SOUTH AFRICA

In Kayamandi as it is in Heaven

Meet the Nomavuka Family

Written by Sarah Zimmerman
Jun 29, 2019

“Okay, okay, try again.” Our Uber driver turns around, giving an impromptu language lesson from the front seat. He tries fighting back a smile but is doing a poor job. I muster up the confidence to give the phrase another shot, struggling to develop the clicking sounds to produce a halfway decent greeting in Xhosa. The driver’s efforts to restrain his pitying smile fall short; a hopeless laugh breaks through. 

“You know, in Xhosa, Kayamandi means ‘nice home.’ You can also say it like ‘our home.’” The driver’s tongue clicks with ease. Stellanbosch’s scenic wine country unfolds around us, and he rolls down every window so we can partake in the beautiful views.As we talk, he makes a sharp left turn onto a gravel road. 

It is dreamlike, this quick, jostling descent into Kayamandi. The polished roads that lead to Stellanbosch’s Edenic landscape dissipate; we arrive without warning, plunged into the heart of a bustling township. Women wrapped in emerald and apricot hues eye the car from the road, their thick flip flops slapping the soles of their feet. A man on the corner prepares for an evening braai. He leans back against a bright red shack as the meat glistens in the sun. The hills surrounding Kayamandi keep a watchful eye over the township, their picturesque vineyards owned by white farmers.

Kayamandi was formed in the 1920’s but did not become established as a township until the early 1950’s; it was an answer to white farmers’ demands for black migrant workers. Thirty-eight bare, brick-and-mortar homes were soon constructed and filled with laborers, ushering in the first wave of Kayamandi residents. The township was built out of a desire for cheap labor—alcohol was currency, given to workers as payment for their toil. Systematic inequality and racism were Kayamandi’s backbone.

Less than two miles away on Church Street, the apartheid regime drafted and passed a series of acts instrumental in solidifying segregation throughout the country. These laws further isolated Kayamandi and similar townships from upward mobility and embodied the racial tension rampant throughout the country. Kayamandi gradually grew from a community of working migrants to a diminished residential neighborhood for black Africans—an identity the township continues to claim today. 

Our driver taps the brakes, gliding to a stop in front of our destination: Amazink. This repurposed space, which holds a restaurant, cafe, and theater, has become the local safe haven for Kayamandi residents. It is a space where black, multiracial, and white Africans are found communing with one another—a bridge across racial lines in the divided region. The back doors make way to a natural amphitheater with a sunken stage. Hand drums swaddled in colorful mudcloth are stacked in the corner. A table full of adopted, spiritual, and biological mothers are laughing, watching their children dance up and down the amphitheater’s steps. It is here we meet the Nomavuka family, founders of Amazink and locals ringing in a new era of reformation for the communities surrounding them.

To understand how the Nomavuka family came to be, one must first know the story of Odwa Nomavuka, a local artist turned entrepreneur. Born and raised in Kayamandi, Odwa is the oldest of two children, with only a few years separating him from his younger sister Zintle. Soon after Odwa’s fifth birthday, Odwa and Zintle lost one of their parents, then the other.

“Death is not something that surprises anyone here,” Odwa says. “It is very common here, there’s the cemetery…it is African.”

After the deaths of both parents, Odwa and Zintle moved in with their aunt and uncle. As Odwa puts it, “It was great…until it wasn’t.” When he was old enough, he left his relatives’ house, instead opting for the streets where he shuffled between shacks. “As a teenager, in a township, which is a slum—you don’t want a teenager to be wandering around here. I learned how to survive, literally in a metal, concrete jungle. Contained.”

“Systematic inequality and racism were Kayamandi’s backbone.”

Drawing was Odwa’s solace, a place to land amidst the relentless uprooting. “For some people there’s alcohol or drugs—for me, I had drawing. It was an escape, so I used to draw.”

