Law & Human Rights in South Africa by Sandra Aigbinode
They say it takes a minute to meet someone, a day to know them, a month to really like them, and a year to truly love them. I guess rules were made to be broken because for me it took less than a month to fall in love with the Jupiter dorm boys of "The Bonnytoun Place of Safety", an institution for juveniles awaiting trial.
When we interns newly arrive from our different countries and are told of the various projects we are able to focus on during our stay with Projects Abroad, it is so easy for our humanitarian instincts to kick in and make us choose to help refugees, local communities, abused women and children, and other vulnerable persons, and that makes perfect sense. What we forget, including myself, is that these boys are products of those poor communities and abusive homes. A survey of the population within this institution will confirm this at a glance.
During one's first week at PAHRO (Projects Abroad Human Rights Office), it’s seldom that you see someone who already knows what they have chosen to focus on for the whole duration of their stay. This is a good thing because it opens you up and gives you a chance to go to as many projects as possible, which inevitably helps you make a decision as to which project(s) you are interested in.
I remember my very first visit to Bonnytoun with some other interns; we visited a dorm called 'S2' which had the older boys, age 17 and older. During our visit, a discussion came up about their crimes, and I remember how disappointed I was about the fact that they seemed impenitent of the crimes they had or had not committed. My disappointment led to discouragement soon after and I remember telling my roommate that I was unsure if this 'prisoners rights' project was in my capacity.
After expressing my concern with a supervisor at the institution, he recommended that I visit a dorm called 'Jupiter' which housed younger juveniles aged 14-15. He went on further to say that unfortunately these boys hardly had volunteer organisations visit them. Having a brother that age touched me and that was when I and another intern took it upon us to visit and hold workshops with these boys at least twice a week. Till date, this is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. On our very first mission to Jupiter we had a very successful workshop on the topic "distinguishing between persons and things". It focused on power relations between men and women, older and younger persons, and other such relationships.
That was the first day I truly comprehended that by imparting some positive values into the lives of these boys, we were making a difference. After our workshop that day, the boys asked if they could teach us a popular South African game titled "Murderer". Remembering that moment always makes me laugh hysterically because I remember looking around at the faces of the other interns and they all looked very panicked and scared. Contrary to our expectations, the game was far from violent; it included a lot of dancing, smiling, and winking (literally the most important element in the game).
After four weeks of interesting workshops with the boys, intense football matches that completely damaged some very pricey shoes, and very fun South African, Canadian, British, and German ice breaker games, it was extremely difficult to say goodbye when the time came to do so. I remember that it was on my last visit there that one of the boys came up to me and poured his heart out to me. He told me about the things that were bothering him, how he was missing his family so much, his shoes were broken and he had nothing else to wear, and other issues he was going through at the time. At that moment, I knew there was little I could do for him, considering my flight back home was the very next day. I ended up buying him a pair of shoes and told him it was to symbolise his promise to me to stay out of trouble. That small gesture I hope will be that symbol of hope that someone out there loves him and believes in him.
If there is one thing that I have learnt from this experience, it is that one should never underestimate the extent of your contribution no matter how little it may seem. Very recently I received some update about my Jupiter boys and learnt that two of them were free and going home. The one kid named ‘Luke’ was one that I believed had prospects to be successful in life. He continuously voiced that he would love to start university once he got home and would one day visit me in Canada as proof that he had changed his ways. Of utmost importance is the fact that on my last visit there, he told us that he had done all the bad things there were to do and was over that lifestyle. He was ready to go back home, change his ways, and help others along the way. It gives me happiness to realise that what seemed like a mere one month contribution may end up being the reason for someone’s positive change or possible a whole community’s reason for hope.