Three Steps Forward

Janet at Percy Mdala High School

Janet’s study groups are thriving, with attendance at all-time highs. After-school tutoring includes English, math, and science from Monday to Thursday, and university planning sessions on Fridays.

Penny at Percy Mdala High School

Penny N, our Canadian friend, devotes 2 days a week to Janet’s study groups during her annual stay in South Africa. Penny’s role continues to expand each year and she has become a valuable resource and colleague to Janet.

Penny at Percy Mdala High School

With Janet and Penny working together, the Percy Mdala study group has expanded to include 15 learners. Noticeably absent are Ntokozo, Sibongakonke, and Khanyisa, each of whom completed high school in 2018 and commenced university 1 month ago!

Don (far right) with the guys – January 2019.

Six weeks ago our friend, Kurt (Khayamandi Foundation board member), visited Knysna from America. Accompanying Kurt was a friend and business colleague, Don S, whose donations to Khayamandi directly benefit a young man we have known since grade 11 and who completes his undergraduate university degree in 2019.

Don (rear-centre) with the guys – January 2019.

This was Don’s first trip to the African continent. While in Knysna, Jim toured Don through the former townships and introduced him to members of 2 of the 5 groups who signed the December 2018 Peace Agreement. As the boys guided Don through their community, they were able to chat.

Jim with the guys (photo by Don) – January 2019.

Now that we have peace, a void has been created. The time previously devoted to fighting needs to be filled and the boys helped convince Don that soccer could be a healthy part of the solution. Discussions were initiated with a soccer coach Jim met in November and a proposal was submitted to Don. Long story short…Don generously provided the necessary funding. The coach has been retained and 2-3 boys from each of 5 groups have been selected to attend an upcoming soccer clinic designed to launch the program.

Coop meeting students on Day 1 of the Basic Carpentry Skills program – February 1, 2019.

Our friend Coop is from America and spends 3 months each year in South Africa. Coop runs a basic carpentry skills program on 9 consecutive Fridays for boys 15-21 years of age, most of whom ceased attending school in grades 7 or 8. This year, 8 of the 15 boys are members of the groups who signed the December Peace Agreement. Coop is being assisted again this year by our Canadian friend, Don C.

Coop instructing the 2018 class.

Jim recruits the students during November-December, and Coop and Don develop the program and provide the training. Coop and Don deliver an outstanding program, and the young guys absolutely love it. Breakfast and lunch are included, which means ample quantities of fresh food personally prepared by Coop and Don!

Three steps forward…Much has been accomplished, but not all is positive.

Sadly, the 17 year-old boy in the above photo was stabbed and killed on February 3, 2019. His death was not gang-related, hence the Peace Agreement was not compromised. Junior, as he was known to his many friends, is fondly remembered and will not be forgotten.

February 19, 2019

Peace prevails, but there was a hiccup. 

Earlier this week, there was an altercation between a lone boy from one group and 8 boys from another. The single boy apparently did not want to give way to 8 boys walking abreast towards him. The first time, the 8 boys parted and let him pass. Later the same day, the single boy held his ground and pushed 1 of the 8 to the side. The 8 guys beat him.

The next day, the single boy gathered some of his friends and initiated a revenge fight against the 8. One positive aspect is that neither fight involved knives.

February 19, 2019

The day after the revenge fight both groups of boys were ready to talk and wanted to restore peace. Jim drove the 4 boys responsible for the revenge fight to the hangout of the group of 8, and there we met with approximately 20 of their members.

The atmosphere was initially tense, but slowly progress was made. These photos depict the process as it unfolded, which eventually resulted in handshakes, smiles, and laughter. Peace was restored, which means safer streets, safer schools, and healthier communities.

February 19, 2019

February 19, 2019

February 19, 2019

February 19, 2019

Thank you for your readership and continued support, 

Janet and Jim

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Peace Update

January 17 2019

We still have peace. At least as of 5pm yesterday.

Almost 5 weeks have elapsed since the fifth group of boys signed the Peace Agreement. Although there has been one fight involving two groups, the culprit was quick to assume responsibility for his actions. The boy agreed to accompany Jim to the room where the other group hangs out and, once Jim laid the groundwork to ensure the boy’s safety, he entered, apologized, and touched thumbs with each guy in the room. Very impressive.

High school classes resumed on January 9th, and a few boys who ceased attending school last year due to the fighting have returned. Close monitoring of each groups’ activities inside and outside of school remains a priority, along with one-on-one meetings to develop plans for individual boys.

Janet’s favourite boy “Clarke”.

Janet’s boys who completed high school in 2018 and now commence university in February are busy preparing for their departures to Cape Town and elsewhere. One of Janet’s most dedicated students (Khanyisa) attained the top marks in his grade 12 graduating class! More on Khanyisa and the other university-bound graduates in our next blog post.

