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2 sides of a coin – Fellowship journey in South Africa


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Perspective is something I hold dear to my conscience and value a lot. There is a story to every reward, and some history behind the struggles. It’s valid that life should not been seen in black or white, but in shades of grey. Positivity coexists with the undesirable, and that’s the yinyang of life. When a coin is thrown, one side holds evident, but that doesn’t mean the other side doesn’t exist. It’s only a matter of time. The more you see, the more you know. My fellowship journey in South Africa is a testimony of that.

 

Steenberg and the neighbourhood watch

I decided to stay around Steenberg, in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, a supposedly coloured African neighbourhood. When I was in the process of making a decision, I asked few Indian acquaintances living in CT, who warned me it’s dangerous and not a safe place to stay, also suggested me to move towards the city’s centre. A zone surrounded by crime, protests and gangs, I was told. But I wondered if it was their point of view. Initially, I’d planned to stay 2 weeks. Ultimately, I ended staying 5 months in Steenberg.

While I heard about only one side, the problem creators, I met the problem solvers, the other side. People had formed their own Neighbourhood watch to ensure the community’s safety. The group consists of both men and women. They take turns, patrolling around their area at nights. It only tells you how to deal with a problem: Face it. My host & house-owner, Gilbert, was a sort of a leader of the watch. People of the neighbourhood watch, were the residents in fact. Most of them, above 45 years of age. They have frequent meetings to discuss issues, have community get-together, raise funds. It was a self-sustaining model. Gilbert and I often discussed about their strategies. Many even knew me because I stayed at his house.

I also used to see others quite often while going to the grocery store. Irrespective of their age, everyone greeted me every time. At times, we’d stand in the middle of a road, exchange a joke. It’s a warm feeling. Irrespective of class, colour & background, Capetonians love their Braai evenings. Braai in Afrikaans mean ‘to grill’. It’s technically not barbecuing as no gas or charcoal is used, but only firewood is. I have my own fun tales of making everyone to dance to Tamil kuthu songs. This is what understanding culture is about, from the very local soul. They eat joyfully & laugh heartily. Every braai evening has treated me with their delightful historical stories. Or it could be the Bangladeshi friend who alerts me every time when they receive hot veg samosas at their store. We even briefly watched IPL together. Couple of them became CSK fans because of me.

Detour

I did visit and experience the flamboyant parts in and around Cape Town, to feel the difference. Along with other ESMT fellows in C.T, we went on an enchanting road trip on the infamous garden route. Those zones looked accessible to the economically affordable class. In a country with 27% unemployment, many of the locals barely visited the city centre, let alone the exquisite parts of South Africa. Cape Town is a city where the majority are coloured people, and then the black Africans. When I went the commercial zone of city, I saw very few native capetonians, and in the garden route, almost no one. While walking along some of the beaches I noticed the grand villas on the sea front. Supremely gorgeous, mesmerizing, well-engineered massive homes. Worth millions. Probably they came there just to spend the summer, chill and relax. Waterfronts with parking lots filled with BMWs, Mercedes’, Lamborghinis and Porsches while many locals struggled with basic transportation. I don’t think it was the fault of either, of who enjoy luxuries or struggle with fundamental necessities. But, I felt understanding the problem here might help me with the projects.

Apartheid and Cape Flats

The differences were staggering. Of course, it’s not restricted to South Africa. Every part of the world is like this and am very well aware of the situations in India. But the role of SA’s bizarre history had left a huge dent. Apartheid. To keep it simple, in late 40s, apartheid government was institutionalized, and people were grouped based on colours (& tribes), materializing racial discrimination. In Cape Town, the Black Africans and the coloured Africans, the majority, were repressed to move away from the city’s centre or wherever they stayed, to the low-lying Capeflats. Apparently, it was also called the apartheid’s dumping ground. Overnight, things changed and struggle for survival began. A majority of a city’s population became concentrated in one part of the city. Because of their skin tone. It became a battle for them to even go to the city from outside, where they need high permissions & documents. Basic income supply was cut off. One local I met said how his grandfather worked in farms during apartheid era, but never got paid in cash, but probably in limited rice or alcohol (I was shocked too). No proper shelter, food and income saw the evolution of gangs. Drugs come in handy with crime after all. Quality education remained a dream.