Odwa’s sister soon followed suit and departed their aunt’s house, joining Odwa on the streets. This shift caused Odwa to reevaluate his lifestyle. “Of course my situation was not healthy at that point, for [anyone] to be staying with me. So that forced me to restructure.” Both Odwa and Zintle were still in school; Odwa remained enrolled in part due to survival, getting by selling weed to fellow students. But soon he gave that up and found a job at a grocery store.

Just a few blocks over from the shack Odwa and Zintle lived was a place known as Roots, an open space with permanent art rooms, where local artists sold their work to tourists. On his walk home from school, Odwa observed the tourists drifting in and out, buying work from the locals. He decided to join their ranks and started to sell his art alongside them. 

“It wasn’t good art—it wasn’t. They bought it, and I know why. It was out of pity. They think, ‘Oh, poor township boy, selling art.’ But they bought it. Ten rand here, ten rand there. For me that made a huge difference.”

As Odwa continued to sell his art, he met another artist, a woman from the university who also sold work at Roots. She offered mentorship to help him polish his craft. He accepted. At age 17, Odwa transitioned into one of the artist rooms at Roots, where he began to explore other mediums. He started selling shirts and trying his hand at screen-printing, before eventually experimenting with film. He was doing well, bringing in enough income to fully provide for both him and his sister. In the newfound stability, Odwa grew restless. He began inquiring about teaching opportunities, interested in expanding his expertise. 

At the local high school, Odwa met a teacher who facilitated art classes from the back of her open Volkswagen Beetle. Odwa started assisting her in school, and her class grew. Before long they had to move into a bigger space, where they were adopted by a Christian organization. Odwa taught there, withdrawing from the surrounding township as he became consumed in the art community. Eventually he took over the class full-time. The class was incredibly successful—something Odwa takes pride in to this day.

“Death is not something that surprises anyone here.”

“I became a Christian within that environment. But I tell people the head and the heart did not connect…my heart was connected to art, that was for sure…but my concept of God did not connect. I did not see him as a Father—I just saw him as an Overlooker, which is everyone’s perspective of God in a township.”

As Odwa’s view of God began to evolve, so did his teaching style. “I would say sometimes to my students, ‘Okay, let’s leave the class. Get a sketchbook, let’s go into Kayamandi, let’s find a place that’s crowded. Let’s sit there—let’s draw. First wait on it, see what God shows you to draw, find something interesting, and then draw that.’ [At] that time, my mind understood Christ but my heart wasn’t in it…so in that organization I was sort of a rebel, because I was this raw, sort of Christian/unChristian person.”

Odwa’s faith was stretched, weighed, and doubted. Religion and authority were called into question and reevaluated. “Jesus doesn’t have a hierarchy,” Odwa says as he looks back on his faith’s development. “And I was seeking relationship with God, not a hierarchy.”

The year was 2010. Across the world, Alexandra was preparing to leave California to work for two weeks at a safe house for young, pregnant women in Kayamandi. At the time, Alex was a red-lipped twenty-two year old working as a hairstylist in Long Beach. “I thought, maybe I’ll study, maybe I’ll just work—but I felt God had something else for me.” 

Her two weeks in the township were transformative. After coming home,she felt an immediate pull from the Spirit to return to South Africa. She didn’t look back; Alex moved into the heart of Kayamandi to continue working with the community’s pregnant youth, mentoring and connecting the women with resources for a healthy transition into motherhood.

“It wasn’t until later on that I discovered my own mother had always wanted to be a missionary in Africa—same for my grandmother and great-grandmother. It never worked out for any of them; I was sort of passed the torch in that sense.”

Odwa and Alex’s paths first crossed when Odwa was commissioned to document the construction progress of the safe house Alex was partnering with, but the two weren’t properly introduced until the following year. Over time, they developed a friendship—one void of any romantic potential. “During that period, [Odwa] was showing up to work late and hungover. I would walk by his shack and knock on the door [on my way into work], shouting ‘You’re going to get fired!’ I did like him… I didn’t want to see him get fired.” They both laugh. Alex and Odwa’s laughter often spill into the crevices and pauses of their story.

