Maverick Citizen


Man on a mission: Art teacher’s quest to keep hope alive as lockdown hits township

Man on a mission: Art teacher’s quest to keep hope alive as lockdown hits township
A consignment of food donated to Lombardo this week. Photo supplied.

After his art school in Joe Slovo township near Port Elizabeth was closed when SA went into lockdown, teacher and education activist John Lombardo started raising funds for the families of the township. In the week since lockdown he has provided food and support to many people whose lives have been turned upside down – with one mission: To get the precious artists he is teaching through the next three weeks.

The Monday before lockdown started, art teacher, founder of ArtWorks for Youth and education activist John Lombardo sat down to write a letter to his students about what to do during the lockdown.

President Cyril Ramaphosa had just announced South Africa would go into a three-week lockdown on Friday 27 March in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Regulations severely restricted people’s movement and led to many businesses closing for three weeks and several retrenchments.

John Lombardo in the classroom where he teaches.
(Photo: Supplied)

This is what Lombardo wrote in his letter:

“Please do all on this list while we are apart: Some of you have taken a book or two. Read them to yourself, out loud and to your families. If you don’t have another book, read the one you have again and make a list of things you missed the first time.

“Write something every day. Ideas: What are your thoughts about this virus? What three things are you most grateful for? What is the best thing about being on lockdown? Who do you worry about the most? Explain why.

 “Write a letter that you may or may not give to your favourite teacher once you’re back in school. 

“Make a list of everyone who loves you.

“Think about who will most need your help during the lockdown. Who will you need help from?

“Look in the mirror at least three times a day and say: You have gone through far worse than this. You’re lovely. Look at your face! Then kiss the mirror with great enthusiasm. (Don’t forget to clean the mirror.)

“Wash your hands. (I gave you soap. Use it.)

“Think of how you can stay at home but still stay connected to others.

“Know that I love you tons and tons and will see you as soon as I possibly can. xoxoxox from a distance”

Lombardo teaches his learners that creativity brings hope.

Last year he helped a few of the children to write a screenplay for a short film called Sela (Drink), a story about the hardships children endure in the township because of their parents’ alcohol abuse. The film, made and produced by Rafieka Davis and Swirlcose Films, won a number of awards.

By the start of lockdown on Friday 27 March, haunted by the very real possibility that his learners and their families were likely to go hungry during the lockdown, he was back in Joe Slovo. This time he brought food.

“Hunger is the hardest part of my job. ArtWorks for Youth’s biggest budget line is food,” he said.

He said when he grew up in Illinois in the US his family received food from a food pantry. 

“I always had food. I was not ashamed, but grateful. It shaped what I do today, that food pantry.”

He said many of the spaza shops in the township were shut down for the lockdown period because they did not have trading permits.

“The nearest big supermarket is 2km away. We have families in places where even if they had money they cannot get food, and others who have lost their jobs and have no income. This is not only causing hunger but it means they must leave home to travel further to locate food or borrow money.”

Within the first week, he has managed, with the help of 12 individual donors, to supply 30 families, more than 100 people, with food for two weeks. On Thursday 2 April he did another run, supplying 21 families with food.

“People didn’t stop phoning. Sometimes even seven times a day. Many families are absolutely desperate for food.”

“You see people on the street scrambling to find money for electricity. This is a desperate situation. The few who work do casual jobs that have now been stopped due to lockdown. Others have lost their jobs due to lockdown.”

He has been working in Nelson Mandela Bay townships for the past 20 years. During this time he became a passionate education activist doing all he can to improve the quality of teaching in township schools. In December 2019 he and a group of his learners walked to the Eastern Cape Department of Education’s head office to request an intervention to improve the quality of teaching in the schools in Joe Slovo township.

“I teach my children there is hope in creativity. Not just in visual art but in creative thinking. Thinking how we can inject hope in this situation,” he said.

He said when the coronavirus pandemic started in South Africa he became extremely unsettled. 

“I was in New York during 9/11. I felt the same way. But something incredibly positive has come from this. People who have never donated to my project now want to help. I think we all understand the threat of hunger on a very deep level,” Lombardo said. 

“I am so busy. When I said goodbye to the kids that Monday before lockdown I said I will bring food on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We planned to feed 100 people. We didn’t want large crowds. But then the soup kitchens were closed. We made another plan.

“I am worried that the water has been off in Joe Slovo township for two days now. We have received a donation of water which we will take. 

“We have been loaned a bakkie so I don’t have to drive the water in my little car,” he laughed.

“When you go to the township, you will see people carrying on as usual. Many are looking for food but there are a lot of young people who are just outside because they can’t be inside their homes.

“Every night I obsessively watch what is happening in our townships. I watch the coronavirus situation in Khayelitsha and Alexandra.

“I have three kids with me who are attending the online school with the Valenture Institute. I am letting them stay with me so that they can continue their schooling.” 

Reverend Tobile Sonjica, who has been travelling through Nelson Mandela Bay’s townships, said the sudden lockdown had brought much heartache and worry to people who are living hand to mouth.

“They know they will suffer the most. It is hard to convince them to follow the president’s instructions because politicians have been lying to them for years. My worry is that the danger of the coronavirus spreading has not hit home yet. We definitely are not ready for it. People live so close to one another and there are no masks or anything. 

“People’s reaction to the call to stay home is frightening. Even now I am going out to check on people, to say, wash your hands. But it is hard to do when there is no water. We have a big crisis on our hands,” he said.

“We want to go out and encourage people. In many families there is nobody strong enough to say, stop, I am locking this door and you are all staying inside. Government must allow us to go door-to-door and talk to the people.

“People think the politicians are lying. Now they just want food. I see them walk, even late at night, three or four women together looking for something for their children to eat. And let me tell you that is when I pray so hard that they will not meet up with the soldiers.” MC


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