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South Africa, January 13-16, 2006

Ghana and South Africa are both in sub-Saharan Africa. But they seem worlds apart.

Read about Jonathan Reckford’s other trips in Africa

 

January 17-19, 2006 – Egypt
January 11-12, 2006 – Ghana

 
 

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Jonathan Reckford with neighborhood children outside a Habitat home in Ivory Park Township, near Johannesburg.

While Ghana’s capital city of Accra is certainly vibrant, busy and modern in many ways, Johannesburg in South Africa looks like a bustling metropolitan city in the United States. It has well-maintained roads and overpasses winding through the busy downtown and into the suburbs. Vast shopping malls offer up the latest fashions. Restaurants, bookstores and supermarkets serve the residents of beautiful homes in gated communities.

But the first impression is deceiving. South Africa is a hybrid. It is country with an economy unparalleled in the nation’s history, but with half of the population living below the poverty line. The country is known as the “miracle nation” because of its peaceful transition to democracy 11 years ago after a brutal history of apartheid. But today the country battles HIV/AIDS, which affects more people in South Africa than any other country in the world.

These were my many, sometimes conflicting, impressions of South Africa during my brief visit. On the surface, it is a modern, developed country with a strong economy and a bright future. Yet look a bit closer and you see the same levels of dire poverty found in many other countries in Africa. In fact, South Africa has a 35-40 percent unemployment rate, and approximately 10 million people are in need of decent housing.

It is for that reason that our work in South Africa is so critical. On the first day of the South Africa trip we drove to the Ivory Park Township, just outside Johannesburg. It was like driving into another time and another world. I had heard many things about townships during and immediately following the apartheid years. It was the term used for the areas established by the South African government during apartheid, reserved for non-whites who lived near or worked in areas designated “whites-only.” Many times the areas were underdeveloped and lacked infrastructure and essential services. The South African government is now working to rectify these inequities and provide people with proper housing. But there is much work to be done.

The term township still conjures up images in my head from years before. I pictured a large enclosed area overcrowded with tiny, ramshackle dwellings, each one more dilapidated than the next. Much to my amazement, this is not what I found. And Habitat for Humanity is one of the reasons why.

The Ivory Park Township was originally an informal housing area, where people who had no other place to live put up tiny shelters to stake their claim to land. Many of the people who came to the area were moving out of another informal settlement that had become overcrowded. Eventually, the government agreed to allow them to stay on the land. But their housing did not improve.

But thanks to the Habitat for Humanity affiliate there – and to the Ivory Park Methodist Church, which started the affiliate – many families who once lived in tiny shacks with no electricity, security or privacy are now living in solid homes.

There is no better way to experience the joy and pride of a new homeowner family than being invited into their home to break bread. I was thrilled to join Michael Quluva and his family for a traditional meal in their beautifully maintained Habitat home. Michael told me that before moving into the house he lived with his wife, three children and his mother – six people – in a tiny one-room shack that leaked whenever it rained. Now, the family stays dry and secure. And the children have a safe and healthy place to grow up.

Looking beyond the Quluva house, I could see the evidence of the township image I had expected. Some families still live in wooden shacks with flimsy roofs; the township is not completely transformed. But this family’s life has changed, and so have 64 other Habitat families in Ivory Park. And that is a very important start.

I was reminded of this fact by John Stack, HFHI board member and native South African, who joined me on the visit to Ivory Park. “We in South Africa have lived through so much change in such a short period of time,” he commented. “Sometimes we forget the miracle that has happened. Habitat is a great model to build the future of this country.”

Cape Town’s Masiphumelele: A township that means “We will succeed.”

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Jonathan Reckford speaks with Patricia, a resident of Cape Town whose Habitat home is under construction. Behind Patricia is an informal housing structure where her brother and his family still live.

The next day we flew to Cape Town, where I saw more of the ongoing miracle taking place in South Africa, this time at the Masiphumelele Township in the Ikamvalethu Habitat affiliate.

Masiphumelele was formed in the 1980s by informal settlers trying to establish housing closer to where they worked. During apartheid they were forcibly removed to a designated area more than 30 kilometers away, but they continued to move back. When apartheid ended, the influx into the area grew. Today, more than 20,000 people live in the area, mostly in informal housing. It was originally known as Site 5, but its residents renamed it Masiphumelele, which is a Xhosa word meaning “We will succeed.” And I am confident they will.

