Ride the Bad Timesby Zoë Henry / 01.07.2013
I have this pair of black, sequined pumps. While Lucky Nozisali, a young man who is part of Umthombo’s Surfers Not Street Children programme, is talking about how his parents died in a car crash and he was forced to live on the streets of Durban for half of his life, I’m staring down at my black, sequined pumps. As I listen to his strong South African accent, clearly a little uncomfortable to be standing in a room full of people with a microphone, I notice how the sparkles on my shoes have become soft focus. There are tears in my eyes, and those tears are dripping onto my black, sequined pumps.
Lucky is just one of many people that Tom Hewitt and his wife Bulelwa have helped through their organisation, Umthombo. Together Tom and Bulelwa are committed to changing the lives of street children. “We aim to do this by both getting them off the streets and changing the attitudes of people towards street children”, says Tom. Umthombo rehabilitates and reintegrates street children back into society through several different programmes, including football, arts and crafts and now the Surfers Not Street Children project, which they are promoting on this first-of-a-kind UK tour. Tom has travelled to London with three of the stars from this project: Andile Zulu, Sihle Mbuto and, of course, the aforementioned Lucky. Surfers not Street Children is a global movement that aims to change the way people perceive street children, using surfing as a model for empowering children to move away from street life. But what started out as a programme directed towards female street children has morphed into a predominantly male dominated team of surf stars. Tom addresses this gender inequality with the promise, “We’ll get there.”
The evening begins with the usual hobnobbing that occurs at these types of events. Glasses are topped up and smoked salmon crostinis are eagerly gobbled down, people talk and mingle, elegantly anticipating the next scrumptious round of canapés. Fortunately the pregnant clouds above us have decided not to go into labour just yet, so all this fabulousness is taking place on the rooftop of the Old Mutual building near St. Paul’s Cathedral, overlooking the Thames. When guests are sufficiently hobnobbed and champagne saturated, we are called inside, where everyone shuffles around uncomfortably, positioning themselves against the walls and doors, trying desperately to not be in the way. Eventually Tom and the three surfers are lined up at the front and ready to begin. Tom gives a brief introduction of the organisation before handing the floor over to Sihle, Lucky and Andile.
Each of the young men take a turn to tell their story of how they were abandoned by their parents, whether by death or decision, how they ended up on the streets of Durban and how Umthombo helped them realise that there was more to life. Each story plucks at a different heartstring, and by the time Lucky is talking about the importance of respect, I’ve become a blubbering mess.
Over the last decade, Umthombo has done a lot of incredibe work in the Durban area, a part of South Africa Tom is passionate about. Founded in 1998, it was originally called Durban Street Team. In 2004 it was renamed Umthombo Street Children, and by 2005 it was registered as a non-profit organisation. At one stage there were more than 500 children living on the streets of Durban. Now, thanks to the 24/7 drop-in centre called Safespace, an Umthombo initiative, and other like-minded organisations, there are fewer than 100 kids still living on the streets of Durban. “And thankfully, the police round-ups of street children have also come to an end.” Says Tom emphatically.
What these numbers effectively prove is that what is often viewed as the ‘insurmountable problem’ of street children, a line that features prominently in many Afro-pessimist narratives, is actually something that can be resolved quite quickly and effectively through the considered engagement of organisations like Umthombo. Surfers not Street Children shifts the entire focus back to the individual, inspiring these kids to see their own potential and become role models for other kids, simply by sharing their stories. It’s a powerful vehicle that fosters responsibility, integrity and dignity and offers an entirely more human paradigm for dealing with some of our scariest problems.
I left the presentation with a double dose of hope; for both the future of the country I call home and hope that Surfers Not Street Children raise a shit load of money on their roadshow.
*Learn more about Surfers Not Street Children.