South Africa is such a beautiful country full of so many contrasts. One can live a really good life here – there in natural beauty in abundance and the culture is rich and vibrant. Yet, amidst all of this, there is a lot of poverty and heartbreak. I saw a part of Port Elizabeth that not many people get to see, the Walmer Township.
A “township” in South Africa is an informal settlement that, in the Apartheid era, was mostly for black occupation. The Walmer Township is home to about 70 000 people and unlike many other townships it is right next to the formerly white suburbs (about a kilometer from where my parents live). Our drive through this township was eye-opening for me. After many years of being away, I had not seen this kind of poverty up close for a while. Many dwellings did not have running water, ablution facilities, or electricity. Walmer township has areas where there are roads and concrete buildings, and areas that are more like squatter camps. Homes are made out of corrugated iron, recycled building materials, bits of wood, cardboard, and sometimes even plastic bags. Some structures have windows, some don’t. Many have a fence of some variety that marks off their property. Most houses have an outhouse for ablutions and on Fridays, a sewage truck comes around to collect the buckets. There are cows and goats roaming freely and a lot of dogs just running around. There is also a lot of litter. Probably more than one can imagine.
Our mission was to visit some of the creches (daycares/preschools) in the area. Our contact was a feisty and charismatic lady named Glenda who spearheads an organization called Walmer Angel Project (https://www.facebook.com/groups/92272251229/about/ ). The connection came through one of my old school friends, Megan Stow – one of the warmest and most deep-hearted people I know. Megan has been working with Tavcor to help build a new creche in the township (Creche 28). One school has already successfully been built in Joe Slovo township – an amazing looking school made completely out of recycled materials. Just like the school just built, this project is a group effort and it seems there are multiple organizations giving time, energy, and resources to help build this much-needed creche.
As we drove through the township in Glenda’s old VW Combi, between shouts of greeting and instructions to locals in Xhosa, she explained to us what her organization had done in various parts of the township. Glenda does a great deal of work matching donations and sponsors with the right people in the township, trying to ensure that the donation will be put to good use and not get lost in political agenda. Her main aim is to help the children. As we drove down the bumpy roads, she talked about different feeding schemes and soup kitchens active in the township and I learned about E-Pap (a program that provides nutritious porridge or pap to preschool and young children in the mornings – http://www.epap.co.za/ ), recycling schemes where food tokens are given in exchange for recyclables and the Shine Foundation (a literacy program that provides afterschool reading in English to help to school-aged kids – http://www.shineliteracy.org.za/ – Walmer Township has the first Eastern Cape chapter). She also told us about various other initiatives undertaken by organizations to help the children of the township have a better quality of life and education. There is so much need! Problems that the parents of these kids face include unemployment, alcoholism, HIV/ AIDS, and general hardship. Many parents have to travel far for work and have to leave their children from early in the morning to early evening. If they cannot afford a creche (local ones cost between R150-200 ($12-15) per month), they have some hard choices to make.
As we drove to some of these creches, handing out loaves of bread as we went, Glenda filled us in on each creches’ history. Some are better than others, but generally, they each have very small playgrounds, and the whole building for 10- 15 children is no bigger than 5 square meters. The children sleep on thin mats on the floor which is usually just a tarp laid over some dirt. When I think of Genevieve’s fabulous preschool, which had every amenity possibly needed, I felt sad for these little people. I do not imagine they are sad but know that in order for them to stay healthy and strong, they will probably need a little help from somewhere.
People like Glenda are working tirelessly and without pay to help these creches keep their heads above ground. She drives to the township almost every day to deliver donations to various creches and community centers that are places for children to do homework. And she is passionate about ensuring that no child starves. She told us how there are so many AIDS orphans, many who are just left to their own resources once their parents have passed. How politics often ruins the good that people do and how every little bit makes a difference (even a bag of rice can add substance to a soup kitchen meal). I was amazed by all that people are already doing, but also quite bewildered at how much there is to do.