Mountain of Hope Amid the desolation of Soweto, a local son makes good by Megan Lindow
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Scattered throughout rented spaces in the neighborhood are various other Mentoor endeavors. A house across the street has been converted into a film- and photo-editing studio for students documenting Somoho's progress. A space up the road houses the marimba band and an art studio and shop where salvaged paper, wood, wire, bottles, and other scraps are sold.
Trash turned art funds Somoho's diverse projects, along with donations from the Development Bank of Southern Africa, the British High Commission, and the Canadian government. Mentoor gets help from the South African government as well, whether it's money or in-kind donations like computers. An organization called Food and Trees for Africa has provided Somoho with plants and seeds, while the soil and organic waste for planting came from the mountain itself.
Hundreds of kids have gotten involved in Somoho's activities. "The whole idea was to develop a corps of young people who understand the environment in the broadest sense: not just in terms of dumping and littering, but as the air we breathe, the soil where we dwell, the water we drink, the plants that sustain us and the broader world around us," Mentoor says.
Soft-spoken Kate Mthethwa, 19, is one of Somoho's regular volunteers. She graduated from high school last year and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. But, like many local teenagers, Mthethwa can't afford to continue her education. "Imagine if Mentoor didn't come up with this vision, how many people in Soweto would be hanging around somewhere in the streets," she says. "There was this thing called ubuntu but it's no longer there. Mandla is trying to bring that back."
Mentoor traces his own spirit of togetherness back to his youth. Instead of shipping him to the reformatory, his worried parents sent him to live with an elder brother, a rural policeman. Those were formative years. In his brother's Boy Scout troop, Mentoor led camping trips in the Maluti Mountains near the Lesotho border.
"That is when I realized that leadership is in me," he says. He hiked among wild, chiseled peaks and swam in clear rivers. Mentoor also realized what he could do when nature and humanity intersect. He recalls the epiphany of finding an old abandoned car one day and the idea dawning on him that he and his friends could fashion a makeshift boat from its roof.
Mentoor returned to the harsh world of Soweto as a teenager just before the notorious 1976 student uprisings; he was not among those throwing stones at the apartheid tanks, but he rebelled in his own way. He got himself kicked out of school for staging protest plays, and was on the run from the police. He had wanted to become a civil rights lawyer. Instead, he landed a job at a medical insurance company — but got fired for trying to unionize his coworkers.
In 1993 Mentoor founded Amandla Waste Creations, recruiting children and the unemployed to scour the neighborhood collecting bottles, cans, paper, and other bits of waste to make art they could sell. One thing Soweto had was plenty of trash.
At first, Mentoor's enterprise raised eyebrows in the community. His yard was filled with piles of bottles and cans rescued from local trash heaps, all to be used in art projects.
"I was a crazy person, too lazy to get a job — even bewitched!" he laughs.
But Mentoor was convinced that trash cleanup could provide jobs as well as a better environment. "We had nothing, absolutely nothing. The only thing we had was the waste," he recalls. (Today, he reminds neighbors and family members who doubted him that he paid for his house and educated his four children on his earnings from waste art.)
In 1995, the year after Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president, Mentoor approached the local civic association with the idea of turning garbage-strewn Somoho into a community park. Officials were taken aback. "It was a new concept," Mentoor says. "Everything that belonged to the government just belonged to the government." Gossip fluttered about the neighborhood: Who does that Mandla Mentoor think he is, that the government is just going to give him land?
Indeed, Mentoor found that under the 1995 Development Facilitation Act, a moratorium had been declared on developing public land while government grappled with decades of neglect in the townships. According to Mentoor, however, there was "no planning; it was just a dead zone." Mentoor didn't let up on local officials, and his vision for Somoho continued to grow.
In 2001, Amandla Waste Creations was presented with the World Wilderness Forum's annual Green Trust Award. The $1,500 check was the first funding the organization received. "We bought rakes, spades, digging forks, masks, gloves, and black garbage bags," Mentoor says. The tools were used to begin cleaning up Somoho.
Adelaide Malongwe, a friendly young woman now in charge of Somoho's gardens, recalls that volunteers would gather every Thursday to clear away the refuse on the mountain. "We would never eat on Thursdays, because when we would think of what we were smelling, we just put the plate away," she says, making a face.
But volunteers didn't just stay on the mountain. They fanned out into the neighborhood, gathering information on what people wanted to see on the land. They went to churches and civic organizations; they distributed questionnaires and held meetings. In turn, the community began to pay more attention to the mountain's transformation.
In 2002, when the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Johannesburg, Mentoor was determined to put Somoho on the map by hosting a parallel Children's Earth Summit there. Preparations were touch and go. Just three months before the event, the Somoho Trust was granted a ten-year lease to officially develop the area for the community. Malongwe remembers a frantic Mentoor organizing on his cell phone, borrowing time on computers and fax machines from friends with office jobs.
But it all came together, and more than 500 people attended the summit at Somoho, including UN Secretary-General Koř Annan and famed primatologist Jane Goodall. At the time, Goodall described the event as "the most exciting thing that has happened during the summit in Johannesburg. Mandla and the children of Soweto have created a powerful symbol for all of South Africa." After the summit, Goodall appointed Mentoor the South African coordinator of Roots and Shoots, her international environmental and humanitarian organization for youth.
The Children's Earth Summit helped galvanize community support for Somoho. "Today we are not shy to speak about Somoho, it belongs to us as the community," boasts Hasani Simon Baloyi, the local representative on the Johannesburg City Council.
But Mentoor emphasizes that the summit was just the beginning. His plans for Somoho are ambitious: It will become a tourist attraction as well as a gathering place for locals. He has already launched a neighborhood walking tour, and wants to convert the water tower into an African restaurant, providing much-needed employment and a source of income to help make Somoho self-supporting. Eventually, Mentoor would like to move all of Somoho's operations onto the mountain itself.
Site plans call for the construction of a theater, a multipurpose environmental and community center, a waste-sorting and recycling area, and several outdoor meeting and party areas. And after that, Mentoor hopes to see Somohos popping up on open spaces in townships throughout South Africa. "We need to start focusing on the most impoverished provinces and zoom into those," he says.
Standing atop the water tower with a group of students from another town, Mentoor looks around the circle of faces and asks: "Are you going to do this in your school? Are you going to plant trees in your school? Do you want Somoho to happen in your community?"
Megan Lindow is a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa.Up to Top