The pencils had been stolen the previous day, so it started with us walking arm in arm to the shops with a bunch of kids to buy new pencils. They thought this was great fun (which indeed it was).

As you can see from the photo below, there was no electricity so we were in the dark. It actually got darker than this when a storm rolled in, and the kids were writing with their faces right up against the paper. It got to a point where I couldn’t even read what they were sharing with me and pulled out my phone to use the torch. And yet, it was amazing. The kids wrote in whatever language they felt most comfortable, though some of them chose to write in English. Fortunately we had the wonderful librarian, sister Amo, on hand to translate so that I was able to understand all the stories. They came up with amazing stuff.

Left: The SKY kids singing to farewell us on our last day. Right: Workshopping in the dark.

On our last day in Kliptown it blew my mind to discover that the place where we’d been staying once had an underground hideout used by Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu and many other freedom fighters. My introduction to South Africa was as a 15 year old, reading about Biko, and then obsessively reading books on Mandela, Sobukwe and so on. So for me this was real goosebumps stuff.

Sitting on the spot where the underground hideout once was, with SKY’s Amo

We also spent six days in Joburg where we ate and drank a lot (which felt almost obscene after Soweto), and I did some research at Wits University for a novel that I’m working on (feel free to take a moment to laugh at microscope me). While we were there we had the pleasure of joining an African book club for one night only, run by the wonderful Lungile. We had such an invigorating discussion about books, and the issues they raised, and I subsequently bought a bunch of books as a result of various recommendations. Wish I could teleport myself over there every month!

I learned so much during our time in Soweto and made so many wonderful friends that it was very difficult to leave. Soweto is an incredible place that I would encourage you to visit if you get the chance. Forget any media beat-up you’ve heard about the place being dangerous etcetera. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.

Some of the people we’ll miss. Particularly the incomparable Z (above).