“Others pull you down because they’re beneath you already.” Fifteen-year-old Melikhaya Mdubeki explains to the group as we walk up the rutted road in Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay. He’s one of the star pupils of the Lalela Project, an arts education programme aimed at children living in extreme poverty. “Oh wow,” says the movie producer out from New York. “I’m gonna remember that.”
Nikki Silver is in Cape Town to produce The Giver, currently being filmed in Cape Town. The movie is based on an award-winning children’s book; the stars include Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift and Jeff Bridges (When Nikki talks about bringing Katie and Suri to see the work that the Lalela Project does, she means that Katie and Suri).
“I don’t want to just be a visitor,” she says. “I want to help.” She is here in Imizamo Yethu – IY for short – with her husband and three sons. Harrison, the eldest, is documenting the Lalela Project for a school project. This is their first visit to an informal settlement, but if they’re disconcerted by it, they don’t give any sign.
Spiderwebs of illegal connections radiate out from every electricity pole; piles of rubbish rot fragrantly in the sun. “You don’t live like this because you have a choice,” Nikki tells her youngest son. She is determined not just to be a visitor, she says. She wants to make a difference.
Like me, she and her family are here through the chance connections. She first heard about the Lalela Project through its founder, Durban-born Andrea Kerzner who now lives in New York. I am with Oliver Nurock, a filmmaker who is deeply involved with the project. His wife Ann and I have become friends through Twitter, and for weeks she has been telling me that I must visit.
The aim of the Lalela Project is to spark creative thinking and awaken the entrepreneurial spirit. “Lalela is a Zulu word that means “to listen”, explains the website, “and it is at the heart of what we do … by listening to children’s individual stories, and our communities’ needs, we can understand their challenges and in turn provide creative solutions.”
Earlier, in a classroom at Sikamva High School, I watch Melikhaya help the younger children with their still life paintings. The classes provide structure and a safe environment for kids. There are also projects, leadership courses and, for the truly promising youngsters, a leg up into a different life. A couple of students are studying radiography at Cape Peninsula University of Technology; others are busy with internships at the One&Only hotel at the V&A Waterfront.
Some of the creations taking shape in the prefab classroom will end up framed in a gallery at the One & Only, but in the mean time, the main purpose is to keep the children occupied and productive, away from the lure of drugs, alcohol and – for the girls – older men with cash. “Airtime and KFC,” Oliver sighs. “That’s the currency.”
In the spirit of sharing, I hold up one of my own Nguni cows painted in lipstick and ask the class to guess how I painted it. Their eyes widen when I tell them that I own 354 lipsticks. During break, there is a handstand competition and dancing games involving clapping and dancing rituals honed through years of practice in the streets. After lunch, the guests arrive. Nikki’s youngest son hands out New York fridge magnets. Some of the kids ask me to photograph them holding their prize. “Are you going to put us on Twitter?” they want to know. “Put us on Twitter!”
To get to IY, we walk under a sighing canopy of pine needles and into a world very different from the tranquil suburban village that surrounds it. I’ve viewed this chaotic patchwork world of sparkling tin roofs from a friend’s house on the other side of the valley, but never imagined I’d actually walk among them.
While Nikki chats to Oliver and Melikhaya, I give Harrison an overview of the languages spoken in South Africa, and explain why the term “coloured” isn’t considered an inappropriate term, as it is in the US. Melikhaya tells us that the community includes immigrants from Nambia, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Nigeria, DRC and Somalia. “This is Africa right here,” he smiles.
Melikhaya really is extraordinary. Every day, he navigates the complexities of living in two completely different worlds, and yet he seems unfazed by it. Born in Bizana in the Eastern Cape, he moved to Cape Town when he was two years old. He attends Hout Bay High and sleeps in a shack. With his model-C accent and air of cheerful self-assurance, he could have come straight out of any ad agency in Sandton. His plan is to study radiology, then become a surgeon. And a pilot. Oh yes, and study at Columbia University.
He visited New York as part of the Lalela Project last year, and his horizons have expanded far beyond what most of those around him can imagine. He says the leadership skills he’s been taught have helped him to deal with people who want to bring him down. “You have to look forward,” he says.
Later, I look up the IMDb description of The Giver. “In a seemingly perfect community, without war, pain, suffering, differences or choice, a young boy is chosen to learn from an elderly man about the true pain and pleasure of the ‘real’ world.”
You don’t get much more real than the world faced by the kids at the Lalela Project. Here there is pain and suffering and differences in abundance. The one thing missing is choice, and that is exactly what the Lalela Project aims to give at least some of these children.
So it’s appropriate that when Katie Holmes does visit Lalela Project four days later, she tweets a picture of herself with Melikhaya and quotes his words. “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” It’s a quote that gets all the way to the Daily Mail.
I have no doubt he will succeed.