Smaller Pieces of a Bigger Puzzle

W4C Founder Tim Conibear blogs about Thera – a W4C participant attached to a Kuyasa gang.

It´s been a long while since I was last called into a Headmaster´s office. It´s nice to know the feeling remains the same: feeling dwarfed by the man opposite you, sinking into the chair shrouded by an immediate sense of guilt. Awaiting your punishment. It´s also nice to know that times change!

I got a phone call last week from Principal Mbotchelwa of Esangweni High-School, one of the Waves for Change partner schools in the Kuyasa district of Khayelitsha where we are based. He asked if he could see me to discuss the Waves for Change programme and its place in his schools roster. Cue nerves, dissecting each day for what could have gone wrong, butterflies in the pit of the stomach, a date etched into the diary like a tombstone.

Esangweni are an important friend of Waves for Change. We started working with them in June of this year following reports of escalating gang violence in the area and the death of 3 pupils. I remember the discussions with the school as we prepared to launch about how we could best identify the students most in need of the Waves for Change life-skills programme. A lot of the kids that joined us on that first day had direct links to the gangs that had been involved in the violence. On the one side it was intimidating, knowing the background a lot of these kids came from. On the other it was shocking, they really were just kids.

As the months went by it became clear that the programme was having an effect. The relations between coach and participant started to throw up some interesting discussions about life in the community and what the kids were really facing. It was also apparent some kids were in deeper than others and faced very real challenges in leaving their gangs behind. It´s not easy walking away, especially when your gang comes for you and uses force to keep you in. Thera was one of these kids. One week we´d see him, the next he´d be gone.

Gang violence in Khayelitsha is no joke. The violence is very real with groups of 14,15 and 16 year olds pacing the streets between rival schools carrying pangas, knives and, in some instances, guns. Surfing has been cancelled on numerous occasions as Waves for Change coaches have had to turn around and run as violence has escalated as the schools close. Often its by the school gates, often the police move into disperse. The weeks we didn´t see Thera were the weeks he was in with the crowd.

But back to that phone call. I arrived at Esangweni in the early afternoon, wearing a shirt. I never wear shirts.I entered the office of the principal after an uncomfortable wait and was greeted with a warm smile and a handshake, ushered into a seat and offered a cup of tea. Nerves dissipated and we began to chat. Thera was the focus of the conversation. His mother had recently been into see the school to commend them on a dramatic turnaround in Thera´s behaviour. He was helping at home, going to school, even attending church each Sunday. His mother said he chatted often about his new friends at the beach, the coaches and his recent trip to surf at Muizenberg in a schools comp: the certificate hangs above the family mantlepiece. Today we see Thera most days. The days we don´t see him we remain worried, Khayelitsha is a volatile community where life changes daily. But we also know he has an improved relationship with the school and his family and the days he´s away are often followed by a report from home or school that he´s working or doing laundry.

I sat with the coaches the following day and relayed the message. They all smiled, happy that the course is having an effect. But we know Thera is one of hundreds of kids. We know that gang violence ramains a huge issue. We know that there are still kids in the programme who are trying to get out and can´t. The challenges are huge, but after 3 months we are having an effect and there is a way forward. Small successes like these keep us going.