Monday, 14 July 2008

South Africa diary: Rock DJ

Day four, Monday 14 July

Me with the Zondi family at their home in Durban
I get up at 6am, in time to see an amazing sunrise over Durban bay. Far below, I can see a crowd of people out on the pier, waiting for the sun to make its appearance above the rapidly lightening horizon. Downstairs, we meet the local Isibindi project manager and I get a chance to go through some questions from our media team. Today, we’re visiting the Zondi family, who were the focus of a 2006 appeal film starring Robbie Williams. One of our key objectives is to report back on their progress since then.

After getting briefly lost on our way out of Durban, we arrive at the township where the Zondi family lives. We’re met by Umlum Zondi (not his real name), a smiley and chatty 16 year old. He leads us to his home – three small, yellow and green buildings perched precariously on a hillside by the coast. There’s also a banana tree, a single tap for washing, an outside latrine and two graves below the house where the children’s parents are buried. Although they’re still poor, the people round here are clearly a step up from those in Ndondo Square. Their brick homes are well constructed and they all have running water and electricity.

When Robbie first visited the Zondis in 2006, Kiki, who was 17 at the time, was looking after his younger brother Umlum, then 14 and sisters Banu, 9, and Katie, 8. The children’s father died in 2002 and the boys cared for their mother until she died in 2005, after which they had no one to look after them. Fortunately, the family came to the attention of Isibindi, who provided a child and youth care worker to help out around the house, teach the children life skills, help with homework and provide emotional support.

Two years on, we found four very happy young people. They are all healthy and going to school except Kiki, who has finished school. He’s secured a place to study economics and business at college next year. In the meantime, he’s learning to drive in order to get work and help support the family. The Zondi’s care worker, Dozoi, has helped Kiki secure a financial grant for the family. He has also recently adopted his brother and sisters, becoming their official foster parent.

A picture of the children’s father is still prominently displayed on the wall in the lounge, but it has been joined by another picture of the children with Robbie Williams. There’s lots more Robbie memorabilia around the house and he clearly made a big impression on them.

The Zondi children with their care worker Dozoi
While we’re setting up the film, I spend some time getting to know the Zondis. Umlum is a big football fan and very keen on Manchester United. Kiki wants to know where I live and if I’ve met David Beckham. I tell him that I live in London and haven’t met Beckham, but that he does work with UNICEF, so some of my colleagues have. The boys are happy to talk about their parents and they show us pictures of their mother, father and themselves when they were younger. I notice that while Umlum is very outgoing and a bit of a joker, Kiki is much more serious – perhaps a sign of the responsibility he has had to bear from an early age.

The crew have finished setting up so the family gather outside to tell us how their lives have changed. “Life was difficult before Robbie came here,” Umlum says. “We were not earning much and had to budget for everything, including school uniforms. Now things are much easier for us. Soccer Aid has given us the opportunity to go to University and do what we like with our lives.”

After the interview, the children make thank you cards for Robbie and record a message for him, including their own song and dance version of Rock DJ. They have enormous fun doing it and seem happy and carefree – a sure sign of how far they have come in the last two years.

For the final scene, the crew go off with Kiki to film a driving lesson, while the rest of us stay at the house. As usual, we’ve brought an England football with us and before long a group of teenage boys, friends of Umlum, arrive for an impromptu kick around in the backyard. I join them for a game but they’re far better than I am. Their favourite catch phrase is “quality pass”. By this point, we’ve overrun our schedule so we skip lunch and head off to meet our last family, the Sibanyonis, grabbing a few pretzels and an apple in the van on the way.

Ntombi reading with her younger brother
Ntombi Sibanyoni, 19, has been looking after her brother, sister and nephew for five years. Her mother became too ill to look after them when she was 14. By the time she was 16, both her mother and aunt had passed away. Ntombi was left on her own, responsible for her sister Zola, then 11, brother Themba, 7, and nephew Bongani, 9. She now has her own baby daughter Sithembile to look after as well. All five live together in a small, four-room house.

It’s a lot for a teenage girl to cope with and Ntombi struggled at first with so much responsibility and very little income. But things are a lot better now. Ntombi gets help from Nilisiwe, a child and youth care worker provided by Isibindi. Nilisiwe helps out around the house, looks after the younger children and provides emotional support for the whole family. This has allowed Ntombi to finish school and get a job as a Facilitator at Adam’s Mission, where she is working on a water and sanitation project. The job allows her to support her family and she is now in the process of building a larger house for them.

It’s my turn to do the interviewing and I’m a bit nervous because I don’t want to mess it up. We don't have much time here but while the film crew is setting up, I get to know Ntombi. She’s nervous too but has done this before for another UNICEF film. I tell her that, compared to everyone else, she’s virtually a professional actress.

Ntombi is very intelligent and eloquent. Amazingly, as well as working and caring for her family, she also finds time to help those of her neighbours who have less than she does. All in all, Ntombi is a real inspiration and Isibindi have plans to train her as an advocate. They’re sending her on a female empowerment course, but I’m not sure that she needs it.

At the end of the interview, I ask Ntombi if she has a message for people in the UK who are thinking of donating to UNICEF through Soccer Aid. “It is a very good thing when you give money to UNICEF, because people are sick and dying in South Africa and they need help,” she says. “Nilisiwe has helped me so much and I wish this scheme could be extended to other families who are suffering, even those where children still have their parents but they’re not working because they are sick. We need more child care workers like Nilisiwe to come and help these families.”

Once we’ve finished the interview, I suggest that we film sequences of Ntombi helping Themba with his reading. For the final scene, Bongani and Themba sweep the yard outside the house with great enthusiasm – almost certainly more so than when they’re doing their real chores.

We say goodbye to the family and head back up the hill to the vans and the long flight home. I’m exhausted, but sad that it’s all over. I look out across the township to the sea and think about what an amazing experience this has been. It’s also been hugely productive: I’ve collected over 1,000 photos, four case studies, several interviews and an entire book full of notes. There’ll be lots of work for me to do sorting it all out when I get home.

Kiki Zondi tries his hand as a cameraman
Back to part two »

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