From plants to paint in Khayelitsha

Juma Mkwela is an extraordinary man, born in Malawi and raised in Zimbabwe, he’s an artist with a big heart, a jaunty smile, and a passion for the community. 

Juma fled Zimbabwe in 2006 amidst political, social and economic turmoil and came to South Africa in search of a better future. However, in May 2008, Juma became a victim of the xenophobic attacks that swept through townships across South Africa.

He lost everything and was forced to go live in a refugee camp, where he stayed for five months. In a situation like this, it’s easy to become bitter and resentful. But Juma recognised that it wasn’t the entire community and was well aware that xenophobia is fueled by a lack of education and understanding.

He set out to change this.

juma_mkwela

While he was still in the camp, he did a number of leadership courses, as well as running workshops where he taught craft to the youth. In 2009, his path crossed with famous South African street artist, Freddy Sam, and they quickly realised that they had a share interest in helping the community through art.

Juma soon noticed that more and more people were asking him about the city’s street art, and from there came the idea of taking tourists on tours around the streets of Woodstock, while encouraging the community to get involved in creating art that benefit the community, and ultimately make it a safer place due to the increase in foot traffic.

As his tours started growing, Juma saw the potential of street art and the positive impact it has on the community, and decided to expand his operation into Khayelitsha, the community he feels so passionate about. Juma’s Khayelitsha is one of opportunity and his goal of creating positive, sustainable change is interweaved into his tours. Instead of just taking visitors on the normal ‘sight-seeing’ tours that most township excursions are known for, visitors on Juma’s tours get their hands dirty, literally, by gardening and creating art in the streets of Khayelitsha.

Tourist with children in Khayelitsha

Gardening has played a big part of Juma’s life since he was a boy, when poverty forced him to start a garden and sell the vegetables he grew in order to support his family and pay his way through school. He experienced first-hand the enormous impact that a small garden can have, both financially and psychologically, and started incorporating it into his tours – getting visitors involved in helping local residents to build their own vegetable gardens. Juma’s gardens are more than just a sustainable way to uplift the community, it also affords visitors the opportunity to have real, meaningful interactions with residents, often leading to shared meals and learning about each other’s cultures.

While Juma’s gardens are creating unlikely green spaces among the barren environment of Khayelitsha’s informal settlement, he’s also hard at work bringing art to the people by creating murals and street art with the help of visitors who are eager to pick up a paint brush and bring some colour to the dull and dusty streets of the township. He also works closely with schools to teach children about art and the powerful impact it can have in their communities, and show them that art is not just for the rich, but that it’s within reach of everyone.

Juma’s work in Khayelitsha has grown to such an extent that he has brought on a small team to help promote the township’s art scene ever further, and try and create awareness and development opportunities for local artists. Khayelitsha has a wealth of talented artists who are eager to get their work seen and voices heard.

Through his gardens, street art and other social upliftment projects currently running in partnership with local businesses, Juma has become a much loved member of the community, a true agent of change, and an inspiration to many. On paper Juma Mkwena looks like a great guy, when you meet him in person, you realise that he is so much more.

If you would like to book a tour: www.townshiparttours.co.za