James* is a pretty remarkable kid.
He's shy at first, uncertain around strangers, but it doesn't take him long to warm up. I first saw him hanging out with one of the other boys, Colin. They were watching us paint old tires that are used as makeshift playground equipment, and they quietly discussed what was probably a ridiculous sight - seven white women of varying ages and sizes, prone on the ground with the smelliest paint in Africa, attempting - and failing at - creative paint jobs on these tires.
They held back until they saw me painting blue and green stripes on the last tire, and they finally got the courage to come over and chat. Mostly, they wanted to dip their fingers in the toxic-smelling paint, but they did their best to impress with their big smiles and few words of English - "green!" "blue!" "yuck!" - I was making progressively more and more of a mess of my tire, and they could tell. Every time I dripped paint where I didn't want it, one of them would say something to the other, and they'd laugh, probably at my expense. They cheerfully dipped their hands in the paint cans before I could stop them, and they enjoyed colouring the dust around our feet.
In short, James and Colin are pretty much regular eleven-year-olds.
Except that James' story is nothing short of horrific. An orphan, both parents have been gone for most of his life. He's bounced around from one relative to the next, finally settling with aging grandparents who are out of their depth with the houseful of kids they find themselves caring for. His grandfather is abusive, his grandmother impatient, and he goes hungry a lot of the time because the family is too big for the meagre income his grandfather brings in.
When the community support workers at Hands first met James, he was barely making eye contact with anyone. He always hung back, reserved, very shy. It took a long time to get his story out of him.
On top of the regular daily physical abuse, James told the support workers that one day, he had been playing with two friends, both slightly older than him. Somehow, the play took a dark turn, and he was raped, twice by both boys. When he got home, he was beaten because he was late.
James had nowhere to go. He stopped going to school. Nobody thought to look for him. He was a lost boy.
But he found his way to a Care Point, which is a feeding centre and safe place for the kids to go during the day. And he found himself a care worker, who is a volunteer "mama" - someone who will look out for him, who will visit him at home and make sure that he gets enough to eat and is taken care of.
The change in him has been slow, incremental at best. But you can see his natural curiosity and friendliness start to shine. He was one of about a dozen kids who attempted to braid my hair, and he stroked my head gently and said "Red hair!" I asked him if he had ever seen red hair before, and he looked at me as if I was from Mars. And when the children dance and sing - which they do every day - James is completely absorbed by the music and claps and grins so broadly, you can tell he is passionate about it.
Unfortunately, in these communities, James' story is not unusual. Which is, in an extreme understatement, problematic. For it's up to James' generation of boys, and the young men slightly older than him, to turn these communities around. Reaching them is key.
Right now, many - if not most - of the social problems facing these communities lie in the hands of men. Rape is a huge issue. Enormous. The vast majority of these children will have been sexually assaulted - or sexualized far too early - by the time they reach age eighteen. At the hands of men.
Another issue is alcohol abuse. The need for escape is not surprising, but alcoholism amongst men is a major problem.
AIDS has killed a significant portion of the parents of these kids. In some communities, infection rate is as high as 40 per cent amongst adults over 30. The problem largely stems from men leaving the communities to work in the mines in Joburg, where they frequently visit prostitutes and bring the infection home to their families. Promiscuity is culturally acceptable in the men - not the women - and protected sex is nearly unheard of. It's a macho culture, and nothing is going to get in the way of a man's pleasure.
So the problems compound. Absent fathers, no role models, little work, alcoholism, disease, abuse, rape. I find myself looking suspiciously at every man I see, and rightly or wrongly, I'm scared and angry. The situation feels almost hopeless, and my heart breaks for boys like James. It seems like they don't even have a chance.
Except that there is hope. Today we met a group of young men who are part of a youth group run by Betwell, an amazing young man who has recently started working with some of Hands' youth. Betwell is oh-so-quiet, but he has a winning smile and a groundedness that clearly appeals to these boys. He has a core group of six or seven boys - 16 or 17 year-olds - who love to sing, and who are more interested in playing drama games than kicking around a soccer ball. Clearly, they are boys after my own heart.
There are a couple boys in the group who are charismatic leaders. They radiate warmth, and they are clearly well-respected by the other kids. They led us in song, and they sang several tributes to Nelson Mandela, in honour of Mandela's birthday today. One of them - Fortune - gave a stirring speech about how Mandela was his hero, and how they must follow in Mandela's footprints every day.
These boys helped serve food to all of the other kids - traditionally women's work - and they gathered the kids together to decide how they were going to spend their 67 minutes toward helping others - a Mandela day tradition.
So it was good to learn that there are some great young men out there. We hear about so many of the problems, it was nice today to see some of the men who are working on the solution - men like Betwell and the other amazing workers at Hands, and these young boys who are clearly leaders amongst the next generation. Here's hoping they can stay strong, and stay leaders, and be the role models these kids so desperately need.
There is hope.
*not his real name