Every once in a while, you meet a person who just has that spark. They emanate a kind of energy, a light in their eyes that shines so brightly you’re a little bit blinded after you meet them. Today, we encountered a young girl in the township of Alexandra who simply dazzled us. Her name is Tshepang and she is a seventh grader at the Ekukhanyisweni Primary School. From the moment she walked up to us in the school parking lot and confidently indentified herself as the “Chairperson of South Africa’s #1 Soul Buddyz Club,” we knew she was a pure force of nature. “She’s vibrant, that one,” her teacher and club facilitator, Ouma Makuwa, whispered to me.
This was our third foray into the slums of “Alex,” as the township north of Joburg is called. We watched goats roaming the streets freely, eating scraps of garbage. Aging houses were being crowded out by squatter’s corrugated metal shacks, each with its own television antenna and wires strung haphazardly from electrical poles. Stalls lined the streets, offering pirated CDs, root vegetables, live chickens and haircuts.
Driving to the elementary school we passed by the notorious Hostel. Now don’t envision some kind of concrete youth hostel you might have bunked at in Europe. This hostel is a block-long brick tenement that looks to be falling down and abandoned, garbage piled on the lawn in front. And yet, hundreds of South Africans live these close quarters.
So entering the school grounds of Ekukhanyisweni Elementary was like stumbling upon an oasis in the Gobi. The school yard was swirling with neat, uniform-clad kids ranging from 6 to 14 years old. Most of the children are being raised by their grandmothers, the principal, Hellen Mabonela, explained. The AIDS epidemic has left 1.9 million AIDS orphans in South Africa, where one or both parents has died, leaving family members, foster care, or orphanages to look after these bright eyed kids. Sometimes teenage mothers have disappeared, leaving their kids to be raised by family members. Here the school tries to fill in the gap, providing meals, school supplies, even taking kids to the clinic when they are sick.
We had come to this elementary school to film the Soul Buddyz Club—the real life version of a television drama series produced by Soul City Institute. Since 1994, this non-profit entertainment company has produced Soul City, on the one nation’s most popular weekly television soap operas. Soul City has entertained South African’s for 19 years, while educating them about issues ranging from domestic violence, alcoholism and of course, HIV/AIDs. The drama proved so popular, it spun off a version for pre-teens, called Soul Buddyz—a tv drama about four pre-teens who form a tight knit club that supports each other through tragedies and triumphs. (Think Glee meets Gossip Girl.)
Teens in South Africa were so captivated they sent hundreds of letters asking for their own real life clubs. The institute complied, and today some 6000 Soul Buddyz Clubs meet in schools across the country. That’s where Tshepang comes in. We discovered her leading warm-ups, taking charge of a presentation on the causes of AIDS, and so full of life and hope we couldn’t help but let her light shine. Take a look:
These 25 kids from the shacktowns of Alex devise their own projects like packaging up food from the cafeteria so kids will have food over the holidays. They have distributed clothes to the neediest among them and held signs on Alex street corners asking their community to stop abusing alcohol. Take a hard look at these courageous kids, because Tshepang says they were so concerned about the eyesore of the Hostel, they decided to go where few adults will tread and clean it up.
No one has told Tshepang that her dreams are bold, so she just keeps achieving them. Next year this 7th grader will leave the well-run Ekukhanyisweni Primary School and enter the unknown of an Alex high school. Her parents can’t afford to send her to one of the better “Model C” schools where her chances of going to college would soar. I hope that if we tell Tshepang’s story, that spark of hers will inspire others to help make her dreams possible.