Janet and Jim

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Peace Agreement

Over a 9 day period in December, a Peace Agreement was signed by 5 youth gangs. Each group is comprised of approximately 15 boys between 15 and 20 years of age, living in 4 geographic areas or Locations (former townships). Much of Jim’s time since returning to South Africa has been devoted to establishing relationships with the members of each group, and building on those relationships to facilitate a path to peace.

The process included face-to-face meetings between a few boys from each group, such that the boys could hear firsthand that their enemies wanted peace. Three meetings were at a neutral site selected by Jim, and one was at the police station with 3 officers in attendance. Only in the presence of police did the latter group feel sufficiently safe to attend without weapons.

Gangsterism is a huge problem in South Africa. Any reference to gangs, including youth gangs, can understandably elicit a negative reaction from many individuals. While no form of aggression or criminal activity should be condoned, it is important to differentiate between gangsterism with the purpose of criminal activity (e.g. illicit drug trade), and youth gangs fighting over territorial disputes (turf), girls, or seeking revenge for having been stabbed in the past.

For the purpose of this blog post, the term youth gangs shall be used to describe the category of gang involvement which does not include criminal activity as its purpose. For obvious reasons, none of the boys personal or gang names will be mentioned in this post.

We understand if you are wondering how our stated purpose in South Africa would include gang-involved youth. Aside from benefiting the boys who are directly involved, peace between fighting gangs greatly enhances safety for school teachers, students who are not gang-involved, and the community at large.

Weapons seized from 5 students, prior to the Peace Agreement being signed.

While many fights occur away from school where the boys live, some stabbings also occur on school premises or immediately outside the school gate. Knowing that gang-involved students may bring weapons to school and that a fight could occur during or after school hours poses an ongoing distraction to students and teachers alike. Enemy gangs can also target the younger siblings of gang-involved youth, as they provide an indirect means of punishing your enemy.

Much has been written about why boys and men join gangs, and some of that research has been referenced and quoted in previous blog posts. With youth gangs, the motivation often stems from perceived necessity; namely the belief that one is safer belonging to a gang, carrying a knife or weapon, and walking to/from school with “your crew” to protect against the risk of attack from enemies.

Living conditions for some…

While it is true that some youth gang members are involved in crime against innocent individuals, such as robbing people on the street or stealing from homes and businesses, we would contend that the majority of the boys are not involved in these types of crimes. Drug use tends to be the primary reason for those who do steal, in particular crystal methampehtamine (known as “Tik” in South Africa). Most of the the 5-6 boys currently awaiting trial are facing assault charges from having stabbed a member of an enemy gang.

Two groups (3 members from each) negotiating towards peace. The boys agreed to come unarmed and were driven to the meeting site by Jim.

Shortly after a Truce was signed in April 2015 between 3 youth gangs (different gangs than the 5 who signed the December 2018 Peace Agreement), one of the leaders said to Jim: “you trusted us, so we trusted you”.

If we wait to be trusted before granting trust, the wait may be long. Particularly with at-risk youth whose trust has been violated in the past.

Former enemies, moments after agreeing to peace. The young man wearing dark glasses was stabbed in 2018 and lost his eye. He receives a prosthetic replacement in 2019.

Individuals and organisations wanting to connect with disenfranchised youth living in circumstances which include poverty, drugs, and violence have a powerful set of tools at their disposal. Open, honest, non-judgemental communication in a manner which reflects affinity and a desire to help is more likely to prove effective than lectures, punishment, or violence.

When combined with kindness, empathy, and humour, don’t be surprised if troubled young people soon feel sufficiently safe to reveal the wrongs they have committed and express a desire for change.

Members of Group 1 and 2 signing the Peace Agreement. The background in the following photos serves as examples of living conditions and the environment.

Groups 1 and 2, moments after signing the Peace Agreement.

Group 3, moments after signing the Peace Agreement.

Group 3 displaying the signed Peace Agreement in the shack where they hang out.

Group 4, moments after signing the Agreement in the shack where one of the boys lives.

As soon as the 5 groups expressed interest in a Peace Agreement, the situation on the streets started to change. Even before the Agreement was signed, Jim started noticing guys walking through their former enemies’ Locations. It was strange to see, and initially concerning. But each gang started to relate similar stories: “I was able to walk to the health clinic for the first time in years”. “It’s okay Jim, we are friends now”.

Representatives of Group 5 signing the Peace Agreement in Jim’s car.

There remains much more to accomplish. Schools re-open January 9th for the first time since the Peace Agreement was signed, meaning increased contact between members of the 5 groups. Opportunities such as vocational skills-training are needed for the boys who dropped out of school or were forced to leave due to fighting or stabbing at school.  Maintaining peace now becomes the priority.

Group 5 displaying the completed Peace Agreement – 10 signatures. Update: Boy on far right – stabbed and died Feb 3, 2019 – unrelated to gangs included in Peace Agreement – RIP.

“If you want to know a person’s true character, observe how he treats those who don’t matter”.  Matshona Dhliwayo

Thank you for your continued interest and support,

Janet and Jim

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