Ivory Park. Sounds nice, right? Maybe it’s a grassy field with swing sets and playing fields. Maybe it’s a monument to important historical leaders. Maybe it’s an elephant sanctuary.
Or, maybe it’s one of the most impoverished townships in South Africa, a settlement of somewhere between 200,000 and 1,000,000 (depending on which figures you trust and how you draw lines between Ivory Park and Tembisa) black South Africans (and immigrants) who primarily live in tin shacks that lack basic necessities.
It is also the place where fellow Fulbright scholar, Hannah Britton, and her husband, Bob, have been doing amazing work to improve situations for people, especially children and seniors, as well as those who need eye care. Earlier this month, I had the chance to visit Ivory Park with Hannah, her colleague, Esther, and another of the Ivory Park super-volunteers, Trees Stege. Trees is originally from the Netherlands, but moved to South Africa with her husband when they retired a few years back to work full-time on projects in Ivory Park.
Ivory park is situated between Pretoria and Johannesburg off the R21, which is the highway we take to OR Tambo International Airport. Almost as soon as you turn off the highway, the tin shacks – often constructed with scrap metal and found objects, such as the one on Olifantsfontein Road that repurposed a large UNISA sign as a wall – spring into view.
We drove along rows of such homes for a few kilometers, past open fields with well-worn footpaths and over the bridge to a narrow river that carried plastic bags and other detritus in its stream. Following Trees in her lemon yellow Hyundai, we soon found ourselves at the gates to a school. Upon entering the gates, we were transported into another world. Whereas outside the gates were littered streets, dilapidated shanties and stony gazes, inside were immaculate grounds, strong brick walls and smiling faces. In a word, inside there was hope.
Our first visit was with the students in a computer skills class. Through generous gifts from donors, the school has several PCs used to teach basic skills, such as using a mouse, the rules of email and – in the session we observed – operating Windows 7. (I resisted the urge to tell them that what they were really learning was to switch to Mac as quickly as possible.)
We spent the bulk of our time at the school with a mix of students in the library. They performed some of the “dramas” planned for the library’s official public opening next month. The first were very acronym-oriented, spelling out words like library and drugs while extolling their virtues or vices. One was a rather long and involved enactment of different “bad” things that could happen in the library: listening to headphones too loudly, talking on cell phones, having “an affair” and buying drugs. All things that may or not be common concerns in the libraries near you.
Following the dramas, and an incredible poem by a young woman about xenophobia in South Africa that we will share later (once we get her permission and as part of plans to officially open the library), we met to discuss ways to publicize the efforts and raise funds for the library, which still has many empty shelves. More on that coming soon, but if you or your organization wants to do something great for kids here who could sure use a hand, please consider buying books for the library. They particularly need picture books and junior fiction. Click here to make a donation to the US-based nonprofit helping Ivory Park.
Next, we visited the soup kitchen set up for grannies, or “gogos” in local parlance, living in Ivory Park. They were seated at long tables, which had once served in conference rooms at an international nonprofit based in Pretoria, and were singing when we arrived. Across the path is the Ke A Bona eye clinic, where a nurse and a trained ophthalmologist treat local patients on a sliding scale.
And then…and then…
And then there was the crèche.
The Sedimosang Day Care Center is a short drive from the Community Center on a dirt road. Once the site of a falling down shack, Trees and her team constructed a beautiful, bright cinder block building. Passing through the gate and the long, outdoor entryway, we were immediately struck by the sight of dozens of tiny backpacks hanging from hooks on the wall. So cute. Those bags belonged to the tiny bodies inside, some of whom were napping on little mats. A universal scene.
Across the street, a cinder block church serves as an overflow site for the 58 Grade R (Kindergarten) students. We ducked in through the gate and approached the building, Trees in the lead, with Hannah, Esther and myself just behind. I was not prepared for what was about to happen.
Trees entered first and the kids went wild. They swarmed her, screaming for joy. They clearly think so much of her. But, wait, what? Me? You don’t even know me…wa…hey…OH!
Before I knew it, I had a dozen squealing shorties jumping on me, hugging me, tugging at my shirt and just generally going bananas. One boy grabbed hold of my arm so I lifted him up off the floor to eye level. He loved it. Of course, that meant that every kid wanted a ride. Eish. It was a workout.
Once the teacher wrested control, she coordinated some songs and dances, including a little ditty about what different animals “say.” Remember when one of the only things you were required to know was that cows say, “Moo! Moo!”?
But soon it was time to head back to Pretoria. What an impressive, inspiring day. I’m definitely hooked into the Ivory Park project now, and I can definitely hear Hannah laughing her sinister laugh from across town. Well played.
When I got home, I asked Indie if it is true that dogs say, “Woof! Woof!” She looked at me like I was crazy, muttered something in Zulu and trotted off toward the backyard.