Uncertain future for children’s unconventional aftercare facility

2013-04-30 00:00

WHERE is Jika Joe? We read about it. We know the name. But many Maritzburg residents probably have no idea where it is. Travel along the highway bypassing Maritzburg towards Howick, opposite the Willowton Road factories on the right, and on the left are some sub-economic houses and next to them lies Jika Joe, a collection of informal shelters built with scrap and wood and iron.

The informal settlement at Jika Joe is a tough place to live. The recent fire which raged through it (The Witness readers will remember the dramatic photographs) means that some residents are living in tents. These are not large family-type tents, you must understand, but small two-person camping tents pitched cheek by jowl near the soccer field. In the recent wet and cold weather, with families to care for, this is no fun.

Near to Jika Joe lies one of Maritzburg’s historical curiosities: a cricket pavilion. In 1937, with funds from the Tatham family, a pavilion was built. There is a covered grandstand with tiered seating and changing rooms beneath. In front lies the cricket field. Perhaps in 1937 cricket was played there. In its day, the pavilion would have been a splendid facility. No cricket is played there now. Soccer goal posts at each end of the bumpy field dotted with tufty grass suggest the preferred sport of the people of Jika Joe, although the field is rough and uneven.

The grandstand above the change rooms is unusable. The roof rafters have dry rot and the stand is unsafe and gated off. But the rooms below, with toilets and electricity, are still there, in good order. And in good use.

A month ago, The Witness reported that the municipality plans to spend nearly R1 million on repairing and upgrading the pavilion. On the face of it, this is a strange decision since the very same article reported that another municipal department intends to turn the cricket-soccer field, which the grandstand overlooks, into permanent housing. Why repair the pavilion when the sports field below has been turned into streets and houses?

Perhaps it is another case of the municipality’s left hand not knowing about what the right hand is busy with. Or perhaps there is a strange providential logic — because the change rooms are used every weekday afternoon, not for sport, but for the children of Jika Joe. Upgrading the facilities would be a wonderful contribution towards making the lives of the Jika Joe people a little richer. It would be nice to have a useable soccer field, too, but it is the buildings that matter and not so much as a sports facility, but as a community centre.

Every afternoon the children come. This is one of many projects run by Youth for Christ, with local and foreign volunteers. The children come, most of them, from the shacks of Jika Joe. They crowd into the little change rooms, sitting on plastic chairs. There are always between 60 and 80 of them. Some wear school uniforms, but many are in cast-off clothing in various states of repair. They come with enthusiasm. Under the watchful and caring eye of Nhlaka Gazu from Youth for Christ, they are helped with school work. They are taught life skills. They play games. They have Bible study. They learn songs. They learn guitar. The pavilion is put to good use, although probably not the use that the Tathams of old had expected.

And the children work in the garden. The Eden Kids Trust, working alongside Youth for Christ, has fenced off a plot next to the pavilion. Each child gets a door-sized garden of his or her own to care for. They are given seedlings. They plant, they water, they weed, and when the vegetables have grown, they harvest them and take them home.

But perhaps what is most special is the outreach garden. Here the children have combined to plant up another garden. The vegetables from this garden can be supplied to those even less fortunate than themselves. Here in Jika Joe, in the face of poverty, violence, and all the ills of South Africa, children from the poorest families learn to do something for others.

It’s a happy story for happy children. But will it have a happy ending? Will the municipality pull the pavilion down? And if it does, will it build a proper community centre where the wonderful work can continue? Does anyone know? Does anyone care? To find out more, go to www.edenkids.weebly.com and www.yfc.org.za/index.php/centres/kwazu lu-natal

RON NICOLSON

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