This Breed Of Social Activist
working where government refuses to tread
- In Vrygrond township in Cape Town, one organisation is giving hope to a marginalised community whose livelihoods are hanging by a thread
- uSpiked talked to Mymoena Scholtz, the director of Where Rainbows Meet Training and Development, and found a remarkable story of one good woman whose tenacity, courage and passion sparked a movement for social change in the oldest informal settlement in Western Cape
- Where Rainbows Meet Training and Development Foundation runs projects focused on health, agriculture, Education, training and artisanship in the multi-cultural community where 90% of residents don't have jobs
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Harriet Tubman, an American abolitionist and humanitarian.
When Mymoena Scholtz decided to set up a charitable organisation in Vrygrond, one of the oldest informal settlements in South Africa, she had little idea of the patience and hard work required.
Mymoena’s concept was a volunteer training and development outfit, Where Rainbows Meet, which would empower poor residents of Vrygrond and nearby townships through training and job creation.
But getting the organisation off the ground would be a mammoth task: the first problem was getting the over 40,000-strong Vrygrond community to accept and trust her. She was an outsider - in these parts people are wary of outsiders who they view as coming to take advantage of their dire situation and vulnerability. It took Mymoena eight long years to earn their complete trust and respect.
“It was scary, difficult and most of the times frustrating. We had no money and facilities, or knowledge of how to raise funds,” Mymoena, 54, says.
The first year (2007) she worked out of her ramshackle car. The community named the car ‘Titanic’ because it was literally falling apart. From the Titanic she walked the streets of Vrygrond guided by old women who had welcomed her to work in the community. She and her colleague, Michael Mjonono, would meet with ‘clients’ in the Titanic and offer advice on various issues affecting them. In the afternoons Michael would teach the youth performing arts.
Today Where Rainbows Meet Training and Development Foundation is fully established and thriving. Mymoena and her team of permanent staff and volunteers run projects focused on health and nutrition, sewing, beading, gardening, life skills training and early childhood education.
“Our goal is to invest in and develop our people. I want people, especially the women and children, to have pride; to realise and understand that they are worthy and hold a lot of potential.”
Government is on the other side
It is raining when I arrive at the offices of Where Rainbows Meet to chat with Mymoena. She looks up at the skies. Worry creases her face: “Winter is coming. It’s the beginning of a dreaded time here. The shacks will soon become inhabitable,” she says.
On the street, the wind blows litter into puddles causing pollution. There is limited service delivery here.
Even though it’s a school day, tens of children and youth loiter in the streets. Loud music pumps out of some of the small businesses operating out of shipping containers. It is a babel of tongues - there are Afrikaans and Xhosa speakers and the various languages spoken by refugees.
Vrygrond is located near the False Bay seaboard, about 32 kilometres from Cape Town Central Business District. The township has a turbulent history initially due to political pressures imposed by apartheid laws. Presently the area and the surroundings are very volatile - the result of social and economic exclusion. The living conditions are horrifying. Heat, dust and haze rule in summer. In winter there is mud, unbearable cold and gales. Added to that is the despair, frustration, unemployment, poverty and violence.
The shacks and matchbox RDP houses contain criminals, delinquents, drug users and alcoholics. Over the years drugs-related gang wars have claimed many lives. But the majority of people soldier on with strength, adapting self-reliance measures in seemingly insurmountable circumstances.
“Their tenacity is incomprehensible to the outsider... I see pain and suffering every day. Our government does not know exactly what is happening here. The government is on the other side and we are here,” says Mymoena.
“I worry most about the children, they should not grow up thinking that violence is the norm, ” she says.
The woe circumstances motivate Mymoena to work harder to bring positive changes in Vrygrond and other informal settlements in South Peninsula such as Overcome Heights and Hillview.
Grooming a social activist
50 years ago District Six was declared a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act of 1950. More than 60,000 people of colour were forced to leave their homes and move to Cape Flats, some few kilometres away. Grassy Park is one of the suburbs on the Cape Flats created by the apartheid government. It is there where Mymoena grew up with 26 siblings in a polygamous family.
“It was very difficult for families like ours. My mother was a domestic worker and my father owned a panel beating business. When the boycotting started, my parents thought I should rather stay at home and manage the house. I was 16 years old.”
Her turning point came in 1994. At 32, she had been married with one child. But, she felt bereft.
“I just decided this is not the life for me. I needed to do something with my life, to add value to my life,” she says.
Her quest took her to New World Foundation, a community development and training organisation that operates in the Cape Flats. She trained as a life skills facilitator and eventually got employed by the foundation. Her hunger for knowledge led her to take up several courses such as governance, management, adult education, social auxiliary work and conflict resolution.
Mymoena’s work at New World Foundation often took her to Vrygrond where she conducted training, but she was deeply unsatisfied.
“Doing the training and going back to my office was not really helping in any way. I felt something was missing. I always thought of training as giving someone a toy but not really teaching him or her how to play with the toy. I wanted to get closer to the people,” she says.
So in 2007 she resigned from her job at New World Foundation to start Where Rainbows Meet. To operate effectively the organisation needed a bank account.
“I only had R192 in my personal account, and Standard Bank needed a deposit of R190 to open an account. So I withdrew the money, which was meant for buying food for my family, and opened the Rainbows account,” says Mymoena.
She soon realised it would take more than passion and a clear vision of the project to court and nurture financiers and supporters.
