Bassin, Boikanyo, and being her brother’s keeper

  • MarilynBassin
For Marilyn Bassin, giving is a way of life. A physiotherapist by training, she has worked with indigent children for nearly 30 years.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jun 11, 2020

Nine years ago, she founded non-governmental organisation Boikanyo: The Dion Herson Foundation. At that time, Bassin met a dynamic young child with cerebral palsy named Boikanyo, who inspired her to do more to help others like him. Boikanyo means “to have faith” in Setswana, and that’s what Boikanyo is all about.

Through its outreach projects, the foundation also aims to honour the memory of Bassin’s late brother, Dion Herson, a man who was generous, kind, and cared about the welfare of others before himself.

“We work with children and their caregivers living in impoverished communities in Johannesburg. Our mission is to address poverty alleviation holistically. We aim to challenge the general prevailing mindset of hopelessness and helplessness among our target group due to poverty and poor living conditions,” Bassin says.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, “We were busy in squatter camps helping the poor in Soweto. We were following up on numerous households there, and checking on children with cerebral palsy. Unofficially, I also followed up on animals in the area along with the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Our biggest programme was a mass education project, which we ran in a school in Protea Glen once a week, teaching maths to Grade 4s and 5s. This ran for only five weeks before lockdown began.”

Once the lockdown started, Bassin could no longer visit the townships where she had spent years helping children in desperate circumstances. “I used to park my car, get out, and walk. Everyone knew me and loved me. But I couldn’t continue going there once the lockdown started. For the first time in nine years since I started my non-governmental organisation, I had nothing to do.”

This lasted four days before Bassin realised, “I can’t live like this. I need to do something.” She started raising money for those in need, and also contacted her friend Rose Kransdorff from the e’Pap Foundation.

“Together with the e’Pap Foundation, we started distributing this highly fortified cereal, rich in most of the vitamins and minerals needed daily. We send it to other vetted registered non-profits and civic organisations all over South Africa for them to hand out as they see fit,” says Bassin.

“We started planning our first handout in Eldorado Park. Things have just grown from there, and we have now supplied 31 000 children with a month’s supply of e’Pap. If I hear a certain area is starving, we go into that area. In KwaZulu-Natal [KZN], children are three times hungrier than anywhere in else in South Africa. We did six drop offs of e’Pap in KZN; then we went into Limpopo. A lot of research also goes into finding NGOs to distribute the goods.”

Every day is different for Bassin, and on the day she spoke to the SA Jewish Report, a dream came true. “I’ve always want to get e’Pap into the Transkei area in the Eastern Cape. It’s an 18-hour drive from Johannesburg, and we needed contacts there. Then we heard there is a little hospital in Port St. Johns, and a staff member went to the headman of the area and asked for permission to bring food in.

“Today, she phoned to say we can go ahead. We are furiously trying to organise two tons of e’Pap to be delivered to Port St. Johns. We are also working with Rotary International to deliver vegetable seeds along with the e’Pap, so that in six weeks, people will have cabbages and carrots. If we just send 30 days of e’Pap, they will be hungry again. They need to know that they will have their own vegetables.”

In spite of pivoting her focus since the start of the lockdown, Bassin’s life hasn’t changed much. “I never looked at myself as someone ‘chosen’ for anything. I’m purely a conduit,” she says. “You tell me children – especially those with cerebral palsy – are starving, well that’s the recipe for me to make a plan.”

One thing that has changed is that her work has more publicity. While she doesn’t seek the spotlight, she understands it helps her cause, “and the cause is always greater than the individual”.

Bassin takes the pressure that comes with doing work like this in her stride. “I believe it’s meant to be, and if it’s for the greater good, it will happen. It’s not just up to me but the forces at work around me. I often say that I’m taking a ‘band of angels’ with me, and right now, these angels are working hard, and keeping us going.”

Her family has chosen to join her. “They all do a different aspect of it. I’m inattentive at times, as I’m always busy, but they don’t mind and enjoy sharing and contributing ideas.”

Her organisation’s most urgent need is money to buy e’Pap. “We would also like to go into Lesotho – they are starving. In the United Nations World Food Programme, Lesotho is marked red as it is so hungry. We hope to send two tons of e’Pap there, and hopefully more.”

Another challenge is finding the people and vehicles to transport e’Pap. At the same time, although her organisation is small, she has a huge network. “If you ask someone for something in the right way, they will do it for you,” she says.

She has never felt unsafe. “If the community appreciates what you are doing, you are safer than anything else,” she says. She knows she risks contracting COVID-19 as she goes out into communities, but notes that she is also a risk to them. However, she feels it’s worth it.

She is most inspired by people who participate in any way they can, and take the work seriously. She has seen the worst of the worst circumstances, such as a young woman in Limpopo with young siblings and a newborn baby to care for, who punched the air with joy when given e’Pap, as she had absolutely nothing else. “Her face showed that this meant survival to her. It was tragic and inspiring.”

From all she has seen and experienced, Bassin says, “We aren’t all in the same boat. We can’t forget about people who aren’t seen and have nothing. We are all connected. I look after you, you look after me. We are all our brother’s keeper.”

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