Warnings of a raised terror threat reached our ears just as the Snap Foundation convoy rumbled into the Kwide township – minibus, pickup truck and hatchback, incongruous against the corrugated steel shuttering and reclaimed wood boarding.
Warm Cape winds thrashed plastic waste into glistening walls built against any fence or object it could secure anchor. An intoxicating patchwork fragrance of African cooking over wood fuelled fires interspersed with the smells of poverty living. The nerves amongst our Snap Foundation team were palpable.
But all fears of terror and roadside armed robbery melted away as we entered the township’s school – Emzomncane Primary.
The infectious energy, cheerfulness, and happy smiles that we found within – emanating from people facing a surfeit of opportunity, poor living conditions and class prejudice – filled me with good spirit. I had arrived in the comfort of a British Airways A380 Airbus and the juxtaposition of these two worlds, separated by mere minutes and only a few kilometres set my head spinning.
But my bewilderment was soon forgotten as I got stuck into the work I had arrived here to do.
I was with five international photography students who had all signed up to help teach children in South Africa a method of expressing themselves through pictures. One of the volunteers, Yifan Hu from Wuhan City in China, was taking time out from his studies at London College of Communications. He had been immersed in a project on Hereotopia, a concept the philosopher Foucault created to describe places and spaces that are neither here nor there.
But after a university visit from my fellow Snap founder Remy Whiting, Yifan decided to temporarily jump ship and join us in the township. As he enthused about spaces simultaneously physical and mental, like the space of a phone call or the moment when you see yourself in the mirror, I wondered if aspects of life in a township reflected any part of the Hereotopian world.
Natasha Clemo, a Cornwallian Brit who had heard about Snap from her tutor at Plymouth Uni, also spent time with us in Kwide. It didn’t take long before we heard her effusing about realising how blessed she is and how she will never again take anything for granted. Meanwhile, from Cardiff, Wales, we had Amy Davies, whose safety concerns about traveling to this part of Africa were muted but not entirely diminished, after recently witnessing an aggressive face-to-face credit card robbery in broad daylight.
But Amy expressed to me that experiencing the Snap project had rebuilt her confidence. It seems to me that the beneficiaries of Snap are not limited to the children being taught but also the students just beginning to explore their understanding of the world beyond their previous experiences.
Amy thinks that everyone she knows back home would benefit from the experience, that she is stronger than she thought she was and more loving than she realised. Amy has made some lifelong friends and – along with Natasha – has vowed to return next year to help the Snap project reach more people.
Out on the playground James Purdey from Maine in the U.S. was heading a ball across a group of year 10 students, pointing digital cameras skywards. They were sitting in an inner circle learning how to take action shots. James, a strong-looking ‘all American kid’ attired in back-facing baseball cap, T shirt and baggy shorts, was holding the enthusiastic attention of not only his class, but groups of other school children on a play break. James had discovered Snap on the Changing Worlds website. Although James had previously taught in the U.S. he described this experience as being on a “whole different level.” He claims that the children of the Kwide township are the happiest he has ever met.
More than volunteers, these students had committed months of their time to teaching in foreign lands, taking money out of their own pockets to cover the flights and accommodation costs to be here. These guys were truly committed to helping people other than themselves. Some had borrowed money from friends and family, some had sought sponsorship and others had saved their earnings from bar work and other weekend jobs.
Snap put their time and effort to good use, leveraging the infrastructure of United Through Sports to provide secure accommodation in Port Elizabeth to the Snap student teachers with thirty or so other like-minded folk. I met Sophie from Germany and Mel from Switzerland. This global fusion clearly makes for a culturally rich, diverse and totally inclusive chapter in all their lives.
Although the volunteers were working a full curriculum during the school week, the weekends were their own. Some had been shark diving the previous weekend and others spent nights karaokeing away at Barney’s, a popular Port Elizabeth bar. All were looking forward to the trip to a game reserve at the end of their tour, where they got a chance to photograph the incredible wildlife; lions, elephants and all the other beautiful animals living here.
Back in the playground a diminutive and smartly dressed year ten pupil called Yonela Mrasi chatted with me. Yonela had never used a camera before. She particularly liked zooming in and taking action shots and silhouettes. Yonela told me she loved Amy and thought that Remy was a cool guy.
Her enthusiasm extended to all of the children I met. Athule Makuma dreamed of the possibility that she might one day become a professional photographer, although becoming a doctor was also another option she was exploring.
On my arrival at the student accommodation earlier in the day I had been enthusiastically welcomed by the infectious good humour of Programme Manager Domineque Scott. Dom had visited from Delaware in the U.S. for a few weeks a couple of years ago, but liked it so much she decided to stay.
I felt immediately embraced by this broader family, brought together by a common selfless goal of helping others, but sadly my time here to see for myself what we are achieving with Snap, was all too short and it was time to head home.
Like so many of the volunteers I met I am blessed with a head full of wonderful memories, a clutch of new friends from around the globe and a 32Gb SD card full of photographs to help me ‘picture my world’ and tell my story.
I know now that what we have started at Snap has the potential to become a real contributor to better global cultural understanding and tolerance. I hope that it will also be a continuum in my own life’s journey from here on in.
You can discover more about Snap by visiting snap.foundation. Please support our Facebook page at Facebook Snap and follow us on Twitter. We welcome any enquiries about sponsorship opportunities, volunteering and donations – call Remy on +44 (0) 7704 587073 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also donate to us at Crowdfunder.
Graham Dodridge is Founder and Director of Snap – as well as an avid photographer.