Jeff Warner PHOTOGRAPHIC, Golden, Colorado, USA

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

9/28/11: Amy Biehl Foundation, Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Imagine a young, white American woman travels to South Africa, dedicated to making a difference, committed to trying to help the oppressed South African people, prior to the abolishment of apartheid. Driving home one day, she turns a corner to find a large political demonstration blocking the street of the Gugulethu Township she was in. Her car is quickly blocked from moving, she is dragged from the car and stoned to death by the very people she had come to help. Do you remember hearing about this in the news, nearly two decades ago?

Four young black men of the 300+ people present that day are convicted and sentenced to 18 years in jail, but they are released from jail 13 years early. The girl’s parents fly from the U.S. to attend the release hearing, but do not object. Two of the men request a meeting with the parents, and tell them of their goal to help disadvantaged children in townships like they were from.

The parents are moved to forgive the men, believing it to be apartheid that killed their daughter, not the men who cited the killing as a purely political act. The parents are further moved to help the men to carry on the spirit of their daughter’s work in South Africa, and create a foundation toward that end, giving two of the four men jobs at the foundation.

That is Amy Biehl’s story, and it’s a compelling one.

The four of us boarded a bus on this, our last day in Cape Town, to see what the Amy Biehl Foundation does. Unable to describe it any better, a quote from the packaging of some bracelets they sell as one of myriad ways to raise funds to further their goals:

“The Amy Biehl Foundation (ABF) is a non-profit organization based in Cape Town, South Africa. The foundation reaches out to thousands of children in the Townships through After School programs. The aim is not just to keep the children off the streets and away from all the negative influences (drugs, crime, violence etc), but we are especially focused on giving them that extra necessary education in crucial areas such as HIV/AIDS prevention, reading, computers, greening and environment, music, arts, sports and more. With these programs the children are given the opportunity to show and improve their skills and creative development, which is crucial for their future.”
After buying a few things at their offices in downtown Cape Town where we learned what they did, we continued on to Sigcawu Primary School, one that they support through both academic and after-school programs. The kids were just getting to recess after taking a mathematics test, and they tentatively watched us get a briefing on their vegetable garden endeavor by one of their teachers. The twenty or so of us started to meander around, and I joined Martha (one of the college students also on our Marrakesh trip), as a bunch of kids surrounded her, touching her blonde hair, giggling, saying things we couldn’t understand. I approached a group of four or five older boys, perhaps 11 to 13, and one of them immediately asked me if he could have 5 rand. I told him that I wasn’t there to give him money, but to talk to him, learn about his life here in South Africa. As I told him about SAS, he and another kid walked me around the corner where Tate had just finished playing with some younger kids, perhaps 5 or 6.

The kids were fascinated with Martha's blonde hair!

An apt representation of my feelings about tour buses. However necessary they may be for getting groups of people around, I'm feeling increasingly imprisoned by them.

Siyavuya Maxhama, one of the most compelling kids I've ever met. I'm sure he's not alone.

I took some pictures of some of the kids (with the requisite showing of the LCD screen), and one kid about 12 engaged me, started asking me questions in fairly good English. Siyavuya had a commanding presence for one of so few years; he was thoughtful and well-spoken, very interested in me, my sons, and the U.S. I learned that he was one of four students that were in the running to win a week-long trip to NYC in mid-October, and he was very, very excited about the potential prospect of winning. It must have been some sort of leadership competition, as he expressed his goal of becoming a leader, and he clearly possessed the qualities of one. Siyavuya led me into the gymnasium, where all the desks from the classrooms had been relocated for testing. He showed me a few classrooms, and then expressed interest in meeting Reade and Tate, the latter of which appeared soon thereafter. Reade also showed up to meet him before we had to leave, and I had a feeling of regret, wanting to stay and learn more of this kid, about his life here in Cape Town.

After leaving the school, we continued on for lunch, oddly returning to Mzoli’s, where the four of us had eaten lunch days before. I took a few people of our group through the process of ordering the meat, leading them through the back where the boys had discovered pig heads in the butcher room, back toward the room where the wood-fired indoor BBQs were, then through the back to where our group congregated to eat. One of the guys at the BBQ talked with me, telling me about how much wood they go through, ultimately offering me his Facebook name and email on a piece of paper, hoping I’d ‘friend’ him. Tafadzwa had immigrated from Zimbabwe a year ago, and had been hoping to find work to allow him to continue University, though currently felt stuck being the self-affirmed “quickest BBQ’er in Africa”. Not sure that’s a good thing unless you like your meat rare, but, I digress.

Tafadzwa at the helm of the BBQ at Mzoli's.

