Christinah Ngoy, 22, is a facilitator at Timbuktu in the Valley, a skills development space for children living in some of Johannesburg’s most impoverished inner-city neighbourhoods. All images by Thom Pierce.
I was born in South Africa, but both my parents are from the same place in Congo, from Lubumbashi. They met here in South Africa and got married, so it’s like they just transplanted their love story to a new place. I have a younger sister, and two younger brothers. My dad passed away when I was only nine years old, so I was raised by mom, suddenly a single mom, and my aunt.
The first time I used the internet it was like there was suddenly this whole world in this little phone. I remember looking for pictures. I was only 10 years old. There was a search box, and I typed in the words, and suddenly there were pictures of Congo, somewhere I’d never seen before. There were pictures of people, and they were my people, and they were so beautiful, the way they dressed, and the land itself was so beautiful. I remember thinking “Wow. This is my home”. And I had heard so many negative stories of the place, but by myself I could read about what I wanted to know, about the wildlife, the riches of the land. I’ve still never visited there in real life. I will, one day.
I used to help look after my younger siblings, and I loved helping the younger kids in my apartment building with their homework. And after the pandemic put an end to my jobs where I worked as a waitress and in a shop, I found this place. It felt like destiny, being here with these children.
Most of the kids here have parents who are unemployed. There are no resources at home. There might be a smartphone, because those can be bought second hand, but they use it to call, and nothing else. There is no exploration of the web, or using the smartphone as a tool to access important information or vital services, for public assistance. And they certainly don’t share their phones with their children, or give their phones to their kids to play and explore. It’s sometimes the most important thing they own, even without the internet on it, and they can’t replace it.
I can just see how having no reliable internet access affects these parents, and how it affects the kids who just have no exposure to the possibilities the web offers. How can you educate your children about how to use the web, what it can do, and teach them to use it safely, when you can’t do any of that yourself regularly enough for it to be familiar and easy?
And here, in this part of Johannesburg, there are so many immigrants who need to use the internet to connect with their families and communities, especially over the past few years with the pandemic, with lockdowns. So there are internet cafes on every corner. But is that meaningful access? They serve a purpose, but it’s very basic. It’s certainly not enough to become familiar. And what happens at night? When the internet cafes are closed, or it is unsafe to get to them? What happens if you have a medical emergency when the internet cafe is closed? How does someone send or recieve money to relatives after hours? It’s not good enough. It’s not a liveable life.
I’m a new mom. I have nine-month-old twins. Adrian and Aurora. When I was pregnant, I felt like the internet knew before I did! I used it to track my symptoms, to make sure what was happening was normal, to find out how I can take care of myself. And through the internet I was able to learn, to make sure I was ok, to read advice from doctors when I didn’t feel comfortable or heard in local clinics. And I found a community of mothers, a website where mothers shared their experiences, their knowledge. The internet is a community.
And I was able to find my place as an African mother too. I suppose we only know what we grow up with, unless someone tells us something new. So through the internet, through connecting with others, I can now say “this is what I was taught, but I can also learn how to do it better”. And I now have an idea of what sort of future I want for my children. It’s like the idea of a village raising a child. My village is a little bit bigger now.