In every community there are the underprivileged and poverty-striken. Here in Mpumalanga, they are tough to miss, innumerous and it’s an ongoing crisis. Msholozi Orphanage (also known locally as Mama Esther’s Safe Haven) is a comparable happy success story in terms of South African humanitarian work. All around us here we see those that live well below the breadline – whether it’s the shanty towns and township locations dotted all along the landscape or the groups of world-weary girls in high-heels on the darker corners at night just up the road…they are in your face, heartbreaking and seemingly beyond help. It’s not enough to say that nothing is being done to get them out of their respective hells. Here we live everyday under the fist of a cold, indifferent, greedy and rotten government. We speak of injustice but what we mean is the outright crime against humanity that takes place all the time without recourse, without check.
There is a lot to be said about the less fortunate and those who face down more darkness and despair than I can comprehend on a daily basis…some of them merely children. And yet, more often than not I am at a loss for words. Seeing the sadness and injustice in the world around us makes me want to do something… but what can one photographer do to inspire change? Tell the story, I suppose – to anyone who cares to listen. When I met the children and young adults at Msholozi I was both deeply unsettled and astounded at their resilience in the face of such destitution and impoverishment. Girls no older then 12 who take care of newborns and toddlers, never being allowed the chance to have their own childhood; young men who turn to gangs and violence as a source of distraction and even survival.
Yet some of them have a sense of hope and possibility, some appear yet unhardened by their circumstances: one young man in particular caught my attention…his name is S’bu and he wants to be a professional basketball player one day. He is bright, intelligent and engaging. Despite the dirt and decrepitude around him he smiles, speaks and hopes. He dares to dream. Another young man is a skilled farm worker who proudly showed me his peanut crop – it’s how he keeps his family and himself fed.
Mama Esther is doing some incredible work at Msholozi Orphanage: she tries her hardest to give these children an opportunity for education and the possibility of a better life. It was a bittersweet experience to be there in person and to document some of the lives of the youngsters there. Don, the ragged little guy who couldn’t stop giggling at my camera; The two sisters who seem entirely opposite in manners and yet look so alike; The brother and sister determined to stay together and survive despite the odds; Young S’bu and his dreams of international fame and fortune on a basketball court. It is inspiring and heartbreaking.
My experience there that day had one particularly dark turn I will never forget, however. A teenager I was asked to avoid photographing or attempt speaking to due to his “sickness”. He has a form of autism that has gone untreated for most of his life and resultantly he is prone to spontaneous and sometimes unprovoked violence. It’s quite understandable that his anger, rage and fear have grown into something that the other kids simply avoid. He regarded me in stony silence from a distance but never once took his eyes off me. It was disconcerting at first but as the day wore on and the light slowly started to fade, his manner became frightening and so I took my leave. I am left wondering about the secret horrors that he, and doubtless others, must face and perhaps even inflict when the sun goes down and the world gets really small.
For more about this place and these people please see my People Photography gallery, and as always, leave your thoughts and feelings below.