Ivory Park

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.

Students in Ivory Park

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.

Students performing a "drama" about the dangers of drugs

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.

Backpacks hang on the wall of the Sedimosang Day Care Center in Ivory Park

Nap time (for most) at the Sedimosang Day Care Center

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.

Welcome to “Africa Lite”

Sometimes you need signs to tell you where you are...sometimes you don't.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, in the southeast of the city, in a former military barracks, is the uniquely Danish community of Christiania. Famous for its autonomy, communal lifestyle, creative “architecture without architects” and, yes, Pusher Street – where the open sale of hash and marijuana was legal until 2004 – Christiania is proud of its über-progressiveness, even as it sits ensconced within arguably one of the world’s more progressive countries.

While difficult for a foreign observer to truly comprehend, Christiania looks, acts, feels and is different than the rest of Copenhagen, than the rest of Denmark, than the rest of Europe. If you didn’t get it by walking through Pusher Street, visiting the bike shop or staring in wonder at the murals, the signage as you exit Christiania spells it out for you: Whereas you are welcomed to Christiania on the way in, you are reminded that “You are now entering the [European Union]” on the way out. Make no mistake.

Living where we live now in Pretoria, it often feels like we passed under that very sign and entered the EU. Our daily lives are quasi-European, filled as they are with tea breaks, email, Nutella, hot showers, television and virtually all other trappings of modern life in London, Ljubljana, Cardiff or Copenhagen.

Looking at places like Sandton in Johannesburg and the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, as well as World Cup-legacy enhancements like the ultra-modern Gautrain and beautiful new roadways, one could argue that the signs at OR Tambo International Airport should read:

“Welcome to Africa Lite”*

With a (relatively) stable democracy, progressive constitution and comparatively high (and generalized) standard of living, South Africa often does not have much in common with many of its African neighbors.

Except when it does.

Just travel west of Pretoria to Atteridgeville, or east to Mamelodi, or north to Soshanguve, or south to Tembisa and you will quickly find yourself in the version of Africa experienced by too many on the continent, the version that westerners see on the network news, the version that pleads for us to forego a cup of coffee today so that a starving child can eat for a week.

But let’s not paint it in such dire terms.

For example, as part of Jenny’s Birth Month (one day is not enough), we celebrated with our university-provided housekeeper and friend, Ephney, and her family and neighbors in Mamelodi. They live in a shack squeezed between thousands of similar shacks on a narrow, undulating dirt road. Is it ideal? No. Do they want to live someplace nicer? Surely. Are they some of the happiest, most welcoming, proudest, most sincere, most gracious people you’ll ever meet? Yes, every one of them. Mamelodi is like that; it is at once deeply disheartening and profoundly uplifting.

Jenny's birthday party in Mamelodi (that's Ephney in yellow, her youngest daughter waiting for cake, and infant son on Jenny's lap)

Not long before, I had the great fortune to visit the Tembisa area – specifically Ivory Park – with our Fulbright buddy Hannah. She and her husband, Bob, along with a dedicated group of Dutch and South African superheroes, have been working to improve the quality of life for kids, adults and seniors in Ivory Park for the last several years.

With the some of the superheroes of Ivory Park

My inspiring visit to the school, library, senior center, eye clinic and daycare/preschool deserves its own post, and it shall have one, but let me just say this:

That there are still millions of people in South Africa who must live in tin shacks with no electricity, no running water, no toilet, no heat, no aircon, and no real hope of anything different seems completely incongruent with the promises and expectations set forth by the post-apartheid government. The country has the money, it surely appears, but chooses to spend it elsewhere…like on a R170 million ($21 million) renovation project at the presidential residence. Meanwhile, millions of the president’s constituents literally don’t have a pot to piss in.

A Land of Contrasts

Among the first observations we shared on this blog was that South Africa – like so many places – is a land of contrasts. There are beggars in Brooklyn, giraffes in Groenkloof and Mercedes in Mamelodi.

Perhaps we should now add that there is Africa in “Africa Lite.”

Coming Soon:

My visit to Ivory Park, more from Jenny’s birth month, and some photos of Purple Pretoria’s Jacaranda Explosion.

*We are by no means the first to coin the term “Africa Lite.” While applied here to South Africa, which was my only known reference, it has been used to describe other countries, as well, including Botswana, Uganda and Rwanda.