[intro]Friday morning in Manenberg and the winter sun makes a feeble attempt to warm people’s hearts. Given the police cars behind a green overland vehicle, you might think a head of state is passing through. But it’s an armed escort to make sure a group of young women on a mission get out of this gangland, their home, safely. They are part of the Rock Girl organisation, a grassroots movement to inspire, encourage, and invest in women and girls.[/intro]

While the average teenager juggles taking selfies with preparing for exams, one group of girls is crawling under their beds while dodging bullets in one of the South Africa’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, Manenberg.

When I first meet the group, it’s countdown to a road trip of a lifetime. In a few days a journey that is like a candle of hope for 13 girls who belong to an NGO known as Rock Girl, will begin. But the preparations are marred by their daily reality. Each time they listen to the gunshots they wonder if anyone they know has been injured.

Manenberg in Cape Town has always been a violent place. In recent times the gangsters who are constantly at war with each other engage in running shootouts with impunity. The police either come too late or are just not around.
On the Manenberg Gangwatch Facebook Community a mother bemoans the fact that her children can’t go outdoors and enjoy their mid-year school vacation. The page is updated by the hour by people recording the shootings and gang violence.

Into the fray steps a group of teenagers. Founded five years ago, Rock Girl is a grassroots movement which seeks to reduce violence against women and girls through the creation of safe spaces by inspiring, encouraging and investing in girl-initiated and girl focused projects in the private and public sectors.

In a few days’ time the girls are going to hop into an overland vehicle and embark on a journey to the Eastern Cape to meet other young girls like them. India Baird, founder of the organisation, says that the purpose of the trip is to train the girls into telling their own stories.

“Travelling by young girls in Africa often results in stories of trafficking, abduction for marriage and conflict. You seldom hear the stories from the young ones themselves. On this trip, the girls will meet other girls from similar backgrounds and will have the opportunity to tell their own travel stories and to advocate good change in their communities. They have been trained as young journalists to use social media, photography and art to share what is happening around them,” Baird says.

The day of the trip – 12 June – finally comes and the pick-up point is Red River Primary School in the heart of the gangland. India Baird organises a police escort for us to get there.

At one point it seems like a normal send off. There is a lot of excitement and cheers. Families giving hugs and young ones photo bombing here and there. But the police presence is a reminder of where we are and how much danger is around every corner.

Thakirah Albrecht seems a lot calmer than her friends as she watches them going into their transport with screams and excitement. I make use of this opportunity to find out more about her and her expectations for the journey ahead.

“I would like to see a lot of things because I have never been away, like out of Cape Town. So I am hoping to learn new things,” she answers warmly.

Albrecht, who wishes to become a psychologist, social worker or dentist when she grows up, joined Rock Girl five years ago.

“I joined because I wanted to change myself, my community and teach others about change. I like the unity in my community but I do not like the gang violence because I can’t study at night when the gunshots are being fired,” she says.

Another Rock Girl who lets me into her world is 15 year old Kelly Peterson.

“I can’t wait to see the animals. I’m very excited about going to places and seeing other people,” she says.

On the surface the young girls do not seem as if they are fazed or haunted by the reality of the bullets whizzing around them some days.

Two nights before they were set to depart a shooting broke out that left them crawling under their beds. Gone was the casual demeanour assumed for the cameras.

I ask Kelly who seems to be the one of the extroverts of the group, about the constant violence.

“Yes, there are a lot of gang shootings in my neighbourhood. It’s very, how can I say, scary because I don’t know where the bullets will come from,” she responds before being distracted by her friends who are rushing into the overland vehicle.

Kelly joins them and they all begin to wave farewell to their families and friends. Escorted out of Manenberg by a sizeable police entourage.

Just minutes after their departure another gang shooting breaks out in Manenberg. I am very relieved that I can leave the area.

Fortunately the girls are on their way, headed for the Eastern Cape and the first peaceful night in a long time.

Three days into their camp, I catch up with Baird and the girls to find out how Port Elizabeth is treating them. I am taken aback by their responses.

“The trip has been amazing and moving. Yesterday we connected with girls from similar backgrounds in Helenvale and in New Brighton here in Port Elizabeth. It was quite hectic because there is a strong gang presence in these areas and the girls here experience the same things that the Rock Girls do,” Baird said.

Baird says she has made a startling discovery during the interaction with the girls on the trip.

“I’ve realised how they only reveal much of the traumatic stories when they are alone with each other and in a safe space,” she said.

Witnessing the gang violence in Port Elizabeth has been quite unexpected for Rock Girl Rashieda Nolan.

“I saw that the girls here live the same way that we do back home. There is no difference at all. It was sad to see that other girls live the same way that we do. One of them told us how she was raped and she only told her mummy later on,” she says.

I try to lighten up the sombre mood by asking Rashieda how the rest of the trip has been so far. Her reply makes me think that perhaps these teenage girls are the heroes – maybe even the 1976 youth – of our day.

“It’s been so fantastic. I don’t really want to come back but I believe in God that everything is going to be alright. When we come back we are going to share these stories with other girls,” she replies.

The journey took five days. The 13 girls were accompanied by India Baird, Kim Whitaker from Once, Sue Johnson and Phiwe Budaza who are both from Iliso Labantu.

Their first stop was Montago where they hiked and went in search of rocks and then had a campfire. On the second day they had an outing to the Magpie Art Collective in Barrydale in the morning and then they headed to George for lunch and a game drive at Buffelsdrift in Oudtshoorn.

Day three and day four were spent in Port Elizabeth, Sedgefield and in Jeffrey’s Bay. The girls spent time with other girls in New Brighton with Mike Pantsi and Helenvale with Minnie Trimalley and they also connected with Mandlakazi Skefile who is the Chief Executive of the Mandela Bay Tourism. In addition to that, the girls paid a visit to Ubuntu Fund and Maxhosa by Laduma knitwear.

On the last day of the trip the Rock Girls were taken on a moving final stretch of their trip from Sedgefield to Bredasdorp, a town that made international headlines because of crimes against young girls including Anene Booysen where they spent some time at the Bredasdorp Magistrate Court.

The team spent their evenings at various lodges along the way.

Rock Girl will have a photo exhibit showcasing the journey at the Heritage Square Gallery in Woodstock.
You can follow their journey at www.rockgirlsa.org and on Instagram as well as Facebook