All thanks to the national hero Mr. Mandela, along with others, who freed the country off its shackles in the early 90s. But it never meant, someone from the capeflats was able to move away, live in the city centre and work in a white collared job. It wasn’t that simple. While the recovery of affected people started growing, the gangs grew too. I am told there are nearly 3000 gangs in the country. How the gangs sustain, I wondered. Without parental support, it became easy for a kid to join a gang than to complete basic school education. Why? because the gangs give you branded sneakers & jeans, and get you addicted to guns and drugs. He probably has one parent, as the other left before he was born. It’s quite common to see homeless people or kids with parents addicted to alcohol/drugs. A total state of mess, I have been frustrated numerous times. At the end of a day, basic support and awareness is what the affected kids needed. Just because things are wrong doesn’t mean they can’t be changed. Enter OASIS.

Fellowship & football

OASIS is a grassroot non-profit organisation situated near Phillipi in Cape Town, which is one of the infamous townships too. OASIS focuses on community development, youth employability, education through the tool of football. Biggest issues of South Africa on a major scale are unemployment, crime and drugs abuse. To highlight again it’s all interlinked with history of apartheid playing a huge part in creating problems. What OASIS does is to guide people with trust and affection, enrich them with values through football, provide opportunities, give them a family. How can football help, you may ask? I’d say respect, self-awareness, tolerance, teamwork, integration, responsibility, perseverance, resistance, self-esteem, health awareness, creativity and leadership. I could actually go on with the list all day.

It was indeed perplexing to live and work in such risky neighbourhoods. But, it only made the entire experience worthwhile. It was gratifying and insightful to work on the projects with OASIS. Of course, I had numerous challenges. But what’s life without challenges, huh?! The sole genuine reason is football. The sport has modulated some major wonders in my life. Connecting with the cause of organization smoothened my transition. The projects and perspectives I brought in, formulated me as the missing piece of puzzle. While I fitted in the culture and cause, I could work on a new dimension of organizational growth. Although I would have loved and enjoyed volunteering in communities being a football coach, I soon realized I had a greater purpose. I focused on developing frameworks, measurement tools and conducting workshops. While I could have been dribbling on the field, I would be MS Excel window shopping. It was all worth it, in the end. I truly felt like I left a legacy there.

None of the work completion could have been possible without their support. The people of OASIS. Since the first visit, I felt included instantly. The employees of OASIS never had the chance of a formal education but are very skilled & experienced in community development. The most interesting fact for me was how almost every one of them had been a victim before, of drugs or crime or gangs. But, they chose to react and take the positive leap. OASIS became the forum to get reintegrated into the community, and now they’re giving back to the it. The founder of OASIS and also a good friend, Clifford, is himself from Capeflats. No one better than a person like him to be the change what he wished decades ago. OASIS works only in the risky neighbourhoods. Something that stunned me is the trust and respect OASIS has gained in those dangerous areas. When OASIS has a football intervention in that area, even the youth who are part of the gangs, drop their guns and just play the sport. Beautiful game, indeed. I was inspired to say the least.

Also, during the journey there was no short of a jolly good banter in the workspace. It was a perfect coincidence when India created history, by defeating South Africa in Cricket and clinching the series. I remember making their next Monday filled with trolling about SA cricket team. Once again in my life, I realized money doesn’t buy you happiness. Like when I gave the coaches ‘Football Manager’ game and they started playing, their joy & curiosity was inexplicable.

It never ceases to fascinate me how you learn when you teach. When I taught few kids geography through football, that’s probably my favourite time with the kids of OASIS. During the last few weeks, I offered to teach the employees and coaches a workshop in MS Excel. I felt, it would be a major gamechanger in their employability options. To convince them it’s good for their career was so daunting. I felt like a mother who forced her kids to do something she knew will be good for them in the long run. I was relentless though. I managed to conduct few sessions. The outcome of the program was very rewarding. What I teach matters, but not as how much they learnt. They did eventually, with great effort, and became aware of importance of computer literacy. On the last day of work, when I was about to leave, the coaches had returned from a brief computer course organized by government. Sitting in the van, they looked tired after a long day. Spotting me, they were excited and wanting to share some stories.  ‘You must have thought we didn’t listen to you, but we were acing it today, we knew everything. What you taught helped us a lot’. I left the last day of my fellowship with a contented smile. Later, I received a proper farewell from OASIS, where we exchanged laughter and wishes, watching world cup football. The team gifted me a t-shirt, pullover and a card. It was a Thank you card with handwritten messages expressing their gratitude. The feeling was mutual. My experience with OASIS started as a fellowship and I ended being a part of their family.

 

Few pictures from the fellowship journey:

FOOTBALL

 

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A pic of OASIS office. From the first day of my fellowship.

 

 
 
santosh marrivagu

|| explore || experience || evolve || transcend ||

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