Educating Kids in a Township in Africa - an Interview with Liezl Mathews
I met Liezl Mathews six years ago when I came to volunteer in Hangberg, South Africa. Today I interview her about life in a township and what it's truly like to fight the odds.
Hangberg, looking at it from the impressive Chapman’s Peak Drive, looks like the ideal place for a home with epic views. Nestled beneath Sentinel Mountain, Hangberg has the ocean stretching out in front of it and a lush valley to the right of it. It looks like something out of a dream.
Hangberg is a mainly Cape colored community. It originated from the fishermen and fish factory workers that once upon a time lived there, in houses provided by the government. Today there are many more buildings provided by the government, as well as many other houses and shacks people in the community have built. The fish factory also remains and smells exactly like you’d expect a fish factory to smell like. Various government subsidies still has not led to them buying a proper filter for their chimneys and the population of Hangberg and Hout Bay at large suffers as a result.
Thankfully fish brings other things than bad smells. The population of Hout Bay takes great pride in its beautiful harbor, its colorful fleet of fishing boats and its legendary indoor harbor market.
Before I get further, I should also mention that referring to people as “colored” in certain countries around the world is seen as derogatory, in South Africa, it’s the opposite. The colored communities became proud of the term after apartheid fell and saying you’re colored is no different form saying you’re Mexican, Latino, or European. The Cape coloreds actually have a mixed ancestry from Africa, Europe and Asia, which has led to their distinct, often beautiful, features.
I first visited Hangberg back in 2012, when I arrived as a volunteer for a day rehab center. I remember the director welcoming me with stories about mothers who drank enough to damage their babies so they could get disability grants, other mothers throwing babies from unexpected pregnancies in rubbish bins and problems with drugs, including heroin, at the local primary school. He thought I could help with all that. Give people hope. Work with prevention and recovery. I was very enthusiastic and felt touched by his faith in me — I was inspired — but I was also completely overwhelmed and clueless.
How do you help an ailing community? Why do people turn to drugs? How do you shift unemployment? What does it take to prevent substance misuse?
All those are questions I’ve pondered many times over the years I’ve now spent working and raising kids in Hangberg. I’ve met murderers, thieves, cancer and HIV victims, addicts, recovering addicts, gang members, rape victims…but I also met Liezl Mathews.
On one of my first visits to Hangberg, the people at the rehab center took me to a neighboring crèche (then temporarily hosted in a church), where the children of the clients at the rehab center were looked after. As the two organizations collaborated, Liezl demanded (in a way only Liezl can) that I should be with her twice a week.
That was the start of a long, beautiful and often demanding friendship.
I ended up spending most of my time at Little Angels and after my year of volunteer work came to an end, I stayed in South Africa to be able to continue helping the children I’d started mentoring. Probably I also stayed because Liezl loved me to pieces and believed in me.
Over the years, Liezl and I have gone on both wild goose chases and successful missions to help children and adults in Hangberg. We’ve shared laughter, tears and lots of challenges. We’ve fucked up and fucked it right. We’ve fallen apart and stitched each other back together. We’ve dealt with more misery than I’d like to wish upon anyone and walked into more walls than I recommend as healthy, but we’ve also seen more joy and gratitude than most people get to experience. And while we sometimes took on so much we sunk like stones, after six years together, we’ve learnt to let go of the deadweights and swim. We so-to-speak tried to run before we could walk, became greatly injured in the process, but picked ourselves up and learnt to walk with the intent to soon start jogging.
When I arrived, Little Angels was moving their sheds to a new plot of land, which is why we were in the church. On the new plot of land, we had two sheds. No running water inside, only one tap outside. No electricity or indoors toilets, only portable toilets. But we had passion. We had love. And we had a vision, that one day, Little Angels would grow. And it did. But not until the walls and the floor fell in…
Liezl set up Little Angels on the 7th of February in 2011. It was set up in her own home as a playgroup, after she found one of her own kids playing with tik (crystal meth) in the streets. The kids thought it was sugar. It would have burned a hole in their mouths/stomachs if they’d consumed it. She decided it was time to get kids off the streets. Especially as she’d made a promise to her dying sister that she’d take care of her children and grandchildren. So she did.
I decided to interview Liezl to share with the world, a little bit more about the wonderful woman I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, working with, fighting with, crying with and laughing with for over six years now.
Tell me a bit about Hangberg. In three sentences (Liezl never sticks to three sentences).
Hangberg is a fisherman’s village where we have an epidemic of drug abuse lately. We also have a lot of volunteers coming from abroad, esp. to Little Angels. The change they bring is phenomenal. It’s as if they set up a network as they go home and share their story with the people who they know, who often decide to pitch in and help.
