Thursday, 17 July 2014

Ikamva Labantu: Community Involvement and Dialogue for 50 Years and Counting

As you drive away from the city of Cape Town and toward the township of Khayelitsha, the views from the window begin to flatten: tall, multistory buildings are reduced to smaller, two- or one-story homes. Many of the homes are shacks covered in corrugated iron; seen from the window, lined up against one alongside the highway, these homes and shops follow perfectly the contours of the terrain—some built higher on hills and others on the flatter ground below.

Within the township itself, by 10 am (when we usually arrive), people are busy walking in and out of stores, to and from home or work, and across large fields that are undeveloped. In front of a number of these fields there are a tall billboards that read “Brought to you by the City of Cape Town,” applauding development plans; to me these are also an ironic reminder of the township’s origins in apartheid times in South Africa, when hundreds of thousands of black South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes through the Group Areas Act of 1950, relegated to the Cape Flats area where Khayelitsha is now found. Apartheid—only twenty years legally dissolved—has left a legacy that continues to affect township communities in many ways, such as a low employment rate and limited access to resources, for example.

Helen Lieberman
(photo from
Helen Lieberman, the founder of Ikamva Labantu, traveled into the township of Langa in 1963—an area rarely ventured into by white Capetonians—in search of speech therapy patients she cared for in the city. She saw first-hand the devastating effects apartheid had wrought on the area. What she also found was that many of the people she met and interacted with were incredibly caring and devoted to the cause of helping others in their community. I (along with Summer) have had the privilege of working with Ikamva Labantu, the now-50-year-old organization that grew out of Lieberman’s Langa visits and belief that those who are a part of a community are best suited to implement change within it.

Currently, Ikamva Labantu works with unregistered educares (preschools) certifying both unregistered practitioners, or teachers, and principals. These educares implement a stimulating early childhood development curriculum, designed by Ikamva Labantu, and ensure that the children who attend have a safe, healthy, and productive place to learn. Ikamva even has their own early childhood development center, called Kwakhanya, where they provide a space for training practitioners to learn and model their own curriculum and ethos.

Along with a youth center called the Rainbow Center, Ikamva also has the Enkululekweni Wellness Center, focused primarily on community health, where Summer and I have mainly been doing our work. Our work has consisted of developing materials to make parents and principals more likely to have an open dialogue about children’s health. This has, in part, taken the form of a small health booklet that children will have, which contains information about immunization status and growth monitoring, for example, which will be piloted at ten educares in the township of Mfuleni. We have also been meeting with principals and practitioners in a few focus groups to discuss the barriers to why parents often do not disclose their child’s health information. (Read more about what we’ve been up to in Summer’s blog below!)

Three different forms (i.e., printing mistakes) of our health booklet.
The final version is on the bottom right!
For me, both working on the booklet and trying to organize a focus group with the parents alone has revealed how some tasks that might seem fairly simple actually combine a lot of efforts within an organization and are subject to uncontrollable factors—which all makes time add up. Summer and I have been working on the booklet for a number of weeks and just finished a final version this week. It is not long, only about 10 pages with a cover, but we made multiple revisions to include more information as requested by different sects of the organization. (We also had some trouble with the formatting, which was initially because of Microsoft Word—don’t use this; use Publisher instead!)

Also, each week we have been hopeful that we could run a focus group of only parents to talk to them directly, but this did not happen in time. Coming into our work at Ikamva, I would have thought that organizing a focus group for research would be a simple task for any experienced NGO, but I can now see just how many factors—including parents’ schedules, holidays, venues, and willingness—contribute to the task. Yet if I’ve learned anything throughout my time at Ikamva, it is that minor setbacks like these will never discourage its employees from the larger goal of continually striving to better the community and the lives of those who live within it.

- Simon Marshall-Shah, '16

Community garden outside the Enkululekweni Wellness Center

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