Giving young people safety and hope in the Eastern Cape

UNICEF protecting children and adolescents like Madonono in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, through the provision of safe parks
16 year old Madonono’s mother died suddenly three years ago. UNICEF protects young people like Madonono in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, through safe parks.

UNICEF Ireland reporting from UNICEF’s Safe Park Programme, Eastern Cape, South Africa

I’m in South Africa for the start of UNICEF Ireland’s new partnership with The Cathal Ryan Trust. Over the next two years we’ll be supporting vulnerable children through the work of our partner Isibindi and network of safe parks in the Eastern Cape.

A safe park is an area where young people can play, read, eat, talk and feel safe. They vary in size and shape. Some safe parks are permanent structures while others are more informal, using ribbon to demarcate the area. Regardless of the setup, all safe parks are there for children every day and in the same place. All safe parks have professionally trained and accredited Child Care Workers (CCW).

We’re on our way to Queenstown to meet a youth group who are part of Isibindi’s Adolescent Development Programme (ADP). We arrive to the warmest most soulful all singing and all dancing welcome imaginable. You can feel the love as soon as you enter the park. There’s a library, a food garden, a park with swings and an overwhelming sense of joy.

16-year-old Madonono is part of the ADP group who meet once a week.  Emelia is her Child Care Worker, she is from their community and trained to be a CCW five years ago. Facilitated by Emelia, the group learn how to budget, how to cook, how to apply for college, how to grow vegetables. They dance and sing and learn how to deal with death. Madonono’s mother died suddenly three years ago. She now lives with her aunt and after missing a year of school she’s now returned and is determined to ‘come from nowhere and go somewhere’.

The depth of Madonono’s feelings as she tells her story is impossible to portray. Before coming to the safe park she couldn’t lift her head up, when walking along the road. The loss of her mother had left her with such an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that she couldn’t function. She was lost and feared who would help ‘lead her in life’.

When I asked how the ADP group was helping her, she replied simply that Emelia taught her how to grieve; “I now accept that my mum is never coming back and I know that it is possible to live without someone. I keep her alive by doing the things she loved. She saw me off to school every morning and was always very proud. Now when I walk to school I hold my head up high and when I look back to the house, I see her standing there. I know she’s proud of me. I am something and I can succeed.”

Emelia is a fully qualified and accredited Child Care Worker. She is especially skilled at talking to young people and earning their trust. “It’s the conversations that happen whilst you’re doing other things that matter. I could be gardening or cooking with one of group and they will open up and share some of the challenges they face at home.”

With the support of The Cathal Ryan Trust, the Isibindi programme will be able to reach over 20,000 additional children in the next two years. Madonono found in Emelia someone who cared. But when life has been so cruel – caring is simply not enough. The Trust will also fund additional training for CCWs in youth and adolescent empowerment. Emelia will work with Madonono to ensure she finishes school; she’ll visit her home weekly and will make sure they get all their allowances. She will help Madonono plan for her future and will be an ongoing support to her.

Madonono wants to buy a house, have a family and help others. When she grows up she wants to work as a forensic detective. I really hope she does. Although I have a strong feeling she’ll be a Child Care Worker. If she does, she’ll be a good one.

Kieran O’Brien is UNICEF Ireland’s Deputy Executive Director