Hangberg needs a lot of education. At the moment we are uneducated with social things, like drugs. Unemployment, poverty and teenage pregnancies are all present. Kids drop out of school. There are also young people who work hard to become successful. Hangberg has a good side as well, where young people strive to become something in life. It’s tough though, as a lot of people are single parents and can’t afford to send their kids to university. If they are to go, they need scholarships, which means they need to do very well in school.
What are the problems your community faces?
There’s a lot of abuse that people don’t know about [in the home].
People are very unhappy about the fact that many young people are unsuccessful [i.e. unemployed, engaged in drugs, crime, or have a bad attitude, etc.], maybe because they have no father figure. [There are a lot of single moms in Hangberg.]
Drugs and alcohol.
Children calling out for help in different ways. The only schools are Sentinel Primary and Hout Bay High. Teachers are facing a lot of difficulty at the moment as a lot of the kids come from very bad environments. Kids are rude, hungry, don’t have proper shoes and there are a lot of bullies. Of course there is a lot of violence as young people try to stand up for themselves and then it becomes bad. [In the past few years] a lot of young people got stabbed, some killed [and] guns [were sometimes involved] too. People are afraid to speak up afterwards, even if they saw it happening, as they are afraid the police will tell [the community] they’re the ones who spoke up.
Tell me about one of the current kids at Little Angels who has an interesting story?
There is a little girl who has no fingers, or toes, on her right hand and foot respectively. She came to us at two-and-a-half-years-old. We helped her to really become independent. Her parents didn’t know that she would one day be able to write her name. As she was right-handed, she learnt to put the pen between the little piece of thumb she has and a flap of skin. She learnt to draw and write and surprised us all. Especially as she was accepted to Disa, [a good school in Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay].
The other one who has impressed me is a little boy. He was drifting around in Imizamo Yethu [the other township in Hout Bay]. No one wanted to take [care of] him because his family couldn’t pay the school fees [but he was old enough to be in school]. His mom had passed away, so his grandma was looking after him.
I saw someone reach out to [the community of Hout Bay to] see if someone could look after him. I decided to accept him at Little Angels. He was always dirty as he had no clothes, no money. [The grandma’s pension wasn’t enough to look after the children.] I found a lady who bought him clothes and shoes.
While at Little Angles, he thrived and learnt to write his own name. Went onto going to school, even though he was a bit older than the other kids. I can say that we brought a lot of change in his life. He was school ready. He’s good now. I hope he will finish school.
Then there was Chris [I think Liezl started talking about him, because she knows I loved him when he was at Little Angels — I’d always come in and cheer him up on days when he was in a bad mood and had tantrums. Chris was a child who had some quite severe disabilities]. He was non-verbal. He stood out in the classroom for trying to help and really Chris can do anything. People used to be afraid of his face. He’d hide away. We taught kids to accept him. People used to be afraid of his anger as well and no crèche would have him. But he did well with us and went onto a school for kids with special needs.
How do you see racism playing out in SA? It’s easy to think it’s apartheid and the only racism is whites who dislike any other color/nation, but how does it play out now? From my experience, that’s not what it’s like.
I don’t see racism [that way] at all because the people who come to Little Angels, the white people, fall in love with black and colored children. I almost never met the racists. We had some problems with white people in the past and it was bad, because they came and took pictures to raise funds, then kept the funds [but that wasn’t necessarily racism, as much as feeding on the vulnerable].
These days, working closely with white people, they only show me their best sides. A lot of people who came to volunteer at Little Angels have come back to visit again.
If there’s a fire or crisis, white people are there to help. There will always be racism, but most people aren’t racist. People want to bring change.
We have a lot of black people who still hate white people and colored people who hate white people, on the other hand.
What do you think are the hardest things with running Little Angels?
Firstly, it is space. We are always sitting with a huge amount of children we can’t take in. We have 94 children on the waiting list.
Secondly, to get funding from our government is a big thing because our government has rules. You need to have certain things in place [and without funds, that’s difficult].
Funding for proper food is also a big issue. We want to serve more nutritious foods.
A proper wage for teachers who are working so hard is still lacking.
We need proper equipment for outdoor play. A good play area. To make children comfortable.
Sometimes, for the kids who go through a lot [i.e. they don’t have resources at home], we need toiletries, nappies, raincoats, boots — some of them don’t have the proper stuff.
For aftercare children an extra room [we are trying to launch an after-school program but have never had both the space and the funds for it]. Educational toys. A computer or two, for the kids to learn to use them.
A good wage for me. Sometimes I receive nothing and it’s quite depressing to work hard and nothing is happening.
What fuels you to keep going?
I would say me and you have the same feeling with children. To see them smile and see how much change we can bring them. Some kids will be labelled because of their parents, but they didn’t choose them. [We can help them.]
