After living in South Africa from 1999 to 2002, Michael returned to this great nation in 2003 to take up a job with KPMG. After buying a house and planting a few literal and figurative roots in Johannesburg, Michael stumbled across a group of kids performing at the Rosebank Rooftop Market. As it was explained to him at time, the Soweto Marimba Kids project was run by a primary school principal who was working with the school’s gardener to teach kids music, and then arranging busking performances to raise much-needed funding for the school. However, the project was not achieving the goals set out by the principal.
From 2004 to 2008, Michael volunteered with the Soweto Marimba Kids to help raise awareness of their initiative, including arranging and funding two tours to Canada with 28 and 26 kids, respectively. The first tour was designed to supplement a goal Michael had of raising awareness and funding for another project he supported – Cotlands – while the second tour was geared simply to give the kids an opportunity to showcase their hard work and talent.
Mid-2008, after the successful completion of the second trip to Canada, Michael learned that the school’s principal was not “raising funds for the school”. Rather, he had effectively stolen more than R500 000 from the kids through misappropriated funds, including significant donations from corporate sponsors. When the Gauteng Department of Education refused to do anything with the volumes of evidence Michael collected to prove the theft, on the basis that “It’s difficult to find a decent principal” (a direct quote from the MEC for Education), Michael simply had to walk away.
At the behest of two of SMYLe’s senior performers at the time – Jabu and Neo, who continue to be part of the project – Michael gathered a small team of Trustees and established a fully-registered non-profit charitable organisation – the Soweto Marimba Youth League (SMYLe) Trust – with formal registration and tax clearances completed early in 2009.
In 2010, SMYLe was very active in the build-up to, and exciting hosting of the Soccer World Cup, gaining international recognition in several countries (e.g., Honduras, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, USA, Germany and the Netherlands). While SMYLe never received an invitation to perform at a match, the team was frequently asked to perform for CocaCola SA, and at various hotels in and around Johannesburg during the tournament.
On the back of such a successful few weeks, SMYLe returned to Canada in September 2010 for the last of the team’s tour of high schools, churches and community events in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge area of Ontario, performing to more than 30 000 audience members over a packed 19-day schedule. Unfortunately, these tours had to end due to Michael’s inability to continue to cover the high cost of taking teams – and their instruments – to Canada (roughly R500 000 per trip).
Having bounced from venue-to-venue for the first couple of years, SMYLe eventually found a “temporary home” at Forte High School, where the majority of SMYLe’s learners attend school. With varying degrees of success, SMYLe has been able to lock the team’s instruments within a storage room and use empty classrooms to host our homework club and supplemental maths classes. Unfortunately, Forte has had to reduce its commitment to supply SMYLe with space to host our full range of activities, creating problems with our ability to provide our full suite of services to the kids.
Over the years, SMYLe has had an average of roughly 40 kids per year…with a maximum attendance of 110 learners in 2013.
SMYLe has funded 12 first year university bursaries, with only four learners reaching 2nd year, and only one reaching 3rd year. None of the 12 learners – all female – have been able to complete their university studies, while SMYLe continues to strive to achieve our goal of “One Varsity Graduate”. The reason for this is purely Economics. If one kid can get a degree as a result of what SMYLe has done for them, then ALL of the money invested thus far will result in a Lifetime Economic Value Add profit (contact Michael if you’d like a full explanation of this).
For most of the kids who’ve come through the programme, SMYLe has – in effect – been the highlight of their lives, especially those who participated in one of the three trips to Canada (plus one trip to Cape Town and another to Durban). However, we recently learned of the personal successes of several former team members who were able to find careers as a direct result of SMYLe’s assistance.
|Lydia||A star dancing attraction of SMYLe’s 2006 trip to Canada, continued to pursue her dancing and performed in several countries, including a nearly one-year stint in Germany.|
|Bokgobane||Another one of SMYLe’s 2006 and 2008 dancing stars, stayed on in Canada after SMYLe’s 2008 tour to take up a 2-year bursary to study dance, and following his graduation moved to the US with his wife and child to work as a professional dancer.|
|Mongezi||A full-time member of the SA National Defence Force, following a personal tour arranged by Michael in Mongezi’s during his matric year.|
|Cedric||Fully employed by one of Michael’s former clients as a result of a learnership opportunity SMYLe arranged following Cedric’s successful matriculation.|
|Katlego||Also fully employed by one of Michael’s former clients as a result of a learnership opportunity SMYLe arranged following Katlego’s successful matriculation.|
|Arabella||The youngest performer (at age 11) to participate in SMYLe’s 2010 Canada trip, Arabella was helped by Michael to gain entry to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, and graduated at the top of her class in 2017. She is now enrolled in Chemical Engineering at Wits University.|
SMYLe has been, and continues to be, one of the very few projects operating in the Dobsonville area of Soweto that provides a meaningful outlet for children deemed ‘at risk’ (for free!). Through the music component of SMYLe, the kids want to not only learn how to play steel pans and marimbas but are willing to commit to the academic progress expectations that all team members must meet in order to gain access to the opportunity to be part of a performance band.
The children pay nothing – aside from a bit of ‘sweat equity’ – to be part of SMYLe and are strictly monitored to ensure that they avoid the ever-present dangers of drug and alcohol abuse in their community.
Nearing the 10th anniversary of SMYLe’s official registration (March 2019) – albeit approaching Michael’s 14th anniversary of starting to work with the kids of Dobsonville – SMYLe has not yet achieved all of its goals, but there is no doubt that the programme has significantly impacted the lives of many kids who need to be reminded of SMYLe’s motto:
“Where you get to in life isn’t a function of where you begin, but of how hard
you’re willing to work to get to where you want to be!”