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Community

One night in Alex makes us humble

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A team of Jewish philanthropists were recently hosted for a sleepover in Alexandra, Johannesburg, to raise awareness about the struggle the residents face daily in a township with rampant overpopulation, unemployment, and few resources.

The “big sleepover” was the brainchild of Solly Krok to celebrate his “92-years-young” birthday. Krok, the founder of Keep the Wolf from the Door; Marc Lubner of Africa Tikkun; Romi Levenstein of FeedSA; and the author were hosted by Linda Twala, the unofficial mayor of Alexandra.

On 27 May, the team visited shacks and spent time understanding how families live. Miriam Morifi, a gogo (grandmother), with her six grandchildren, a son, and a daughter, all sleep on one bed in a single room, as neat as a pin but tiny. Social distancing is impossible. Ablutions take place in rows of chemical toilets outside. There’s no hot water.

For many residents, a bath means scavenging for wood, building a fire outside, fetching a bucket of water from a public tap, heating it, then bringing it into your single room to wash in a plastic dish. Food is prepared in the same room, meals are eaten there too, and there is barely enough space for everyone to sit. Privacy doesn’t exist.

The team handed out 62 blankets, 62 scarves, and 62 sanitisers and mask packs, and 1 000 loaves of bread, before tucking into a kosher braai arranged by Lewenstein with some of the local community.

Though Twala is referred to as the unofficial mayor of Alex, he is loved and respected unconditionally. People in need stream into his home continually, knowing they will find help or at least a loaf or two of bread. When his home was destroyed during the struggle years ago, Twala built a centre focusing on community needs rather than just his own. His focus remains on the elderly, the disabled, mentally challenged, and single mothers.

Though the team was safe, warm, and comfortable, it was impossible to sleep in this jarring environment, in which people’s needs can best be described as a relentless tsunami. As huge as the project is, it’s but a drop in the ocean.

The following day, the team visited the Phuthaditjaba Centre, an Africa Tikkun initiative established in 2006 to serve meals to the elderly. Soon after it opened, children started arriving at the facility looking for a meal and a place to get off the streets, and the centre blossomed into a youth centre sporting excellent facilities.

The author also visited the home of an elderly Alexander resident who had been attacked by rats. Being over 90, she was unable to escape, and the rodents literally gnawed on her legs. In spite of this trauma, she greeted visitors bearing blankets and bread with a warm smile. An infestation of rats the size of cats has been plaguing Alexander residents for years, and this tragedy has led to a notable clean-up of street litter.

Lastly, the team delivered two big truckloads of firewood supplied by Palletmen, and the last of the blankets, scarves, and sanitiser to Setswetla, an informal settlement. Without electricity, people rely on wood for cooking and heating, and as winter sets in, it’s a commodity in high demand.

Every year, we prepare ourselves for Yom Kippur and fuss about fasting for a day. So many in Alexander didn’t eat today, or yesterday, and there’s no guarantee they will eat tomorrow. This isn’t a remote situation in a far off place, these are real people, just a few kilometres down the road in Alexandra township.

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