When I started little Angels it was hectic. But because of you standing by me, we’re still here. One day we will get there [referring to that lofty point in time when actually everyone will be paid and we’ll have the resources to do what we want and bring more change to more children and youth].
We can’t change everyone’s life, but we can change one child’s life. And believe me if that child’s life changes, it changes the family’s life.
Little Angels is my breath. I won’t survive without the little angels, believe me.
Tell me the story again about the woman who had HIV and insisted her child bite everyone.
Many years ago a friend of mine, got HIV and it was quite sad. She was affected by a guy [who she wasn’t aware had HIV] and when she found out she was HIV positive, she was very distracted. She was very young. Met another guy and she didn’t tell him [she had HIV]. Fell pregnant and had a little girl. As the child grew up, she kept telling the child to bite whenever anyone upset her, because no one cares. [She told me:] You know what Liezl, I’m so, so cross, why must me and my daughter die alone? They don’t care about me and my life. So if anyone does anything to my child, she must bite them and infect them.
Maybe she didn’t have enough counselling, so I spoke to her [Liezl is trained in HIV education]. Passed away a few years later. But before she died, she stood up in a church and told everyone that she had HIV. She also spoke to another woman who was suffering and didn’t dare tell anyone. That was the cherry on the cake for me [that I helped change her life and she went onto chasing other people’s lives].
For our people in Hangberg, still today, stigma is one of the greatest fears. People will make you feel so bad. People aren’t educated. People don’t know the meaning [of HIV]. People don’t understand you can lead a normal life. [They] need education. Most young people don’t know they don’t need to die from HIV. They also don’t know the risk of getting it. If we can bring people on board to speak about it; if people would know more they’d know the risk [but also that they can lead a normal life with HIV].
Drug addicts sleep around. It’s getting worse. It’s actually spreading right now.
What is the thing you did that inspired you the most? One story that really empowered you when helping others?
I would say it was a few years before I started Little Angels. I was working with young people and we also had family members on drugs. I [decided I was] gonna reach out to young people and I was gonna try to help them. I was working with a social worked named Sonia and I helped so many people get into a rehab center. I started the feeding project and tried to feed people who are really vulnerable. I [then knew] the kids would have something in their stomachs. When I look at a lot of the young people today, I can see it really changed their lives. I’m not sorry for going through so much in the past few years — if I look at how many kids are brilliant in school today I can see I’m proud of myself and of them. A role model to many young people, without me even knowing [sometimes].
So many things.
What do you think strikes volunteers the most when they come over?
A lot of volunteers tell me they see so many of the kids have a broken toy. Fighting for a broken toy. [The volunteers themselves see that they] want more and more [yet aren’t satisfied]. [Then they] see that the kids are happy with everything they’re getting. They [also] see how little the teachers are getting even though they are doing their best. A lot of [the volunteers] fall in love with us and the kids. Some come back every year, or every second year.
What do you think are the pillars for change in South Africa? What are things that truly make an impact?
Our government needs to change their structure. They need to understand that at the moment unemployment is the biggest issue as that’s why so many young people get on drugs and do vandalism and break-ins. Young people drop out of school if they can steal — i.e. poach fish from the sea and can bring proper food on the table. If our government can bring in more jobs and help young people to find themselves [things will change].
Social development, upliftment and bringing change. [If this could take place in] black and colored communities, a lot of things will change.
What have you learnt from your trips abroad?
The first time in 2017, I was on a flight and I was so nervous. On a plane alone. And when I came to this foreign country, I learnt that there is so much more outside of Hout Bay and South Africa; so much to see.
[It was] so nice to see people were friendly, even if they didn’t know you. Could pick up you were foreign.
[What struck me was that there was] no stuff on the ground. [It’s] clean in Holland.
Houses can be so warm. (In South Africa most houses don’t have indoor heating and it gets really cold in winter.)
So many cried when I started talking to them; the passion, the heart the warmness. Different from my community. I would love to go and meet different [nationalities] and tell the story about where I started, who I am and how many children I’m affecting in positive ways. Holland is a very rich country and [the people there] were shocked to hear my story. Amazing experience to go and tell [my story to] people around the world.
[What I also tell the youth and people here when I came back is that] no matter who you are, or where you came from, the sky is not the limit and you can go anywhere and become anything you want in life. If I could go abroad and meet the most amazing people, nothing can keep them [the youth in Hangberg] back from doing the same. And if they tell themselves they want to reach for the sky they must do it. The young people [in Holland] are so positive. They don’t have kids at an early age — all the kids [there] went to college or university. That didn’t mean they’re rich, they have just been raised [to] become independent and look after themselves. [They have their] own houses, [they are] stable, no matter where they come from.
If you want to find out more about Liezl, read stories from Little Angels, or contact us, please check out our website: www.littleangelsincapetown.wordpress.com It needs an update and I’ll get around to that eventually…