MTUBATUBA, South Africa — Just inland of Africa’s southeast coast, a downtown taxi rink bustles every day around 4 p.m. as people make their way home from work. Mtuba has only a few thousand people and three modest grocery stores. It is the proud host of two KFC franchises. The surrounding area is dominated by sugarcane fields and rows of identical gum trees, which feed the local sugar and paper mills. Most of the residents (98%) are Zulu-speaking blacks, and the rest white Afrikaners — excluding the odd American volunteer or two.
For the past few weeks, I have been working for an NGO called Grassroot Soccer (GRS) and one of their partner organizations, Mtuba-based Mpilonhle. GRS uses soccer as a teaching tool for its HIV/life-skills curriculum (called “Skillz”), and Mpilonhle provides health counseling, HIV testing, IT classes, and other services. HIV education is desperately needed in the rural communities near Mtubatuba, where 52 percent of women aged 25-30 and 45 percent of 30-35 year-old men are HIV-positive (statistics for Umkhanyakude District, from Mpilonhle). My efforts have been focused on five-day camps that combine the two groups’ services. I’ve helped train the Skillz coaches who actually teach the GRS curriculum to local kids and joined the late stages of planning and logistics. Now I oversee and troubleshoot at the camps, which are nearing the end of their second week.
This is the first time that GRS has condensed its curriculum into such a short period – the coaches usually visit schools once a week, for a total of nine “practices” – so it’s not surprising that the camps have been a little messy at the beginning as they sort out new issues like safety and catering. Mtuba is a special case, since here we are fusing two distinct programs.
“Camp” is a distinctly American concept, and this may be the root of problems with attendance. Parents here often don’t have the luxury of time and money to drop their children off each day, and kids aren’t used to the format, especially during their special World Cup holiday from school. The good news is that despite a few stumbles along the way, things are going well for the kids, and their experience is more important than any other aspect of the holiday camps. More to come soon about finding my place in this new community.