Today’s post is a guest post written by a dear friend of mine Elizabeth Ataley of the beautiful blog Documama. I met Elizabeth a few years ago at BlogHer and we have worked together ever since as fellow members of Mom Bloggers for Social Good, the Global Team of 200 and ONE Moms. Elizabeth recently went on a social good blogging trip as part of Global Team of 200 to South Africa along with Jennifer James, Founder of Social Good Moms/Global Team of 200. Here is her report on their visit to Rebecca’s Well in Alexandra Township, South Africa.

Alexandra Township

Alexandra Township. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ataley/Documama

Hope Springs From Rebecca’s Well in Alexandra Township, South Africa  

The shift was drastic.  One second we were driving through what looked like typical city sprawl, passing industrial yards, a McDonald’s, and the next moment rubble heaps, and rusted corrugated tin sheds pulsing with people lined the sidewalk.  It was as though we passed through some sort of invisible wall into a different reality.  The reality that the people of Alexandra Township, which we had just entered, live in is light years away from the gleaming luxury hotels and shopping malls that rise up on the horizon just a few miles away in Sandton which is known to be one of the wealthiest areas in South Africa. Jennifer James and I were headed on our first site visit for  our #socialgoodmomsjoburg Global Team of 200 trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, and the impact it had on us would be huge.

Alexandra Township. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ataley/Documama

Alexandra Township. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ataley/Documama

It turns out that Sheila Wise Rowe, Executive Director of the Rebecca’s Well project, is from my hometown back in the states. She has lived in South Africa for 8 years where with her experience and Master’s Degree in Psychology she developed the holistic approach of meeting emotional, physical and spiritual needs of at risk teenage girls and women practiced at Rebecca’s Well.  Sheila seemed unfazed as she navigated through what is known as one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. In this area unemployment  is at 70% , most of the inhabitants of Alexandra Township live in abject poverty in substandard accommodations, too often it is a young mother with few resources who heads the household.

Rebecca’s Well Projects recognizes that for teenage girls and women to be empowered , they first need to know the inherent wealth they have within themselves, with or without formal education.

-Rebecca’s Well

Women at Mankwana

Women at L to R Mankwana, Program Director Jabulile Tlhabane, Exec. Dir, Sheila Wise Rowe, Jabulile Ntombela. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ataley/Documama

The statistics on sexual violence in South Africa are startling, with a rape occurring every four minutes it has the highest rate of sexual violence against women in the world. Rebecca’s Well is a place for women to find an oasis for regeneration amongst the surrounding results of poverty, and culture of violence against women.  The Project began as housing shelter and has grown to sites in Soweto, Parkhurst, and the one we visited in Alexandra, an area affectionately called Alex by locals.  Alexandra is one of the oldest Townships in South Africa, the roughly one square mile was initially intended for a population of 70,000. Its population has exploded to over 500,000 including many illegal aliens, squeezing into tight quarters.

Alexandra Township South Africa

Alexandra Township South Africa. Photo credits: Elizabeth Ataley/Documama

Driving through Alex you pass scores of stalls lining the side the road where entrepreneurs offer anything from tailoring services, food & drinks to hair dressing, each trying to eek out a living as best they can.  Rebecca’s Well is dedicated to giving women opportunities to better their lives or get a second chance by providing mentoring, training, life skills, faith-based services, healing and workshops.  At the Fires Food Den owned by Phumzila Mthethwa, where Rebecca’s Well operates in Alex, Jennifer James and I were able to meet with some of the women who are part of the Rebecca’s Well family.

Handcrafts made at Rebecca’s Well. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Ataley

Handcrafts made at Rebecca’s Well. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Ataley

I spoke with Jabulile, who goes by Jabu, a grandmother who helps to care for the children of two of her sons who passed away as well as her elderly mother. Her daughter in-laws encouraged her to come to Rebecca’s Well to help her heal from her losses.  Jabu has lived in Alexandra Township for 10 years in one of the corrugated shacks that she built herself with the help of handymen while she continues to wait to be granted one of the new government built houses n the East Bank  area called New Alex.  Though she has a night shift job cleaning at the hospital, she is learning how to make crafts to be sold through Rebecca’s Well. Like any mother Jabu said ” I feel like a failure when I can’t give the kids something that they want.”

A house in New Alex

A house in New Alex. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ataley

A Bathroom in New Alex

A Community Bathroom and Shower Stall. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ataley

I also spoke with Bonakele, who like Jabu comes from KwaZulu-Natal and has been in Alex for four years. Three months ago she joined Rebecca’s Well and enjoys sharing ideas with the other women, Bonakele describes it as a place to get strong and appreciates the training, food and spiritual aspect of Rebecca’s Well. When I asked her why she came she said “I want my children to learn more and be better.” Again reminding me how universal our wishes for our children are no matter where we live or what our life circumstance.

A home in New Alex

A home in New Alex. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ataley

Phumzile Mthethwa owner of Fires Food Den

Phumzile Mthethwa owner of Fires Food Den. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ataley

The houses in Alexandra Township were initially set up with a shared yard for several homes with an external toilet and shower stall in the center. Although all of the homes have electricity, with the overcrowding of additional shacks built into the yards, some of the toilet facilities might be shared by as many as 12 families. Linky was kind enough to give us a full tour of the township including her own home and the home and yard in which Nelson Mandela had once lived, which is a designated historic site. This was the first place Mandela had ever lived away from home .

