Bringing Joy to Joza
By Dave Mann
“Talent burns brightly but then it is thrown away with drink and drugs, never to be reignited,” says Vuyo Booi of Grahamstown. He has a mission to nurture the new generation of young talent in Joza and ensure that social ills do not conspire to extinguish their light.
Extension 9 comes alive on a Sunday. Joza residents file out of their morning church services in their Sunday best, they fill the streets under expansive umbrellas to avoid the heat. Most stop to inquire about the health and general on-goings of their neighbours whilst kids of all ages head straight to the spaza shops for chips and ice-lollies.
At home women scrub their washing in colourful buckets, teenage girls sit in curlers waiting for the heat to dry their locks and little boys shout and scream as they race tires down the lengthy roads.
Local resident Vuyo Booi insists that it wasn’t always like this. Perched on the edge of a couch inside his home, his two hands cupped together beneath his flat cap, Vuyo lights a cigarette and begins to tell the story about his community, the local arts scene and the reason he started the Sakhuluntu Cultural Group, an arts organisation that teaches young school children traditional music, drama, and dance. He runs the art project from his own home.
“I don’t need much, I am a simple man” he says. The unpainted cement walls of his house are decorated with various Grahamstown event posters he has collected over the years. Three threadbare couches, one with a large hole in the seat, sit next to each other towards the back of the room. A gas tank sits on the floor for cooking and a small metal table situated in the centre of the room houses his food and other belongings.
Outside, djembe drums and marimbas lie on the grass while Sakhuluntu pupils paint the walls of the home turned arts centre. In between colourful layers of paint youngsters sip juice, music blares in the background and kids catch up on conversation under the sun.
“I have been here all my life. I am a child of the ghetto” he says. “I started Sakhuluntu in 1998 with a few fellow community activists, because we wanted to provide an alternative to the negative lifestyle that a lot of the kids in Joza grow up in. Living in the ghetto, there are people here that no longer have dreams or vision and you see that kind of frustration from people who don’t have work or who don’t have proper jobs and a good education.”
Vuyo ashes his cigarette and absentmindedly runs a hand over his stubbly cheek, down to his chin. “When they look at themselves they think there is nothing for them to do, but to smoke drugs, drink alcohol at the shebeens and have sex. This rubs off on the kids. They look up to these people who have lost hope, who have lost touch with their dreams and they imitate them,” he says, thinking back to friendships formed and lost in his own youth.
“I saw some of the best artists lose touch with themselves,” he says while talking fondly about friendships that comprised of aspirant performers from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. As a young man, Vuyo and his friends would meet after school and sing, dance, rap, and perform for the other kids in their community.
“Some of my friends were women with the most beautiful voices and men with the wildest dance moves and they threw it all away. Talent burns brightly like that, but if it is thrown away or drowned with drink and drugs, it may never be reignited. I think that might be the saddest thing- to extinguish a fire as brightly as that and to lose it forever.”
Vuyo stubs out his cigarette and lifts his cap to push back his short, greying dreadlocks. “But that’s why we have Sakhuluntu,” he says with a weak smile, revealing the laughter lines around his eyes. Vuyo’s beliefs lie with the messianic figure, Haile Selassie and he is a firm follower of the Rastafari Movement. Four or five speakers sit scattered around his house, metallic and well maintained. The cloths and ornaments they house as well as the Reggae music constantly playing through them makes the speakers centre-stage.
Other than providing Vuyo with his music of choice, the speakers also perform the function of drowning out the clinking glasses, bass music, and drunken revelry that come from the shebeen next door to his home. He considers the on goings of the neighbouring establishment to be a great tarnish on the community of Extension 9, and it is spaces like the one next door which Vuyo hopes to keep the Sakhuluntu kids away from by rooting them firmly in the arts and in music.
More than that, he believes that Sakhuluntu itself has done a great deal of work in transforming the immediate community since they started hosting performances such as the Youth Festival in the Extension 9 community hall back in 2010.
“This place used to be very bad and the corruption was even worse. People were killed with no mercy and sometimes no reason. Old ladies were raped in their houses, you would be robbed and beaten and there were always tsotsis walking around.”
He sits with hunched shoulders and rubs his hands together anxiously. “Since we started having events at that hall, things have improved though. I can’t say that all the change is from the Youth Festival, but I think that being around such love, such passion, and seeing the arts in the community has forced people to re-evaluate themselves and either stop what they were doing or just leave the area.”
Since 1998, Sakhuluntu has grown to be an integral part of Grahamstown’s creative scene, uplifting the very community from which it draws its artistic inspiration. Performing at various community concerts, and dancing frequently at shows in the small amphitheatre of the International Library of African Music (ILAM), the Sakhuluntu kids have made themselves known in both the Rhodes University, and larger Grahamstown communities.
Sakhuluntu has not been without its challenges, however. Funding is an ongoing battle, support is hard to garner, and Vuyo and the Sakhuluntu kids feel at times as if the very community they come from is against them. With students joining Sakhuluntu largely through their friendship circles and independent of their parents, Vuyo has often been accused by the Joza community of trying to expose his students to a Westernised way of life. He lights up another smoke, clears his throat and explains.
“There have been many difficult times here, but we don’t have to change our lifestyle or convert to Western culture in order to survive. We must be proud of being from the ghetto, of living in these houses, we must even be proud of the people who are drunk on the streets sometimes, because they are a part of us at the end of the day. We need to realise that being in the ghetto your entire life does not make you weaker or in need of sympathy, it makes you stronger. It can make you the strongest person alive.”
A short while later, one of the Sakhuluntu pupils runs in and asks Vuyo for another paint brush, addressing him simply as ‘bhuti’. Vuyo smiles warmly as he speaks and jokes with him before turning back and saying “Excuse me for a while, I just need to help these kids out.”
Keep a look-out for Sakhuluntu at the opening parade of the National Arts Festival as well as the Youth Festival at the end of the year.