How did Sydney Priester, a 24-year-old from America’s Deep South, end up running an art club for young girls in a South African township? She told SUE BROWN

Sydney hails from Atlanta, Georgia, the daughter of an entrepreneur and a full-time mother. She has one brother, a sports cameraman

An American in Cape Town: Sydney and her ‘sisters’  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez/Grace Photography

‘The art club Sisterhood was sparked off three years ago from a conversation I had with Ronald, a single father at my church. He was worried about the challenges of raising his pre-teen daughters in his community, Capricorn Park, which has high levels of violence and negative peer-group influences.

I offered to meet with them, and so Sisterhood began: sitting on the floor with Ronald’s two daughters and friends in the home of their grandmother Aunty Lilly.

Capricorn Park, the Cape Town township where Sydney started the art club Sisterhood  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez
Some girls in Capricorn Park have no option but to play in locations like this one  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

I love arts and crafts and have had experience working with children, both as a teen and through my current volunteer work with a worldwide organisation called YWAM [Youth With A Mission]. So forming friendships with girls and using creativity as a tool to explore their identity was my dream job.

Soon more girls came. We became noisier and messier, getting paint on the walls of Aunt Lilly’s home!  In mid 2016, she and I walked door to door in Capricorn Park until we found a lady happy to rent me her yard space. I got an empty shipping container delivered to the yard and our official meeting place was born. The funding came through family and friends, who also fund my work with YWAM − every YWAM employee is required to raise his or her own funds somehow.

The shipping container Sydney turned into an art club. From the outside…  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez
… and from the inside  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez
Up to 50 girls attend Sisterhood on different days of the week |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Sisterhood meets every weekday afternoon: different days for different ages, from the age of three right through to teenagers. About 40 – 50 girls attend regularly. We read stories, play games, do art, and hold loosely to our schedule! We’re a sisterhood rather than a programme, girls hanging out together. As in all families, we sometimes rub each other up the wrong way, see each others’ brokenness and the need to apologise. Our ultimate goal is to be a safe place, one of belonging, and a platform for relationships.

Capricorn is an area characterised by extreme poverty, unemployment, gangs, lack of sanitation and services, drugs and many other challenges. It’s always difficult to see the extent of the problems facing some of the children. We once had a three-year-old ask for a safe haven from stone-throwing boys for herself and the one-year-old she was minding.

Other challenges include protests by residents about their living conditions, which can involve burning tyres, police, tear gas and rubber bullets. There are also gang fights and gunfire. Sometimes we chat through the girls’ fears for themselves and their families. I’m not a teacher or a child psychologist, but try to hold a space for them to process their trauma.

‘We hold loosely to our schedule!’ says Sydney  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

Some girls struggle with anger and have learnt manipulative or anti-social coping strategies, so we have firm but kind boundaries. Sometimes the older girls serve younger ones to learn leadership skills. Many have experienced abuse from people who are in charge or physically stronger than them, so we practise how to handle power.

Sisterhood: a safe space where girls can simply be girls  |  Photos: Leentjie du Preez

Sisterhood has now branched out to become an adult club, too. A Burundian lady was the first woman to ask to join in. I thought she wanted to help with the children but she said, no, she’d like art for herself, please! I asked Claudia Treagus, an artist and mother from my church, to support me in initiating a club for women, and she now works every week alongside a group of about eight women. We’re both humbled to be welcomed, befriended and trusted by these women, made vulnerable by their poverty. 

I love Cape Town. I’ve been surprised by the richness and diversity of the cultures here and, despite Capricorn’s problems, it’s my favourite thing about South Africa. I find the community extremely close knit and see people taking it upon themselves to care for each other. I’m so privileged to be invited in and have felt a real sense of belonging here. The worst thing for me is the way the city was designed to keep people separate. Ways I find to relieve my own stress here include working out, relaxing with my boyfriend, immersing myself in South Africa’s natural beauty, baking and scrolling through Pinterest!

‘Despite Capricorn’s problems, it’s my favourite place in South Africa,’  says Sydney  |  Photo: Leentjie du Preez

I believe God brings girls and women to Sisterhood with needs we can often meet, and work in conjunction with various NGOs when other problems present. There’s so much darkness here but Claudia says the light she sees in Sisterhood feels like a single match lit by God and seems all the brighter for the darkness around it.’

Sydney with Claudia, who supports the Sisterhood art club for adults
Get a sense of Sisterhood with this short video and extra photos by our fabulous photographer, Leentjie!
The Sisterhood container, a visible symbol of hope in Capricorn Park
‘We want Sisterhood to be a place of belonging,’ says Sydney
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