An Unexpected Journey
By: Chris Saunders | February 25th, 2015
Living in Johannesburg, South Africa, has always had its ups and downs. The main ‘up’ is the people of this city. They are friendly, warm and often inviting. However, the biggest perception of Johannesburg internally and externally is fear, fear of the crime, poverty, and the impending danger of the unknown. This perception has been drawn by the publication of mainly negative press, which somehow always focuses on the down side and fails to give a balanced report. We have a corrupt president, HIV and AIDS is rife, crime is terrible and violent, but inside this chaos there are people finding new ways to solve the problems of our society. Unfortunately the system doesn’t give these people the tools they need, so often leaving them in need of some extra help.
On my journey with Keep a Child Alive, I was given the brief to document some of the programs supported by KCA in South Africa, Uganda and Rwanda. I knew that I wanted to avoid telling the expected story of crying babies and suffering people, and instead speak to the potential of the human spirit and how, when given even the smallest chance, people can lift themselves and do something great. I wanted to tell the story of the people as opposed to the place, because a place should never determine who a person can be, although, unfortunately, this has been the reality for too long.
If I was to share the full story of our journey we would be here all day, so I have highlighted some of the amazing people that I was privileged enough to meet and document.
Before the team from the USA arrived, I was tasked with documenting Ikageng, an organization based in the heart of Soweto, and run by a community hero, Carol Dyantyi. Mum Carol, as she is better known, dedicated her life at a very young age to helping the people of her neighborhood, Orlando Soweto (a township set up by the Apartheid government outside of Johannesburg). She is one of the most dedicated people I have ever had the privilege to meet, and her work has impacted a generation of young people who are now giving back to her organization and community.
Mum Carol sent me off to document some home visits with a young woman who had grown up with Ikageng, Linda Mofokeng. I don’t know the exact details of Linda’s story, but I know she had grown up without her parents, Mum Carol becoming her matriarch from a young age. Linda is now a community leader herself, and while visiting the homes together you could see the powerful difference her presence made. This person understood the people she was working with, she respected them and their scenario, and they in turn allowed her to assist.
On our trip she introduced me to some young people in very difficult situations. For example, young boy of 10 who is the head of his household, living in a donated container home, where his kitchen was adjusted to a lower height so he could cook and clean. And a family of 5 who live in a 10 sqm tin shack with no parents or providers, except for one brother who was looking for a job (with no luck at that point); they all share one bed. The amazing thing was that not once did I feel like these people where hopeless – if anything I felt the opposite. They where empowered, having been taught how to follow their dreams, given support from people like Linda and Mum Carol. They are on their way to a better future. The kids are in school, they have food on the table and the children that were HIV positive are on anti-retroviral care. And they have somewhere to go, and someone to turn to when they need help.
Let’s skip half way across the continent now to Kigali, Rwanda, to Joseph. Let me draw a picture of our first interaction. I was walking up a hill in a rural area with little or no infrastructure, about one hour outside of the city in an overgrown tropical landscape. At the bottom of the hill was a small clinic, and as I walked up a steep path with the team we could hear the faint voices of children. As we entered a small, unlit brick hall, inside was a young man in his early 20’s giving a yoga class to around 40 children between the ages of 5 and 15. They where all completely focused on his downward dog, as they breathed in time with his instruction.
Joseph was an orphan and HIV positive, and as a child he stood little or no chance of survival, but for the help he received from We-Actx for Hope in Kigali, where he is now a professional yoga instructor and an inspiration for many. Instead of vacating his people and country, he stuck around to pass on the knowledge he gained to help other generations of children and young people. Think back to the catastrophic history of Rwanda, and you realise how inspiring it is to see a new generation of young people leading from the ground up, making real change and creating impact without political involvement. Joseph is one of those individuals.
Another moment was on the street outside of Alive Medical Services in Kampala, Uganda. In addition to supplying top medical treatment and testing to anyone for free, AMS also offers a nutrition program for those who can’t provide a balanced diet for themselves, this being imperative for someone on anti-retroviral treatment. Once a week hundreds of bags of supplies are laid out to be collected, and having captured the scenes at the clinic, I decided to position myself at the bottom of the long road that leads to AMS, taking portraits of the different people who were collecting their supplies and fashioning different mechanisms to transport them home. Many have to carry their 10 kg package way out of town and need assistance, some by motorcycle taxi, others by bicycle. Those that live closer, transport their food by foot, putting the immense package on their heads. Thirty portraits later, and an important moment illustrated.
Lastly, to Wentworth, just outside the tropical east coast city of Durban in South Africa, and an incredible individual called Gerard. Gerard was infamous in Wentworth, a poor drug-ridden community. The area is hard to explain, nestled in a picturesque valley surrounding one of South Africa’s biggest oil refineries, a lingering smell of impending disaster nestles over the township, as if at any moment the petroleum-lined smog clouds could ignite. This is where the Blue Roof Clinic is situated and where I met Gerard.
Gerard was a drug addict and alcoholic, doomed to be part of the lost generation. One day he decided, on a whim, to get tested for HIV at the ex-night club, now incredible sanctuary, The Blue Roof Clinic. Despite testing positive for HIV, Gerard found a new level of inspiration interacting with the team at Blue Roof. He began to see a future, as they could see one in him. He started working at the clinic and is now the caretaker of the facility, and an inspiration to the young people there. When he had first arrived, he could hardly walk because of infections in his legs. One year later, he had completed South Africa’s longest Ultra Marathon, The Comrades. Most people who run this race don’t finish – he had proved to himself that he was here to stay!
Gerard is a hero, and the reason why we need to tell the story of how a little support, a generous act made thousands of kilometers away, can really empower individuals to change their lives. That’s all it takes to just give them the chance to prove themselves. Sometimes great people come from the most unexpected of places, and are not what you expect them to be. This trip proved this to me.
Chris Saunders is a South African-born photographer and film-maker, currently residing in Johannesburg. With an extensive career in the advertising and fashion industries, Chris also dedicates time to documentary projects that exercise his visual storytelling skills for good.