Tag Archives: umthombo

Us (not “them and us”)

12 Jun

This is an amazing film about the work of Umthombo.

Umthombo is an NGO that wants to challenge the negative stereotypes enshrouding street children. The images of glue-sniffing victims – once so popular – have been replaced by a new mantra: “surfers not street children”. (And we could replace the word “surfer” with a number of others: skateboarder, student, champion…)

The label “street child” has become a dirty word in South Africa. It has widened the gap between “them” and “us”. Street children are seen as “the other”. They are “not like my children”. They are “criminals”, “dangerous”, “to-be-avoided-at-all-costs”. They are, quite simply, “not like us”.

This short film, and the work of Umthombo, challenges these preconceived, socially constructed beliefs (lies). It reveals how lives can be transformed when determined, compassionate people scavenge amongst that-seen-as-rubbish by wider society, refusing to believe that any life is beyond redemption.

Yet this transformation comes at a price; it’s not easy working on the frontline.

I know – I used to work with Tom (founder of Umthombo) many years ago. Yet the cost – the tears, tiredness and traumatic days – is worth it. One changed life is worth it.

Umthombo needs our support. These kids need our support. After all, they are surfers. They are skateboarders. They are champions. Not street children.


Power is expensive, but words are free

13 Feb

This is a really interesting article about how Cameron and the Conservatives are flailing. Interesting because it’s written by Tim Montgomerie, the man behind the Conservative Home website, whose strap-line is “the home of conservatism”. To spell it out then, if the editor of your most important pro-party political blog criticises you in a national newspaper, you are probably in trouble.

Where did the Tory party go wrong? Some would say they should never have been allowed to govern.

I, for one, did vote for them – inspired two years ago by their commitment to social justice, to the long-awaited political transformation this country needed, inspired by the new message and new faces bringing this message.

Last year, I spent quite a lot of time writing for, and working closely with, someone who is now one of the PM’s special advisers. I was “in there” for a while, or at least vicariously, and I loved it. I ended up writing this article for the Guardian in the wake of the riots, and for a while I felt close to the action. That all changed when I changed jobs a few months ago. And now, in retrospect, I am really, really glad.

Really glad I no longer have to defend ideals like the “Big Society” (I never understood what it meant – and I spent a month writing a policy paper about it!). Really glad I can distance myself from a party that is, I believe, failing – failing to do what it said it would do, failing to listen to the ordinary man and woman, failing to lead our country forward at a time of great economic instability.

For a while now, I’ve been pondering a similar thought to Tim Montgomerie  – how can people who have always known abundance ever truly understand poverty and need? How can the rich (and I mean truly rich) ever get what it is to go without, to make heart-breaking decisions and see your children suffering as a result – simply because you don’t have enough money? How far can human empathy spread?

The thing about poverty is – however compassionate and kind-hearted you might be, you can never truly understand the pain that poverty brings until you experience it yourself. The sleepness nights. The constant worry and anxiety, 24 hours a day hovering over you. The tension it brings into your relationships. The exclusion zone it creates as you watch your friends go out/buy new shoes/grab another coffee/buy healthy food for their children and know that you cannot join in.Poverty divides and isolates. It rarely unites.

Our leaders have failed to understand. If they understood surely they would not be pushing through these deeply unpopular changes to the NHS and our welfare system. Surely they would not be allowing the judiciary to lock up young people involved in riots – impressionable teenagers whose main crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Surely they would not be continuously pushing up the cost of public transport as the service received continues to decline. We have been failed. I feel duped. And it makes me angry. Angry because it feels like we – the general public – are not being listened to.

Yet words are free. I love words. I love it when words are conjoined and sculpted together in ways that give voice to those without power. It does not cost money to use our words to challenge those in power – whether here in the UK, or amongst those on the front-line of opposition in Syria, Russia or Zimbabwe, or globally amongst those campaigning to end human trafficking and the round up of kids living on the streets.

How will you use your voice today? And tomorrow? Let’s no longer allow the powerful – wherever we are in the world – to think they know what is best for those fighting to survive in the face of injustice, poverty and human greed.

Reject Apathy: Surfers Not Street Kids

4 Jan

Here is an article for www.RejectApathy.com I wrote about Umthombo’s work with street children in Durban: Surfers Not Street Kids

The long road

8 Nov

I was first introduced to a world where kids live on the street in the late 1990s in South Africa by a guy called Tom Hewitt. His organisation, Umthombo, continues to do some amazing work with these young people. I am still friends with Tom and we met up recently while he was on a trip to England. We started reminiscing about the old days, when we worked together – which now feels like a long time ago. I look back with great fondness at that time. There was a real cost to this work – emotionally and psychologically – yet we were driven by an unwillingness to accept the injustice status quo. I was just not going to accept that kids lived on the street. I was not going to accept that kids were regularly beaten by the police, verbally abused by passers by, rounded up in police vans and dumped miles out of the city. It was not ok. And it still is not ok.

Yet, as I reflect on the work we did, I also recognise my idealism and naivety. My lack of understanding about the broader issues. I held on to a deep hope that we could work to change the lives of street kids, we could change the system – the status quo was not set in stone. And I see that my model of success – the belief I held unknowingly – was one in which all kids would leave the street and start a new life where they were loved and cared for in a home. I thought that success = reintegration back into mainstream society. Now I am not so sure.

I am not sure that I, a Western white woman, know what is best for South African kids on the street. I am not sure that my ingrained beliefs about success and failure provide the best standards by which to measure a project’s impact. I am not sure that being taken away from the street without preparation or long-term planning is always the ideal for these kids. The issue of street children is complex and heart-breaking. It is symptomatic of a world in which the wealthy few own the majority of resources. It is symptomatic of a political legacy scarred by apartheid. It is symptomatic of deep ravines of injustice that mean squatter camps are sometimes overlooked by millionaires and some children cannot go to school because they cannot afford the £10 annual fees. It is made worse by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It is made worse by acerbic and embedded prejudice. It is a symptom of poverty+inequality+injustice, not a cause.  And it is not easily solved.

So – what does “success” look like for a street kid? Is it to find work? To take up a holistic and healthy hobby like surfing (see Umthombo’s fantastic project)? To find a way to go back to school? Is it to leave the streets? Sometimes. But some – like JJ – may never properly leave the streets. How can they be given dignity and a voice even if they choose to stay on the streets? How can we start to really see the talents and gifts each of these kids has, regardless of their background or “home situation”? How can we learn to accept these kids as they are and where they are, rather than trying to remould them in our image? These are the questions spinning round my head these days. It is not easy, for there are no easy answers. There is no one model that always works. Things do not always end in the way we want. There are only occasionally happy endings.

And this is what I have learnt over the last 13 years: we in the West do not have all the answers. We never will. We have much to learn from those whose lives are very different to ours. And we are still learning. I am sure that both Tom – who has been doing this work for almost 20 years now – and JJ would agree.

%d bloggers like this: