By Amy West
“Where I grew up, no one asks a girl, ‘What do you want to be?” said 19-year-old Boitumelo Kgame, of her early life growing up in a South African township.
“So many things are normalized in the community. The whole culture of sugar daddies, older men dating young girls. It’s not okay that people from the township comment on what girls wear or the way you look. So many things have been normalised, and no one speaks about it. Even older people that are discriminating the girl child… you are supposed to respect them, greet them, give them that space as older people. You are constantly seeking this idea of safety in the community,” she said.
Despite the challenges, however, many of Kgame’s generation are learning to make informed choices. In her case, it was thanks to a novel programme.
“When DREAMS came to my school, it gave what was happening to me and around me terms to understand things better. Comprehensive sexuality education helped me make sense of things,” Kgame explained.
The program, whose name stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe, focuses on schools as platforms to improve girls’ leadership skills, well-being, and health, seeking to retain them in school for longer and to open greater future social and economic possibilities for them.
“DREAMS… taught me that my body belongs to me. It taught me about sexual health, things that I wasn’t aware of and that I wasn’t taught at home.I knew what to do if someone came to me with a problem, and so I could have the conversations for others to feel safe and empowered. It made me feel heard, respected and understood.”
The University of Cape Town dorm room in which Kgame is speaking could hardly be more different to the childhood she describes. This space is clearly her own, inviolate; a bed neatly made, a music corner with a violin leaning against a wall and above the music stand, Kgame’s favourite album covers taped like family photos to the wall.
Among the album covers is a photo of Bra K. He taught her how to play the violin, she explained, using music to teach self-discipline and to open township kids’ minds to a world of possibilities. For her, he was the M in DREAMS, the mentor. In a community where many children are raised by relatives or family friends, a mentor can make all the difference.
Above Kgame’s desk, the art taped to the wall is mainly by Black artists. There is beauty and strength.
“There is a political element to the art. There is a political element to Black bodies too. These are artists who want to show what it means to be Black, that Black art doesn’t always need to be created from a place of pain,” she shared, as the golden light of a Cape afternoon moved through her room.
“At a certain age, you realize your body doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to society. People have comments about your body and they take that power from you, of how you perceive yourself. And then your behaviour – it isn’t about you. If you don’t act according to community standards, then it’s problematic. You are caged in your own body. I have been socialized like that,” she stated.
Kgame and her older sister – who was the primary caregiver while their mother worked to support the family – are the first women in their family to attend university.
“When I was in high school, there was a lot of teenage pregnancy. The people I grew up with, some of them now are deceased because they died of AIDS. There is now this fashion of dreaming for yourself and working towards your dreams. In my time, it was maybe that individual and that individual, and there was not a lot of care about who you were to become tomorrow. But I think USAID and organizations like them are committed to bringing education to township schools and getting young people more exposed to what you can become” her sister said.
For Kgame’s former teacher, Mogami Unati, school represents an opportunity for conversations to be had that cannot easily be had at home.
“There are so many norms and beliefs about the kinds of conversations to have or not have. As teachers we are trained, so these conversations become easier. Grannies don’t feel sex is a subject matter for girl children to discuss. There is teenage pregnancy. There is sexual and gender-based violence in our communities. Even young girls, because of the financial crisis and situation at home, they will date adults.”
She added, “But if we talk to them about this, we can talk about the disadvantages and consequences of engaging in such activities. School is such an important space to open these conversations, to talk to learners about what is happening – including rape – that many families don’t even know about.”
Coming into contact with DREAMS – which is supported by South Africa’s Department of Basic Education and the U.S. Government – changed how she saw things, Kgame said.
“I started to be more inquisitive. I started questioning why the girl child was always at the bottom of the social order. I realised I can be part of people that are catalysts for change, that want to make life easier for others, especially girls. I was drawn to the issue of early pregnancy. I would see miscommunication and misinformation around contraception among girls my age. And there was misinformation about the clinic nearby as well,” she said.
“I would talk with the girls and make sure they were in a safe space within the clinic. Once you start talking about certain things, you create safe landing spaces for yourself and others,” she shared. Kgame became an ambassador for the programme, sharing her learning with others in her school and the wider community.
Participation as a cast member on the radio drama Life on Madlala Street gave Kgame a taste of the power of art and media to transform lives, to change narratives.
“Being entrusted with the responsibility of being an ambassador and communicating about sexual gender-based violence and issues of HIV and AIDS – those are not light issues. They affect people globally. And being entrusted to represent people on this platform, I didn’t take it for granted and I still don’t take it for granted.
“There is always this misperception that once someone knows more about sexual issues, they have some sort of sexual experience. Why can’t I just be educated about it?”
These gaps and silences are now a motivating factor in Kgame’s life. She is currently studying the links between gender, politics, and development, hoping to be able to inform future decisions about education. From the discussion, from the artists’ renderings on the wall, it is clear that something powerful has happened here, something that has helped this young woman make meaning of who she is, in a world that has a complicated relationship with how girls are perceived and socialised.
“Learners are being fostered by grannies who don’t know about the information that Life Orientation classes provide. We need to educate these learners more on what is happening in their lives, so they will know what is right or wrong and take informed decisions,” she explained.
Amidst the art on Kgame’s wall, there is colour, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value. There is also language. One message in particular stands out:
‘I deserve to be happy and healthy’.
bird story agency