“If I grow up I want to be a pilot or a social worker.”
Twelve year old, Olwethu Mshengu is a pupil at the Steven Davison Primary School in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, South Africa. My own fourteen year old daughter, Emily, had handed down her vivid blue dress to Olwethu, and she wrote a lovely thank you letter, telling Emily about herself. Olwethu’s mother died when she was 4 and her father passed away when she was 8, so Olwethu knows about loss, but surely, in the twenty-first century, no twelve year old should be unsure whether they are going to grow up or not?
And yet, Olwethu’s story is one of hope and her future is bright. There have been huge improvements in the Valley since I first visited as a volunteer with Lionsraw in 2010. That first trip coincided with the World Cup and almost 200 of us watched the football and carried out a number of building projects, including the first classrooms for the Steven Davison Primary School – named after a Lionsraw volunteer.
I vividly remember the haunted, hungry faces of children who were clearly malnourished and suffering desperately. HIV/AIDS was rife, with more than 70% of the population of the Valley infected. Life was chaotic, with children living in mud huts and subject to abuse. There was no school in the Valley at that time and children who wanted to be educated had to trek up a narrow, windy road out of the Valley. Every year, three or four were killed on this road. We met a little lad called Junior, who ran everywhere, smiling, jumping into every photo. Two weeks after we returned, Junior was killed when he ran into a live electric cable, illegally tapping into the overhead mains pylon.
Returning to the Valley last week, the Lionsraw legacy was evident all around. Kids were happy, cheeky and clearly well nourished. I spoke to George Shau who is the Headmaster at both the Steven Davison Primary School and the larger Inchanga Primary School at the top of the Valley. George confirmed that the work done by Lionsraw in the past five years has genuinely saved lives. No child has died walking to school since the new school opened at the bottom of the Valley. Lionsraw pays for every child to have a vitamin-enriched porridge breakfast every school day and this has transformed the children’s health. Good nutrition is essential to ensure that the ART drugs given to control HIV/AIDS are fully effective. It also allows the children to concentrate in class and they are now thriving. The success of the school means that families are settling in the area and the school roll is up to 416 and growing. The new classrooms which we built on this trip will soon be filled.
But as Olwethu’s letter highlights, the work is not yet finished. Unemployment is high and the next challenge is to bridge the gap from Primary School to employment. Almost all children from Inchanga Primary School, at the top of the Valley, go on to High School, although only about 10% graduate. There is no secondary school option for the children at the Steven Davison Primary School in the Valley. Lionsraw are now working with George and other local charities to plan for a Technical Training College in the area, which would be sponsored by local businesses and provide training in trades such as hospitality, baking and welding.
Lionsraw has always been excellent at building such links with local groups. During the build project, we were joined by volunteers from CHEP – a global business making pallets and also from ACT, a local charity which enables volunteers to make a difference in the community around them. George is a member of the Lionsraw South Africa Board and Jono Mazoue who founded ACT has just agreed to become the Chairman of Lionsraw SA. I am very confident that this local team will ensure the ongoing success of the Lionsraw legacy in South Africa.
In 2010, I volunteered with Lionsraw because I thought linking football and helping people was a genius idea. Five years on, I’m still working for Lionsraw, because I can see the long term difference that we’re making. Lionsraw has saved lives in the Valley of a Thousand Hills and it continues to create chances for change for Olwethu and her friends.
If you want to get involved and support the feeding programme, it only costs R30 (£1.50) a month to feed a child each school day. Please contact Ruth Duma (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you are in South Africa or Neil Flint (email@example.com) if you are in the UK. They’ll send you a simple form to fill in and then you’ll be changing lives.
Lionsraw will be going back to do more work in South Africa – probably in 2017. If you like the Lionsraw South Africa page on Facebook, you’ll get all the details, or you can join the global Lionsraw movement at www.lionsraw.org and you’ll get full details of all the work that Lionsraw is doing around the world.