Leaving Mzoli’s behind after a fine BBQ lunch of lamb, beef, chicken, and sausage, we continued on a tour through several townships in the area, including the Gugulethu township we were currently in. Gugulethu has become a fairly ‘affluent’ township (if there could be such a thing), and there is even a newish corner ‘shopping mall’, partially owned by the owner of Mzoli’s, which gives you some sort of idea how popular the place is. Many of the homes have fenced parking, some of them have fancy front doors; I saw several carved wood doors, a stainless steel and glass door (didn’t look too ‘homey’, not sure of its origin), and generally a higher level of upkeep in the area. The homes are still quite small, and almost always someone appears home whether it be a brick and stucco home or a plywood and corrugated metal shack, as front doors are almost always open, giving a peek inside. Some places were very well kept inside, nice white walls, perhaps a picture or two on the wall, decent furniture. Others were very spartan; a chair, maybe a small table, a microwave or TV on it. Still others nothing but a dirt floor, perhaps a blanket; it runs the gamut of anything you can imagine, though the vast majority of homes are on the more modest side. The rather ‘fancy’ homes in Gugulethu were most certainly the exception, not the norm.

An image I took for Will, one of the college students, for his class on race and ethnicity.

After what seemed like an eternity driving through several different townships witnessing row upon receding row of wood/metal shacks, we returned to Gugulethu to visit Amy Biehl’s memorial, on a street corner in front of a gas station, people passing by going about their business. Next to her granite cross memorial sits a colorful bench donated by a choir group from L.A. Both memorials are in perfect condition, not defaced in any way, a fitting tribute to her memory.

Molly the Owl at John Pama Public School, Cape Town, South Africa

We continued on to John Pama Public School, where the Amy Biehl Foundation was supporting after-school programs of dance, drama and music. In the courtyard eleven kids were playing music and singing when we arrived, using drums, those big wooden xylophones, with a plethora of different percussion instruments. Most all of the classrooms were full, some little kids learning computer skills in one room, in another some Grade 3-4 kids were coloring pictures. We chose Ms. K Schwane’s 4C class to be the recipient of one of Eric’s Molly the Owl books. One notable difference between here and Ghana is that kids don’t even start learning English in South Africa until Grade 3-4, so few of the kids in the classroom spoke much English. The teacher gave each table of eager-eyed kids a brief synopsis of the story, making sure each time to point out the picture of Eric in the rear of the book. As always, the book was a hit, and Ms. Schwane promised to start reading it to them for their English classes.

We departed the classroom to find a play going on, with many school spectators now watching in addition to the thirty-or-so of us. These teenagers were performing in their native language Xhosa, and it was thus difficult to really grasp what was going on. However, it was easy to understand a few things: there was some sort of court, where apparently someone was convicted of something; a ‘husband’ then came out stumbling drunk, then went home and beat up his wife (oddly, to wild laughter from the audience). Although it’s impossible for me to understand the plot of the play, I do believe that this little snippet gives at least some sort of idea of the realities that many of these children must deal with every day.

A sobering end to our day experiencing a bit about what the Amy Biehl Foundation does.  

When we got back to the MV Explorer, we were lucky enough to immediately attend the Faculty/Staff Reception where we met Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate. Such an amazing person, and what a wonderful opportunity to hear someone like him speak. An hour later we were all crammed into the Union, his talk clearly targeted at the 450 college students in the room. He has a very special way of driving points home, of pointing out how ridiculous physical attributes are when evaluating a person’s nature. I could never do his talk justice by trying to convey what he said, but his primary goal was make sure that the kids know that they can make a difference in the world, that after this voyage, they will make a difference in this world. You could hear a pin drop throughout the entirety of the talk save for the many moments when he made us laugh, most often at our collective selves, silly humans that we are. 

Quite the birthday present for me, and fitting end to our last day in Cape Town!

Yes sir, I too realize that I'm another year older today.

A bit more about the Amy Biehl Foundation is in order. Needless to say, trying to engage the young minds in South Africa after school, when they’d otherwise have nowhere else productive to go, is a noble task. Their particular method of outreach clearly has long-term positive consequences for the kids they target, the value of which cannot be underestimated. We spoke at length with Kevin Chaplin, Managing director of the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust (as well as The South African Ubuntu Foundation), and several of us had some specific ideas for Kevin in regard to ‘getting the word out’ in this day and age of social networking. If you have any interest whatsoever in helping this amazing network of like-minded people working for the benefit of the poorest of South African populations in Cape Town, you can find more by visiting:
or you can email Kevin directly at:
People often come from the U.S. to volunteer, especially college students during the summer, usually spending either one or three months working at the foundation. I can assure you that it would be a rewarding experience for anyone interested in bettering the lives of children who have few or no one to look up to.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

9/27/11: Inverdoorn mini-safari

We had originally intended on doing a three-day safari at the Kapama Reserve near Kruger National Park (have you seen the recent YouTube sensation ‘Battle at Kruger’, lions battling crocodiles for a young wildebeest?), but as the price continued to climb toward $8k for the four of us, we abandoned the ludicrous idea in favor of a one-day mini safari closer to Cape Town. Our 2.5 hour drive in the nicest tour bus to date (bathroom and all!) progressed through the seemingly endless townships of the Cape Flats, then climbed above toward a tunnel through a mountain range, the first of many in the Cape Fold region (strikingly similar to the Basin & Range of Nevada). Coming out the other side of this first tunnel we immediately saw a family of baboons along the highway, the mother repeatedly pushing one of the babies off the asphalt back into the dirt, clearly trying to teach him/her about the woes of automobile vs. primate encounters.