When we arrived, a Global Village team from the United States was busy at work on the home of Xolahi and Patricia and their children Onke, 15; Lisa, 7; and Litha, 3. This family of five lives in a small shack tucked in between other equally small and dilapidated structures, one of which belongs to Patricia’s brother and his family. Both houses sit in the shadow of the new Habitat home under construction. And it was clear from the intensity of Xolahi’s hard work alongside the Global Village volunteers that he is eager to begin the family’s new life in this safe and decent structure. Just having a concrete floor for a dry place to walk and to sleep will be a gigantic step forward for improving the health of his children.

Durban: HFH helps heal apartheid wounds, build futures for AIDS orphans
That same day, we were on the plane again for Durban, site of the 2002 Jimmy Carter Work Project in the Ethembeni affiliate. What a joy it was to see how this community has thrived and prospered in the four years since its creation.

One hundred houses were built during JCWP, 120 additional houses have been built since then, and 130 more are in the planning stages. When it is completed, it will be a community of 350 families working together for a better future.

Lisa Strydom, the HFH regional director for this district in South Africa, explained that the project was significant for three reasons. First, it is the first time HFH South Africa has built a whole new community on one piece of land. Second, they were bringing people back into an area where they had lived before being forcibly removed during apartheid. It is not necessarily the same people who had lived here before, she explained. But the fact that they were building this permanent community on this piece of land was very symbolic.

And finally, this was the first time they had structured a rent-to-own program whereby the partner families pay rent for four years before becoming official homeowners. After four years, the rent is rolled over into the mortgage payments. I am happy to report that this June marks the fourth anniversary of JCWP, and those who have kept their payments up and have been productive and supportive members of the community will be four years closer to owning their own homes.

To me, the most significant aspect of this project was the immensely positive affect it has had on the homeowners. Visit after visit we heard about the strong sense of community and support among all those who live here.

“There is not crime here,” homeowner Roanne Dennis told me. “I can leave washing outside to dry. If it starts to rain, a neighbor will take it inside for me if I’m gone.” In other places, the laundry would just disappear. Most importantly, her children are safe and healthy. Before moving into this house she rented a rat-infested room in town with her two children, ages 13 and 11, and her mother. Her son, who has a learning disability, became ill from a rat bite. Today, he is healthy and surrounded by neighbors who also watch out for his safety.

“We worked hard for this house,” she went on. “We got to know our neighbors as we all worked together on the weekends on our houses. That’s why we are so close. We all know each other and their children. We know where they belong.”

The pride of the homeowners and sense of neighborhood and community was evident immediately upon our arrival. The yards are well cared for, the houses are neat and beautifully decorated. And children play happily in yards and in the streets.

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Jonathan Reckford stands with Gertrude Nhlangulela in front of her home built during JCWP 2002 in Durban.

 

Gertrude Nhlangulela was another homeowner we visited. Before moving here she lived in one room with four children. “This house is like heaven,” she said, smiling. “I thank God every day of my life. I keep asking ‘why did I get this house?’ Maybe God loves me more than anyone,” she laughed. Gertrude also commented on the strength of the neighborhood, saying, “Our community is like one. We are like brother and sister. We are family.”

I loved visiting these families and listening to their stories. These were some of the most encouraging interviews with homeowners I have had. This is the dream you have for homeowners – that their lives will be transformed, not just because of a house but because of all that a house can mean, including a sense of community, a sense of belonging and a sense of security. Each homeowner we visited lit up with joy. They were effusive! And to see the tightness of the community was so encouraging. This is my wish for all JCWP communities – and all Habitat homeowners – around the world.

It occurred to me that there is a symbolic element of Habitat for Humanity that we don’t always acknowledge. That first house in a community is a tangible illustration that communities can not only survive, but they can thrive. It gives hope where perhaps there was none.

Nowhere is hope more needed, perhaps, than in the families affected by HIV/AIDS. Approximately 5.6 million South Africans are living with HIV and AIDS, the largest number of individuals living with the virus in a single country.