Life in Alexandra was exhilarating and precarious. Its atmosphere was alive, its spirit adventurous, its people resourceful…in spite of the hellish aspects of life in Alexandra, the township was also a kind of heaven.

– Nelson Mandela 1994 Long Walk To Freedom ABACUS London.

A roadside tailor in Alexandra Township

A roadside tailor in Alexandra Township. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ataley

The history of the area and how it came to be is fascinating and Phumzila Mthethwa, owner of Fires Food Den has her own amazing story to tell (which you can read in an upcoming post) about how she came sit on the Board of Directors of Rebecca’s Well and house their temporary Alex location. The vibe seems to have remained the same as when Mandela lived there, but hopefully for the women at Rebecca’s Well the “hellish” aspects that he referred to can be overcome.

Woman in Alexandra Township

Woman in Alexandra Township. Photo credit: Elizabeth Ataley

If you’d like to find out more  or to help out, donations can be made to support the programs, teenage girls and women involved in Rebecca’s Well.

About Elizabeth Ataley/Documama

elizabeth-atalayMission:  The desire of Documama is to bring stories and experiences from around the world, and share them back home to inspire action, educate, and connect people cross-culturally.

Once upon a time Documama was an adventuress.    She spent a collective two and a half years backpacking around the world to more than 50 countries throughout Africa, Asia, South America, South East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe pursuing her passion for Anthropology, ethnographic film and photography.  But that was a long time ago.  Her most recent adventures include fishing a dropped toy out of a Koi pond, and navigating a double stroller through a crowded store.  Today Elizabeth Atalay is a full time loving wife, and devoted mother to her four children.  She holds a B.A. in Communications, and M.A. in Documentary Filmmaking & Anthropology.  She worked her way through college as a model, and in between travels worked in film production on feature films, TV commercials, and TV Series in Boston and New York City. Since turning 40 she has completed 5 sprint triathlons, passions include making art, reading, watching movies, skiing, Kayaking, eating, drinking, and traveling.   Elizabeth is an Editor and contributing writer  for Social Good, and World Voices at worldmomsblog, the  Global Team of 200 , and Rhody Bloggers For Good.  She has been a contributor to ONEMoms,  amomknowsbest, and galtime/providence.  Documama is also a ONEMoms community Partner, a member of Mom Bloggers For Social Good, and a social good advocate with  The Mission List, and was selected  as a  Shot@Life Champion to work with the United Nations Foundation on the global vaccine initiative. You can find Elizabeth’s blog, documama at


  1. What a powerful and moving post. Thanks so much for this introduction to Documama and for allowing Elizabeth to share her amazing experience. This reminds me so much of what I saw in some of the Delhi slums.

    Blogging from Ecuador,

  2. I love the post. Being South African I feel that your post could have also shown the other side of South Africa ( the so called white Surburbs) that people rarely see and maybe this could make your post more nuanced in terms of what is the reason behind a place like Alex. With that said, I love that you spent time with the local people, talked as well as listened to their stories.
    How can one get involved in supporting Rebecca´s well?

    1. Thanks! This was a guest post by my dear friend Elizabeth on my blog. Elizabeth and I are members of Global Team of 200 where we write about social good issues. This trip was part of a social good trip so Elizabeth visited a lot of different places to learn about women, poverty, etc. She also visited some suburbs too on her free time for dinner and such, so I’m sure she got a good view of South Africa. This post alone was only about the visit to Rebecca’s Well but I’m sure she will be writing more on all of Joburg on her own blog documama! Be sure to check it out there. I’ve been to Joburg too and I stayed in Sandburn (???) I believe and never got to see the downtown area where Elizabeth and Jennifer stayed. Elizabeth and Jennifer said what was really interesting for them is Elizabeth is blond blue eyed and Jennifer is African-American. Both thought the racial dynamics of SA were very interesting and quite different from even as they are here in the US. I am hoping she will write on that topic on her blog more. Taking about race in the US is very tricky and sensitive topic. Not sure what it is like in S Africa but you have to be so careful here not to offend people. Anyway, here is the link to Rebecca’s Well. Thanks again for stopping by! Really appreciate your comments and perspective! Nicole

  3. Thank you for sharing. I guess the race issue is still as sensitive in S.A as it is in the U.S. It is very apparent: The lack of distribution of resources, inequality, lack of jobs and education. The list is long, but I guess it is people like the Rebecca´s Well that have and still are making an impact in the society and not so much the government. I am looking forward to checking the blog and keeping up with the progress.

      1. “Once it bites you it never leaves you” That is what I always say. The spirit is amazing, cannot find it anywhere else. That is the one thing I miss among other things.

    1. Also not sure if it is playing in Joburg at all but I just saw the movie 12 Years A Slave which is set in the Southern US, a true story directed by Steve McQueen, about a man who was kidnapped and survived slavery. I cried the whole way through and it was a very powerful piece on the issue of race. A must see if you can find it there.

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