South Africa's Bokamoso Youth Centre group tries to sing its way out of poverty

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 8:12 AM

The tall, thin girl from South Africa begins the song on a note so searingly high and pure that some students in the classroom of the Field School in Northwest Washington will recall having felt a chill.

This is what it sounds like when you are poor, from South Africa and singing for your life in one of the wealthiest communities in the Washington area.

Immediately, 11 of Elsa Nkuna's South African peers join her in a traditional dance, chanting, smiling, twirling, telling stories between songs, as students from America sit before them.

For the past four weeks, the youths from Winterveldt, South Africa, have participated in a cultural exchange here. They have been living with host families in Potomac and Bethesda and performing at schools and churches sometimes twice a day to raise money so they can attend college back home. Through it all, they've attempted to explain their culture and their country and the importance of song to both.

"When our country was ruled by an apartheid government, it was illegal to say anything ill about the government, " says Jabu Mfumba, 27, a member and a leader of the group. Song, he says, was a means of protest.

Now, the group is trying to sing its way out of poverty.

The South African township of Winterveldt, about 30 miles northwest of Pretoria, has a population of 700,000 and a 50 percent rate of unemployment. One in four people are infected with HIV/AIDS. Domestic violence is prevalent. There is little opportunity once a young person graduates from high school.

Since it was founded in 1999 by a South African doctor and nurse, the Bokamoso Youth Centre has been trying to broaden the horizons for the township's youth. Each year, the center selects 12 young people who have been trained in song and dance to travel to the United States for the month-long performance tour and to raise donations for scholarships through the exchange program.

In 2008, the center received $143,000 in pledges and donations through the exchange program. That covered 36 college scholarships.

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