Sunday, 13 July 2008

South Africa diary: Missing generation

Day three, Sunday 13 July

Unathi Nyathi with two of her many grandchildren
We’re staying at a guest house in Eliott, in the Transkei region of South Africa. It’s another early start, but after getting up at 4am yesterday, 7 O’Clock feels like a nice lie-in. It’s still well below freezing outside so in order to stay warm, I’m now wearing all my clothes in layers each day. We have a hearty breakfast at the guest house, then pile in to the vans and head back to Ndondo Square to film the second family – the Nyathis.

We arrive at the Nyathi home and get a tangible sense of South Africa’s ‘missing generation’. There are countless children running around the yard making a racket, while an old woman sits quietly outside the house, gazing into the distance. Nasi Nyathi (not her real name) is 15 and, along with her brothers and sisters, is an orphan. Her mother died four months ago, leaving five grieving children in the care of their grandmother Unathi, who was already looking after their twelve cousins. The only source of income for the entire family was Unathi’s pension.

After her mother died, Nasi initially took care of her siblings and did all their washing, cooking and cleaning. Things in the house became disorganised. Unathi didn’t want Nasi to do the housework but she’s a 65 year old woman looking after 17 children and things got too much for her.

“When my daughter was alive, she used to help around the house and supported me financially,” Unathi says.  After her death it was so difficult and we sometimes lived without food. I couldn’t buy any shoes or school uniforms for the children. My own health wasn’t good so I allocated tasks and responsibilities to Nasi, the eldest child.”

Nasi Nyathi washing dishes in the yard
Luckily, help was at hand. Unathi approached Nolita, a child and youth care worker with Isibindi. For the last couple of months, Nolita has been working with Unathi to bring some structure and normality back to the family. There is now a rota, so all the children share the chores. They are back at school and Nolita helps them with homework, as well as keeping the house in order.

"After Unathi spoke to me I came to the house to do an assessment," Nolita says. "There was a lot of grief. I found that the older boys were doing nothing, just hanging around in the street. Nasi was doing all the chores, looking after the younger children and caring for her granny when she was sick. The children were not going to school regularly and their work was not up to standard. I talked to the boys to give them some life space counselling but also to make sure they did something to help Nasi. We set up a house rota whereby every child has tasks."

Nolita visited the children’s school and arranged for them to return to their classes. Through the Isibindi project, she provided new shoes, school uniforms and food parcels, so the children would have something to eat in the evenings. Nolita also encouraged Nasi to go to the local Isibindi safe park. For Nasi, it’s a place where she can get away from her busy family life and be herself. It’s a place where she can meet her friends, listen to music and just be 15 again.

"In the safe park there is a lot to do," Nolita continues. "We educate the young people about sex, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, sexual and physical abuse and hygiene. Every child is supervised, whether they are playing or involved in a group discussion. Care workers can also identify vulnerable children and do an assessment of any that seem to be struggling or have a problem at home."

"The young people love the safe park and they know the rules," she adds. "They don’t hurt anyone or shout: they just play."

Nolita with the Nyathi children
While the film crew are doing interviews inside the house, the rest of us wait outside and try to keep everyone quiet. This proves quite a challenge: there are over a dozen small children to manage, along with curious neighbours and a flock of very noisy geese.

At one point, I take some of the children down the road and play football and piggy back with them. It’s hot work and I get down to a t-shirt for the first time on the trip. My favourite kid is a four-year-old boy in a jumper with a picture of a demented robot on it and the slogan ‘System Overload... he’s going out of control’. There’s always one child I want to adopt on these kind of trips and this time System Overload is definitely the one. He’s also a precocious footballer and pulls off shots a boy twice his size would be proud of.

After the interviews have finished, we film sequences of Nasi doing her chores in the yard and walking with her sisters down the dusty road to the safe park.

Back at the safe park, I take the opportunity to grab Lulamile, who had previously been working as our translator, for a short interview on the camcorder in one of the cabins. Lulamile has been working for Isibindi for seven years, which he describes as “a wonderful experience”. Initially, he was a volunteer but now, thanks to funds from UNICEF, he’s in a full time, paid role. We talk about his life, career and aspirations. It turns out that he’s also a volleyball coach for some of the children and is enthusiastic about the use of sport for development. After the interview I take a few minutes to film Lulamile playing football with some of the boys in the park.

As we’re loading up the vans to leave, dozens of kids emerge from the safe park. They crowd around for a final photo shoot and I get some amazing shots of a sea of small smiling faces, turning orange in the rays of the setting sun.

Last chance for a photo
Back in the vans, we start a three hour drive to East London. The scenery is stunning so I take a few shots out the window but we’re on a very tight schedule so there’s no time to stop. From East London, we fly to Durban and check into a proper hotel, all of us looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

It’s late and we’re tired, which probably explains how Richard manages to leave his very expensive film camera under a table in reception. Steve takes it up to his room and pretends he hasn’t seen it. I’m too soft and give the game away by telling Richard – he’s going frantic and is about to make the hotel management go through the CCTV security tapes.

Despite my plans for an early night, I end up in the bar with Hilton until past midnight copying photos to DVD on his laptop. It’s only been two days in the field but I’ve already taken over 800 photos. It’s hard not to: the scenery is so stunning and the children so excited and photogenic that you can point the camera in virtually any direction and get a great shot.

We’ve got a 6am start tomorrow, which will be our last day. I hope that, like System Overload, I can still function.

Back to part one | Read part three »

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