Lerato is a bright, pretty girl who consistently wins prizes at school for her academic progress. Like most of her fellow students, however, she comes from a very impoverished background. Her mother is unemployed and Lerato manages because of help from family members who are all in similar circumstances.
Her brother Hendrik, the older of the two, has twice dropped out of school in order to try and supplement the family income with ‘piece jobs’ and is considering doing so again in order to help Lerato and his mother. He is well mannered and takes his responsibilities seriously.
The story of Hendrik and Lerato is a universal one of children in the rural Free State. But they are the ‘lucky’ ones. So many of their acquaintances have been abused. Especially the girls. Alcoholism and family violence is rife among the impoverished. They are children of a lost generation.
But through the Ubuntu Youth project they have regained a feeling of self-worth and it is this which sustains them each day while they walk many kilometres to and from the shacks where they board in order to go to school.
The Ubuntu Youth Project was started by animal activist and author Beatrice Wiltshire on her retirement and subsequent relocation to the Free State. Having decided to put back into society, her dream was to start a permaculture project in order to teach people to grow their own organic food. But her involvement with a local school brought to the fore the great need among the children who lived in impoverished communities.
There were no sports fields. During weekends and school holidays there was nothing to occupy the time of these children who lived in vastly underprivileged circumstances. They were often exposed to a high level of alcoholism in their communities and the resultant abusive practices, not only towards women and children but also towards animals.
There was no hope for the future and this led to a lack of self-esteem among the children, the majority of whom were from broken homes and single parent families. It was a fertile breeding ground indeed for gangs and the shebeen culture as well as criminal elements. Quite clearly, what was needed were good role models and a way of inculcating a sense of self-worth in these leaders of the future.
And so, the Ubuntu Youth project was started three years ago as an experiment at the local school, on an extra mural basis.
The intention was to inculcate a sense of compassion and respect for all life. With violence escalating around the world, social scientists, psychologists and educators have for some time acknowledged that society’s treatment of animals was inseparable from its treatment of people. There was overwhelming evidence that the roots of violence were often embedded in childhood experiences of cruelty to animals.
For the children, the Ubuntu Youth project meant a chance to ‘become someone’.
On joining, they take an oath:
“I promise to show Ubuntu towards all living beings.” There is also an Ubuntu greeting. Through passing the modules and showing good behaviour, those with leadership qualities can work towards becoming Team Leaders. These Team leaders lead discussion groups along the lines of Ubuntu and subscribe to a strict code of practice (don’t do drugs, drink, smoke or engage in anti-social behaviour).
The next goal to reach for is the status of Teacher, when they take over the teaching of new recruits.
After three years, the first batch of five members who have reached teacher status has now come through. This will be followed regularly by new graduates.
The Ubuntu ‘Peace Messengers’ are taking their social responsibilities seriously. Once a month they go out in the informal settlements on a door-to-door basis, improving the lives of domestic animals. They also organize games and competitions for the local youth on alternate Saturday afternoons, thereby living up to their promise to show the Spirit of Ubuntu towards all living beings.
Meanwhile, the light of the single candle which has been lit in the Free State is rapidly spreading, hopefully eventually to other provinces and then to the rest of Africa as part of the African Renaissance.
Lerato now holds her head up high. She is proud to be part of this movement.
People who want to support the Ubuntu Youth project can contact Beatrice Wiltshire at:
cell: 083 4000 262
Postal address: PO Box 17727 Bainsvlei 9338