By Ken Schoenholz, choir member
Singing City Choir has just returned from a remarkable two-week tour of South Africa, complete with shared concerts with local church choirs, a big game safari, trips to important sites, such as Robben Island, the Apartheid Museum and Table Mountain, and shared experiences with a diverse extended choir group that had just the right chemistry.
Was there a highlight of the trip? Yes, for me our visit to Pam’s Crèche, located in a poor Soweto “settlement,” made a lasting impression. Why? Let me give background.
We started our journey with a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. To emphasize the meaning of apartheid, the entry tickets are labeled “black” or “white.” You are required to enter through the designated color gate. This gives a small sense of what it was like to live under apartheid, particularly if you were black (80% of the population). Everything was determined by your color—every aspect of your life. We entered and absorbed the multi-media presentation of the evolution of the apartheid regime, including some very powerful videos of its enforcement and atrocities. I remember watching some of this at the time on US news, but the experience in the museum was much more moving and tangible.
The next day, Sunday, we visited Soweto, a large township that is the product of apartheid, where blacks were forcibly moved to separate them from the white population. The black township still exists, and has an emerging middle-class, in part because policies that Nelson Mandela’s ANC party implemented after his election in 1994. One such policy was to provide housing to all residents. This is still in process, and there are still areas in the township called “settlements”, where the poorest residents live and which do not have plumbing or effective electricity. Though apartheid has been gone since 1994, it will clearly take a long time for real integration to become the norm for Soweto’s millions of black residents, and for the country as a whole.
We had the good fortune to attend a service at the Holy Cross Anglican Church in Soweto and experience the power of music in the lives of the participants. The church choir was sensational, led by an energetic choir leader, a short black female dynamo, who teamed with the church pastor to provide spiritual direction for the congregation. Clearly religion plays a central and positive role for the neighborhood participants. That afternoon we returned to the church for a joint concert with the church choir and another local ensemble. The sharing and cultural exchange was fantastic. Music created the important bridge for us, and I believe we all felt fortunate to participate.
And this takes me to our Monday, July 4, visit to Pam’s Crèche, in one of the poorest areas of Soweto. We understood the roots of the community, its isolation and extreme hardships in relation to wealthier white communities. And we understood from our choral exchange the ability of this community to find joy and spirituality, though it’s not clear whether any of the church congregation were residents of the “settlement” surrounding Pam’s Crèche.
So Monday, we walked past the Porta-Potties, corrugated homes and open fires that mark the “settlement” and arrived at the Crèche. Maggie Mdladla, the principal, met us. She took this position when Pam Mfaxa, the original director of the Crèche, died in 2014. Maggie explained that the Crèche was originally founded in the early 90s by nuns to provide kids from the impoverished area an opportunity, and also to keep them from playing on the railroad tracks, where a number had been killed. Today, the Crèche has around 140 students, aged 18 months to 6 years.
I had no idea what to expect, or why exactly we were visiting the Crèche given our packed schedule. But what a profound eye-opener! After the introduction, we entered the first classroom, composed of 4 and 5 year-olds. There were about 40 children, dressed in very simple uniform vests with hats to keep them warm in the winter weather. Each child beamed, and each had a most beautiful face. The children recited poems and songs, and some used the dancing moves and rhythms that so define South African singing. The teaching staff clearly provided love and care, and early education with a structured curriculum that begins and builds from their first classes. To finish our visit to this classroom, selected 4 year olds recited to us their name and age, their school, their residence in Kliptown (the “settlement), and finished with a statement of what they wanted to be when they grow up. We heard of lawyers, doctor, teachers...
The boys take a turn singing and dancing
Will they succeed and achieve their dreams? Do they understand what those professions do and mean? Who knows. But the fact that this Crèche has instilled in them aspirations, as well as education and love as part of their foundation, and possibly they share these aspirations at home, is amazing. How else can the dream of Nelson Mandela be achieved if the children are not given this opportunity to dream. After the year 4/5 classroom, we visited the younger classrooms. Each had a younger set of beautiful faces, with a structured curriculum presented by a competent teacher. We also saw the kitchen and well-planned weekly menu, which provided balanced nutrition (as long as the money did not run out), and washrooms with plumbing.
We finished with by giving an outdoor mini-concert to a very appreciative audience of children and staff. We then left to hit the road for the game reserve. But, I don’t think anyone came away from the experience without a profound sense that this Crèche is providing something fundamental and special to these young people. If this can be built on as they move to the next stage of their development in the “settlement”, they may achieve some of their goals. And if not, at least they have tools to dream in an environment that otherwise seems hopeless.
It would be interesting to know how Crèche “graduates” have developed. One could imagine a documentary sharing this gem (and possibly other similar facilities) with a much larger audience.
How lucky we were to have the experience.