Port Alfred, South Africa. A town like many others. With its township like many others. The perfect example of apartheid with its wealthy “first-class-citizen” suburb for whites, Station Hill for the “second class” coloured residents, and the township for the blacks. Although the only township in Africa that bears the name of the iconic Nelson Mandela, nicknamed Nemato.
Nemato looks like your average South African township. Though most of its 25,000 or so inhabitants enjoy electricity, whether it be the legal way or illegally tapped from the net. Some are fortunate enough to be connected to water via a tap in their backyards along the paved streets. Most of them living by the dirt streets share a tap with another hundred people. Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) houses are solidly built on a small patch of land. 10 square metres, give or take. Well fenced. The majority is merely rickety shacks: an assembly of sheet metal, wood scraps and plastic. And their number keeps increasing as workers get kicked out of the farms as they close down, and converge towards the city. The view can be really nice for a few shacks with the town of Port Alfred in the background and its big villas along the beautiful Kowie River or the seashore that are only a 10-minute walk away. Only 10 minutes away, and at the same time so unreachable… Like in every township insecurity, poor education, unemployment, and even hunger are the daily struggles of its inhabitants. And with this alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex come along to numb it all. Despair. Apathy.
That struck Jan Blom when he arrived from the Netherlands to attend the funerals of his late South African life-partner. Traumatized by his loss, he stayed at his in-laws in the heart of the township. That was fifteen years ago. Jan still lives in Nemato. On his own. In a small government-made matchbox house where he hosts the community centre, with its three computers that he connected to the internet. He hangs a black board in the main room for the after-school maths class he runs in the evening. Two massive cooking pots simmer to feed the kids a proper meal at least once a day.
It took time to get there. First to realize the actual situation in the township: the worst probably being the lack of hope.
It was time to act. Time to get funds. Time to change mentalities. Time to insufflate hope. Time to change a life. One child at a time.
Today, Jan runs Nemato Change a Life (NCaL), a youth empowerment organization. He believes that sports are a good driver, generate positive energies, and can give a chance to youngsters to get out of the township. Their only way to try and make it. Jan selected sports that first of all are not connected to any specific socioeconomic background in South Africa, unlike rugby or cricket associated to the privileged white class. And second of all sports that are small enough so that with a lot of training and drive kids stand a chance to participate in local, national, and even international competitions.
It all started more or less by accident with rowing back in 2006, as it was also Jan’s background. Earlier this year, Odwa, born and raised in Nemato was the first rower to represent the township overseas in a junior competition: he visited London, Oxford, Henley and Eton College in the UK.
Later, Jan got inspired by a boy named Siphamandla who spent a lot of his time making crazy jumps in the street: soon gymnastics with trampoline and tumbling was added. In a year’s time, the first national medals were hanging around the necks of several young kids from Nemato. Since then, every year more medals have been won. National medals leading to international competitions: Zimbabwe, Namibia, New Zealand and even Denmark and Bulgaria for world championships! And more victories: Onke, we are photographing jumping on the trampoline is the 2016 African champion in the 15-16 year old category. And the little boy in the street? He became the first Nemato athlete to ever compete overseas, and the gymnastics head coach and treasurer of NCaL for a few years.
In 2010, netball was added to also attract more girls to Nemato. But netball is a very popular sport in South Africa and Nemato got stuck in local tournaments. There was only one step to take to convert to handball that is after all quite similar and not that popular in South Africa. Within a year, the team was participating at the national level; within three years Lihle was playing in Mauritius at the under 17 beach handball world championships.
And the same story has happened with fencing. Added in 2011, within two years Nemato fencers were participating in the national championships in Cape Town and the young Anoxolo is now ranked nationally.
Surfing is on the way thanks to the support of David Macgregor, the local longboard champion who runs his surf school in Port Alfred. And Jan’s current objective is to add skateboarding soon, also a new Olympic sport.
Participating in these championships is an incredible opportunity for these kids. It takes them out of the township, makes them travel and gain perspective on life. It fuels them with self-esteem, sense of pride and responsibilities. But this is not enough. To ensure these kids can have a future, Jan has added after-school classes, skills development workshops, and career counselling. “It sounds fun, but this is hard work and dedication: kids must maintain an 80% attendance to both the after-school classes and sports trainings to remain members of NCaL” Jan explains. And if the long list of achievements makes it look like it’s all good, every day is hardship: kids drop out of the program and get into drugs, alcohol and crime. Mentalities of adults don’t change as fast as the medals pile up, and it is often that a guardian refuses to sign off to let a kid travel or get his paperwork.
As Jan is taking us from the street in which the fencing and handball training take place to the trampoline area, he describes his new dream: “As a skate park is being closed down in George [a city about 5 hours south-west], we have a great opportunity to buy it back for a very low price. But this is still a lot of money for us, and I have only two weeks to raise 100,000 Rands (6,700€) to get the park, transport it, and install it on the patch of land that has been appointed to us by the municipality.”
Another sport for some other success stories, to keep changing more lives and to give more opportunities. To repeat the story of Athi, one of the first members of the rowing club who has received full sport scholarship to study at the University of Johannesburg. Without Nemato Change a Life, Athi would most likely still linger in poverty. How many more youngsters stuck in the township just need a push to discover and grow their talents like Athi? How many more lives can be changed?
Marcella & Claire
- If you want to support Nemato Change a Life in purchasing the skate park, please make a donation fast marking it “Skate Ramp campaign” (tax deductible). Nemato Change a Life has a track-record of healthy accounting and is audited yearly.
- Jan can use some help! If you have a background in any of these sports and want to make a difference, get in touch to volunteer.
- Should you have any second-hand equipment you can spare (skateboards, surfboards, fencing gear, gymnastics gear, rowing), please get in touch with us as we will gather some to get it shipped to Nemato.
- Please, give Nemato Change a Life more visibility: spread the word & share this article! Sharing is caring!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.