Alex’s friendship and presence in the township changed things for Odwa: she was a like-minded questioner, always reevaluating the surrounding systems to see how things could improve. “She was an American, and Americans tend to ask a lot of questions. She asked different types of questions though…[Alex] brought to surface a lot of issues,” he says. 

Their friendship and trust in one another grew. Despite the depth of their friendship, Odwa didn’t truly consider the possibility of dating Alex, the effects of apartheid still strongly engrained in his mind. “I loved her, but I was scared to confess my feelings….she is white, and my distorted view of white meant superior.” 

Odwa begins listing the reasons the relationship felt unattainable. “I also wasn’t a ‘Good Christian,’ according to the organization that employed me. And I believed I wasn’t a ‘Good Christian,’ which led to a whole lot of emotional issues and insecurities.” At that time, Odwa was deconstructing and reconstructing his faith, unraveling concepts about God the Overlooker and beginning to understand God as Father, as Mother. His relationship with the Trinity deepened, connecting his head and his heart in supernatural ways. Alex offered support and encouragement as Odwa’s faith matured—they both were rebuilding their understanding of a Creator who offered abundant relationship, nourishment, and revelation.

Around this time, Alex and Odwa began collaborating on a project together. “Since we were both artists, it made sense to work with each other, not knowing that [it would] gravitate towards love,” he says. As feelings emerged, Odwa and Alex confronted the reasons not to be together, then consciously worked to overcome them. They were both positive, active members of the township, yet the very thought of their union caused backlash, forcing others to address their own beliefs about race. Their relationship was deemed threatening—forbidden territory in Stellenbosch, an area deliberately divided by ethnicity and skin color. 

From the back of Amazink, one can see the distinct neighborhoods on the rolling hills. Alex points, “There is the white neighborhood there, and colored people [the South African term for those of multiracial heritage] live over here. And of course, Kayamandi is a township built for blacks.”

In January of 2013, Odwa and Alex became engaged. They married that December in Los Angeles, then returned to Kayamandi. A year later Alex gave birth to their first daughter, Lilitha Amelia. As the Nomavukas created their family, they intentionally made decisions to weave together their cultures while honoring the distinct characteristics of their backgrounds. “[We decided that] Odwa would give [our children] their first name in Xhosa and I their English middle name,” Alex says. Their three children now carry both cultures in their names: Lilitha Amelia, Nonina Fayre, and their newborn son, Ntsika Monroe.

But weaving a family together from different racial and cultural backgrounds is not always celebrated. The Nomavukas are the recipients of frequent stares and comments. Not long ago, eating at a restaurant in Belmont—a neighboring, mostly-white area of Stellenbosch where the family recently moved—they came up against the ugliness of racism.

“Their relationship was deemed threatening—forbidden territory in Stellenbosch, an area deliberately divided by ethnicity and skin color.”

“The whole time this table of Afrikans-speaking white people was talking about us, about politics, thinking that Odwa doesn’t understand what they’re saying. I don’t understand Afrikans, but Odwa does fluently,” Alex says.

“The entire time they spoke about our family, how gross it is that we are trying to come in and mess up this country with all this interracial whatever. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I could tell they were very angry. 

“I shared [this experience] with another friend of mine from Belmont, who is wonderful, when she asked ‘How’s it been?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, it’s fine, we’ve had our first couple racist encounters…’ and she was like, ‘Here?! In Belmont?’

“I replied, ‘You’re white, by yourself. See I am also white, but I’m connected to these other people of color.’ It’s our reality, but we’re used to it. We’ve had people talk about us in black communities, white communities…you know, it just is how it is.”

Within the township of Kayamandi, Alex and Odwa embarked on parallel endeavors. Alex broke off from the safe-house organization she had first worked with and founded HerVoice in 2015. “In the beginning, I came for the girls, not for the safe houses,” she says. “I love little kids, but that’s not why I was here. It was always for the girls.”

