A dream of transforming a polluted wetland into a meeting place for young people has seen a thriving canoe club become established in the disadvantaged area of Khayelitsha, just outside of Cape Town in South Africa.
As young boys growing up in a Cape Town township, Siyanda Sopangisa and his brother Akhona spent hours swimming in the muddy wetland nearby. But as the years passed, the area became a dumping site — and much less enticing for humans, plants and animals.
Things changed when the brothers saw a sports program on television about a canoe club in another province. Together with friends, they set up Khayelitsha Canoe Club to help their disadvantaged community and restore the wetland of their boyhood. That was in 2013.
But, before they could take to the water, they had to tackle the trash.
"We had to do a lot of cleaning up [of the river]," Sopangisa told DW. "We were here from morning until late. We found bathtubs, tires, nappies [diapers], car bumpers, mattresses — almost everything. We even pulled out a dead calf." In all, it took them almost a year.
A TV sports program inspired Siyanda Sopangisa and his friends to set up the Khayelitsha Canoe Club and help clean up part of a local wetland
Fear of sharks and crocodiles
At first, it was difficult to get the township's young people interested in the watersports. "Most of them think there are sharks and crocodiles in here," said Sopangisa, who quit his job at a local supermarket to run the club. "They saw the wetland as a place where they couldn't do anything recreational."
But now the free club has 20 boats, and an active membership of 45 young people aged 10 to 18.
Members canoe every Saturday and Sunday, training five hours each day, learning everything from how to swim, to water safety, to basic canoe paddling and canoe polo.
"At first, it was very, very difficult because in the canoe, you must stay stable," said 17-year-old Philasande Klaas, who has been paddling for three years and wants to become a competitive canoeist.
When you first start out, you will likely capsize sooner or later, he said. "Then you must swim, and take the canoe with you. That was scary."
Throw it in the bin
A lack of environmental awareness was one of the main reasons why people used to dump their trash in the wetland. While the practice is still ongoing, Sopangisa said the canoe club raised awareness about the problem as kids who were paddling in the river began to tell their parents to stop throwing trash in the water.
"When people litter in the water, I say [to them]: 'Take it and throw it in the bin,'" said Philasande Klaas, who added that taking up the sport influenced his perceptions about environmental protection.
The club members learn water safety, canoe paddling — and how to take more care of their environment
This change in attitude has helped transform the wetland, which is part of the Khayelitsha Wetland recreational park. Every weekend, groups of community members voluntarily help clean up the now-thriving river, and wild species like African ducks, mudfish or plants like the pincushion protea have returned.
For 15-year-old Thobani Plaatjie, who joined the club several years ago, it's not just about canoeing. Joining has also helped him discover nature. "I like this sport, it's not well-known. I like the water and being in nature," said Plaatjie, who canoes almost everyday after school.
Paddling in the township
Khayelitsha Canoe Club also stands out because it is the only club of its kind in a South African township. In South Africa, the term township refers to the segregated, usually resourced-deprived urban areas reserved for non-whites under the Apartheid regime, which ended in the early 1990s. Townships were established outside of towns and cities, and people living there are among the poorest in the country.
The club also has to deal with other limitations, including that the water body is too small. "They don't have a 200-meter [656-foot] straight to practice on," said Richard Kohler, chairperson and coach with Century City Canoe, which has supported Khayelitsha with training, canoes and finding sponsorship. That's the shortest distance for sprint canoe competitions.
The devastating drought in the Western Cape province of South Africa has been a challenge as well. Water levels in the wetland have dropped dramatically, making it more difficult to paddle in the river.
But these problems haven't stopped the Khayelitsha Canoe Club. The founders hope that one of their members will eventually participate in the Dusi — the biggest canoeing event on the African continent.
And they've started raising funds by offering paddling trips to tourists, including international visitors from Germany, France and Norway.
Sopangisa doesn't regret quitting his day job at the supermarket — and is happy that the next generation will be able to enjoy the wetland, as he and his brother did when they were boys.
"Back in the day, I used to stress a lot. When I'm [at the wetland], I'm relaxed. What I've learned is, do what you love. And a major lesson is to be patient."