Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Into Africa: The Kliptown Youth Program


Our trip leader, Pete Johannsen, is on the board of the Kliptown Youth Program, whose motto is, "From Poverty to Opportunity," which seems perfectly appropriate. Started by a group of young men who grew up in Kliptown, KYP provides tutoring, arts classes, and a sense of community, for some of the youth of Kliptown.

Note: The terms below are the terms that were used during Apartheid and are still used today when describing the past and present.

Let's back up a bit. Under Apartheid, people were removed from their homes and relocated to ethnic townships -- Africans (Bantu) in one, Indians in another, Coloureds (mixed race) in a third. The townships were supposed to be separate, but equal, but in practice were most definitely separate and unequal. Soweto is a large, predominantly (98%+) black township, officially part of Johannesburg, but nearly an hour outside of the city center. Today it is a thriving city, composed of many different neighborhoods. Some are extraordinarily wealthy, while others are devastatingly impoverished. Kliptown is among the most impoverished -- unemployment is at nearly 80%.

KYP helps children succeed in school -- somewhere between 80 and 90% of the KYP students who take their "matrics", the exams that let you graduate high school, pass. Several go on to university. The alumni remain engaged in the program.

As we enter the KYP facility, we are given the most amazing welcome -- children and staff line the walkway and sing enthusiastically as we arrive.

Everyone on our trip had been given paired with a "penpal" from KYP -- mine was Xoli (pronounced Ko-li, with a distinctive Xhosa click that I can pretty much replicate, but it took work), who manages the IT services at KYP. Xoli wasn't around on Monday, so I didn't get a chance to meet him until Wednesday.

Most of the students and staff at KYP speak at least three languages and sometimes four or more. Everyone speaks English. I believe some also speak Afrikaan. The default language of the area is isiZulu. There are also a fair number of folks whose native language is isiXhosa (pronounced click/Cl-oh-za). As South Africa has eleven official languages, I'm willing to bet there are instances of every language in the community. Everyone easily transitions between the different languages -- it is humbling to experience.

Our introduction took place in one of the classrooms, where a few of the students introduced themselves to us, told us how old they were, what they were studying and what jobs they were planning on doing when they graduated. Then, we were treated to a performance of the <a href = "http://dancehistorygumbootdancing.weebly.com/narrative.html">gumboot dancers</a> -- absolutely amazing! The leader of this program is one of the KYP founders, Thando -- a gifted singer, dancer, and actor with more energy, passion, and enthusiasm than any four middle school students, is clearly an inspiration to all who know him!


We met up with our penpals on Wednesday at the Apartheid museum and then together, we all headed back to KYP.
Xoli is 26 and is himself a graduate of KYP. He grew up in Kliptown and for awhile had an apartment outside of Kliptown and was working in finance. However, in his words, at some point he had to choose between money and happiness, and he chose happiness, moved back to Kliptown, and joined the staff of KYP. He has also started a record label and wants to run a restaurant.

 In addition to teaching basic computer literacy and programming to the kids of KYP, he offers computer literacy courses for the adults of Kliptown. If any Microsoft folks are reading this and have access -- they are running Office 2007 at KYP -- I'm sure they would love donations of more recent software! (Although, we should probably make sure that their hardware infrastructure is capable of running newer versions -- they have a computer room with a bunch of PCs, a large collection of XO's, and a new set of 20 chromebooks.)

There were two major activities that afternoon -- an art project and home visits. The art project, led by Meadowbrook teachers Caroline Kurman, Roseanne Beard, and Kerstin Johnson, was an identity project, designed to give the students a chance to get to know each other better in a non-threatening manner. The basic idea is that each of several colors represent different aspects of what helps us create our identity: family, friends, education, interests, gender, culture, and the things we "have". The students were all provided with lots of colored paper, scissors, and glue and asked to create a picture that showed who they were.

It was fascinating to see the pictures emerge -- as I walked around the room the pictures told stories of each student. I'm enclosing some sample pictures and then the "quilt" created by all the images. I encourage you to look carefully at the ensemble of pictures and see if you can guess which colors corresponded to which of the themes mentioned above. (I've put the color key at the bottom of the page.
After the art project, the KYP students who lived nearby took their penpals (and the penpals of other who lived further away) to their homes. I accompanied two groups of students whose KYP students lived close to each other. I'm struggling to find the right words to capture this experience. Suffice it to say that all of us were deeply moved by how little space it takes to make a structure a home. Upon reflection later, practically everyone commented on the importance of positivity over material possession; we all took inspiration from our new friends' attitude and strength.

We spent much of Thursday with our penpals outside of KYP, so that's reported on elsewhere. I'll wrap up with our last day at KYP.


In preparation for the trip, each Meadowbrook student in grades K-5 had selected their favorite book and then purchased a new copy to send with us. Each of those books had a book plate identifying the student who had selected the book. In addition, families donated piles of other books, and yours truly brought a pile of programming books -- HTML, CSS, Javascript, Python, etc. Three of the books I ordered had not arrived when I left, so I'll probably be shipping more books off -- if you have books you think might be appropriate, let me know!

For the book project, Ms. Kurman had photographed each student holding his/her favorite book and turned it into a short video. We took groups of kids to see the video and then let them select a book and wander off to the library to read with our students.

Then it was time for the beginning of the end -- Friday afternoons are arts and sports time -- a bunch of Meadowbrook and KYP students played netball, other students were in dance classes and/or drumming classes. Then everyone gathered around for some group singing,

and this led to an exit, to mirror our entrance -- everyone lined the walkway and sang and clapped and danced as we all walked out with our penpals. Then something truly remarkable happened (and Pete said he'd never seen this happen before): the entire KYP community followed us out to our bus, singing the entire way.

The hugs and tears and waves and high fives and joyous singing are undoubtedly the strongest memory I have of this trip. I don't think there was a dry eye on the bus as we drove away.

Color key

  • Black: Family
  • Purple: Friends
  • Blue: Education
  • Yellow: Culture
  • Green: Interests
  • Red: Gender
  • Orange: Stuff
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