“I had over 200 children coming to me saying they are orphans and are hungry. I couldn’t turn them away so I started cooking for them,” says 71-year-old Sylvia Mvumvu from Alexandra, Johannesburg.
Mvumvu was born in Johannesburg and has always lived in Alexandra. She has been running a non-profit organisation (NPO) called Siyondla Umphakathi from her home since 2011. What started with providing regular meals to an orphaned child, now provides regular meals to 35 families in the area.
Mvumvu said the word spread quickly that the child was receiving food from her. “The thing that limited me then, was the size of my pot. That’s when I realised that there is a problem of hunger in Alexandra and the school feeding schemes are not enough,” she said.
After approaching the department of social development for advice, Mvumvu decided to register as an NPO and partnered with local shops in the township. She said she also started sending food home because “the kids would often ask me to dish a bit more so they could eat with their gogo at home”.
In 2016, Mvumvu secured a contract with Woolworths in Centurion. The contract is renewed every six months.
“They (Woolworths) came and did their health and safety checks and since then, I have been working with them. I collect the food from them and put it into packages for distribution,” said Mvumvu. Both the elderly and children collect food about three times a week.
When lockdown started, Mvumvu said she could no longer feed the children but continued with the feeding scheme for the elderly as it did not involve cooking and it was easier to ensure that safety protocols were followed.
“I want to reach so many more people but I don’t have the funds to get my own building so I can run a proper operation with an office and catering-size kitchen,” she said.
“The other limitation is that some children and elderly people live far away but they still need food. I would love to get a bakkie so that I could deliver the food to those people,” she said.
This week, Mvumvu’s driveway was covered in bouquets of flowers and food parcels being packed by the Siyondla Umphakathi team. The packages consist of strawberries, blueberries, spinach, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, bread and other food.
At around 2pm, mostly elderly people from the community started trickling in. They were allowed in through the gate one at a time. Each had on a mask, and their hands and shoes were sanitised.
Leah Mtshali, 76, who lives with her two grandchildren, has been collecting food parcels from Siyondla Umphakathi for several years. “This package of food also helps to feed my grandchildren because I can’t pay for everything out of my pension,” she said.
Mtshali said Siyondla Umphakathi also used to host workout, sewing and knitting classes which kept them active. “It really brought us together as a community of elderly people but I must say I don’t miss the gym classes, I’m too old for that,” she said laughing.
Ward councillor Moses Pandeka said Siyondla Umphakathi helped reach people that had fallen through the cracks during Covid-19.
“Because of the large population of Alexandra, the social relief that the government gave, doesn’t always reach everyone. That is where NPOs like Siyondla Umphakathi have really stepped up,” he said.
Most children are provided meals at school through the school nutrition programme, he said, but during the lockdown those children could not collect food as they usually would because they lived far away from their schools and parents did not have money for transport.
A group of young people also started a soup kitchen because other children were not getting food at home “which shows that the community has really come together during this time,” said Pandeka.
- This article has been republished with permission from GroundUp.