Lotus River youth leader to share life story in America

Conway Smith, youth leader, and his mentor Ingrid van Wyk.

Being held up at gunpoint three years ago became the turning point for a Lotus River resident who chose to live positively rather than die a slow death through drug abuse.

Looking back, Conway Smith, 29, is glad he made that decision because now, after living a “clean” life while volunteering to lead youth at African Jam, he has been offered an opportunity to visit Gustavus University, in Minnesota, America, from Tuesday October 31 to Monday November 13.

He will be the guest speaker and will share his experiences of living on the Cape Flats.

Mr Smith said he “stayed clean” without rehabilitation. However, not knowing what to do with himself after choosing the positive path, he visited the River Tabenacle-Pentecostal Holiness Church, in Lotus River, and was introduced to Ingrid van Wyk of Africa Jam, in 2010.

“I found God, and He led me to Ingrid who is my mentor. I was exposed to a different lifestyle. My first lesson in life was to share. Where I come from, it was all about myself. I grew up without a father and my sister and I was raised by my mother.”

Mr Smith said the challenges of being a 16-year-old pupil in a class of 40 children at school, made him rebel in seeking individual attention. “That led me to seek outside validation. I joined the wrong group and started taking drugs. I realised that the reason why I fell for it, was because ‘if you stand for nothing you fall for anything’.”

Mr Smith said while taking drugs, “everything negative happened to me. I struggled for three years. But then many things happened to me before I made a decision to change.”

One of the eye-openers was when he was held up at gunpoint. “I decided to come clean, but I didn’t know what to do with myself.

“When Ingrid, who has a big influence in my life, told me ‘you are going to lead’, I felt good. Before I always felt not good enough, but at African Jam, I was taught how to give to others. By giving a valuable commodity, such as time, to others I developed as a human being.

“When I gave sandwiches to the children at an after-care programme, in 2012, I wanted to eat a sandwich first. But I was stopped and told to serve others first and then eat.”

Since then, Mr Smith has gone on his first leadership camp where he had to lead the children. “I felt the confidence build up in me when our team won a prize for the cleanest room. Teaching those children how to keep a room tidy, also taught them how to keep their life tidy.”

Ms Van Wyk said Africa Jam offers many programmes including life skills. “We have branches in different areas such as Ottery, Lotus River, Khayelitsha, Elsies River, Mitchell’s Plain and more. We are offering after-school tutoring classes for primary schools. We focus on literacy and we encourage volunteers to read to children after school. We also have lessons in art, drama and dancing.”

Ms Van Wyk said every year a youth leader is chosen to go to Minnesota and Mr Smith made an impression on the judges when he shared his life story.

One of the judges was Ellen Higginbotham Ruiters, from America, who help raise funds for Africa Jam every year. The fund-raiser was held at the One and Only hotel in the Waterfront, in August.

Mr Smith said: “My dream was to travel overseas, and now it came true through Africa Jam, who will be paying for my flight. Africa Jam is a more like a supportive family to me. They are always there for each other. They inspire to bring hope and unity to the community,” said Mr Smith.

“I hope my story will have an impact on parents who have given up on their children. There is hope if they trust God to open a door for them just as He has done for

“I hope to gather as much information at Gustavus University, so that I can implement this knowledge, to teach our community skills, said Mr Smith.

“My advice to youth is to never be a statistic and rise above your circumstances through the grace of God. Be like a salmon that swims against the tide.”