Never let it be said that the vision of one individual can’t change the lives of many, even in places where resources are very few. Thulani Madondo is proof. This 29-year-old South African man was honored last night as one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes, recognizing his work as founder of Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the sprawling township of Soweto.
Besieged by high unemployment, rampant crime and a discouraging school dropout rate, Kliptown is a challenging place for a child to grow up, let alone find success. Most of Kliptown’s 40,000 residents don’t even have electricity or running water. Though apartheid ended formally more than two decades ago, its legacy remains deeply entrenched, particularly in shantytowns like Kliptown.
In 2007, Madondo and a small group of similarly inspired young people who grew up in Kliptown sought to change that. The way to make a lasting difference in their community, they believed, was to reach out to its children—the face of Kliptown’s future. So in 2007 they founded the Kliptown Youth Program, a community-based after-school program that provides educational support including tutoring, uniforms and materials, and positive activities such arts, athletics and nutritious shared meals to redirect the lives of disadvantaged kids.
It was especially exciting for me to see Madondo recognized by CNN, because I had had a chance to visit Kliptown last summer with my family and see KYP’s work in action, prior to our Botswana safari. Since our routing took us through Johannesburg, it was important to my husband and me that our 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter got some firsthand insight into contemporary South Africa, with a chance to meet local people. Our all-day tour of Soweto included not only historic sites such as Nelson Mandela’s home (now a museum), but also a guided tour of KYP.
We met school kids, walked through the brand-new library that students were so proud of, and visited our young tour guide’s one-room home. We came away wishing we had some extra time to stay and volunteer – to help the kids with their homework, lead a game of pick-up soccer, or prepare a hot meal (which may be the only one that many kids receive each day).
As it turns out, that very opportunity was created for Nat Hab travelers just a few months later! Travelers on many of NHA’s southern Africa safaris can add the Kliptown Youth Program Voluntourism option to their itinerary, offering a full-day immersion with the kids of Kliptown, as well as historical perspective and greater awareness of South Africa’s political and economic challenges.
Anyone heartened by what’s happening at KYP surely shared in the joy as Madondo was honored last night at CNN’s gala event in Los Angeles. With 6,000 people in attendance in the Shrine Auditorium, Madondo was introduced by rap artist 50 Cent, then took the stage to share these comments:
“Every day at KYP, we feel so grateful to be able to help change the lives of hundreds of children living in Kliptown’s shacks. Having grown up in Kliptown ourselves, we know the daily struggles. We know the challenges. For us, we have a saying: ‘Pull up your own socks.’ It is a privilege to teach that to the children, but an even greater gift to see them do it. Thank you.”
As one of this year’s top ten heroes, Thulani has received a $50,000 grant to help KYP continue the work of helping Kliptown’s children. At present, KYP provides academic support, meals and after-school activities to 400 children.
“There are more than 10,000 children in the community, so working with 400 might seem like nothing,” said Madondo. “But if (they) are dedicated … we can make a difference.”
One has only to look at Madondo himself to see the truth in that.