John Kelly's Washington

D.C. man's program helps poor South African youths

Roy Barber, left, founder of the Bokamoso program, with Mmule Tsoai and Solomon Mahlangu, two of its mentors.
Roy Barber, left, founder of the Bokamoso program, with Mmule Tsoai and Solomon Mahlangu, two of its mentors. (John Kelly/the Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Thursday, January 21, 2010

"I'm so inspired by these young people," Roy Barber is telling me. "They're so much more interesting than I am."

This is Roy's gentle way of telling me that I shouldn't be talking to him, that I should be talking to the people seated around him, visitors from the South African city of Winterveldt.

I'm sure that's true, Roy, but let us linger on you for a while yet.

Roy is 58. He grew up in Memphis, a white boy surrounded by that city's racial strife. His mother, Oma, a teacher, dealt with it head-on: She worked for civil rights. Together, they opened a day camp in a neighborhood shattered by riots after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder. When Oma passed away in 2002, Roy decided to use his inheritance to fund the Bokamoso Youth Centre, an organization trying to lift young people out of the poverty of Winterveldt, a city of about a million, north of Pretoria.

"Most young people there learn to despise their life," says Solomon Mahlangu, director of the Bokamoso Centre.

"In our community, a lot of bad things are happening," says Christopher Madikiza, 23. "If you stay home, you're exposed to them."

Young people from 14 to 25 enroll for three-month sessions at Bokamoso -- the word means "future" in the Setswana language -- taking classes in life skills. They might more accurately be called "life or death skills": HIV prevention, nonviolence, leadership . . .

Roy teaches drama at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac. Music, dance and theater are a large part of Bokamoso's focus. Students weave their experiences into powerful works of drama borne aloft by traditional African singing, their voices meshing in a way that is both deep and buoyant.

"I don't think anyone tells them they can't sing when they're little," Roy says. "It's sort of like breathing. It's what you do in your family."

The center serves 105 young people a year. Each January, a dozen are selected to come to Washington for a month-long visit. And here they are in the comfortable Chevy Chase living room of one of Bokamoso's Washington supporters. A party is in progress, and they're still in that jazzed state that long-distance travel can bring on, seemingly unconcerned that much of their luggage hasn't shown up.

What do they think of America?

"It's very different from what I see in movies and music videos," Mmaabiya Constance "Thusi" Mofuoa, 20, says. What does she see? "Violence. Scandal. It's not as violent as they show."

And no fences! In South Africa, every house is a compound.

Roy Barber's program is a true exchange. In March, 20 of his St. Andrew's students will go to South Africa. He works with Leslie Jacobson, a theater professor at George Washington University, to write material and expose the Winterveldt visitors to college. Scholarships are a part of Bokamoso's offerings.

Says Elsa Nkuna, 21, "The real reason isn't just to go to the United States, but to go to school, to grow."

Someone pulls out a letter from Daniel Keneth Mphuthi, a Bokamoso veteran who had hoped to make the trip but then was offered that rarest of things: a job.

"I had to choose [between] going to America or not and going to the center or not," Daniel wrote. "I have decided that Bokamoso has prepared us for our futures so we too need to start building our futures. Thus I decided to leave everything and go to work."

The party guests file into another room and take their seats on folding chairs. A gentle touch will be applied -- the center is always looking for donors -- but first, a treat.

"The meaning of my life has been to share their stories with you," Roy says by way of introduction.

And with that, the young people of Bokamoso open their mouths and sing, their voices traveling from Washington to Winterveldt -- and up to Oma.

See you soon

I'm taking a week off. But first join me at noon Friday for my online chat at http://www.washingtonpost.com/discussions. "John Kelly's Washington" will return Feb. 1.

The Bokamoso ensemble will perform at 2 p.m. Jan. 31 at St. Andrew's Episcopal School and at a benefit concert at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at George Washington University's Marvin Center. For information, call 202-994-0995 or visit http://www.bokamosoyouth.org.


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