The tear rain streaked window was fitting as we pulled in to the town of Khayelitsha near Cape Town. We had three hours before we needed to head to the airport for our trip back to Barcelona and Rob wanted to show us one of their Grassroots facilities. He and Lauren talked about grabbing lunch in Khayelitsha as well. I expected the town to be much like Hout Bay where Charlie had played soccer last year and where “Patty”, a sweet little boy the Adams’ have taken under their wing, lives. I had no idea.
As we pulled in to Khayeltisha with Lauren driving and Emma and Caroline in the back seat, I put my camera down. Torn between capturing what I was seeing and simply being afraid of being seen, I slowly removed my wedding ring and my necklace and placed them in the inside pocket of my well known “diaper bag”. I regretted wearing the white linen pants and cashmere sweater (which was to be my travel attire for the day). We were following Rob, Doug and the boys in a car in front of us, but I felt vulnerable. I felt that feeling you get in the gut of your stomach that says, this isn’t right. We shouldn’t be here. The voice your mother has always told you to listen to.
As we drove, Lauren pointed out, to our left where we would have had lunch. It was a few stands or stalls that sell low cost meat cooked on rusty grills around which groups of people stand devouring it with bare hands. Much like what we saw in Morocco, the meat comes from a variety of mysterious sources. To me it looked like a very dirty, grimy, abandoned gas station. As Rob shared, however, his local team are regulars at “braai” (grill) #17 and consider it a special occasion – no surprise among a local population that lives on a diet of largely corn meal. Lauren had advised Rob that our eating there might not be the best choice since we were heading to the airport and might not do so well should a “luxury” meal like this not sit well for a 12 hour flight…
We turned left to see rows upon rows of shipping containers- basically the township version of a strip mall. One was a beauty salon… with a slogan on the front saying “Same day!”.. which made us chuckle. Others sold old, used clothes or tires or TV sets or couches (the kind you see discarded on the streets) or fruit. And to our right was row after row of tin shacks. MILLIONS of them. And a line of port o lets lining one side.
Khayelitsha is a township in what are called the Cape Flats ,about a 30 minute drive from central Cape Town. Created by the Group Areas Act during the Apartheid era that forced black (African) and coloured (Malaysian, Indian or Indonesian) out of the most appealing areas Cape Town, Khayelitsha is the 2nd largest township in South Africa behind Johannesburg’s Soweto, and currently has a population of between 500,000 and 2 million… but no one is sure… and when you visit, you can see why. As a side note, only about 8% of the population in South Africa is white but they control about 95% of the country’s wealth.
Rob works for Grassroot Soccer. GRS was founded by a friend who played soccer with Rob at Dartmouth, Tommy Clark, who went on to play professionally in Zimbabwe. Tommy witnessed first hand both the devastation of HIV and the fanatical popularity of soccer in Africa. A number of Tommy’s Zimbabwe teammates died of AIDS and in response, he and 3 teammates started Grassroots Soccer use the power of the game to educate and inspire young people to lead healthy lives and avoid HIV. In the last year GRS graduated 97,000 young people – and 700,000 in the last decade – through its programs in 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa – home of the vast majority of global HIV prevalence. GRS has found that soccer IS “the hook” for young people – it captures their imagination, the message breaks through, and behavior changes.
In conjunction with the World Cup in 2010, FIFA built 20 “Football For Hope” facilities throughout Africa in the heart of neighborhoods who most needed it. These fields have become “safe places” for people within the communities and are used as a tool for social and human development in the areas of peace building, children’s rights and education… Grassroot Soccer manages 3 of these centers in South Africa and Zimbabwe, including the Khayetlisha site we visited.
It is here that local GRS-trained coaches (18-25 year old young leaders from the neighborhood) and US college graduate interns, like 23 year old Eric Barthold from Dartmouth who is spending a year in Khayelitsha with GRS, work with kids from 13 to to 18 years old. As a side note, an estimated 6.1 million people were living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa in 2012 (17.9% of 15-49 year olds), the highest volume of infected people in any country. HIV prevalence in women is also 3 times higher than men, due in part to incredibly high rates of gender violence. And, as we witnessed last year, when we visited a village in Zambia, HIV and AIDS has a devastating effect on children. There are more than 1.9 million children orphaned by AIDS. Around 30% of pregnant women in South Africa’s 2009 Survey were HIV positive. I highlight this, because for many of us, HIV and AIDS isn’t even on our radar… but if you visit Africa… the devastation in families and communities is unavoidable.
When we were in Zambia last year, we learned that HIV and AIDS are rapidly spreading along the border between Zambia and Botswana because there isn’t a bridge that connects the two countries. It sounds odd, but the reality is, there’s a ferry that takes the trucks from one side to the other (and I’m guessing the Zambezi river at that point is maybe the length of a football field). The ferry can only handle one truck at a time, so truckers generally have to wait TEN days to cross the river! TEN days of idle time and prostitution all right there. As odd as it sounds, building a bridge would be one way to reduce the spread of AIDS.
I met a woman in Cape Town this past trip, Julia, who cleans houses. She has never been to Khayelitsha and would never go… she’s too scared. She is black. Last year, she hitchhiked from Cape Town back to Zimbabwe to see her mother. She didn’t have enough money for a bus ticket. On part of her journey, she paid the driver some money and they drove off. After a while, the driver told her he needed more money from her. She told him she didn’t have any more. So he proceeded to tell her how he was going to rape her, kill her and leave her by the side of the road. Julia said she prayed and prayed and thankfully God listened. The man, instead, just dropped her off. What Julia also said is that in South Africa witchdoctors will use body parts in their potions and many believe that such a potion will cure you of HIV and AIDS… they also believe raping young children or virgins will cure you as well.
I highlight all of these things, because outside of Africa you don’t see them or, like me, you wouldn’t believe them!
Yet, the soccer field in Khayelitsha felt like a safe haven and with Grassroots there, Rob and his colleagues are able to reach out to the people in this depressed community daily and try to make a difference.
As we drove away, the dance of the wipers was faster and all of the “shops” had closed. We quickly drove on to the N2 to head back toward the vineyards of Constantia and Rob’s home to collect our things before heading on to the airport.
To get a sense for Grassroot Soccer’s work, check out this inspiring video filmed in another one of their sites in Lusaka, Zambia. Click here.
And if you want to make a difference and help Grassroot Soccer, you can do so here. I am so proud of Rob and his family and for all of the Grassroot Soccer people who are making a difference in the lives of kids!