Through HerVoice, Alex partners with women in the community to provide holistic care, including workshops, community groups, events, and support systems for teenage girls—many of whom are single mothers—as they transition into motherhood and independence. “We are mothers helping mothers where they can’t help themselves—until they can.”

While Alex launched HerVoice, Odwa was developing another project: Cafe Fusion. Odwa knew the power of artistic expression and felt it could be a catalyst for redemptive conversation in surrounding communities. Townships, replete with addiction and abuse, tend to be stagnant and void of upward mobility. “We want to pull young people away from addiction, and use art to lead them into freedom from depression, shame, and fear,” he explains. In the midst of a region fraught with racial tension, addiction, and hopelessness, Odwa and Alex envisioned a space for collective healing through the arts.

Initially, Cafe Fusion took on many forms. There were shows compiled of vibrant dances, theater, and spoken word, all performed by locals. There were resources provided to refine skill sets, such as writing workshops and dance classes. “There is a story to be told by every young South African,” says Odwa. “In the urban ghettos we were seeking to infuse the black community with a newfound pride.” Recognizing the fundamental role the arts had played in his own understanding of identity, God, and community, Odwa hoped Cafe Fusion would be a place of healing built on individual expression. 

The concept soon demanded a physical home. When they discovered a vacant space left by Roots (Odwa’s old home for selling art), Odwa and Alex’s vision was fully realized. They called the new space Amazink Live. Not only would it be a place where the arts were celebrated and creative expression encouraged, it would also be a safe haven where social good and entrepreneurship could be nurtured.

“‘There is a story to be told by every young South African,’ says Odwa. ‘In the urban ghettos we were seeking to infuse the black community with a newfound pride.'”

Odwa smiles. “In Kayamandi, there are only bars or shacks—there are no safe spaces. So we had this vision of a space, where whites, coloreds, and blacks would all be able to integrate into one. It could be … one room to talk about the past. We want to plant reconciliation, sow seeds that our kids will then run with.

“Townships can do better. They can flourish on their own—there are smart, young, black entrepreneurs here. [We can] be a big example of how a township can look, where white people can support, not lead. This should be a space that is neutral—not exclusive, no judgement.”

In 2017, the doors of Amazink officially opened. Painted in bright colors on the side of the stage: “Wamkelekile”—you are welcome in Xhosa. Alex and Odwa glow. “We had been dreaming of our own space that we could freely invite our [community] into; a safe place for everyone, from all walks of life, from every perspective; tables for conversations that matter, that uplift and encourage, a space where everyone who enters leaves inspired in thought and action and creativity,” says Alex.

They talk about those final days preparing the space for the public, sitting around with local friends around a table out back. “We watched our once “kids” [young people we have mentored] sitting…being adults. Talking about how the kids of now [in the township] need positive role models and confidence in the direction of their lives. Offering to do anything they can to do to help with no expectation of payment, simply because they love their community as much as (if not more than) we do.

“We realize that we have a very limited influence between the two of us. But we are now starting to see the fruits of our labor. Once we empower a few, they each will empower a few more, until so many more catch onto the fact that they aren’t here to only receive, but to give from themselves. Jesus had 12 and here we are, over 2,000 years later still talking about him. It definitely seems like he had it right, so who are we to think we could come up with a better plan?”

Alex and Odwa share a keen eye for areas of weakness and are unafraid to shed light on vulnerabilities. They find pressure points and lean into them; not out of rebellion, but out of the desire for a higher and holier standard. As I sit with them, it is evident that they each draw from deep reservoirs of grace and grit. The Nomavuka family carries the distinct aura of those who have faced enormous controversy but remain gentle, slow to judge, steadfast in their hope and vision. 

These two reformers behind Amazink and HerVoice are the breathing manifestation of Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Alex and Odwa are enduring visionaries with equal footing in each realm—in heaven and in Kayamandi alike. 

Photographs by Charlotte Simon.

Learn more: 

www.hervoice.co.za/

amazinklive.co.za/

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