I Love Condoms …The Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre …aims to encourage and empower teenagers to make choices: hopefully healthy ones and the centre offers ‘safe’ recreation.
I Love Condoms. The words are written on workshop walls, walls that were built by individuals and companies that have sponsored the building on Guinea Fowl Road in the Fish Hoek Valley, directly opposite the Masiphumelele High School and Masiphumelele township.
I felt apprehensive when I answered an ad to help 12-22 year olds from the township and the Fish Hoek Valley with any skills that as a local I could offer. But the Youth Centre was easy to find and I was met by the buoyant and enthusiastic Earl Mentor. He assures me this is his real name and what an apt one, as he’s the Sport and Recreation Co-ordinator with training and background in the Performing Arts.
Both he and the manager, Dante Robbertze, showed me around the two classrooms, medical centre, hall, and coffee room where about 70 youngsters come daily to play table tennis or snooker, learn how to surf the internet or even surf the waves: this is Cape Town. At the same time they can receive confidential counselling on any issue and be tested for HIV. In 2009, South Africa had 5.6 million people affected by HIV or Aids with 310,000 people dying from related diseases. 70% of those infected worldwide live in South Africa. So, reach them early and get them to love condoms and love wisely and well.
The young people come voluntarily – after school – 1 200 have enrolled since the Youth Centre opened a year ago on the equally aptly chosen St. Valentine’s Day. Their finger-prints are taken and they receive a ‘Tutu’ point on each visit. ‘Tutus’ can be cashed in for a prize, but keep going and keep banking and you can build up to the reward of a mobile phone. I guess it’s a more sophisticated process than, “You can have a marshmallow now, but if you wait fifteen minutes you can have two.” It’s all about discipline, self-control, and making an informed choice.
I saw these qualities in abundance when Earl invited me to Thando Silo’s performance of ‘My Africa’ by his Marhoshi group (The Kings). Thando (22) started his performance group several years ago with young boys from the streets. He now has a home to house his company (doesn’t this old director and writer know the joy this brings) but he had to introduce girls to his writing and his direction. Enter Fezeka, a 21 year old counsellor whose job it is, “to deal with the female conflict in the group”. Yes, Fezeka, I know all about that too. Fezeka translates my wieldy sentences to Thando who replies in broken English. It’s easy to forget that Xhosa is a first language for many Africans who speak English in varying degrees but Thando says, with the help of Fezeka, that his piece is a ‘recognition of the sacrifices his country has made for freedom’. Thando is as passionate about his writing, acting and performing as Fezeka is passionate about empowering young African women to make good, sound, small decisions, “On a daily basis,” she says, “to be better people”.
I was told not to enter the rehearsal room and rightly so, but when the performance magically began, minutes after the arrival time I had given Earl, I was transported. About thirty young Africans from the Masiphumelele township stomped their feet in Wellington (gum) boots with energy, natural talent and engaging bold, attitude: one of self-possession; this is what the centre is setting out to teach. I was flying with them.
I want to fly back soon and learn from these young people. If you can’t fly or drive there to share your skills (in particular dance, art, English, business mentoring, gardening or surfing) then you can donate money through the website www.desmondtutuhivfoundation.org.za, the youth at the Centre dream of building a peace garden and a soccer pitch. Or you can raise awareness by visiting their Facebook page and disseminating information.
Just one month after opening, the centre was broken into and three computers were stolen. Enrolled students offered to give information for 100 Rand (£10). There is discussion on the Foundation’s Facebook page as to whether this should be given or ‘Tutus’ offered. A decision was reached. The informers should go to the police. It’s about making choices and good decisions.
Many thanks to the editors who have agreed to take these words and images. Any fees for the feature will be donated to the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre – it’s a great place where young South Africans are being prepared for a bright future!