Refugee musician gives Johannesburg children the opportunity he didn’t have

Pianist Amisi Mubale teaches children at Lorentzville safe space

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Piano teacher Amisi Mubale volunteers at Safe Study every Saturday to give children the opportunity he didn’t have growing up. Photos: Julia Evans

Growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Amisi Mubale always loved music. But it was only after he came to South Africa as a refugee that he finally had a chance to learn the piano. Now a trained piano teacher, he devotes his life to giving children the opportunity he didn’t have.

Mubale studied as a teacher in the DRC and obtained a diploma, but his real love was music. He used to sing traditional songs with the elders and dreamed of one day accompanying the congregation in church. Then in 2001 when conflict flared in the DRC he fled to South Africa. He was 26.

He knew no English but managed to work as a car guard at shopping centres for seven years, making an average of R150 on a good day. “It was hard, but it was just a matter of survival,” says Mubale.

In 2008 Mubale found out about The Outreach Foundation, which offers education and social support to residents of Hillbrow in Johannesburg. Discovering they offered music lessons, Mubale eagerly started learning piano, finding a way to attend weekly lessons in Hillbrow even though he lived over an hour away in Pretoria. Through the foundation, in 2010 Mubale started studying piano through UNISA and in 2018 passed his Grade 8 music theory and practical exam, earning a teaching diploma in piano.

He now works as a teacher at the Outreach foundation, and has made enough money to rent a studio and produce his own music.

And every Saturday he volunteers at Safe Study SA in Lorentzville, teaching children, many of whom come from immigrant families.

A place of greater safety

Safe Study SA was started during the hard Covid-19 lockdown last year. Founders Georgina Bennet and Lungile Hlatshwayo found that children in the Lorentzville and Bertrams areas did not have access to online teaching when schools were closed.

After meeting children at a soup kitchen who were bored and “just desperate to learn”, Bennet and Hlatshwayo decided to offer foundational Maths and English support, music and art lessons, food and a safe space.

The school is in Victoria Yards on the edge of the Johannesburg city centre. The children get food as well as teaching, and though many schools have now re-opened, Hlatshwayo says there is still a great need for Safe Study SA’s work.

Twelve-year-old Isaac Iwuoha lives a 10 minute walk away and comes to Safe Study every week with his two younger siblings.

“The Covid pandemic has widened the gaps of inequalities in our educational system,” says Hlatshwayo. Many families are unable to pay school fees, and the children who do go to school spend limited time there because of Covid-19 regulations. “My biggest concern is what effects not having proper school is going to have in the future,” says Bennet.

Volunteer Jabulile Nkuta helps Bongi Mavuso, 12, with maths.

Many of the volunteers at Safe Study live in the area. “A lot of them lost a lot of money and jobs. But they come because they want to help these kids,” says Bennet, “It’s very humbling to see these people who are wanting to help just because they can.”

Mubale is one of them. “These kids, they are also from immigrant parents. I come from the same situation,” he says. “I feel like I can help. I didn’t get this opportunity growing up.”

Every Sunday Mubale also plays at the St Augustine church, finally fulfilling his dream of accompanying the congregation. “Everything I was dreaming of I have accomplished,” he says.

TOPICS:  Arts and culture Covid-19 Immigration

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