Our tour guide for the day was a white South African, a self-described middle-class guy in a country with virtually no middle class, statistically speaking. He was obviously very well-read, and knew minute details about geology, biology, geography, climate, you name it, he described it, though we did need to press him a bit to address the cultural and sociological aspects of South Africa that we were particularly interested in.

As we drove through valley upon valley of vineyards, he addressed the housing issues of the workers in this non-urban area of South Africa, showing us the small structures built for them here and there, dispersed throughout a given winery’s land to allow the laborers to work different fields. Although historically the landowners provided places to live for the laborers (as did slave-owners in the U.S.), once they were too old to work they were released with nothing to their names, left to go find a place to live, presumably in one of the urban areas where there were more people. The ‘Dob’ (not sure of spelling) system that had been in place for decades dictated that what little salary they ‘received’ was split evenly between cash and wine product, an insidious practice leaving the black and coloured populations to drink, rather than eat, what should have been food for them to subsist on. This sickening system was finally abolished in 1995, after which the Land Restitution ‘paybacks’ required the landowners to allow the workers to continue living on premises after they ‘retired’. Some of the owners have started building schools for the children of the laborers, although the quality of the education in these rural areas remains dubious, if nearly non-existent.

Although both the political will and the land is there to try to rectify only some of the wrongs of apartheid through this Land Restitution Act, the funding is not. For example, the homes that I previously described as being slowly built in the District Six area remain largely unoccupied, as for some inane reason the government will not allow loans on the properties. In order to take possession of one of these homes, a person who has presumably been stuck living in a township for decades would have to put up ~35,000 rand in cash (approximately 25% the property’s value). While that might seem like a fairly good deal on paper, the realities of the people displaced by the leveling of District Six dictate the scenario to be wholly untenable, once again, the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum. When people’s names come up in what is essentially a ‘lottery’ system, they routinely have to forfeit their place in line for the home that the government as much as promised them during the initial democratic elections in the 90’s. Now, multiply that by the 1.2 million Capetonians who literally live in shacks. I just can’t fathom how the government see this as a viable long-term solution to the grim housing issues facing the country.

Oh yeah, the safari! We finally arrived at Inverdoorn Reserve, and shortly thereafter boarded our LandRover-like vehicles, holding 12 to 16 persons each. We first visited the cheetahs, five or six of which were camped out on a little hillock, moving around from place to place, seemingly unbothered by our presence. We continued on and saw giraffes, zebra (by the way, it ‘zed’ here, not ‘zee’, and they have no idea what a zee-bra is, but are quite familiar with ‘zeh-bruhs’), oryx, ostrich, some horned things I don’t recall the name of, and one Springbok, fitfully displaying the source of it’s name, running at high speed, with the occasional impressive leap. Our guide took us into the lion’s area, though we were given very specific instructions and warnings, as the big male lion ‘Robbie’ had been rescued from a 3x4m pen a few years ago. Due to his hostile environment, it’s assumed that he could turn on a human in a flash, though our guide said that lions in the wild could be safely approached to ten or so meters. We also saw Cape Buffalo (the most dangerous animal in Africa), and were nearly charged by one of the rhinos while the guide gunned our LandRover into the bush, rapidly leaving the doubltrack ‘road’ in deference to not getting a horn through a quarterpanel. 

Cheetahs amongst wildflowers; our guide said they'd never seen wildflowers like this in this area.

The classic zebra.

The classic giraffe.

A couple of classic Cape Buffalo.

This rhino started to charge, but aborted as our guide swerved the LandRover off the road, trying to avoid some horn-related disaster I'd rather not imagine.

The classic ostrich; there were babies nearby, but the pics weren't too impressive (they blend in quite well).

The classic Oryx.

Can't remember the name of this turtle, but there aren't many of them.

They get sniped by hawks and eagles, taken for a ride to altitude, then dropped to their fate. Apparently birds of prey are lazy when it comes to wrestling turtle meat from the shell.

Robbie the lion, as good a view as I got with a 70-200/4 + 1.4x teleconverter.

They served us a wonderful lunch, then we were off back to the Cape, $7k richer for our rather compressed experience of African wildlife.