Please Don’t let me be misunderstood…

Français : La chanteuse américaine Nina Simone...

I  first heard this song  in my early 20s pouring out from the sultry  lips and hauntingly raspy voice of American Jazz/Blues legend and concert pianist Nina Simone.   I loved the song the first time I heard it because I’ve always felt like a constant foreigner but it’s become poignantly relevant more now that I’m in my early 30’s.  It’s as if she took the words right out of my mind and soul, the words I failed to say when it was important to say them. The whole song is great and best describes why I love Nina Simone so much, she was always so unbearably real. 

Baby you understand me now, if sometimes you see that I’m mad. Don’t you know no one alive can always be an angel, when everything goes wrong you see some bad.  But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, oh lord please don’t let me be misunderstood.

“You know sometimes, baby I’m so care –free, with a joy that’s hard to hide.  Then sometimes again it seems that all I have is worry, and then you’re bound you see the other side. … If I seem edgy, I want you know, I never mean to take it out on you. Life has its problems and I get more than my share, but that’s one thing I never mean to do because I love you. Ooh baby I’m just human, don’t you know I have faults like anyone? Sometimes I find myself alone regretting some little foolish thing, some simple thing that I’ve done. But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, oh lord please don’t let me be misunderstood. “

This song comes to mind now as I sit to write a series of curious incidents from Kliptown and the Kliptown Soweto Youth center or SKY:  after having spent a little over two weeks there, living and volunteering .  The stories I will post are all full of very good intentions from all parties involved, including me.

Setting the Scene: Life On the Other side of the Tracks 

SKY receives a number of foreign visitors on an almost daily basis. The reasons for the visits vary from tourism, research, journalism, workshops etc. Whatever reason brings them here, it all ends up in a tour – a view of life on the other side of the tracks, shanty town ghetto living which old Kliptown demonstrates with a flourish. There is everything here – dirty snotty children, wearing equally dirty clothes as if they were lavishly bathed in mud. Young men and women chill  at street corners smoking, drinking, some causing trouble, tweeting, bbming, mixing it, playing cards by candlelight,  chatting round outdoor fires at night. The early morning scenes are modern versions of maidens by the river; women draped in towels, with babies wrapped tightly on their backs with blankets, bend over like awkward swans around communal taps, laundering never-ending hills of clothes and blankets from which pour out streams of  mud and grime which flow  like pungent rivers on pathways infested with rats so large and loud they sound like cats or tiny humans. Music blares softly from tin roofed mansions, which spew out  drunken men, women, and some  homeless walk as if without a direction towards their next carton of Special Leopard; the beer with a punch. Dogs scratch their backs ferociously  on rough sand and  walk as if  in imitation of street gangs high on a popular and cheap drug called Nyaope ( a concoction of drugs including , heroin, rat-tax, ARV’s and marijuana – no one really knows what’s in it) in super slow motion. Chickens crowing in the middle of the day while cocks try to squeeze through the gates. Then there’s  the regular mama, now more often a brother on the side streets under a tree or cardboard shelter selling  an assortment of snacks and increasingly fake cigarettes, nik’s naks, peanuts, biscuits, from as little as 50c a packet to 2rands, the most you will pay for anything at the “snack-bar”.   It’s a hive of organized chaotic activity which seems to move in slow motion even as the days seem to pass quicker than I can say blink.   A place which, ironically makes for hauntingly beautiful photos, depicting what my friend and former colleague Zukiswa Zimela aptly described as  “poverty porn ‘. If not everything, most of what can go wrong in society can be found in this tiny valley which once held up the highest hopes for a new South Africa.

So it was…. 

A typical Saturday afternoon when a group of about ten young Germans and an elderly matron arrived at SKY, announcing that they would like to cook for the children, volunteering some small relief for Chef Gloria who cooks supper for children and adults from the surrounding community for six days a week, a duty she calls a labour of love. She is a volunteer from Mozambique, who found herself in Kliptown while trying to free herself from the demons of her past – but – well to do life.

The German volunteers brought with them their own ingredients for the meal and began the task of chopping carrots, broccoli, and chicken breasts, lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes and more. While the chopping was going on in the Kitchen, Gogo Busi Hlatshwayo, a 74-year-old pensioner who served as a cook at SKY for some 8 years, lamented at how small the food was and how though she saw some ingredients which were a cause for concern, the volunteers should be allowed to freely do what they intended to do in the kitchen, they had printed out recipes.  “The rice is not enough, it’s just one kg, she said in a beautiful maturing and cracking voice. “And there are more than a hundred mouths to feed” She said pointing at the yard. Chef Gloria also later pulled me into the kitchen “Sister, look two cans  of jam” She said “I think they are going to put it in chicken stew” She shook her head in dismay.  We walked out of the kitchen to hushed murmurs outside about the quantity of the food and the curious ingredients being used.  The volunteers  were cheerfully “unaware” of the growing discontent outside, stepping out every now and again with smiling faces asking where this or that is or if this and that works or if it’s enough.  They also periodically took walks around the neighbourhood – the tour – to see the way things are, while the meal was cooking on the stove.  Moments of pause which gave the resident cooks a chance to peer into the pots,  only to come up  with faces scrunched up in frowns  and  necks wagging from side to side. Stomachs were growling.   The volunteers soon returned from their tour of the ghetto and took some time to play with the children who buzzed around on top of them like moths to a fire.  The camera and the girls’ long flowing hair being the main attractions for the little  girls, while the boys enjoyed a leisurely game of football on the open space. Cameras clicked, to smiling, posing faces of children laughing and playing in the glow of the white ladies, sentimental moments which were to the observing eye innocent and sweet.

