There are eight of us in the car; myself, five Projects Abroad volunteers from the human rights office, our coordinator and our driver. As we drive through the gates of Bonnytoun we are met with high walls, barbed wire fences and uniformed officers, and I begin to feel slightly nervous at my decision to visit this boys’ juvenile detention centre.
We leave all our belongings in the car, are patted down and given a visitor pass by one of the officers. She seems very cheerful as she hums a whimsical tune, and I think ‘How nice she can feel so upbeat despite spending her days in a prison.’
Shuan Solomons, the coordinator and brains behind Projects Abroad’s social justice programme at Bonnytoun, leads us through a passageway and we find ourselves at the inmates’ recreation yard. There is a tall wire fence between us and about 20 boys all aged between 12–18. ‘Heyyyyy!’ they call out, running towards us. They all excitedly line along the fence with beaming faces as Shuan fist bumps each of them. I must admit, their smiles are contagious.
We continue walking towards the room where the volunteers will conduct their presentation; that is why we are here, after all. Every Wednesday as many as six human rights volunteers, and Shuan, come to Bonnytoun to show a presentation they’ve made to the boys. The presentations are about various topics that are relevant to the boys’ rehabilitation, in an attempt to encourage them to discuss their feelings and to educate them about how to make better choices for themselves when they are released from Bonnytoun. Today the topic is teenage pregnancy and STDs.
We enter a cellblock where there are six cells, each with several steel beds inside. The boys can hear us coming and they begin to curiously emerge from their rooms. One gives me a fright as he starts running towards Shuan and jumps on his back. ‘Oh no,’ I think, ‘the worst is happening! He’s being attacked!’ Shuan swings the boy over and they both fall to the ground in a wrestle, laughing as the other boys egg them on. Phew, they’re just playing. The boys are clearly excited by our presence!
We file into the presentation room with about 15 boys in tow. It’s a sparse space with off-white walls and worn linoleum floor. There are five large dark green tables with long bench seats at the end of the room. Myself and the other volunteers stand facing the boys in a line at the forefront of the room. One at a time we introduce ourselves and the boys are then able to ask us some questions. ‘Hi, my name is Erica, I’m 24 years old and from Australia,’ I say. ‘What are your hobbies?’ one boy with a tattoo across his forehead shouts. ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ another cheekily calls from the back of the room.
Most of the boys at Bonnytoun come from disadvantaged backgrounds and many grew up in townships where there is a much higher rate of crime than other parts of Cape Town. Gang culture is embedded in these kinds of areas and education is often low. Because of this, the volunteers decide to quiz the boys about what they already know about teenage pregnancy and STDs, to gauge their levels of education.
The boys are split into groups and one volunteer joins each table, helping them through their quiz sheets. It’s here that I get to know *Daniel. He is 15 years old and comes from a township about half an hour from Bonnytoun, and like most of his peers, he’s had a difficult upbringing that likely contributed to him being at this detention centre. I go through the questions with Daniel, helping him read some of the more difficult words and giving him hints to the answers. He tells me that he comes to the volunteer presentations most weeks because he loves to learn. ‘It’s good because I learn things that will help me when I get to go home, and to stay out of trouble,’ he says. His determination to better his life and make responsible decisions for his future despite his background and upbringing makes me oddly proud of him, and as we’re talking I feel like I’m speaking to any regular 15 year old. Daniel smiles and laughs and gets embarrassed just like an average kid and I quickly forget that he is here as a punishment for something more sinister.
The presentation covers everything from what an STD is and looks like, what contraception is, what kind of contraception prevents pregnancy and/or STDs, the signs and symptoms of STDs, the negative impact of unplanned pregnancy on teenagers, and the importance of using protection and going for regular STD check-ups. Discussions are open throughout most of the presentation and it’s great to see the boys opening up, asking questions and really engaging with the volunteers. They seem genuinely interested in what we have to say, and we can only hope that they remember these lessons when they are released from Bonnytoun.
Heidi Lindstad, a Projects Abroad human rights volunteer from Norway, has been visiting Bonnytoun each week for over two months. She says the visits are a highlight of her week and even though the objective is to educate the boys, she learns a lot too. ‘We have to do a lot of research prior to creating the programme and ensure we both engage and interest the boys. The volunteers learn so much about the political system and society in South Africa by talking to the boys and listening to their stories and opinions. We all learn from each other and the visits are extremely eye opening,’ she says.
It is clear to Heidi that the volunteers’ presentations benefit the boys immensely. ‘We get great feedback from the boys; especially from the ones you think wouldn’t care. It makes our day and motivates us to keep going and do better and better each time,’ she says. ‘Obviously we cannot change the boys – that is work they need to do themselves…but many of the boys are highly intelligent and know exactly what steps to take in order to succeed when they get out [of Bonnytoun]. The problem is they lack belief in themselves and support in their lives, so we try to empower them and give them hope and confidence so that they know they can make it in life, if they want it enough,’ she explains.
After the presentation the volunteers once again sit at each of the tables and have the opportunity to chat to the boys about what they learned today, on a more personal level. It’s here that I meet *Joe. I noticed that he answered a lot of questions during the presentation, so I ask him if he enjoyed it. ‘I’m already a father, so I understand a lot of this already,’ he replies. He looks like one of the oldest boys in the group and his face lights up as he talks about his young daughter. ‘She’s all that matters to me,’ he says.
Joe tells me that when he first arrived at Bonnytoun he was concerned with fitting in and portraying a tough persona in order to be respected by the other boys. ‘But it’s not like that anymore… I’m only focused on two things in here: Doing my time in peace and getting home so I can be a good father,’ he says. Unfortunately question time ends and it’s time for the volunteers to leave. Joe looks genuinely sad to say goodbye as he meekly smiles and thanks me for speaking with him. I don’t tell him, but I am quite sad to leave too.
The boys all exit together, many clapping and cheering and throwing their arms around their friend’s shoulders and patting their backs. I laugh to myself at their eagerness and zest and once again I can’t help but feel like they’re just a group of regular teenagers. It’s a feeling I wasn’t expecting to have at Bonnytoun, and it’s safe to say today was an undeniably remarkable experience.
*Names have been changed
After finishing her journalism degree in Sydney, Erica wanted to travel the world but also gain industry experience. She found the perfect opportunity at Cape Chameleon! Her interests lie in women’s rights, the environment, human rights and health.
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