GRAHAMSTOWN - The town of Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown, is synonymous with music, arts and performances, with the National Arts Festival - marketed as Africa's largest and most colourful cultural event - being an annual headliner on South Africa's arts calendar.
Residents of the Joza township, in the north west of Makhanda, say their unassuming neighbourhood is what Mamelodi township is to Pretoria - boasting of a vibrant community vibe cemented on strong cultural bonds and blessed with an indominatible spirit and capacity to eke out a living through the harsh informal sector.
On any given Friday, mothers accompany their wide-eyed small children home from the dusty mortar and brick schools in the area. Traffic on the potholed narrow streets suddenly picks up, as stray dogs wantonly sniff around, seemingly taking every opportunity to urinate on painted fences.
Inspired by their small screen icons, young men saunter streets with caps loosely dangling over their heads like stars from the SABC' s legendary drama series Yizo Yizo, seemingly oblivious to the grand, glitzy graduation ceremony underway just a stone's throw away, at the world renowned Rhodes University.
But discussions with leading activists and community members reveals the opposite, with Rhodes University being the sacred dream for many of the Joza community's youth.
The laid-back community proves it is by no means detached from the centre of academic excellence in its midst. In fact, community volunteer and project manager at the Access Music Project (AMP), based at the Joza Youth Hub, Shiloh Marsh, says the institution of higher education close to the impoverished community is "a blessing".
"At AMP, we believe in the transformative power of music education. As you see, none of the schools in this area - because of historical reasons - are able to offer music as a school subject. So AMP is providing music lessons, formal music education to learners from the majority of the secondary schools in Joza, and six primary schools," said Marsh.
AMP is a community partner of Rhodes University.
"Student volunteers from Rhodes, through the Engaged Citizens Programme, work with us, helping us as assistant teachers of the marimba bands that we run in schools. Some of the Rhodes students play in our ensembles in order to help our learners through peer learning," she said.
Marsh's colleague at AMP, Thozi Ngeju, said their community is heavily besieged with the problem of alcoholism, and the presence of Rhodes University in the neighbourhood is a significant counter.
"Here in Grahamstown, our biggest problem is alcoholism - just like gangsterism is a problem in Cape Town. People here do not see it as a problem but just a pastime. Many learners drop out of school while adults lose jobs because of it. But having Rhodes University on our doorstep is an inspiration because people who would have given up, they take courage because they happen to see their peers graduating. That makes anyone want to better themselves," said Ngeju.
Rhodes University is currently hosting its three-day 2019 graduation proceedings with pomp and ceremony.
When the graduation extravaganza wraps on Saturday, a total of 2,321 graduates would have been capped at the vast campus.
This year, the respected university is churning out 89 PhD graduates, which include 77-year-old botanist Yvette Van Wijk, who will be getting her PhD in Botany.
The Makhanda-based institution is this year celebrating a new record of 30 PhD degrees for the faculty of humanities, up from the previous record of 26 achieved last year.
Another volunteer in the Joza community, Meike Krauss, said her non-governmental organisation Awarenet is doing its bit to capacitate the young people in the community, enhancing their chances to someday fulfil the dream of becoming a Rhodes University graduate.
"I do hope the Joza youth stay on track, learning and taking all the possibilities we are giving them. Some people drop out, and that is always a sad thing to see. If they follow up with the programmes, if they are willing to learn, then I think they have the same chances like everybody else."
Awarenet provides ICT infrastructure and computers in Joza where anybody can have time on the internet.