Lunch Is Served

The troop of German ladies and gentlemen lined up sweetly on the silver serving tables, in front of large dishes of green salad, a pot of rice, and the chicken vegetable stew which all looked surprisingly more than enough to feed everyone.  They beamed and I almost broke  into a shrill soprano singing a  tune from the musical The sound of Music. Edelweiss seemed appropriate for the scene.

The colorful healthy looking meal failed to fill the stomachs of children who took less than a spoon before discarding the food saying it was too sweet. But their displeasure was well hidden behind smiling faces complementing the volunteers on their exceptional cooking skills, “It’s very nice” they said.  It was a moment of extreme paradoxes for me.  An incident which was headline news at SKY well into the  still of the night when a  meeting was called  by the hungry residents whose heads bend over the pots, perplexed  and in deep discussions about  what to do with  half-cooked rice and sweet chicken and vegetables.   Though I didn’t ask them, and so I cannot be absolutely certain about my assertions, the German volunteers looked quite gratified with their selfless service and  a job well done, efficiently. They successfully prepared a healthy balanced meal for the “hungry” children, and on top of that despite all the uhming and ahhing, the food was enough for everyone. More over everyone was happy with the meal including the cooks.  Meanwhile back at the ranch everyone was crying of hunger, they could not eat the food which meant they would have to forgo the only decent meal they have a day. Gloria looked at me and said while dishing out the food on her plate, “It’s not bad, I’m going to eat it….” she continued spooning the food in her mouth ‘Maybe I can go to Germany one day, who knows, only God knows”.  Later in the evening, everyone gave vivid accounts of the ways in which they couldn’t eat the food, the most quoted reason being the sweetness of the dish. The food ended in the belly of the green and black pick-it up rubbish bins outside the kitchen. Not even the resident dogs who are always hungry ventured near it. It is always such a shame when food is wasted.  If they were conducting some form of research; statistics would show a positive trend.  It is possible to feed more than a hundred children a full and healthy meal on a budget.

The Winner Takes All

The Residents at Sky in this case would be losers if this whole thing was a chess game.  Because instead of saying that the chicken was too sweet, the rice half raw they smiled and said it was great.  Even though they said the food would not be enough, it proved to be more than enough for everyone there including the adults.  Everyone had a plate to eat.  If the Germans were in actual fact researchers or potential funders, this  cooking expedition could be used as a template for future feeding schemes and recommended as best practice (model) for similar organizations seeking funding  for similar projects.  The Soweto Kliptown Youth foundation would not have a claim against the quantitative research they conducted. They would know exactly how much it cost to produce a meal for a hundred children. There would be no disputing the empirical evidence. Which when looked at from another perspective is far from being “true”.


Perhaps this incident opens up a small window into the interesting relationships between researchers, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Community Based Organizations (CBOs), and Non-Profit Organization (NPO’s) and their Funders, Donors or Benefactors.   A world which in my eyes is as complex and  risky as hedge fund investments on Wall Street or as Mysterious as Art Auctions at Tiffany’s New York.

On the other hand, the incident can offer a new model to build new and fresh relationships between funders and NGOs who often seem to fundamentally misunderstand each other. Perhaps instead of reading it on paper, or parachuting in and out of projects, or spying, it might make better sense for potential donors and NGOs to spend some time and experience   working in the projects they wish to fund. This might open up a more honest conversation, from both sides, about how the aid or funds are being used and why they are allocated in certain ways.

This will ensure that both parties speak from real (lived) experience of that same environment – a shared experience which will facilitate a more than frank conversation about the challenging environment of social development, as both parties will be able to talk about what they know, have seen, done, heard and experienced in order to find tailor-made, project specific solutions for sustainable growth and change.  I am learning more and more, that throwing money only into programs does not guarantee their success, in fact it may do the exact opposite.   If funders or potential donors are serious about affecting change, and NGO’s are serious too about the work they do, this experience would come highly recommended before contract(s) can be signed and money changes hands.   I am almost certain that this in the long run will save time and money, commodities which are  seemingly in constant short supply.

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