The KwaZulu-Natal province is home to approximately 1.8 million of those affected, with an infection rate in that province of approximately 40-50 percent, according to some research. Consequently, and heartbreakingly, of the 300,000 AIDS orphans in South Africa, more than one half live in KwaZulu-Natal. And that number is accelerating quickly.

I was therefore deeply touched to learn of Habitat for Humanity’s program for the children who have been left behind. AIDS orphans are vulnerable to losing their homes when their parents die, especially if no arrangement had been made to protect their inheritance or provide for their care after their parents’ death. Keeping the family together in the same community is important for the psychological and physical well being of children. But that family house can sometimes have mud floors, leaking roofs and unsanitary conditions that encourage the spread of disease, an acute problem for children and those with HIV-weakened immune systems.

Our goals were simple, but profound. We did not want to separate children from extended family or communities. We wanted to ensure that the children could go to school. And we wanted to ensure that they had access to the grants made available by the South African government for their care. We are operating the project in the KwaXimba community in KwaZulu-Natal in cooperation with NOAH (Nurturing Orphans of AIDS for Humanity). Habitat for Humanity focuses on the shelter while NOAH oversees the training for caregivers, monitoring of the children’s welfare, and working through government red tape to ensure they get the necessary grants and housing subsidies. NOAH will also run a community center, where children receive emotional support and food and where they can grow their own vegetables.

The work focuses on the communities and villages in which the children live. There are several sub-regions within the tribal region of KwaXimba. Each sub-region formed a committee of residents who suggested HIV/AIDS-affected families with orphaned children who would benefit from the project. Habitat helped narrow the list down to those who met criteria. In this community alone, we plan to build 60 Habitat homes, 17 of which are already complete.

The area of KwaXimba is known as the Valley of 1,000 Hills, and it was easy to see why as we drove up and down the narrow roadways into the first village. It was a beautiful and peaceful setting, belying the tragedy of AIDS and extreme poverty that affects many of its residents.

This was made painfully clear to me at the first house we visited. The Dladla family was awaiting the completion of their new Habitat home. For now, 19 of them – orphans and children of some of the older orphans, cared for by the eldest sister – live in a crumbling mud-pack house. As I looked inside and saw the muddy floor and the porous roof, I couldn’t imagine anyone living there, much less a group of children of all ages who needed a clean environment to grow healthy and strong. In their new Habitat home, under construction just down the hill from their current house and due to be completed soon, they will be protected from the rain, the boys and girls will have separate rooms, and they will not have to worry about breaking up the families or anyone else laying claim to their land or their home. It will be theirs.

We also met Celia Mkhize, an elderly grandmother caring for six grandchildren, three orphaned by AIDS and three whose parents simply are no longer able to care for them. It is a common occurrence throughout Africa – parents of adult children who have died of AIDS raising yet another generation. But Celia, known as Gogo (or granny), is not complaining. Her goal is to raise these children to adulthood. And part of that, she knows, is to ensure they live in a solid house. She is so intent, in fact, that she did her best to contribute sweat equity to the building of the new Habitat home – despite her failing eyesight. I was happy to hear that our own Habitat staff put a stop to her efforts, recruiting neighbors to help in the construction so that Gogo can focus on staying healthy and continue caring for her beautiful and growing grandchildren.

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Jonathan Reckford walks with Habitat for Humanity staff in Ethembeni, site of JCWP 2002.

On my final day in South Africa I had the pleasure of visiting Habitat for Humanity’s Africa and Middle East area office, located in Pretoria. This is the hub of all our operations throughout the area, from which staff members provide support and direction to the national organizations and work with the Habitat headquarters in Georgia, USA, on strategic directions. It was a great privilege to spend time with the extraordinarily diverse team from throughout the continent and other parts of the world who are so committed to eradicating poverty housing from Africa and the Middle East.

After seeing the South Africa projects and hearing the staff talk about the other Habitat initiatives throughout the continent, I am more acutely aware of the sheer density of poverty and depth of need in this part of the world. But I am also more convinced than ever that what we are doing is absolutely the right thing. Habitat is not in the business of building houses. Any construction company could do that. We are partnering with families and communities to create lasting transformation in the lives of children, families, neighborhoods and cities. I have heard many stories of how this transformation has taken place, and I am blessed to be a part of it.