“The first business owner that we met said he wasn’t going to give us money. I said all we wanted was support, in whichever form, so he gave us eight drums.”
In Africa, drums hold deep and symbolic meaning. The sound of many drums pounding together can be used to stir up emotions - to inspire excitement and passion.
“We would march from street to street hitting the drums, calling out: ‘Wake up Vrygrond. Wake up children. We are here to call you to Rainbows’. Eight years later we are still using the drums to rally residents, and to create music.”
After the donation of the drums, goodwill followed. The women of the community, recognising what Where Rainbows Meet was trying to build, offered a rusted shipping container to Mymoena to use as an office.
“Many days Michael and I sat in the container without food, water and electricity. We were contented helping the community,” she says.
In mid-2007, a benefactor who liked their work installed electricity.
“Once again the question put to us by a potential donor was, ‘What are your needs? We are not willing to give you money, but we will support you’. The donors of electricity and drums (Michael Frost of Frost International and Tony van Ryneveld of Rynhealth Trust) are now regular financial contributors. We eventually gained their trust,” she says.
It is not easy to work in Vrygrond, she says. There are a lot of politics, challenges and frustrations.
“Sustainable funding for all the projects is elusive. It is a big worry as our survival and expansion depends on it. It is very challenging to get businesses in South Africa to support us. We send out thousands of proposals and the response is always the same: ‘we know you are doing great work, but...’ This is not what we want to hear. It will be sad if the funding we want comes from the international community, and not from our country.”
Quid pro quo model
Where Rainbows Meet runs several projects including Early Childhood Development Centre, Youth Development, Health and Nutrition Centre, Women’s Income Generating Programme and Life Skills, Computer and Business Training Programmes.
“Our first project was a feeding scheme, which involved handing out food parcels. I quickly realised the culture of handouts is flawed. We weren’t teaching the community anything by giving handouts. So we changed the model and created a nutrition and health programme in liaison with clinics and hospitals,” says Mymoena.
Where Rainbows Meet approach is, ‘if you want to earn, you have to learn’. People come into the organisation’s office to learn or give a service in exchange for a meal and a stipend.
Through the feeding scheme, Mymoena discovered there were people with sewing, beading and baking skills. All they needed was an opportunity to use those skills. The beading and sewing workshop located within the organisation’s premises has a capacity of 25 and is one of the two projects with strong funding.
The products made by the women are sold locally and internationally and the profits ploughed back into the project. Another steady source of income comes from contracts from clothing companies. The organisation also finds work opportunities for qualified machinists and bead crafters, ensuring the pipeline of skilled workers is grown through new apprentices.
The Selwyn Early Childhood Education Centre is one of the projects close to Mymoena’s heart. The centre, which has over 50 children, started because of a little boy called Selwyn.
“Selwyn roamed the streets trying to provide for his younger brother. He would come and play in our office, sometimes the whole day. One day he showed up with six of his friends. I realised we weren’t teaching them anything, so we trained dropout youth on leadership and activity management and put them to work with the children.
“Government must re-think the handout model. For instance, rather give a starter-pack instead of a social grant because we have drug addicts who misuse the money meant for kids,” she says.
The Advice Office is the core of the Organisation’s work. It is the first point of contact with troubled community members. An average of 30 people – majority of whom are women - visit the office daily seeking guidance and support on issues ranging from child abuse, drugs and alcohol abuse to neglect, domestic violence, unemployment and poverty. Around 40% of the 7800 people per year who step into the Advice Office end up participating in the foundation’s projects.
“The unemployment rate in this community is up to 90%. People here are angry and frustrated because they feel abandoned. The disparity in this country is increasing. The rich and the powerful have forgotten our struggles and the lessons of apartheid. Today’s barriers are in form of individuals breaking each other down. I want integrity, honesty, accountability and fairness from our leaders. As an organisation, we are affected, people out there are asking questions (about the political leadership) for which we don’t have answers.”
“I don’t believe we need to destroy our country through violence. We don’t need leaders who advocate for violence because such leaders are bad examples to children and impressionable youth. We teach people how to communicate - how to stand up in a crowd with confidence and positivity and say to a perpetrator: ‘listen, this is not right.’ It takes one good leader to engage and steer constructive dialogue,” says Mymoena.
I asked her if the non-violence message is getting through in Vrygrond.
“Yes. But I am worried about the upcoming (municipal) elections. Politicians are firing up and stirring the community. There are sinister talks and simmering anger waiting to erupt. I made it clear to the community leaders Where Rainbows Meet won’t support anyone who stands for violence. We are teaching alternative and peaceful ways through which community members can express themselves with dignity.”
“I want a better and brighter South Africa with equal opportunities for all. We are all South Africans, and it is time to remove the race question from official forms. We want to see pride in each community.
The success of Where Rainbow Meets came at great personal cost for Mymoena.
“I put a lot of energy in starting the foundation and I neglected my family. My four children suffered because they didn’t know what it was like to lack food or school fees. Two of the children were in high school and I couldn’t even pay their high school fees, so I applied for bursaries at the African Scholars Fund. But they have made it and are very supportive,” she says.
“The dedication of the staff and local and international volunteers is overwhelming. My heart is filled with peace. This is my reward. The journey of the Rainbow dreams continues with us fighting hard against inequality and creating job opportunities in order to eradicate poverty. I want a better and brighter South Africa with equal opportunities for all.”